With Bishop L. Bevel Jones,
coauthor of The Ministers' Manifesto
As a very young child in New York City, I watched TV news images that were forever etched in my young soul: police and their dogs attacking small children. The scene was Little Rock, Arkansas, where mobs of men, women, and children, in defiance of federal integration laws, had partially shut down Central High School a half-century ago. In one of the ugliest chapters in the nation's history, state leaders — elected officials, clergy, school personnel, police and firefighters, and citizens waged obscene, deadly battles of resistance to integration.
In the face of such life-traumatizing acts of horror, among other noxious reasons, when the United States South went into an uproar over the 1954 Supreme Court decision in favor of integration, Georgia deliberated closing its public schools rather than allow black and white children to attend them together.
Where there are no men, strive to be one
In the spirit of Rabbi Hillel's teaching (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6), 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.
Retired United Methodist Bishop L. Bevel Jones III, then age 30, and fourteen other men of the cloth drafted an appeal to citizens and others for moderation, communication between the races, racial amity, and obedience to the law. Eighty clergy signed it, and November 3, 1957, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on its front page what became called The Ministers' Manifesto.
(Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, whose moral convictions and bold actions — like those of his Christian colleagues, evoked the ancient biblical prophets. Though he did not sign this historic document — a statement by Christians, the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) soon responded to his partnership with the cosigners and to his other activities by bombing the Temple, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation. After the bombing aroused new fears of racial extremism, more than 300 ministers issued a second manifesto calling for the creation of a citizens' commission to debate alternatives to massive resistance.)
The Ministers' Manifesto was credited with helping Atlanta desegregate peacefully by discouraging city officials and Atlanta citizens from pursuing a course of massive resistance to federal authority.
The promise of this nation's founders: all people are created equal.
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 (including scores of Emory organizations, from Jewish to Muslim and from Catholic to Protestant), welcomed the assembled. His sermon was part civil rights history, part autobiography, and part personal principles and beliefs.
"Nothing is quite as uninteresting as a religious moralist,” Jones intoned, “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."
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 then the world stood up.
- Mahatma ("great soul") Gandhi, who pioneered resistance to evil through active, non-violent 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 giant triplets: racism, economic injustice, and militarism, and who insisted that the nation be a beacon of light, not a bastion of might.
Joining in the fellowship over lunch were (shown here) Savannah, an attorney working for veterans’ disability rights, and Emory College junior Chiemezie, a first generation American and proud Ibo daughter of Nigerian parents.
Bishop Jones, whose benediction closed the morning service, kindly repeated it for me that I might share it on my blog. It is a perfect blessing as I prepare to cross “the pond” to resume my life on the other side, in Israel.
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.