WASHINGTON (BP) – A dichotomy existed within the Southern Baptist Convention when 250,000 blacks and others, including those from a range of faith traditions, converged for the 1963 March on Washington championing civil rights and equitable economic opportunity.
While doors of many Southern Baptist churches and schools were closed to African Americans, all SBC seminaries supported by Cooperative Program dollars were racially integrated, according to 1963 SBC statistics housed in the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives. In all, 22 of the SBC’s 70 seminaries, universities, junior colleges, academies and Bible schools were integrated.
In spite of many Southern Baptist pastors supporting racial segregation, some Southern Baptists were just as resolved in championing racial inclusion, though they were in the minority.
As Americans mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march with a week of special events in the nation’s capital and other activities in select cities, the SBC has long led a ministry of reconciliation and made significant strides in modeling love across racial lines, but it still has much work to do, current African American Southern Baptist leaders told Baptist Press.
“There are more cultures worshipping together in our SBC churches than ever before. And to that I say, Praise the Lord!” said SBC President Fred Luter, the first African American president of the body, now in his second one-year term. “Yes, we have come a long way since 1963, but as the saying goes we still have a long way to go. Therefore the pastors, leaders and members of SBC churches need to continue to be intentional in our efforts to reach people regardless of their skin color.
“It was Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s dream, but it is also the heart of God,” said Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “Red, yellow, black and white, we are ALL precious in His sight!”
BP photo provided by National Archives and Records Administration
An estimated 250,000 blacks, whites and Jews attended the 1963 March on Washington seeking civil rights for African Americans.
K. Marshall Williams, chairman of the SBC’s African American Advisory Council and pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, echoed that past progress must be followed by continued growth.
“For a convention that has a history of being on the wrong side of slavery, to a 1995 resolution renouncing and repenting of its racist roots of defending slavery, segregation and white supremacy, to in 2013 seeing the second-term election of Dr. Fred Luter as the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Williams said, “I believe that [the] SBC has made progress in modeling the love of the Lord by becoming more inclusive of ALL blood-bought believers who have been [birthed] into the body of Christ.
“However, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘We have some difficult days ahead,’” Williams said. “Racial injustice, employment, economic and educational inequalities as well as a culture that is in moral decay is the day in which we live. Many in the church have left their first love and need to repent (Revelation 2:4-5).”
Long before the SBC’s 1995 resolution denouncing racism and seeking forgiveness from African Americans for slavery and racial injustice, the SBC Christian Life Commission authored “Race Relations: A Charter of Principles” promoting racial equality.
The SBC adopted at its 1947 annual meeting and reaffirmed the following year the report which stated, in part, “We shall think of the Negro as a person and treat him accordingly” and “We shall be willing for the Negro to enjoy the rights granted to him under the Constitution of the United States, including the right to vote, to serve on juries, to receive justice in the courts, to be free from mob violence, to secure a just share of the benefits of educational and other funds, and to receive equal service for equal payment on public carriers and conveniences.”
Yet the charter fell short of embracing integration, speaking instead to equality. Its last principle stated, “We shall actively cooperate with Negro Baptists in the building up of their churches, the education of their ministers and the promotion of their missions and evangelistic programs.”
In 1961, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary blazed a trail by hosting King as a chapel speaker in the Julius Brown Gay Lecture series.
The world had become geographically one with the invention of air travel, but the church was challenged to make the world spiritually one, King told the audience in his speech, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension,” archived in audio and text on the SBTS website.
“It is urgently true that now we are challenged through our spiritual and moral commitments to make of this world a brotherhood. In a real sense we must all live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools,” King said. “We must see this sense of dependence, this sense of interdependence. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone; we are made to live together.”
And the church “must make it palatably clear that segregation is a moral evil which no Christian can accept,” said King, who would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech more than two years later at the Washington march. “The church must make it clear that if we are to be true witnesses of Jesus Christ, we can no longer give our allegiance to a system of segregation …. The church also has the responsibility of getting to the ideational roots of racial prejudice.”
Today, the SBC has heeded much of King’s call, but must stand firm against a world dying in sin, Williams told Baptist Press.
“We now have over 10,000 growing African American and ethnic churches in our convention. The recent appointments of Dr. Ken Weathersby and Dr. Gary Frost as vice presidents of the Executive Committee of [the] SBC and the North American Mission Board (Midwest Region), respectively, have been significant," Williams said. "We have had over 22 African American and ethnic former presidents of state conventions. The formation of the [SBC] Asian, African American and Hispanic advisory councils … by Dr. Frank Page, Executive Committee president, will continue to enhance transparent dialogue and deliberate execution of biblical mandates that will promote unity in the body of Christ and building of the Kingdom of God.”
Williams encourages the church to set an example of godly love while fulfilling the Great Commission.
“The church needs to stand up with a prophetic voice and saturate our nation with a passionate pursuit of our God in prayer [and] personal holiness with practical application, which will precipitate radical heart changes and bring healing in the land,” Williams said. “Let us by the power of the Holy Ghost, love God first, then we can do justice, love others with mercy and without partiality and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:37-40).”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer.)