Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Baptist State Convention of South Carolina and Desegregation, 1954-1971

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Baptist State Convention of South Carolina and Desegregation, 1954-1971

Article excerpt

In the Civil Rights era, leaders of the Baptist State Convention of South Carolina, the state's largest white denomination, sought to persuade Baptists to accept desegregation, but they were frequently forced to retreat by vocal, black-belt segregationists. Denominational leaders appealed to the primary commitments Southern Baptists held to Scripture, evangelism, law and order, and education to convince them to accede to racial change. Most Southern Baptists were moderate segregationists, but they reluctantly adjusted to the demise of Jim Crow in the 1960s as its maintenance became incompatible with their primary commitments. Although few Baptists sought integration, in the 1970s a growing number of Baptist churches rejected the principle of segregation by abolishing policies that barred blacks.

The vast majority of South Carolina's whites favored segregation in the postwar era. An opinion poll found that in 1956, 90 percent of the state's white population opposed school desegregation. Although most whites rejected change, they differed in the degree of their support for Jim Crow. In the 1950s, twenty-one of South Carolina's forty-six counties, nearly all located in the lower half of the state, had a majority black population. Outnumbered by the black population, whites in these counties comprised the bulk of South Carolina's hard-line segregationists. Outside the black belt and areas with substantial black populations, most whites took a moderate segregationist position. They supported Jim Crow, but not at the price of lawlessness and disorder. (1)

Southern Baptists shared the same opinions as their white neighbors. Most hard-line segregationists lived in the black belt and in urban areas with significant numbers of black inhabitants. They stoutly defended segregation in the sincere belief that it formed part of God's plan for the human race. Hardliners often cited biblical verses, which they claimed, sanctioned racial separation. A larger proportion of Baptists, located mainly in the Piedmont and Pee Dee regions, were moderate segregationists. Although they favored segregation, moderates did not invest it with biblical justification. Consequently, they were able to accept, albeit grudgingly, the demise of Jim Crow as it was overturned by the federal courts and Congress. Confronted with a choice between maintaining segregation illegally and compliance, Baptists chose the latter. Moderate segregationists were also influenced by Baptist progressives, who argued that segregation and racism denied biblical teachings and undermined missions abroad. (2)

Progressive Baptists included some denominational leaders, and a small number of pastors and laypeople. They presented their message at meetings of the Baptist State Convention and in sermons and public pronouncements. Progressives served on the Convention's Social Service Commission that provided guidance on ethical issues. The Commission presented reports and recommendations at the Convention's annual meetings for the approval of the messengers. Adopted reports and recommendations did not bind churches, but they indicated predominant Baptist thought on social issues. (3)

Hard-line segregationists offered progressives stiff resistance at convention meetings and in the churches. Both groups sought to sway the ranks of moderate segregationists. The Convention passed through three stages between 1954 and the early 1970s. In its first stage, the Convention appealed to Baptists to accept school desegregation mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (May 1954). During the Convention's second stage between 1955 and 1960, mounting opposition to desegregation among Baptists and other white Carolinians drove progressives and the Convention into public silence on racial issues. The Convention entered its third stage in 1961 during which progressives urged Baptists to support desegregation of its colleges and the public schools. …

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