Southern Social Justice: Brooks Hays and the Little Rock School Crisis

Article excerpt

Southern evangelical Protestantism (SEP) dominated the religious landscape of the South from the early nineteenth century until at least the mid-wentieth century.

John B. Boles has described SEP as being "individualistic, conversionoriented, provincial, and anti-institutional." (1) SEP finds its meaning in a personal relationship with God-in-Christ which elicits a conversion experience. Moreover, revivalism, that swept over the South at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was in large measure responsible for shaping SEP, exhibited little concern for social justice or reform. That said, I contend that while the white expression of SEP was inadequate to meet the challenges of the civil rights movement, some white SEPs, influenced and inspired by the theology and ethics of a southern Social Gospel joined with others in the civil rights movement to struggle to bring about change in southern race relations. As a means of concretizing my argument, I present the life and career of Arkansas Congressman Brooks Hays. In fact, Hays described himself as a "Rauschenbusch Baptist." (2) Moreover, Hays serves as an example of Reinhold Niebuhr's notion of working out "proximate solutions" to the political problems of society. (3)

Brooks Hays

There is an anecdote told about Brooks Hays's decision to go into politics rather than the ministry. A Russellville neighbor of Hays is credited with the story. Truth is that the neighbor and the tale were both the creation of the butt of the story, Hays himself. The story is that as Hays struggled over his choice of vocation, the ministry or politics, the church and politics fought over him. The yarn ends with "the church won the argument, so Brooks went into politics." (4) The truth of the tale is that both the church and politics won in ways that even Hays did not fully understand when he created the story.

This humorous tale also provides deep insight into the man. First, it is an example of his self-effacing wit and humor that served him through many tough times. The story also is an example of how kernels of truth are often contained in jokes or humorous anecdotes. Hays would have most certainly attained high stature as a member of the clergy as he did in the political arena. Finally, the story exposes some of the real struggle Hays went through in deciding the direction his vocation would take him.

Lawrence Brooks Hays was born in rural Arkansas on August 9, 1898. Brooks, as he later chose to be called, diligently served his state, his country, and his church while being one of the most vilified and glorified men of his generation. Hays received many honors and awards during his long career in public life. None is more fitting than the tribute by David S. Broder of the Washington Post: Brooks Hays was "a moral force of almost unequaled dimension, from election to the House until his death...." (5)

Hays's family had been Methodist for many generations until his father, Steele Hays, took the family with him to the Baptist church. The senior Hays brooked no defections to his religious plan. He saw to it that although his son had other plans, he became a Baptist. The younger Hays had been persuaded to make a public statement of his faith by a Methodist evangelist. His intention to make his "conversion" to Methodism official was terminated, however, when his father learned of it. From this point on, Steele Hays saw that his son was immersed in the Baptist faith, just as others in the family were. (6)

Hays's brief encounter with Methodism was a prelude to a growing ecumenism. Over the years, Hays spoke of rural Arkansas Baptist ministers with some disdain. He found most to be uneducated racists with little to offer a discerning and spiritually hungry young man. Once Brooks left Arkansas for law school in Washington, D.C., he was able to sample from the cornucopia of available churches and preachers. Two preachers, Charles Wood of the Covenant Presbyterian Church and William Jennings Bryan, who preached at the First Baptist Church, stood out in his memory of this period. …