Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965

By Davis W. Houck; David E. Dixon | Go to book overview
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1959
§43 Chester Bowles

Chester Bowles was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on April 5, 1901. He received his B.S. from Yale University in 1924. After a successful career in advertising, he turned to public service. He first served as general manager of the massive Office of Price Administration beginning in 1943. He later served as governor of Connecticut (1948 to 1950), U.S. ambassador to India (1951–1953 and 1963– 1969), and as a congressman (1959–1960). In addition to these prominent positions, he also played important roles at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (1946), and at the United Nations (1947– 1951). Bowles also served as an advisor to Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. A lifelong Unitarian, Bowles was a vocal advocate for racial reconciliation and international accord. While he served as ambassador to India, for example, Bowles rode his bicycle to work and enrolled his children in public schools. He died on May 25, 1986 at the age of 85. His papers are housed at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

The following speech to the Health and Welfare Council in 1959 uses numerous Christian images and texts woven into other persuasive appeals to construct a powerful interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate that boards of education end racial segregation with “all deliberate speed.”

The Health and Welfare Council was one of two prominent umbrella organizations to guide resources among non-profit agencies in the African American community in Washington, D.C. The intended audience is a group of philanthropists, such as Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes, a key figure in ending segregation in the District of Columbia.

Early in the speech, Bowles argues that Christian civilization, with its 2000 year history, has greater depth than the evolving social contract of the U.S. Constitution, which was not even 200 years old at the time. This greater depth, he argues, potentially gives firmer moral ground to new laws that are shocking to many, if long overdue. He believes that the ethical responsibility of Christians is to convince others of their deeper moral purpose, calling for conciliation to the extent possible within the framework of the Constitution. Moderates, he argues, have access to the moral authority of Christian civilization. Christians from Thomistic traditions have long embraced the Aristotelian mean. God spoke through Isaiah, inviting the unjust to “reason together” in order to reconcile their original sins. Bowles then turns to Jefferson’s account of a creator who endows all humans with inalienable rights. Whether those thoughts are Christian or deist is a matter our nation has not resolved, and Bowles attempts to build bridges among those struggling for Jefferson’s religious legacy.

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