A reluctant hero 

Bert Cartwright preached racial equality in 1957

click to enlarge THE PASTORS OF PULASKI HEIGHTS CHRISTIAN: (From left) Rev. Colbert S. Cartwright (minister 1954-1964), whose preaching for civil rights cost the church its members; Rev. Sam F. Freeman (1940-1948); Rev. Joseph B. Hunter (1927-1940); and Lewis H. Deer (1948-1953).
  • THE PASTORS OF PULASKI HEIGHTS CHRISTIAN: (From left) Rev. Colbert S. Cartwright (minister 1954-1964), whose preaching for civil rights cost the church its members; Rev. Sam F. Freeman (1940-1948); Rev. Joseph B. Hunter (1927-1940); and Lewis H. Deer (1948-1953).

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

—Bob Dylan

Pulaski Heights Christian Church of Little Rock had long been one of the more freethinking congregations of the Disciples of Christ. The founding pastor, Dr. Joseph Hunter, had distinguished himself during World War II by preaching pacifism and, with his wife, going to the aid of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast who were interned in the swamps of South Arkansas. After the governor denounced the Japanese, the state refused to issue birth certificates for infants born at the Jerome and Rohwer camps and the Arkansas Medical Society urged doctors not to treat Japanese prisoners at the camps who got sick. Another pastor had inflamed the state by presuming to introduce the "communist" Henry Wallace, the former vice president, when he brought his presidential campaign to Little Rock in 1948. The church, many years later, would be one of the first to consecrate same-sex partnerships.

Even Pulaski Heights Christian, however, was not fully prepared for the freedom of the pulpit exercised by the Rev. Colbert S. Cartwright on Sunday morning Sept. 8, 1957.

To understand how a single sermon by a shy, owlish little preacher could threaten the stability of a congregation, it is necessary to remember that in 1957 America was still openly, often officially, racist. The national government had only just begun to dismantle the legal artifact of racial segregation in Southern states. The problem of de facto segregation and entrenched racism elsewhere was not even recognized in white America outside of a few intellectual redoubts. Little Rock was far from being a hotbed of white supremacy, but any preacher there who espoused racial integration from the pulpit could expect trouble. Integration, it was commonly believed in the American South of 1957, was a communist plot to destroy the government.

The sermon was a simple story of one sprite of a girl. Elizabeth Eckford was one of nine black students who had been selected to transfer from an all-black school to Little Rock's most prestigious all-white school, Central High. That transfer was to be the modest beginning of a slow process that would eventually desegregate the entire Little Rock School District.

The plan was sidetracked when Gov. Orval E. Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard and blocked the admission of the nine students. A picture made famous from the news reports of Sept. 3, 1957, was one of a lonely black girl, pretty and seemingly calm, in a gingham and white dress, walking a gantlet of jeering white people as she tried to reach a bus stop to return home. That was Elizabeth Eckford.

Bert Cartwright's sermon the next Sunday was a stark description of Eckford's trial as he watched it unfold in front of Central High School. He quoted the psalms she had read before leaving home to face the hostile crowd. He spoke of her dream of becoming a lawyer. He spoke of visiting in her home and of his shame, that week, at being white.

Then he declared that the nine black students who were trying to get to Central High were human beings, and that white people who lost sight of that were in danger of losing their own souls. Eckford, he said, "has more guts than anyone present here today."

Most of the members seemed to appreciate the boldness of the pastor's words. But a sizable minority were offended. They seized on his last statement. He had questioned their courage, they said.

The trouble boiled for a week. The next Sunday, about 30 members, the entirety of one adult Sunday School class, refused to go into the sanctuary for communion. They asked that it be served to them in their classroom. The request was turned down.

Days later, all of them moved their membership to another church. Pulaski Heights Christian had lost 10 percent of its membership overnight, thanks to one sermon.

Cartwright went on to become a leader of Little Rock's brave little band of white integrationists. He spoke up beyond the relative safety of his pulpit and became known throughout the city. The State Police, which kept a close and furtive eye on any person or group that might promote integration, started an investigative file on him. His sermon on Elizabeth Eckford found its way into the file. Plainclothesman watched the church and at least once recorded the auto license plate numbers and identities of people parked there after hours. While he became a villain among segregationists, he became a hero to those blacks and whites struggling for racial equality.

Cartwright never quite understood that. He was never a hero in his own eyes. The idea of popularity unsettled him, went against the grain of his theological training as well as his personal inclination. He understood the office of pastor to be appointive, not elective. He believed that his authority came from God. He did not seek popularity inside or outside of the church, like some officeholder looking for votes. That some people considered his efforts on the race issue to be remarkable was slightly puzzling to him. He was simply carrying out his duties as a pastor. That was the main thing he aspired to: being a good pastor.

Years later, he still suffered from knowing that he had caused hurt in the congregation of Pulaski Heights Christian Church. As the pastor, he said, he should have found a way to avoid rending the church's body. If he could not find a way, he felt, then he should at least have figured out how to reach and touch the disaffected members.

He remembered parts of the Eckford sermon with embarrassment. It had been a mistake to say that the girl had had more guts than anyone in his church; that had been unnecessary goading. He recalled poking fun at Faubus' hill-country pronunciation of the word militia — "milishee." That had been contemptuous. Hearing their pastor preach the truth on the race issue was problem enough for some members. They did not deserve to be hurt gratuitously.

click to enlarge CARTWRIGHT SP0KE OF HER COURAGE: And offended his congregation by saying none was as brave as Elizabeth Eckford, who walked with dignity through the Central mob.
  • CARTWRIGHT SP0KE OF HER COURAGE: And offended his congregation by saying none was as brave as Elizabeth Eckford, who walked with dignity through the Central mob.

The episode reminded him of his first lesson in pastoring. He had just begun his ministry at the First Christian Church of Lynchburg, Va., in 1950, fresh out of Yale Divinity School. Part of his childhood had been spent at Chattanooga, Tenn., where his father was pastor of the First Christian Church. But Bert was no Southerner. His father had been a leader in an interracial council at Chattanooga, which had set him and his family apart. Young Bert had been teased by his classmates because he didn't know how to treat his family's black maid. Cartwright said, "Being under the authority of black maids and yet their being inferior was a subtlety that I had not been able to capture." Later, at Lynchburg, he landed in a brouhaha that reminded him how far he still lived from his adopted culture.

"There were some ministers that had started a kind of Christian youth movement that was designed to be interracial. They asked me to come in and join the young people. And the next thing I knew, they had made me chairman of the group — the newest minister in town.

"So we planned an interracial service at the church I served on Sunday afternoon. We wanted publicity, and we had a planning session where we asked a local reporter to come, and a photographer. On a Monday morning there was this picture of these black and white youths planning a service in the First Christian Church."

There was immediate consternation. He got phone calls from anxious members, so many that he decided to consult the chairman of the board of church officers. As he stood on the porch ready to ring the doorbell, he overheard the chairman saying to someone on the telephone, "Yes, we're going to have to do something about our preacher." Instead of ringing the bell, he left.

At a board meeting later, Cartwright came prepared. He stepped forward carrying his Bible. He turned on a tape recorder, saying he wanted a record of what was said. Then he explained the purpose of the interracial service and said that if his part in it was not in line with the scriptures, he would be happy to have someone point it out. No one took the Bible to challenge him. The meeting ended quickly.

"I did all the things wrong that a minister can do," he said as he looked back on the episode.

First, he said, he should not have lost his nerve on the chairman's doorstep. It would have been better to get the matter into the open at that point. As for the Bible and the tape recorder, he said, that was an attempt to intimidate the board members. "Some of them were not as facile with the language, so that I think I was really cutting off discussion. I was trying to win my points."

Furthermore, he had fallen into the trap of thinking that a pastor can administer the church as he sees fit. The members, believing that the church belonged to them, thought he should have asked permission to use the sanctuary for an outside group. "That had not occurred to me," he confessed.

Whom does the church belong to?

"The church belongs to the members, to the people, under the authority of Christ," he said. "Not to the pastor. And each minister in various kinds of ways learns it. It may be that he decides to move a communion table six inches to the right, and someone will tell him that that is not his privilege."

Bert Cartwright did not become a minister as an automatic consequence of being a minister's son, although he felt drawn to the church early. At the age of 6 or 7 he got into the habit of slipping into the vestry of the church after services to take a private "communion" because he wanted to be part of that fellowship. But his earliest career aspirations ran toward journalism, an interest he never abandoned. He wrote articles for both religious and secular publications until his retirement and beyond.

Both his parents had family connections to the Disciples of Christ in 19th century Ohio and Iowa. The Disciples have long been known for stubborn adherence to Christ's own principles even when they run athwart other ascendant values such as greed, militarism and racism.

Bert's father, Lin D. Cartwright, was the pastor of a church in Coffeyville, Kan., when Bert was born in 1924. The Ku Klux Klan was strong there, and although the elder Cartwright did not denounce the Klan directly (the head of the local Klavern was a Sunday School teacher in his church, and the class he taught included some of the city's most prominent men), he did denounce the things the Klan stood for. That was a bold move at a time when the Klan controlled the politics of numerous local governments in the Middle West.

In later years he could name a number of other people beyond his family who had influenced him in the clergy. There was an older minister named Joseph Hunter, the founder of Pulaski Heights Christian Church — the man who had stirred up Arkansas chauvinism by going to the aid of interned Japanese-Americans. By the time Bert Cartwright became a pastor at Lynchburg, Hunter had moved there to teach at Lynchburg College. The older man was supportive during Cartwright's problem with the race issue.

Then there was Richard Niebuhr, his favorite teacher at Yale Divinity School. Professor Niebuhr's brother Reinhold, who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was better known to the public. But the greatest influence on Bert Cartwright's theology was Richard Niebuhr, a seminal thinker, a provocative teacher and, for the young Disciples minister, a personal icon.

One thing that he came to appreciate from his Little Rock and Lynchburg experiences was another lesson from Professor Niebuhr: that the church must not be captive to culture, but instead must work to transform culture while it transforms and converts human beings. Cartwright deliberately regarded himself as a stranger each time he moved to a new pastorate.

One advantage in being an outsider was the fresh eye. He was able to look and analyze "and see what is the truth and what is God's and what is to be changed."

Another advantage in remaining a little apart from the culture he lived in was that he was not tempted to court popularity. He felt no need to curry favor with his neighbors. He was often out of step with fellow ministers. Sometimes another clergyman would say, "I can understand glimpses of what you're talking about, Bert. But you don't have a sense of belonging the way I have."

Through his outsider's eyes, he discovered that certain evils seemed to be universal in the American culture. Having survived and grappled with the racism of Little Rock, he had looked forward to a respite after moving to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1964. He was not especially surprised to learn that Youngstown had a strong Mafia. What startled him was that it also had a strain of racism as virulent as any he had seen in the South. The town had once been a Ku Klux Klan stronghold.

His frail body shuddered as he sat in his Fort Worth home 22 years later and recalled something that had happened in Youngstown on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. He had been in the church that evening while the choir was practicing. Someone phoned to tell him the news. He was stunned.

"When the choir came out, there was one of the younger men in the church that I felt drawn to. And I said, "You know, I just heard that Martin Luther King was shot." He said, "Good! Hey, that's great!"

Coming to terms with racism was part of Cartwright's lifelong struggle to maintain his faith. One consequence was a slowly dawning awareness that there was more evil in the world than he had known, and that not all of it would be neatly cleared up through the efforts of well-intentioned people. He told an interviewer in 1963, "I tend toward despair of the church, despair of white persons generally having any effect in the area of racial change. There's a growing sense in me of the irrelevance of what I tend to do."

Coupled with his personal pessimism was a growing pessimism about the role of the church and the ministry in bringing about social change. He saw God more at work in the world and less at work in the church. That was a little shocking to him. He had always believed that Christian ministers should be effective. Then he saw that that was not always possible.

"And so then I began to say that we need to begin to be faithful and — a pathetic way of expressing it — then leave it up to God to see what God makes of it. My whole self-understanding of the church and the world and God was shaken. I don't think I got to the point of no hope, but diminished expectations."

He never gave up what he called the hard teachings of the church: turning the other cheek, giving to the poor, the social gospel. "But then when I saw the depths of evil and my world falling apart, I began to see that I needed to depend more fully upon God's love and grace and acceptance."

One thing that slightly annoyed him about being a hero of the civil rights movement was the presumption that he spent all his days fighting for racial justice. The truth was that he spent most of his days visiting the sick, counseling people with problems, writing and preaching sermons, encouraging faith, caring for the flock — trying to be a good pastor. On the same day that he went to Central High and saw the mob assail Elizabeth Eckford, he went to the hospital and visited sick members of his congregation.

Jean Woolfolk was a leading member of Pulaski Heights Christian Church during Cartwright's 10-year tenure. She recalled a pastoral visit that he made to her home. Woolfolk's sister Mary had just received a letter from her husband of 28 years saying he had met another woman in a distant state and wanted a divorce. The distraught sister showed the letter to the pastor.

"Bert read the letter. He handed it back to her, and then he took her hand. He just sat there. He didn't say a word, but after a while tears ran down his face. Finally, he said, 'Mary, I know I ought to say something, but I don't know what to say.' That was all the counseling she needed. That was the finest piece of pastoring I've ever seen."

click to enlarge 90 YEARS OLD THIS YEAR: Pulaski Heights Christian Church, at 4724 Hillcrest Ave.
  • 90 YEARS OLD THIS YEAR: Pulaski Heights Christian Church, at 4724 Hillcrest Ave.

He was always nagged by the theological question of what a minister should do about the evils of society beyond the walls of the church. He concluded early that God is in history, that is, that He is involved in the world as well as in the church. It was a happenstance of history that the great evil in America during Cartwright's early ministry was racism. He told a group of churchmen in Little Rock in 1965, on a visit after he had moved to Youngstown, "God is in the midst of all this racial ferment working out his purposes. He is at work in your community and in mine, seeking to redeem and transform, through judgment and grace, our race relations."

He asked the ministers to consider the role of the pastor in changing communities. It is not enough, he said, to take the pietistic view that a clergyman should confine himself to curing the sin-sick soul. He noted that converted sinners did not automatically become good citizens, as witness the masses of converts in the Southern Bible Belt who had made no significant contribution to racial justice. The pastor should preach on race, he said. Sermons should show how God tries to integrate and reconcile people. Outside the church, the responsible pastor should serve as a public witness not just for the moral point of view, but for God's justice. He noted that during a recent civil rights demonstration at Youngstown, he had assumed the role of public witness in a speech on the courthouse steps.

His listeners in Little Rock were not surprised. Many remembered that at Pulaski Heights Christian, he had encouraged the congregation to reach beyond the church walls during the school crisis of 1957. When a segregationist-controlled school board fired more than 40 teachers for their suspected integrationist sympathies, dozens of members of Pulaski Heights Christian Church turned out for a protest rally. Cartwright did not pretend that he had led the parishioners to the rally. But he pointedly had prepared them for what he saw as this work of ministry. Preparing and equipping a congregation to do God's work is part of a pastor's job, he said.

Just how does a pastor go about this preparation? At Little Rock, for example, he organized a series of interracial meetings. After eight Sunday evenings, several white members confessed that the meetings had opened their eyes.

Forrest Rozzell, the executive secretary of the Arkansas Education Association and a dominant figure in Arkansas politics for many years, was a longtime member of Pulaski Heights Christian. He remembered years later advising Cartwright to continue telling the truth to the congregation, no matter what the consequences. An anonymous donor during the Central High turbulence — who turned out to be the future governor, Winthrop Rockefeller — bought a set of stained-glass windows for the church to show his appreciation for Cartwright's courage and the church's support of civil rights. Rozzell appreciated the gift, but he was a little indignant.

"It was puzzling to me that anybody would be surprised that Bert would defend any issue on the basis of what is morally right. My reaction was, 'Well, what did they expect of our minister?' "

As the race issue began to subside, the issue of women in the clergy emerged. As usual, Cartwright came down on the side of the strugglers. He had gone to classes with women at Yale Divinity School and he knew what they faced in male-dominated congregations. After moving to Fort Worth's South Hills Christian Church, he encouraged the members to include women as elders and to hire a woman student as youth minister. Later, as area minister of the Trinity-Brazos Area in 1979, overseeing the programs of 57 congregations, he began suggesting names of women as well as men to congregations searching for new pastors.

Nevertheless, he encountered criticism from some women. Much of it centered on the traditionally male-oriented language of the Bible. Some felt that passages of Scripture with sexist language should be rewritten for public reading; he felt inadequate to the task. A continuing disagreement between him and some women ministers was over his use of the traditional "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" in referring to the trinity. For one reason or another, some women who had suffered from sexist discrimination saw Cartwright as not sufficiently sensitive to women's issues. A group at South Hills confronted him every Sunday for a period to make clear their displeasure with the sexist aspects of the service, and these women once threatened to walk out in mid-service. Mostly, though, the disagreement was pursued with good humor. "Through their persistence," he recalled years later, "I was to some degree educated, and changed my language and to some degree my style."

Cartwright retired in 1989. He might have stayed on longer as area minister, but he began to tire of the travel and of being in a different church every Sunday. He and his wife, Anne, had five children, and most had settled in the Fort Worth area. He wanted to spend more time with the grandchildren. He was also tiring of being a perpetual outsider. "I felt myself yearning for a church home," he said.

His friends remarked on the continuing agility of his mind. He learned to operate a computer. He maintained his long interest in such organizations as the Texas Conference of Churches, the National and World Council of Churches, the Consultation of Church Union and the Disciples Division of Overseas Ministries. The last had once taken him to Zaire ( now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

He also continued to write. For the first time, he could freely indulge a scholarly interest that some of his friends considered bizarre. He had been collecting the lore and songs of Bob Dylan since the 1960s. He had corresponded with other Dylan scholars around the world. He had once written a monograph on biblical references in Dylan's lyrics. By the time of his retirement, he confessed, he had become a full-fledged Dylanologist. With his usual modesty, he said it would be extravagant to call him an authority.

Some friends, mistakenly assuming that he looked at Dylan through the eyes of a minister, continued to ask him how he could condone Dylan's lifestyle, his early use of narcotics, etc. He tried to explain that he studied Dylan as other scholars studied Byron or Keats.

"In terms of literary interest, I do not concern myself with making judgments about his personal life. It is a matter of indifference to me whether or not he is a Christian. It is a matter of indifference to me whether or not I agree with him in his lyrics. He is not a hero to me; he is not a role model. I do not worry about the goodness or badness of rock and roll. It is all a matter of interest in the 'is-ness' of Bob Dylan."

He also thought it was time to go public with a secret in the past. He confessed that when Texas Christian University gave him an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1976, he wore a Dylan T-shirt under his robe during the ceremony. Just to remind himself that while he appreciated the honor, he should not take it too seriously.

The Pulaski Heights Christian Church will celebrate its 90th anniversary Sunday, Nov. 5, with a 10:30 a.m. service addressed by Judge Wendell Griffen. A barbecue dinner at the church will follow.

Colbert Cartwright died in 1996. His papers are in the archives of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. A version of this article first appeared in the anthology "Sources of Inspiration: 15 Modern Religious Leaders," 1992.

Roy Reed, who lives at Hogeye, was a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and The New York Times and author of the biography "Orval Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal."


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