Was Jesus a segregationist? 

click to enlarge AD CAMPAIGN: Segregationist group went after moderate religious leaders.
  • AD CAMPAIGN: Segregationist group went after moderate religious leaders.

Jesus and Little Rock Central High School made me a moderate.

The tortured history of white Christianity and the civil rights movement captured my imagination when I first became a student at Central in 1990, and provided the most important revelation of my budding political development — Conservative Christians sometimes came out (gasp!) wrong on a major public-policy issue.

Woefully, sinfully, Bible-quotingly wrong.

Moreover, moderate and liberal Christian leaders (as well as leaders of the city's small but prominent Jewish community) were heroes of the 1957 story. They spoke rationally, even prophetically, for tolerance and integration.

Discovering that conservatives could be morally wrong and liberals could be right fixed the trajectory of my ideological development. But, like all heroes of idealistic young people, the moderate-to-progressive saints I canonized came to appear less spotless and more complicated after years of closer study. Still, the story of white religious leaders in the crisis is worth hearing for anyone who believes that faith can lead people to social justice.

One of the first personalities I discovered in my study of the Central High desegregation crisis struck the first, and still most discordant, note of my early political development: Wesley Pruden, who in 1957 was pastor of the now-defunct Broadmoor Baptist Church. Probably better known to historians as the chaplain of the segregationist Capital Citizens Council, Pruden became one of the group's most prominent spokesmen.

In an October 1957 issue of the Arkansas Democrat, the Baptist pastor took out an advertisement under the headline, “Can A Christian Be A Segregationist?” In it, he repeated the dire predictions that many segregationists of the era made — school integration was a plot that would usher in racial intermarriage, soon to be followed by communism. The ad closed with a pseudo-hermeneutical justification: “Our Lord was born into the most segrated [sic] race the world has ever known. Under this system He lived and died. Never did He lift his voice against segregation. Segregation has Christian sanction, integration is Communistic.”

Preaching in this same vein was M.L. Moser, pastor of Central Baptist Church, which was part of an independent Baptist tradition that charted a course to the right of even the Southern Baptists. The leaders of the city's moderate and progressive white Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations had called on all houses of worship in Little Rock to hold Columbus Day 1957 services to pray for reconciliation, for “understanding and compassion,” and for resistance to “unthinking agitators” in the midst of the strife over integration. In response, Moser held his own prayer service to petition God for “the transfer of the Negro students back” to their previous, all-black school.

Then there was L.D. Foreman, pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. On Sept. 23, 1957, the Arkansas Gazette published a front-page story about how ministers at some prominent Little Rock churches were dealing with the crisis. Harold Hicks at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church asked God for “tolerance and understanding.” Aubrey Walton at First Methodist Church asked his congregation, “How do you think Christ would react if He were to walk the streets of Little Rock today?”

Foreman told the newspaper he didn't address the issue in Antioch's service. “My congregation is 100 percent behind me in my opposition to integration,” Foreman added, noting that 29 people had chosen to move their membership to his church. He attributed the new members to his segregationist stance.

These snippets of history started to rattle my fortress of faith in Christian conservatism.

Raised a conservative Southern Baptist, I had been taught by a kindly, white-haired pastor at my home church to trust the authority of ministers. An increasing emphasis on lay submission to pastoral authority in the Southern Baptist Convention — championed by fundamentalists who took control of the denomination from moderates in the 1980s — reinforced that trust.



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