The following is from Kairos Journal. What would be the issues that pastors and churches need similar boldness and willingness to sacrifice for today? Help your church do it.
Sacrifice for Civil Rights – (1950 - 1970)
Robert B. McNeill had been fired from the pastorate of Columbus, Georgia’s First Presbyterian Church. His offense was writing in a magazine article that blacks and whites should serve together in government, professional societies, and other organizations. Then, when pressured by segregationist church leaders, he would not recant his opinions. So he stood behind his pulpit for the last time in June 1959 and explained the reason for his stand, noting: “There are those in the church who so overtly despise race prejudice that they are willing to wear a black badge of stigma until all racial injustice is wiped out.” After the sermon, an official from the local presbytery informed the congregation of his dismissal.1
Sadly, McNeill was not an isolated case. Across the southern United States pastors lost their jobs during the 1950s and 1960s for standing against the system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow. Even when the Supreme Court mandated public-school desegregation in 1954, many professing Christians remained opposed to mixing the races in any context. Often, however, clergy members favored racial justice to a greater degree than the laymen in their congregations, and some ministers expressed their views in sermons and writings. Consequently, a rift developed between pew and pulpit that forced pastors to choose between proclaiming God’s word faithfully and keeping their jobs.2
Pastors of many sects took courageous stands against race prejudice. For instance, in 1955 Rev. E. Jones was fired from the Fortune Baptist Church in Parkin, Arkansas, for denouncing racial segregation as unchristian. He explained, “I was called before a special meeting of the congregation and given the choice of not preaching on the subject or being dismissed.” He chose to keep preaching.3 Episcopal minister Thomas P. Thrasher experienced a similar trial at Montgomery, Alabama’s Church of the Ascension. He supported the city’s 1955 bus boycott and refused to stop speaking about racial issues from the pulpit, even when pressured by his church members. After he rebuked them for hiring a guard to prevent blacks from entering worship services, they convinced the bishop of Alabama to remove him from the church.4
In some instances, pastors denounced racism within their flocks without losing their jobs. Yet the pressure of their situations still proved intense. Dunbar Ogden Jr., for one, faced enormous opposition at his Presbyterian church in Little Rock, Arkansas, after he supported integration of a local high school in 1957. Some church members called him Judas for betraying his race while several of his wealthiest parishioners withheld their financial contributions. Eventually he resigned and moved to West Virginia.5 Cecil Sherman of Ashville, North Carolina, twice urged his congregation to admit a black woman requesting membership. Both times, however, the church failed to achieve the unanimous vote required. For his advocacy of integration, Sherman and his family bore accusations and insults. Nevertheless, he refused to acquiesce and even preached against the sin of racism.6 Similarly, an Episcopal priest in Mansfield, Texas, had to be rescued from a mob by a sheriff for asking his church to honor the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to integrate public schools.7
One segregationist leaflet aptly summarized the strong sentiment against white clergy who advocated integration in the American South: They were enlisted in “the enemy’s army” and “turned out to be a vicious monstrosity, without parallel.”8 Faced with such venom, faithful pastors knew that preaching the truth would require personal sacrifice, perhaps even of their livelihoods. That is why their stands were courageous. And such bravery is still desperately needed among ministers of the gospel. Of course, the issues today are different, but God’s demand remains constant: pastors must teach the truth even when doing so could cost them dearly.
David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 133-134.
Mark Newman, Getting Right With God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945-1995 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2001), 159.
Michael B. Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet: White Clergy and the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements, 1954-1973 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 27, 30.
Ibid., 33, 35-36.
Cecil Sherman, By My Own Reckoning (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 57-62.