Two giants of the civil rights movement passed away on July 18—Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis. I did not know about Vivian’s work in the civil rights movement as well as I did Lewis’.
When I became the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard, I determined to improve our relationship with African American Baptists in Texas, as well as Hispanic, Latino, Tejano and the many international ministers and ministries among Baptists in Texas.
I quickly learned any improvement in these relationships meant there was work to be done directly related to the Standard’s past.
As a result, after learning the news of Lewis’ death, I wondered what news about Selma the Standard carried in March 1965.
A month of marches
On March 7, 1965, 25-year-old John Lewis led about 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma toward Montgomery, Ala.
Alabama state troopers were waiting for the marchers on the other side of the bridge. One of those troopers cracked Lewis’ skull with a nightstick. What became known as “Bloody Sunday” was supposed to be a peaceful march toward gaining voting rights for African Americans.
Not to be deterred, the marchers tried again on March 9 and finally were able to march the 54 miles to Montgomery from March 21-25.
Editorials in March 1965
E.S. James was the editor of the Standard in 1965. The Standard had considerable influence during his time as editor. In February 1963, James met with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office.
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According to Editor Presnall Wood in the Centennial Edition of the Standard published July 13, 1988, James opposed Kennedy’s presidency over concerns a Catholic president could endanger religious liberty and the separation of church and state, two core Baptist principles. Lingering concerns about Catholics appeared in various places in the Standard during March 1965.
James’ editorial in the March 3, 1965 issue of the Standard called readers to contact their state representatives to voice their opposition to alcohol being sold by the drink in Texas. His March 10 editorial exhorted readers to resist the legalization of gambling in Texas. He celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program on March 17.
His March 24 editorial was titled “Christian Concern in the Racial Turmoil.” James chastised American Christians for not opposing slavery from the very beginning. He suggested whites from the North going to the South to march with “colored people” was “not always good judgment.”
The better way, he wrote, to “show our concern over the Negro’s plight” is for the individual to root out prejudice in his or her own heart.
“The man who can’t find it possible to want the same citizenship privileges for everybody he claims for himself has just not prayed enough,” he wrote. He also stated “those who despise any human being” should have “no place” in the fellowship of churches.
But should churches be integrated? In the next paragraph, James made it known he felt it better for whites and Blacks to have their own churches. He then went on to write why he had “no desire to belong to a Negro Baptist Church:” “One reason is that [I like] to get out of the Sunday morning service before 1:00 p.m.”
Then James wrote: “If the people of God ever intend to show concern for the illiterate, uncultured, and downtrodden black masses, it is time to do it. Among the Negroes are rapists, murderers, and hoodlums of all kinds; but there are many white men in the same categories. It can be said for the Negro of the South that up until now he has seldom resorted to violence in pressing his claims for civil rights. This is probably due to the fact that he respects the leadership of his educated minister who has advocated passive resistance. The white people of the South ought to be thankful for those ministers against whom so many false accusations have been made by those who are blinded by prejudice and ill-will. Had it not been for them the docile marches in the South might have become violent race riots like those in other areas. Had not the Negro ministers taken the reins in the civil rights demonstrations, it is possible that half of Dixie might be engulfed in an uncontrollable conflagration at this hour.”
Lewis was one of those unnamed “educated minister[s].”
James concluded this editorial with: “The church member who is really concerned cannot be silent so long as those rights [of American citizens] are denied one law-abiding person, be he white, black, or a combination of colors.”
His editorial in the March 31 issue was on the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
Standard news and opinion during March 1965
In the March 10 issue, volunteers were sought to help rebuild “Negro church buildings” destroyed by fire in Mississippi.
The March 17 issue carried an op-ed on moderate Baptists and integration; a short report on Billy Graham calling church segregation sin; and a blurb about SBC Christian Life Commission officers sending Alabama Gov. Wallace telegrams “concerning racial tension in Selma over Negro voting rights,” without stating the content of the telegrams.
There also was a short report about Alabama Baptist leaders seeking calm in “racially-tense” Selma and a sentence about Protestants, Catholics and Jews answering racial prejudice with “a common biblical faith.”
Toward the end of a full article in the March 24 issue titled “Participants study race issue, political matters,” the author stated that “the race issue was probably the most oft repeated topic” during the eighth annual Christian Life Workshop at First Baptist Church in Austin. Even so, the topics of the article were gambling, alcohol and engaging in political affairs.
An article on the adjoining page reported on “4,000 clergymen from all parts of the nation” going to Washington, D.C., responding to a call from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after “the March 7 forceful rout of civil rights demonstrators by law enforcement officers at Selma.”
Included in these issues of the Standard are articles about “Latin-American” ministry and the Mexican Baptist Bible Institute (now Baptist University of the Américas).
There are no articles about African American ministries, churches or schools.
The record of our words
The Standard did not ignore Selma and civil rights efforts, but our publication focused on a different set of topics during March 1965, the issues I researched for this editorial. I don’t know what will be found elsewhere.
I don’t know why E.S. James wrote what he wrote or published what he published. All I have are the words on the page, the silences and some understanding of the world in which he lived. Some things are different now.
Those of us who put our words out into the public—which, thanks to social media, is many millions more of us than it used to be—understand we will be held accountable for those words. We will be held accountable by people who don’t know us, many of whom will judge our words many years after we are gone. Despite what isn’t known, we remain accountable for what we say and don’t say. Just as I did for this editorial, someone someday will examine my words and my silences. I, too, will be held accountable.
What wasn’t published in March 1965 is that Rev. John Lewis, an ordained Baptist minister, suffered a cracked skull from being beaten by an Alabama state trooper on March 7, 1965, during a peaceful march from Selma, Ala.
Lewis later rose to prominence in the U.S. House of Representatives as a representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, serving from 1986 to 2020.
Lewis and Vivian are giants of the civil rights movement because they faced danger head-on when danger was no small thing. Despite the insults, the arrests, the beatings and the very real threat of death, they didn’t stop. They kept on from the 1950s and ’60s right up to 2020, fighting a battle longer than any their country ever has fought.
In “Who Is a Prophet,” the op-ed concluding the March 10, 1965, issue of the Standard, Carl Clark, a professor of pastoral ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote about prophets and injustice: “Today’s prophet needs to point out … the do-nothing do-gooders who are always talking about what should be done, and the unchristian conflict over struggle for power within the fellowship.”
“[T]he true prophet pronounces judgment on people’s behavior but always has a loving concern for people themselves,” Clark wrote. “His purpose is never to exclude people or condemn them. His purpose is to renew them and redeem them” in keeping with “Christ and His redemptive love.”
Lewis and Vivian, giants of the civil rights movement, were true prophets.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.
NOTE: The purpose of this editorial is to cite the Baptist Standard’s historical record on race. A follow-up editorial will comment on the Standard’s current position in relation to that record.