Then & Now

From NPR this morning:

Fifty years ago, 80 white pastors in the Atlanta area took on segregationists in the Deep South. They took their beliefs to the front page of Atlanta’s main newspaper in 1957, issuing what has been called The Ministers’ Manifesto.

I find the manifesto striking for two reasons. First, it stirs my soul to read these words, “Because the questions which confront us are on so many respects moral and spiritual as well as political, it is appropriate and necessary that men who occupy places of responsibility in the churches should not be silent concerning their convictions.” Amen to my Southern brothers from so long ago.
But I also want to quote this, “To suggest that a recognition of the rights of Negroes to the full privileges of American citizenship, and to such necessary contacts as might follow would inevitably result in intermarriage is to cast as serious and unjustified an aspersion upon the white race as upon the Negro race.” Notice that the position is not that intermarriage is right, but that both the white and Negro race understand that it is wrong, and thus, one should not expect it to happen as a result of integration. They made a grand, perhaps dangerous move, but they were not fully evolved.

In spite of the discomfort in making such a manifesto, even in spite of the fact that they didn’t/couldn’t get it perfect, they had to speak. They had to speak because, to quote another out spoken religious leader from the period, “[T]he Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

What is our civil rights issue? Where is the church called to speak with its prophetic voice to today’s world?

2 replies on “Then & Now”


The story actually has an unfortunate coda. A year and a half after the Ministers’ Manifesto, another group of local pastors — mostly Baptists and Pentecostals — issued a statement defending segregation. The Atlanta Journal ran it on the front page on March 25, 1959.

Among the statements in this response included: ” We believe integration is satanic, unconstitutional, and is one of the main objectives of the Communist Party as evidenced by the following quotations from the Communist Party platform” and “We believe the integration of the races in our schools to ANY EXTENT presents grave moral, social, religious, constitutional and political questions.”

You can find this response here

That is unfortunate. Matt and I tried to have a dialogue on the impact of Christianity on society, sort of modeled after the exchange between authors like Sam Harris and Jim Wallis. We quickly found that the amount of data is overwhelming, no matter how we tried to narrow the scope.

This is another example of the same. I’d like to characterize these two statements as the first being the product of the Spirit moving among these ministers and the second being the racism of the society reacting to that. But, it is equally valid to say that the first was the result of Western Society and that the second was reasserting the religion.

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