Cover Story

Rising from the ashes of racism

It began with "I'm sorry": Born in slavery-and, sadly, partially supportive of it- the Southern Baptist Convention comes to terms with its past with a sincere act of contrition

Issue: "A new division, a new dream," Aug. 25, 2001

My grandfather, a Baptist preacher, often told me of how his life was forever changed as he sat in the living room of his home as a 16-year-old and watched Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on his family's black-and-white television. Like countless millions, from then to now, my grandfather was challenged, convicted, and changed as Dr. King framed a vision of an American future where the demons of racial prejudice and injustice were largely vanquished and deeply stigmatized in public policy and public opinion. Those flickering television images and the extraordinary words of that dream still stir the soul and inspire the spirit: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." As my grandfather grew up, he eventually realized that Dr. King's dream was moral, not secular, and envisions a world where discernment is based on character, not color. And he realized the dream wasn't about judgments not being made. Throughout the enormous conflicts over personal values and public policy that have raged at various times during the past century-perhaps most notably during the tumultuous Clinton years (1993-2000)-it seemed many forgot that Dr. King's call was a call to personal righteousness. But not everyone forgot, and that's how my own denomination came to be. The Continental Baptist Convention was forged by a merger of the Southern Baptist Convention with the evangelical elements of both the National Baptist Convention (in which Dr. King ministered) and the American Baptist Churches (formerly the Northern, then American Baptist Convention). This historic merger, based on theology and racial reconciliation, was finalized in 2045, on the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. My grandfather didn't live to see the merger, but he saw the first stirrings of conviction within his own church, and within his own heart. I remember him telling me, "What was Dr. King doing but appealing for our country to live out the truths I learned and sang about in my racially segregated Sunday school?" And we sang in unison, "Red and yellow, black and white-they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world." My grandfather told me how he'd been taught at home that racism was not only wrong; it was sin. It was against the teaching of Jesus to see or treat anyone as less than yourself for any reason-including race or ethnicity. Yet he attended racially segregated public schools, lived in a racially segregated neighborhood, and worshipped in a racially segregated congregation until he left Houston in 1965 to attend college in New Jersey. What Dr. King's "Dream" speech-and entire ministry-settled for my grandfather and for millions of other Americans was this: It is not enough to believe racism is wrong. We must challenge it, both institutionally and personally, whenever and wherever we see it. We are all familiar with the tremendous progress that was made in the first two decades of the civil-rights revolution in the mid-20th century. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s liberated those regions of the nation shackled with legalized de jure segregation. In the relatively brief period from the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that desegregated the nation's public schools to the end of the 1960s, we made enormous progress toward racial equality under the law. And yet for the rest of the 20th century progress slowed dramatically, and America remained at the dawn of this century a nation wracked by wrenching racial and ethnic divisions. In the 1990s, a national periodical, Time, ran a cover story asking whether desegregation had failed. In the same decade, the radically divergent reactions of black and white Americans to the "not guilty" verdict in the notorious O.J. Simpson trial showed that America remained as racially divided as ever. The presidential election of 2000 provided perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the nation's continuing racial divisions. President George W. Bush defeated former Vice President Al Gore by the narrowest of Electoral College margins, while actually losing the popular vote. President Bush, representing the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, managed to garner only 9 percent of African-American voters. Another, more troubling racial gap existed. The shame of America's churches was that in the year 2000 the Sunday morning worship hour remained the most segregated moment in American public life. We now know, with the benefit of historical perspective, that just before the turn of the century a great spiritual renewal began in our nation. For the first few years it went unnoticed by the nation's media and popular culture, but it soon grew and began to affect all kinds of issues in American life, including race. Christians of all ethnicities began to understand in new ways that the shame of a racially divided church compromised the gospel witness. They saw that people of faith must lead the nation to move beyond legislative and judicial remedies and apply spiritual balm to the racial wounds afflicting the American soul. In doing so, they were following the prophetic call from one of Dr. King's sermons delivered in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Chapel in Louisville in April 1961, a little more than two years before his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. Dr. King, then a newly graduated 32-year-old Ph.D., spoke to the seminary students of the winds of change and of the church's opportunity and responsibility on the frontiers of racial tension. Dr. King proclaimed in the resonant tones that would become so familiar to generations of Americans: "We are broken loose from the Egypt of slavery; we have moved through the wilderness of segregation; we stand on the border of the Promised Land of integration." Dr. King asserted that racism was at its foundation a moral issue and had to be confronted as such by the churches and people of faith. He said people must have "sense enough to resist physical force with soul force, to resist hatred with love, and to do so nonviolently." One way that came about was through new relationships forged by the implementation of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative programs. These enabled people of faith to reach across racial boundaries in ways that changed the religious landscape and social fabric of the nation in critically significant ways. And friendships formed, based on good will and good deeds, which soon overshadowed the divisive debates over affirmative action and reparations for slavery. Hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of American Christians of all ethnicities came to understand and trust each other in new ways as they established personal relationships with each other as they worked to heal the serious social issues exacerbated and inflamed by racial tension and mistrust. Shoulder-to-shoulder and heart-to-heart, as colleagues and partners, they fed the hungry, housed the homeless, nurtured the fatherless, educated the illiterate, comforted the abused, and evangelized the unchurched. As they ministered together to bind up their neighbors' and their nation's wounds, they were themselves spiritually fused together. As true racial reconciliation was experienced at the personal, congregational, and neighborhood levels across the nation, two events came to symbolize and illustrate what could be accomplished. The first was the movement to establish an American Slavery Holocaust Museum in our nation's capital memorializing the millions victimized by the American "Holocaust." Denominations born in the antebellum South-like the then-Southern Baptist Convention-joined with the National Association of Evangelicals, the historic black denominations, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and others to raise the funds to build that magnificent museum, inspired by, and modeled on, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which memorializes the Jewish victims of the European Holocaust. The museum now stands majestically on the shores of the Potomac, in sight of the nation's Capitol. I do not believe anyone can experience in person the museum's centerpiece, the graphic, life-size reproduction of the hold of a slave ship, including wax replicas of slaves packed tortuously and lethally close together, and not be both deeply moved and forever changed. As you know, the Slavery Holocaust Memorial was dedicated July 4, 2017, with the first African-American president, a Republican, presiding. Since that day, it has remained the capital's top tourist destination. The second event was the creation of the religious denomination I am privileged to serve as president, the Continental Baptist Convention. Born in slavery-and at least partially in support of slavery-the Southern Baptist Convention grew, even in the midst of the Babylonian Captivity of segregation, to be the largest Protestant denomination in America. In the wake of the civil-rights revolution, the once-segregated denomination gradually became more ethnically diverse (17 percent non-Anglo membership by 2000 and 20 percent by 2010). The pace of multiethnic integration within the Southern Baptist Convention accelerated rapidly after the extraordinary resolution on racial reconciliation was passed overwhelmingly-98 percent voting in favor-during the Convention's 150th anniversary in 1995. My grandfather, then serving as head of the Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was one of the chief architects of this resolution. He told me that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became apparent, as one African-American pastor put it, that white Christians "just don't know how badly you have hurt us." Beginning in the 1940s, the Convention had passed more than 30 resolutions condemning racism and bigotry. This one was different. It went on to "apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism" and to ask for "forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters." This acceptance of culpability, coupled with the request for forgiveness, lanced the boil of racism in Southern Baptist life and soon led to extraordinary progress. This transformation culminated in the transition into the new Continental Baptist Convention in 2045. And now, our Convention is as racially and ethnically diverse as the nation, with an approximately 50 percent Anglo membership-which is as it should be. History teaches us that what should be seldom is, without courage and leadership. As an American descendant of both slaveholders and abolitionists, as a Christian whose ancestors served in a denomination born in slavery, I say, "Thank you, Dr. King. You have your country's profound admiration, affection, and abiding gratitude for dreaming the dream, living the vision and calling us to live out our ideals. We have 'been to the mountaintop' and we have 'seen the promised land.'"

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