The American Baptist Convention and the Civil Rights Movement: Rhetoric and Response

By Martin, Dana | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The American Baptist Convention and the Civil Rights Movement: Rhetoric and Response


Martin, Dana, Baptist History and Heritage


This article is dedicated to my wife, the Reverend Carol Holtz-Martin, who as a teenager had the courage to canvass her neighborhood on behalf of an open housing ordinance.

From 1950 through 1972, those Baptists in the North with ties to the historic American Baptist mission societies of the nineteenth century were organized as the American Baptist Convention. The denomination's first step toward national organization beyond the societies had come in 1907 with the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention. Since 1973, this body has been organized as the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Its phase as the American Baptist Convention, though, roughly coincides with the most critical time of the modern civil rights movement. The United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954, and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott followed the next year. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the movement's best known spokesman, was assassinated in 1968. Although King's death did not end the movement, his assassination in conjunction with the increased divisiveness over the Vietnam War and the crisis in the Nixon administration regarding the Watergate scandals caused the civil rights movement to recede from headlines and from the general consciousness of at least most white Americans by the early 1970s. The years of the American Baptist Convention thus mark a convenient frame for an initial analysis of Baptist rhetoric and response in the North to the civil rights movement.

Rhetoric

The most consistent American Baptist rhetoric regarding the civil rights movement is heard in the series of resolutions adopted by the Convention. From the Convention's inception in 1950 through 1966, American Baptists adopted a resolution each year which dealt specifically with civil rights or race relations. Without exception, these resolutions were progressive and genuinely encompassing. They addressed both the need for individual change in attitude and action, and the need for broader social change that could only be instituted through political action. The resolutions spoke both to American Baptist churches and agencies and to secular political bodies such as the United States Congress. It is fair to say that the resolutions were wide-ranging and even prophetic.

When the Supreme Court issued its 1954 Brown decision, the Convention responded by declaring, "We commend the United States Supreme Court in its historic decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in public education." The resolution grounded its declaration in the theological conviction that God is no respecter of persons. Perhaps most striking was that the resolution did not stop with a general approval of school desegregation, but urged American Baptists to increase "opposition to other areas of segregation--housing, employment, recreation, church participation." (1) Other religious bodies expressed agreement, or at least acceptance, of the decision but did not always link that decision to the troubling issue of segregation in other areas of American life. (2)

Perhaps one of the most delicate matters in addressing civil rights was calling for change within local churches. Though affiliated with the Convention, each congregation remained autonomous in accordance with historic Baptist policy. The Convention had no authority to change the way any church went about its business. Neither did the Convention have the political clout or the economic luxury of expelling any church not wishing to change racist practices. Knowing the risk of offending sensitivities in local congregations, the Convention nonetheless began to call on churches to change racially discriminatory practices. As early as 1956, the Convention in its resolutions assumed the desirability of integrated churches. The following year it called explicitly for open membership in American Baptist churches. By 1959, churches were asked to oppose any form of segregation. …

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