coauthor of “The Ministers' Manifesto”
As a child growing up in New York City, I watched images on TV that were forever etched in my young soul — police and their dogs attacking small children. In resistance to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in favor of integration, mobs of men, women, and children waged obscene deadly battles in Little Rock, Arkansas. In one of the ugliest chapters in the nation's history, citizens and state leaders — elected officials, clergy, school personnel, police, and firefighters partially shut down Central High School.
The uproar pervaded the deep south. Georgia deliberated closing its public schools rather than allow black and white children to attend them together. Here, fewer than 100 principled, courageous ministers of the all-white Atlanta Christian Council took a bold stand where church leadership (really, any leadership) was desperately needed.
“Where there are no men, strive to be one ” (Rabbi Hillel)Then age 30, retired United Methodist Bishop L. Bevel Jones III and fourteen other clergy drafted an appeal for moderation, communication between the races, racial amity, and obedience to the law. Eighty clergy signed it, and on November 3, 1957, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on its front page what became called The Ministers' Manifesto. It was credited with helping Atlanta desegregate peacefully by discouraging city officials and Atlanta citizens from pursuing a course of massive resistance to federal authority.
Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, whose moral convictions and bold actions — like those of his Christian colleagues, evoked the ancient biblical prophets did not sign this historic statement by Christians. Still, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) responded to his partnership with them and related activities by bombing the Temple, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation. The bombing aroused new fears of racial extremism, prompting more than 300 ministers to issue a second manifesto calling for the creation of a citizens' commission to debate alternatives to massive resistance.
The promise of this nation's founders
Last Sunday, Bishop Jones preached the sermon at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel ecumenical, open worship. Susan Henry-Crowe, Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, welcomed the group that included Emory organizations — from Jewish to Muslim and from Catholic to Protestant. The Bishop's sermon was part civil rights history, part autobiography, and part personal principles and beliefs. He said:
Nothing is quite as uninteresting as a religious moralist, always on the side of angels but never fighting any devil. We must be willing to take sides on moral issues of the moment. And our ideas must be linked to actions that address specifics, tangibles. — Bishop Bevel Jones
And, Bishop Jones remembered —
- "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement," Rosa Parks who, too tired to move to the back of a segregated bus, sat down, and the world stood up.
- Mahatma ("great soul") Gandhi who pioneered resistance to evil through active, nonviolent resistance.
- Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian, civil rights activist, and contributor to modern just war thinking.
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called us to address the monster triplets — racism, economic injustice, and militarism, and insisted that the nation be a beacon of light, not a bastion of might.
As you go, may God go with you —
Before you, to guide you,
Behind you, to guard you,
Beneath you, to uphold you,
Before you, to inspire you,
Beside you, to befriend you, and
Within you, to give you peace.