The politics of segregation wasn’t coming from outside the church but from within the church. Methodists were finding fault with each other. For example, in 1955 a white West Virginia Methodist minister challenged the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville for maintaining segregated bathrooms, water fountains, and dining rooms, along with the absence of black professional workers. A publishing house official responded that it was merely conforming to “local regulations and customs.” [“Methodist Cleric Blasts JC at Publishing House”, Afro-American (January 29, 1955) Page 9]. Here we were letting man rather than God set the standards for a Methodist organization. That’s politics.
Meanwhile the Southeast Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops in early 1955 defended church segregation…yes, I said defended…so as to “protect the rights and privileges of minorities.” They explained ,”We doubt that the healing of the world’s woes is sometimes furthered by readjustment of human institutions and the enactment of laws with an element of compulsion about them.” [“Methodist Bishops Defend Segregation”, New York Times (February 9, 1955) Page 19]. This action is beyond me. As church leaders all they had to do is remove any reference to race in anything the church did and then move on. But no, they were letting politics involve the church. Then the 1955 Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference also defended church segregation, with one minister noting: “The continuance of the separate Central Jurisdiction for the Negro membership within the church is absolutely fundamental. Yes, I said fundamental.) Without it the Methodist Church in the South would not have entered into the union consummated in 1939.” [“Methodist Segregation Backed”, New York Times (June 3, 1955) Page 11]. (Sounds to me like an excuse for empire building.)
New England Bishop John Wesley Lord called the Alabama stance “unfortunate and a black mark on the church.” He predicted the “days of the second class citizen are ending.” Meanwhile, Bishop Edgar Love became the first black bishop to preside over the Holston Annual Conference. He told a reporter: “The conservatives cannot bring themselves to believe the old order is dying and must die.” He cited “social integration” as the “big hitch” but predicted it would happen. Love commented: “It does not necessarily lead to intermarriage, as many in the South believe…it is very rare that there is intermarriage between Negroes and whites in sections where integration has been in operation a long time.” [“Bishop Says Resentment Spurs South’s Opposition to Integration”, Atlanta Daily World (June 22, 1955) Page 8].
Delegates to the 1955 southern Methodist student conference meeting at the Methodist retreat center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, gave “prayerful thanks” for the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. They also pledged not to swim in Lake Junaluska’s ‘whites only’ swimming pool. [“Methodists Oppose All Forms of Racial Bias”, Atlanta Daily World (June 23, 1955) Page 6]. I was surprised to find that a Methodist retreat would have such a rule. It took ‘man’s court’ to correct such a failure. The 1955 Central Jurisdiction (remember this was a ‘black’ jurisdiction) Georgia Annual Conference, in a resolution, complained of local officials planning to “evade and defy” the Supreme Court so as to “perpetuate the diabolical practice of segregation of Negroes.” Georgia Methodists offered “full agreement” and “full cooperation” with the court ruling. [“Methodists Call for Compliance with Law”, Atlanta Daily World (June 23, 1955)]. The 1955 Mississippi Annual Conference, however, urged continued segregation within Methodism, prompting criticism from both the church’s social action and Methodist men’s agencies.” [“2 Methodist Units Blast Southern Group for Voting to Continue Church Jim Crow”, Afro-American (July 16, 1955) Page 19].
One would think with the Methodist Church seriously discussing desegregation, black bishops would be hopeful in seeing the end of segregation in the church, but that was not the case. Some of Methodism’s black bishops were themselves reluctant to abolish the Central Jurisdiction…the all black jurisdiction. One unnamed bishop asked:” What will become of the Negro leadership in the church should the Central Jurisdiction be abolished?” Another unnamed bishop commented, “We are not ready for integration in our churches. What white people call preaching, Negroes call lecturing. Our types of worship are so different that white persons would not be at ease with us, nor Negroes at ease with them.” Only one black bishop was unequivocally quoted: “No matter what the cost, we should clean house now.” [“Separate Jurisdiction Has Methodist Bishops Baffled”, Philadelphia Tribune (August 20, 1955) Page 5]. The 1955 Louisville Annual Conference declined to support ending the Central Jurisdiction but still declared, “We insist again that racial discrimination has no place in the Christian fellowship of which the Methodist Church is a part.” [“Methodists Rap Segregation, but Keep Separate Division”, Afro-American (September 24, 1955) Page 19]. (This sounds like hypocrisy to me.) Charlotte, North Carolina, Bishop Costen Harrell told the black South Carolina Annual Conference: “Equality of all races is a part of the heritage of Methodism.” (Really!) The conference condemned segregation. [“Methodist Bishops Ask for Equality”, Atlanta Daily World (November 3, 1955) Page 1].
Famed Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones told a North Carolina audience in early 1956 that the South must acquiesce to integration. He insisted, “We can take it grudgingly or gracefully but, in the end, we will give up to it.” [“Says South Segregates Self by Maintaining Race Discrimination”, Atlanta Daily World (January 11, 1956) Page 1]. A 1956 poll showed 56 percent of Methodists favoring the church’s desegregation, although only about 26 percent of southeastern Methodists favored desegregation. [“Majority of Methodists Are Found in Favor of Integration”, Chicago Daily Tribune (March 15, 1956) Page B1]. ( I find the low percentage quite amazing considering the Methodist Church’s claiming to be Christian.)
At the 1956 General Conference meeting in Minneapolis, the bishop’s episcopal address declared: “The adjustment of race relations toward a more Christian brotherhood is an overshadowing concern of American Church life. The desire for better race relations is prevalent. The principal is no longer debatable.” (In 1956 was that a true statement?) They urged a study committee to examine the segregated jurisdictional system. [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1956) Page 221]. To me, this would have been an easy problem to solve…segregation would no longer be acceptable in the Methodist Church…end of discussion. But could it be that church leadership in those days, just as today, are afraid of offending someone?
Before I close this week I want to make it clear that I place much faith in the Christian church system. I pray for the pastors/ministers and congregations everyday that they will be granted fortitude by God to not fear offending anyone with the truth of God. I pray that they will speak and live the truth. My writing is focused on the Methodist Church, not because it is the only church with failings, but because it was a Methodist pastor who told me politics did not belong in the church. Wasn’t church history taught in seminary? I wish I could say that church segregation was coming to an end by the late 1950’s but that is not to be. Next week we will continue our journey to the restoration of sanity to the church.
– Bob Munsey
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.” Martin Luther King