Nothing costs less than courage in the rearview mirror of history. Nothing is easier than praise for the departed. Nothing is more hypocritical than celebrating a virtuous life without seeking to live more virtuously.
A day after Rosa Parks died, Southern Baptists heaped praise on her in a Baptist Press story.
The reporter claimed her as a member of the Baptist family, even though she was a life-long member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, as correctly noted in the Associated Baptist Press story.
The BP story quoted the Alabama Baptist Convention executive director calling her “a towering figure during the civil rights period.” A Southern Baptist Convention executive credited her and other civil rights leaders with fostering “a society committed to racial reconciliation and justice.”
As Bob Allen noted in our news story, Southern Baptists reacted negatively to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The vast majority of Southern Baptists were anything but supportive of the cause for justice and racial equality.
Baptist fundamentalists, like W. A. Criswell, the father of the so-called “conservative resurgence,” denounced those who wished to end desegregation and discrimination. Alabama Baptist pastors defended segregation and criticized Martin Luther King. Moderate Herschel Hobbs called King a “rabble rouser” and a “troublemaker.”
Southern Baptist segregationists angrily attacked the SBC’s moral concerns agency, the Christian Life Commission, for its stance on integration against the Bible.
After A.C. Miller, the CLC director, delivered his 1954 report at the annual meeting of the SBC, a mere 13 days after the Supreme Court ruled against school segregation, a Kentucky messenger said, “I do not believe the Bible teaches, and I do not believe that God approves, amalgamation of the races.”
A messenger from New Mexico said, “The Old Testament is filled with the admonition of the Lord that we should keep our blood pure.”
Years later when King became the youngest recipient and the first Georgia Baptist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, SBC leadership offered an icy silence of congratulation.
But the Southern Baptist lack of commitment to civil rights has not been confined to the 1950s and 1960s.
When Richard Land was elected as the CLC’s executive director in 1988, a Mississippi board member, Curtis Caine, called Martin Luther King a “fraud.” Many directors nodded in agreement. No director challenged Caine’s statement. One director defended him, claiming that he wasn’t a racist, and said that King “caused a whole lot of trouble.”
The 1990 committee on nominations renominated Caine to serve on the CLC’s board of directors. The SBC messengers reelected him to another four-year term. Clearly Caine’s anti-King and pro-apartheid statements did not morally disqualify him for service.
But the Southern Baptist lack of commitment to civil rights has not been confined to the 1980s and 1990s.
Scant evidence exists of any substantive commitment today to civil rights, to ending racism, among white Southern Baptists:
How many white Georgia Baptists spoke out against the voter-ID law, a 21st century version of the poll tax, which discriminates against poor African-Americans and is aimed at suppressing minority voter turnout? Other than Jimmy Carter, who spoke up?
How many Baptist leaders rejected publicly Bill Bennett’s claim that aborting black babies would lower the nation’s crime rate?
Why didn’t Southern Baptists speak up for Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman, when he said the Republican Party was wrong for using race as a wedge issue in campaigns?
Where’s the white Baptist community on a host of issues: well-funded public schools, affordable and accessible health care and immigration?
Which state conventions encourage their churches observe Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday in January?
If white Baptists really believe in the rightness of Rosa Parks’ action, then maybe we ought to do right now by doing what she did—advancing social justice and civil rights in real time.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.