“Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., 50 years ago provoked Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary students to put segregationists and civil rights leaders alike on notice that many Southern Baptists supported equal rights for all Americans regardless of race.
After law enforcement officials in Selma beat and tear gassed demonstrators advocating voting rights for blacks, injuring some 100 people, Golden Gate students voted to send telegrams to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a segregationist, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In addition, some students wanted to send a representative to participate in a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery beginning March 21. Student Anthony Vos volunteered, and students and faculty donated money to pay for his travel. They instructed that any overage be given to King and his associates to defray their costs, Vos’ widow Pat told Baptist Press.
Anthony Vos’ “understanding when he went to the march was that he was going there … to let [civil rights leaders] know that Golden Gate Seminary was agreeing with their freedom march,” Pat Vos said.
Anthony Vos, who died in 2011 at age 72 after pastoring churches in California and Louisiana, arrived in Alabama March 24 and marched on the final leg of the journey to Montgomery, where 25,000 people gathered to protest the police brutality three weeks earlier and to demand equal voting rights for the state’s black population. Vos attempted to speak with King but was unable to make contact with him, Pat Vos said. Instead he spoke to members of King’s staff and expressed Golden Gate’s support of their efforts.
In 1983, former Golden Gate President Harold Graves published a history of the seminary titled “Into the Wind” in which he wrote that Vos “was so tired upon his arrival [in Alabama] that he went to sleep and actually had very little to report upon his return.” Pat Vos, however, said her husband was “disturbed” by the inaccuracy of that account and wrote a letter to Graves underscoring his active participation in the march. Vos never mailed the letter though, wishing not to appear disrespectful toward a leader of his alma mater.
At Golden Gate’s Mill Valley, Calif., campus, students voted without opposition in a March 1965 chapel service to send King a telegram stating, “We deplore the use of physical violence against those individuals protesting what they believe to be existing injustices. We encourage you in this struggle for civil rights and pray that from it will come equal justice for all men.”
In the same chapel service, students voted without opposition to send a message to Wallace stating, “We believe that sincere individuals ought to be able to protest the injustices they believe existing. We feel that police power should protect [t]his right of protest rather than deny it,” BP reported at the time.
The Selma campaign
Selma became the focus of voting rights activism because of a strategic plan by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dallas County, where Selma is located, had just 156 blacks registered to vote in 1961 of a voting-age African American population of 15,000. Among the ways blacks were prevented from registering was a difficult “knowledge of government” test administered to applicants for registration and a tendency by county official to deny blacks’ applications for registration because of minor errors on written forms, according to David Garrow’s book Protest at Selma.
In addition to committing voter discrimination, Dallas County had a sheriff that the SCLC believed would lose his temper and confront protestors violently – a response that the SCLC felt could draw national media attention to their campaign, according to Garrow.
The SCLC’s Selma campaign launched on Jan. 2, 1965, with a speech by King. Ongoing protests and violent clashes with law enforcement officials drew the hoped for media attention and culminated in an attempt to begin a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7. King was not in Selma that day, perhaps alerted to the likelihood of violence, when 600 marchers were brutalized by a combination of state troopers and local law enforcement officials.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Vos
This photo, taken in 1965 by Golden Gate seminary student Anthony Vos, shows fellow protestors during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Protestors’ injuries included fractured ribs and wrists, severe head gashes, broken teeth and one possible fractured skull, Garrow reported. After a federal judge approved plans for a follow-up march on March 21, protestors successfully made the journey to Montgomery – joined by Vos on March 24.
The Selma campaign, according to Garrow, played a major role in the enactment of a federal Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
Backlash at Golden Gate
Supporting the voting rights campaign in Selma came at a cost to Golden Gate. After BP reported March 19 on the telegrams to King and Wallace, Graves received a letter from a seminary classmate who lived in Alabama.
“I am confident that this official action of your student body was conscientiously motivated, but regret the fact that greater wisdom was not exercised on the part of the faculty and administration in guiding your students into an appreciation of the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to pass judgment upon states, people, organizations and conditions, without having all of the information, and having lived under the pressures that can be exerted in such circumstances,” the classmate wrote according to Into the Wind.
The letter continued, “It is real strange to us who live in Alabama and who are dedicated and consecrated to the cause of Christ and live under the authority of Scripture, to see our brethren, and particularly our youth taking sides, determining positions and exercising pressure without consideration to the effect of such action upon those who are struggling to maintain fellowship and financial support in the institutions that represent us in Southern Baptist life.”
Graves wrote in reply, “Do you understand our situation as well? We are the only Southern Baptist institution outside the sharply defined Southern tradition. By its location, the Golden Gate Seminary family is in the midst of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the North and West. Many Christians feel that the Scriptures have much to say concerning the worth of individuals in God’s sight. In the light of this truth, it is easy for people in this area to feel that a great host of people are being denied their rights and to want to speak out against it.”
Southern Baptists in Selma
Though Vos reported encountering no other Southern Baptists marching to Montgomery, there were those in Selma who believed in equal rights of all, regardless of race or nationality. Among them was Henry Lyon Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Selma from 1965-86. Lyon arrived in Selma two months after the March protests, but he told BP he experienced the city’s racial tension.
On three occasions, Lyon sought to admit black people to activities at First Baptist, but the church’s deacons maintained a policy of not allowing black worshippers, Lyon told BP. On one occasion in the late 1960s, however, a black protestor attended worship and was not removed, Lyon said.
Relations between Lyon and some members of the congregation became “very tense” late in his pastorate after he said from the pulpit, “How can we brag about how much we give to [the] Lottie Moon [Christmas Offering for International Missions] and then prevent someone from worshipping with us who was won to Christ by our missionaries” in Africa?
Lyon’s comment came after the deacon chairman told him he could not continue as pastor if he allowed a black student from a foreign country to attend First Baptist’s Christmas program.
When First Baptist received its first black member around 2001, the pastor called Lyon and said, “You laid the foundation. God took it and used it. Don’t feel like you failed,” Lyon, now 79, told BP.
Lyon never participated in a civil rights protest but remembers watching demonstrations from the church’s parking lot. He called his pastorate in Selma “very happy” and said he had “friends of all races.”
In 1965, Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman and director of public safety Wilson Baker were both Baptists, BP reported at the time. Smitherman was a member of First Baptist and taught a boys’ Sunday School class at one time, Lyon said.
A gospel of reconciliation
Jerry Light, the current pastor of First Baptist, told BP Selma has come a long way.
“Last Sunday we had a unity march for the entire community of Selma,” Light said March 6. “Between 2,000 and 2,400 attended – all ages, all races from all the different churches all over Selma.”
First Baptist has black members, former Shiite Muslim members and former Hindu members, Light said. The congregation also has embraced its God-given role as salt and light in the community.
“The church is responsible for the community,” Light said. “I’ve led this church to realize that the government doesn’t solve problems. It’s not their responsibility to do that. They can’t fix broken lives and broken families. It’s our responsibility [as] the church.”
Meanwhile, Golden Gate has continued to teach the gospel’s multicultural implications. In 1968, it had more black students than any other seminary on the West Coast and more foreign students than all other West Coast seminaries combined, according to Golden Gate’s portion of the 1968 “Crisis Report” to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Today, more than half of the students in Golden Gate’s master of divinity program, the basic ministry preparation degree, are non-white, according to the seminary’s 2014 report to the Association of Theological Schools’ Accrediting Commission.
In 1987, Golden Gate hired Leroy Gainey as the second fulltime black professor at any Southern Baptist seminary. Gainey told BP that the 50th anniversary of the Selma protests is an important moment for Southern Baptists to look back and look ahead.
“As I look back, the spiritual education is definitely correct now,” Gainey, J.M. Frost Professor of Educational Leadership, said. “Preaching a system of apartheid, or that people are less, or segregation – that doesn’t serve anybody. But preaching a Gospel that speaks to reconciliation” leads to healing.
Gainey added, “History always helps us to have a better perspective on the future.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)