An Illusion of Unity

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By Wes Crawford

Historically speaking, how have Churches of Christ addressed the issue of race? In my article last week, I mentioned that at the time of the American Civil War, members of the Stone-Campbell Movement owned more slaves, per capita, than any other religious body in the United States. In the mid-twentieth century, colleges operated by Churches of Christ were among the last higher education institutions in America to abide by the Supreme Court’s mandate to desegregate, some waiting close to decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1955). Only an extremely small minority of Churches of Christ congregations in the first decades of the 21stcentury could be considered “multi-racial congregations.” In short, Churches of Christ, in their handling of race, have behaved much like other southern, predominantly white, Christian denominations.

Yet, there are those within Churches of Christ, presently and historically, who believe our movement has navigated the tumultuous waters of racism, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial violence better than our regional contemporaries. For example, some leaders within the Stone-Campbell Movement in the late 19th century wore as a badge of honor the fact that their movement did not divide in the years leading up to the Civil War. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other American Christian groups divided along the Mason-Dixon line over the question of slavery. The Methodists did not reunite until 1939, the Presbyterians did not reunite until 1983, and the Baptists remain divided to this day. The movement founded by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, however, was among the only American Christian groups to remain united. Or, was their unity only an illusion?

In reality, one could argue that the only reason the Stone-Campbell Movement did not divide was because it lacked an official governing body to declare such an official division. When the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ officially divided in 1906 (at the behest of the United States Religious Census), roughly ninety percent of Disciples of Christ congregations existed in the North, and roughly ninety percent of Churches of Christ congregations existed in the South. The Stone-Campbell Movement did, in fact, divide along regional lines, but their division happened slower and finally came to fruition without an official ecclesiastical proclamation. Our lack of an official governing body shielded from view the full measure of our disunity with our northern counterparts.

Other forces shielded from full view the disunity historically present between black and white members of Churches of Christ. One of those forces was Marshall Keeble. Keeble has long been recognized as one of the most effective evangelists in the history of Churches of Christ (white or black). He held meetings all over the country with blacks and whites in attendance, he baptized an untold number of people, and he guided Nashville Christian Institute, a school in existence to educate black students, for nearly two decades. Keeble was one of the few African American preachers invited to speak at white lectureships, and he even wrote a regular column for the Gospel Advocate. Why was Keeble given such a platform among white members of Churches of Christ? To put it bluntly, Keeble publicly acquiesced to white racism. Strong evidence exists that Keeble privately spoke out against racism, but publicly, he never did. Keeble did not challenge segregated seating arrangements at his meetings, he did not march in civil rights protests, he did not publicly challenge the racial status quo in any way, and because of his public habits, white leadership within Churches of Christ accepted him. In fact, they often held Keeble up as the picture of racial unity within the movement. 

One brief mention of an encounter between Keeble and a well-known and respected white leader, Foy Wallace, Jr., provides ample evidence of Keeble’s customary response toward racism. Upon learning about two Churches of Christ preachers, one white and one African American, rooming together and sleeping in the same bed during a mission trip, Wallace responded:

Aside from being an infringement on the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right-thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should become generally known…I have always said that Marshall Keeble and Luke Miller could not be spoiled, but if I ever hear of them doing anything akin to such as this I will take back every good thing I have ever said of them. Keeble should teach these negro preachers better than that, even if we cannot teach some young upstart among the white preachers. Their practices will degrade the negroes themselves. It is abominable.

In response to this racist rant, Keeble sent a personal letter to Wallace, which the latter published in his journal, Bible Banner:

            Dear Sir and Brother in Christ:

For over thirty years I have tried to conduct my work just as your article in the Bible Banner of March suggested. Taking advice from such friends as you have been for years has been a blessing to my work. So I take the privilege to thank you for that instructive and encouraging article. I hope I can conduct myself in my last days so that you and none of my friends will have to take back nothing they have said complimentary about my work or regret it. Please continue to encourage me in my work and pray for me.

Fraternally yours,

M. Keeble

Keeble publicly acquiesced to white racism in order to secure financial gifts for the school he led, Nashville Christian Institute. Tragically, this accommodationist posture remains the primary picture of African American attitudes within twentieth century Churches of Christ. “If you wonder how blacks and whites get along in Churches of Christ, just look at Keeble,” so the argument went. Such a vantage point allowed Reuel Lemmons, longtime editor of Firm Foundation and one of the foremost 20th century white leaders within Churches of Christ, to make the claim, “We do not believe that segregation has ever been a problem with the Lord’s church…The kingdom of heaven is the most completely integrated institution we know, and all the brethren accept all the brethren as brethren. We have never had a problem here.”

Keeble’s voice, however, was not the only one speaking in the 20th century. Historians of African American religion, such as Gayraud Wilmore in his much heralded book Black Religion and Black Radicalism, have often discussed the long continuum between accommodation and protest. Booker T. Washington has long represented one end of that continuum on the side of accommodation. He, like Keeble, publicly acquiesced to white racism in order to appease white power brokers. He believed the best way to achieve uplift for African Americans centered on working within white-led systems. On the other end of the continuum exists a figure such as W. E. B. DuBois. Throughout his life, with his writings and his activism, DuBois openly challenged white racism. African American leaders within Churches of Christ have existed all along this continuum; however, most white members of Churches of Christ have been content to assume Keeble’s more accommodationist voice represented the voice of all African Americans. To accept such a position, however, is to turn a deaf ear to other prominent voices within Churches of Christ.

George Philip Bowser spent his life establishing and leading schools for African Americans in Churches of Christ (much like Keeble), but one would be hard pressed to label Bowser an accommodationist. He confronted white racism throughout his life. Perhaps because of his willingness to protest against racism within the movement, his name did not become as well known among white members of the movement. In fact, most of the schools he founded closed not long after they opened due to a lack of funds. 

Another voice of protest among African American members of Churches of Christ came from Floyd Rose. As a young adult, Rose was denied admission to Abilene Christian College because of his skin color. Instead, he attended school across town at McMurry University, a Methodist institution. Floyd spent most of his adult life in the North, protesting discriminatory laws and systems in Toledo, Ohio. A sheriff in Valdosta, Georgia, Rose’s hometown, once referred to Rose as “the Martin Luther King, Jr. down here.” During his life, Rose has served as President of the Toledo chapter of the NAACP, boycott instigator, and march leader. Throughout his life, he also served as a preacher within and without Churches of Christ. Though influential in regional and national fight for civil rights, Rose’s name is hardly known among white members of Churches of Christ.

To this list of unheralded agents of protest one could add Fred Gray, attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. and longtime leader within Alabama Churches of Christ. Molefi Kete Asante, formerly known as Arthur L. Smith, became a strong advocate for equal rights and one of the leading authorities in the fields of African American and African studies. Before he became an internationally recognized scholar, he graduated from Keeble’s Nashville Christian Institute. From his post as editor of the Christian Echo, a journal established by Bowser, Richard Nathaniel Hogan castigated white leaders in Churches of Christ, particularly white colleges affiliated with Churches of Christ, for their unwillingness to desegregate. Numerous African American leaders within Churches of Christ raised their voices against the racism within the movement, but few white members were listening. Instead, key white structures within Churches of Christ—journals, lectureships, and colleges—focused almost exclusively on Keeble. 

If the only picture white Christians have of race relationships within Churches of Christ is a portrait of Marshall Keeble, it is not surprising that some would hold up our movement as a model for the rest of the world to emulate. When one begins to listen to the voices that have been silenced by white power brokers within the movement, however, one begins to get a truer, less flattering image. Listening to voices that disagree with us often causes pain and discomfort, which is why so few people, even in the present age, watch more than one news network, have conversations with people from opposing political parties, or form friendships with people of different skin tone. We are content to live our lives in political, religious, and racial echo chambers. Certainly, new laws need to be passed and entire systems need to be uprooted, but perhaps the place we should all begin our quest to heal the racial wounds of our nation and our Christian family is a dining room table. Invite someone who does not look like you to dinner and simply listen.

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