By Wes Crawford
For the better part of the 20th century, white and African American leaders within Churches of Christ perpetuated an illusion of racial unity through their public speech, sermons, journal articles, and lectureships. If one’s only windows into 20th century American society were lectureships and journals affiliated with Churches of Christ, she or he would never know about the thousands of lynchings that occurred in cities and towns across the American South, or Jim Crow segregation, or even the Civil Rights Movement. The most prominent voices and most influential platforms within the movement were utterly silent.
In 1968, however, that illusion of racial unity was shattered for two important reasons. First, Marshall Keeble died. The principle African American figure connecting African American and white Churches of Christ died, and when he died no other black leader took his place as a regular speaker and writer in white-controlled journals or lectureships. During the first half of the 20thcentury, Keeble had been the glue that held white and African American Churches of Christ together. When he died, the two racially defined segments of the movement drifted further apart.
The second reason the illusion of racial unity shattered in 1968 was perhaps even more impactful than Keeble’s death. In 1967, the white-controlled Board of Directors of Nashville Christian Institute (the school Keeble operated for the purpose of educating African American students), decided to close the school and liquidate its assets and use the proceeds from the sale of the property to establish a scholarship fund at the recently desegregated David Lipscomb College for an African American student. Alumni of NCI and other African American members of Churches of Christ responded swiftly and strongly, filing suit against the Board of Directors and attempting to block their decision. They even hired Fred Gray, NCI alumnus and attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr., to take the case. When the dust settled, the court ruled in favor of the Board of Directors, the Burton-Keeble Scholarship was established at David Lipscomb College, and decades of deep-seated resentment from African American members of the movement toward their white counterparts spilled into the public through speeches, sermons, and journal articles. One African American leader called the Board’s action, the “grab of the century,” while another referred to that same action as robbery.
Keeble’s death prevented him from mediating the discourse between these oppositional parties. NCI, which had provided another point of connection between black and white Churches of Christ, no longer existed. Following 1968, African American and white Churches of Christ became more and more physically separated, and each began to grow and develop independently of one another. On one hand, white members of the movement centered themselves around institutions, such as Abilene Christian College, Harding College, and David Lipscomb College. They subscribed to the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation, and they attended the Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop and other lectureships held on the campuses of predominantly white colleges. On the other hand, African American members of Churches of Christ centered themselves around Southwestern Christian College, the National Lectureship, and the Christian Echo. Lacking any official denominational structure, these three entities—colleges, lectureships, and journals—have historically provided cohesion to our otherwise autonomous congregations. In the years following 1968, white and black Churches of Christ became more estranged from one another, each locating itself around its own racially defined loci of cohesion. In short, for all practical purposes there exist in the opening decades of the 21st century, two racially defined movements each bearing the name “Church of Christ” on their marquees.
All hope, however, is not lost! In recent years courageous voices from within African American and white Churches of Christ have raised their voices in attempts to heal racially motivated wounds and to bring these two movements together. (Notice I do not write “together again,” because in reality, these two movements have never experienced togetherness).
At the turn of the century, Royce Money (then President of ACU), convened the One in Christ Conference in Abilene. This gathering brought together key white and African American leaders to discuss the past and present sins of racism of white Christians against black Christians. These closed-door meetings consisted on truth-telling, confession, tears, repentance, and forgiveness. Not long after these meetings, Money publicly confessed ACU’s sins during an ACU chapel ceremony. Weeks later, Jack Evans (then President of Southwestern Christian College) invited Money to Terrell, TX, where he made that same confession in front of the student body of Southwestern Christian College.
In recent years, Jerry Taylor, African American faculty member at ACU has courageously led efforts to build community between black and white members of Churches of Christ. He has hosted a series of “Racial Unity Leadership Conferences” in cities, such as Abilene, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Birmingham to bring together leaders from these two movements for conversation, confession, prayer, and relationship building. Taylor also led a bus ride through the American South, allowing a handful of younger black and white leaders of Churches of Christ to visit key Civil Rights Movement sites together. Most recently, Taylor became the first Director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action. The Center exists to conduct important research on the historical and contemporary role of race and racism within the church. The Center also hosts regional and national events to bring together prophetic voices on the topic of race and racism.
Jerry Taylor is not alone in his work of reconciliation. Tanya Brice, Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Bowie State University, also has lent her voice to this effort through her important writings and speeches. See, for example, her 2016 book, Reconciliation Reconsidered. From his post as Preaching Minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ, Don McLaughlin has added an essential voice from white Churches of Christ. McLaughlin has accompanied Taylor as a speaking partner at many national meetings, and the two are currently working on a collaborative book project. Another white member of Churches of Christ, Doug Foster, has spent the better part of his academic career researching and writing about the presence and effect of racism within the church.
This short recital of names and initiatives provides but a glimpse of the many black and white members within Churches of Christ who are working to make our future much better than our past. To this small sampling could be added countless others. To recognize the scores of church leaders within Churches of Christ passionately working for racial equality and justice is extremely important, because some prophets for this cause, much like Elijah, feel as if they are the only prophets left. In fact, however, you are not alone. So, be bold.
Ministers, have the courage to stand in the pulpit and name the sin of racism in your ranks. Yes, some folks will get upset, and some may even leave your congregation for another one down the street. You will be charged with being a “race baiter,” and you will be accused of bringing politics into the pulpit (even if you never mention politics). Remember, you were not called to win a popularity contest; you were called to be a prophet of God.
Elders, have the courage to make your own bold decisions about racial justice in your congregation and stand with the ministers when they make bold statements about racism. Yes, you will get phone calls from disgruntled members, and your congregational budget may even take a hit. Remember, you are not a politician called to represent the constituents of your congregation. You are a shepherd of Christ’s church, called to lead people closer to the heart of God.
Make no mistake: Churches of Christ have not handled the issue of race well in the past. As a church historian, I often have witnessed the truth of the old adage: “History tends to repeat itself.” Yet, I also have observed many occasions when history did not repeat itself. We do not have to repeat the sins of our parents. History is filled with people like Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Florence Nightingale, and Fannie Lou Hamer—people who refused to allow the seemingly immovable obstacles of the past and present from charting a new and better path toward the future. I pray regularly for God’s Spirit to empower such bold and courageous leaders in our movement today.