As Sen. Robert Kennedy lay dying from an assassin’s bullets and more than 100 U.S. cities smoldered from race riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) adopted what may have been its strongest statement to date on racial justice.
Nearly 15,000 messengers gathered at the 1968 SBC annual meeting in Houston, where the convention adopted what may have been its strongest statement to date on racial justice.
On the statement’s 50th anniversary, Southern Baptists – black and white – who were involved in convention life in 1968 say the “Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation” remains relevant for believers seeking to confront injustice in American culture.
The crisis statement “is a courageous statement that deals with the same kind of culture in which we find ourselves today,” said Jimmy Draper, then-pastor of Red Bridge Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., who went on to lead LifeWay Christian Resources. “We face riots, hatred, violence, anger and hostility even more extreme than it was 50 years ago. The statement is a clear expression of what should be the stance of the SBC.”
Adopted June 5, 1968, by a 73-percent majority of messengers at the SBC annual meeting in Houston, the statement declared, “We believe that a vigorous Christian response to this national crisis is imperative for an effective witness on our part at home and abroad. Words will not suffice. The time has come for action.”
‘We have condoned prejudices’
Regarding America’s racial crisis, the statement noted, “We are a nation that declares the sovereignty of law and the necessity of civil order. Yet, we have had riots and have tolerated conditions that breed riots, spread violence, foster disrespect for the law and undermine the democratic process.
“We are a nation that declares the equality and rights of persons irrespective of race,” according to the statement. “Yet, as a nation, we have allowed cultural patterns to persist that have deprived millions of black Americans, and other racial groups as well, of equality of recognition and opportunity in the areas of education, employment, citizenship, housing and worship. Worse still, as a nation, we have condoned prejudices that have damaged the personhood of blacks and whites alike.”
As a remedy, according to the statement, Southern Baptists pledged to “respect every individual as a person possessing inherent dignity and worth growing out of his creation in the image of God. We will strive to obtain and secure for every person equality of human and legal rights … We will refuse to be a party to any movement that fosters racism or violence or mob action.”
The statement requested that the Home Mission Board (HMB), a precursor organization to the North American Mission Board, “take the leadership in working with the Convention agencies concerned with the problems related to this crisis in the most effective manner possible.”
Emmanuel McCall, who in May 1968 joined the HMB as the first black staff member at any SBC entity, wrote in his 2007 “memoir of race and Baptists” that “the 1968 resolution did much to change the direction of Southern Baptists regarding race.”
McCall told Baptist Press in written comments, “The 1968 Crisis Statement charged several SBC entities to pull together and approach racial reconciliation with comprehensive resources. The HMB, Sunday School Board, Woman’s Missionary Union, Brotherhood Commission, Radio and Television Commission, Christian Life Commission [and] Foreign Mission Board all found ways to address this serious concern.
“We gave to each other, learned from each other and worked together for one common good,” McCall said. “The organizational structure that included state conventions, associations and churches provided the opportunities for united activities. There were giants in those days whose spiritual leadership [and] focus on mission was invaluable. One must also include the theological giants in the SBC seminaries. Their willingness to search and apply the Word of God to the situation really gave foundation for our actions.”
‘Something Southern Baptists can do’
Yet the crisis statement did not come easily.
Late Executive Committee (EC) staff member Albert McClellan said King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, prompted a consortium of Southern Baptist leaders to ponder a question on then-EC chief executive Porter Routh’s mind: “Is there something Southern Baptists can do to help reduce the frustration and anger” in America?
A steady stream of “racial strife in the 1960s” built that frustration and anger, according to McClellan’s 1985 book “The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1917-1984.” The strife stemmed from, among other events, the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962; the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; 1965 police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Ala., and riots that same year in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Those racially-charged events, McClellan wrote – combined with President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the escalating Vietnam War and President Johnson’s 1968 announcement he would not seek reelection – led an informal group of 69 Southern Baptist leaders to release an initial draft of the crisis statement on May 17, 1968.
In Houston preceding the SBC annual meeting, the Executive Committee “gave almost an entire day to debate and revision of the statement,” Texas’ Baptist Standard news journal reported. SBC messengers then amended the EC’s proposed draft and discussed it extensively before adopting it.
Amid the revision process, Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles just after midnight June 5 and died 26 hours later, prompting official expressions of grief at the June 4-7 SBC. Also amid the revision process, W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was elected SBC president after publicly supporting integration of churches. He had defended segregation famously in the 1950s.
‘The same resolve’
Baptist historian Greg Wills, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Theology, told BP, “There were many leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention whose consciences were exercised [in 1968] concerning the gross injustices that blacks suffered in American society, especially in the South. And they were speaking out and seeking to lead, especially their fellow clergy, in seeking to take action.”
Today, Southern Baptists “have made considerable progress” regarding racial justice, Wills said, but “a contemporary battle remains” against “racism and injustice.”
While Southern Baptists in 2018 should not “make that ‘68 resolution more than it is,” Wills said, they should nonetheless draw a lesson from it.
“Churches are perpetually liable,” Wills said, “to be adopters and consumers of the values of the broader culture rather than critics and prophets toward that culture on the basis of God’s very Word” – like the messengers who adopted the crisis statement.
Draper, currently serving as the EC’s presidential ambassador, added, “It is obvious that we have made some progress toward realizing many of the dreams included in this statement, but it is also obvious that we have a long way to go. We should stand strongly for Christian citizenship and put into practice what we preach.
“Respect for law that should exist today is being fragmented and even lost,” Draper told BP in written comments. “We are facing demonstrations and protests that often turn into violence. The willingness to hear opposing views is now being drowned out by angry outbursts and refusal to even hear views with which we disagree. We need to have the same resolve to respond to the national crises that we face today that is expressed in this statement made 50 years ago.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)