Neither Jew nor Greek: The Church and the Civil Rights Movement

I appreciate Kimberly Horton allowing me to publish her very interesting paper on various Christian denominations’ responses to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an area I had not previously given much thought to, but as you will see, it’s an area where the view of the church and Christian charity towards equal rights for African Americans varied greatly. I hope you find it as interesting and enlightening as I did. 

Neither Jew nor Greek: The Church and the Civil Rights Movement

by Kimberly Horton – Guest Contributor

It is an unfortunate fact that racism has played a rather large part in the history of the church. Whether Jews and Gentiles or Whites and Blacks, followers of Christ have worked for and against discrimination based solely on race. Many believers, however, have successfully taken a stand against racism in the church. The Southern Baptist, Episcopal, and Catholic churches each took different stances on the civil rights movements with differing levels of severity, and in the end they all came to adopt the Biblical attitude towards racism that God calls us to have. Racism has always been wrong, but some branches of the Church took longer to realize that than others.

Interestingly enough, the Catholic church—often perceived to be austere and frugal—proved to be the most accepting of the African race and the quickest to support the Civil Rights Movement. According to Andrew S. Moore in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, segregation was not strictly practiced. “Blacks and whites occasionally participated in religious functions together. They attended the same parish at times, even if African Americans often sat apart from whites and received communion after white parishioners” (Moore). Even so, Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen forbid priests from actively challenging state segregation laws (Moore). Despite his warnings, a few Catholics did begin to step out and take a stand against racism. Catholic activist groups, like New Orleans-based Southeastern Regional Interracial Commission (SERINCO) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), began holding meetings, hosting speakers, and bringing together interracial gatherings in the name of racial equality (Anderson 73). In a 1949 address, Louis Twomey, S.J., asked of his Catholic audience, “How would you like to be done by you as you do to the Negro?” (Anderson 73-74). The Catholic church was beginning to question its stance on American apartheid. Eventually, a statement was issued in 1958 by the American Catholic declaring that “the heart of the race question is moral and religious” and that “segregation cannot be reconciled with the Christian view of our fellow man” (Moore). From then on, things continued to progress. Violence was shunned, racism was scorned, and peace was sought by more and more Catholics across the country; racism within the Catholic church was on the decline.

In contrast to the Catholic church, the American Episcopal church embraced the Jim Crow “separate but equal” philosophy of law. In the words of the Episcopal Church Archives, “The Episcopal Church treated African Americans as a problem: culturally and socially separated and inferior, but by baptism, full and equal members of the community” (“Church Awakens…”). They felt that, by giving blacks their own congregations, their own bishops, and their own offices, they might fix the inequalities and stop racial mistreatment. Over time, though, this wasn’t enough. In December 1959, over 100 Episcopalians gathered to form a committee that would fight against all racial segregation within the church (“Church Awakens…”). They called themselves the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU) and began meeting at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina (“Church Awakens…”). Through ESCRU, awareness of racial discrimination within the Church began to grow. At its peak, ESCRU had over 5,000 member in 29 chapters across the country, the majority being laymen (“Church Awakens…”). Additionally, many Episcopalians stood up for civil rights on the Freedom Rides, organizing sit-ins, and through integrating the University of the South, a school of theology. Through the use of organization to promote their cause, the Episcopal church fought and won against the segregation that gripped their denomination.

Finally, the most harrowing journey to equality is found in none other than the Southern Baptist Church. The biggest opponent in the church body of civil rights as a whole, Southern Baptists admit to excluding African-Americans from worship, membership, and leadership (“Resolution on Racial…”). Heavily involved in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, many Southern Baptists aided in organizing bombings, violent protests, and even the murder of African-Americans and civil rights supporters. This was no social stigma of sitting separately or a “separate but equal” policy—according to an article in the Economist, some churches voted to exclude black people from their congregation entirely (“Love the Sinner”). Astonishingly, this blatant racism extended far beyond the reach of the Civil Rights Movement. Wayne Flynt, a historian and pastor, recounts leaving the denomination well into the 1980s while clashes centering around racism and discrimination still existed: “The church was the last bastion of segregation,” he voiced with a tinge of bitter regret (“Love the Sinner”). Though certain leaders of the church made official statements against racism in the days of the Civil Rights Movements, they made little difference in the lives of the laymen—the first official resolution noted ironically, “we rejoice that the number of lynchings for 1940 was so small, being only five” (“Resolution Concerning…”). Another official resolution on racism was not made until 1978, and then another in 1989; and these were merely short statements that denounced racism and encouraged the denomination to work against the practice. The most radical changes in the denomination’s doctrine took place much later than those in the Catholic and the Episcopal churches; but they were perhaps the most radical out of all the church body. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist denomination, their annual convention released a resolution that addressed the wrongs committed by their church, reaffirmed the teachings of the Bible on the equality of all men, and openly apologized to their “African-American brothers and sisters”: “We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime… we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake” (“Resolution on Racial…”). Their transformation, from openly attacking to humbly apologizing, is incredibly admirable. It reflects, in a way, our own journey with God: from violently rebelling against Him to grovelling for forgiveness at His feet. God can use even “the least of these” to reveal His glory in magnificent ways—including the rebellion of His own churches.

In conclusion, the Catholic, Episcopal, and Southern Baptist churches each took different paths as they worked to overcome racism; and each of them eventually came to incorporate the Biblical truth that race matters not in the Kingdom of God. Romans 10:12 puts the issue to rest once and for all: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”


Works Cited

Anderson, R. Bentley. Black, White, and Catholic: New Orleans Interracialism,

1947-1956. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2005. Print.

“The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Search for Justice.” Archives of

the Episcopal Church. The Archives of the Episcopal Church, 2008. Web. 05

May 2016.

English Standard Version Bible. BibleGateway. Web. 05 May 2016.

Moore, Andrew S. “Catholicism and the Civil Rights Movement.” Encyclopedia of

Alabama. Encyclopedia of Alabama, 8 Mar. 2007. Web.

“Love the Sinner | A Bittersweet Tale of Prejudice, Overcome and Enduring, in the

Deep South.” The Economist. Economist Newspaper Limited, 24 Oct. 2015. Web.

29 Apr. 2016.

“Resolution Concerning Race Relations.” Southern Baptist Convention. Southern

Baptist Convention, 1941. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

“Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern

Baptist Convention.” Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptist

Convention, 1995. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

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