The Baptist General Association of Virginia and Desegregation, 1931-1980

By Newman, Mark | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Baptist General Association of Virginia and Desegregation, 1931-1980


Newman, Mark, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


by MARK NEWMAN*

VIRGINIA played a key part in massive resistance to the Supreme Court's Brown decision in May 1954 striking down segregation in public schools. After the tactic of interposition was defeated in the federal courts, the state government then adopted a policy of evasion and tokenism. In contrast, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the organizational body of the state's largest white denomination, had frequently criticized racial discrimination in the years preceding Brown. It urged acceptance of the ruling and refused to endorse massive resistance. Continuing its adjustment to change, the General Association supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and eventually condemned segregation in all forms. The divergence between the political and Baptist leadership of the Old Dominion is explained on the one hand by the state's political system and on the other by the primary commitments Southern Baptists felt to Scripture, evangelism, law and order, and education. Their basic beliefs encouraged most Southern Baptists, gradually, if reluctantly, to accept the demise of legal segregation.1

During the civil rights era, most black Virginians lived in the agricultural counties of the Southside and Tidewater regions. In many of these counties they exceeded 40 percent of the population. Largely in consequence, Southside and Tidewater whites formed the core of the state's hard-line segregationists. Virginia's malapportioned legislature gave the Southside, home to fewer than 15 percent of the commonwealth's total inhabitants, great influence in the General Assembly. Because blacks had been largely disfranchised by the constitution of 1902, Southside whites were able to maintain in power the fiscally conservative, segregationist organization of Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., between the 1920s and the mid-1960s.2

Diverse in their opinions, most of Virginia's Southern Baptists did not share the Byrd Organization's unyielding commitment to segregation. Instead, they tended to hold the same views toward segregation as the other whites among whom they lived. As late as the mid-1960s, Baptists were divided between hard-line segregationists, a smaller group of progressives, and a broad middle base of moderate segregationists. Racial demography, or, more accurately, white social norms, influenced Baptist attitudes toward segregation.

Concentrated in, but not confined to, the Southside and Tidewater, hard-line segregationist Baptists asserted they found verses in the Bible that justified Jim Crow. When segregation came under attack in the 1950s, hard-liners vigorously defended it in the genuine belief that they were doing God's work. In contrast, progressives and moderate segregationists predominated in expanding urban areas and in counties with comparatively small black populations. Progressives had persistently criticized racial discrimination, and by the early 1950s, they also argued that biblical teachings stressed the unity of mankind and did not legitimate segregation. Moderate segregationists, unlike hard-liners, did not accord segregation religious justification. Their support for the separation of the races derived from custom and an acceptance of the existing social order. Believing that the Bible neither advocated nor condemned segregation, moderates could eventually acquiesce in desegregation because it posed no threat to their religious beliefs.3

Conflict between their primary commitments and segregation made moderates amenable to change. Baptists argued that the Bible commanded them to obey the law. They regarded education as necessary to understand Scripture and for the preservation of democracy, a system under which they believed religion best prospered. Massive resistance defied federal law, imperiled education, and, by publicizing American racism to the world, undermined Southern Baptist evangelism in nonwhite countries. In the 1960s civil rights direct action campaigns further exposed the American racism that threatened foreign missions, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregation of public accommodations unlawful. …

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