By Aaron D. Weaver
I don’t remember many details from my visit in 2001 to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I had just finished my first year in college at the University of Georgia. I remember a March on Washington exhibit and purchasing a cool museum t-shirt. What memory did stick with me was standing outside the walls of the museum, viewing the second-floor motel balcony where Dr. King was killed in the early evening of April 4, 1968.
It was an eerie feeling to be at the spot of a murder — the murder of a man I had read about in biography after biography since I had graduated from Berenstain Bears books. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of that moment. Reflecting back, I know the experience piqued my budding-historian interest in civil rights and the church.
Fifty years have passed since Dr. King’s assassination on that balcony in Memphis. Americans of all races and creeds are commemorating the anniversary this week with events and writings to remember the life and legacy of the Drum Major for Justice, a Black Baptist preacher who called on us all to do our part to create the beloved community.
With the 50th anniversary upon us, I’ve been wondering — as one quite fond of Baptist history — how members of my particular branch of the Baptist family tree responded to King’s assassination?
It turns out that story best starts seven years prior to the violence in Memphis. It starts on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. At Southern Seminary, King spoke in chapel and called on the 1,400 seminarians present, mostly young white men, to “be part of that creative minority” and end the moral evil of segregation. King’s visit stirred up racial angst across the denomination and led to the seminary’s trustees issuing an apology and distancing the SBC’s flagship school from King and the Civil Rights Movement.
From 1961 onward, Southern Baptist newspapers made few references to Dr. King. This silence was broken on April 4, 1968 as the heads of SBC agencies and seminaries issued statements sharing shock and dismay at news of King’s murder, calling for confession of sin and a commitment to love one another. “Southern Baptists seemed to respond more to [King’s] death than his life,” according to historian Andrew Manis who analyzed Southern Baptist responses to the assassination in an article in the Baptist History and Heritage journal in 1980.
The editors of state Baptist newspapers were especially vocal in expressing their grief and even guilt. An editorial in North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder was boldly titled “SBC Must Share Responsibility for Climate in South.” In Kentucky, Western Recorder editor C. R. Daley pointed out the irony that Southern Baptists as champions of freedom would reject King. “Could it be that Baptists provided the insights and dreams of Martin Luther King, only to reject him when he sought to bring them to reality,” Daley asked.
Yet, not all Baptist editors defended and praised King. Some claimed “polite sympathy” with the civil rights cause but opposed King’s nonviolent methods of civil disobedience and rejected the notion that Southern Baptists shared any corporate guilt for his murder. Other Baptist editors chose the safer path of silence and failed to offer reflections on King’s assassination. In Alabama, Hudson Baggett penned an editorial on the tragedy of murder and chose to publish voluminous anti-King letters from racist readers.
Responses from Southern Baptist pastors were mixed. Some preachers once mum on King and civil rights were shaken—resulting in statements of concern, eulogies and calls to action, according to Manis. The pastors of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church in Memphis felt real guilt and decided to march on City Hall in solidarity with the striking sanitation workers. “We need to decide as Southern Baptist ministers if we are going to take as stand,” said Bob Troutman of Prescott Memorial. “I just wanted to do something about it. I can’t hide any longer.”
Other pastors questioned whether King was a Christian, described his nonviolent methods as unbiblical and conveyed resentment for the praise King was receiving from top denominational officials. Some laity echoed these views, calling King a communist and couching their opinions in not-so-subtle racist sentiments. An Alabama layman asked why King did not take his ministry to Africa, “the home of his ancestors where they still live like savages.”
The assassination of King sparked social unrest with riots in dozens of major cities throughout the United States. Not surprisingly, the nation’s racial crisis would take center stage two months later at the June meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston. A month prior to the 1968 SBC meeting, a group of denominational leaders gathered in Nashville and drafted “A Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation.” The statement with 71 high-profile Southern Baptist endorsers was submitted to the SBC Executive Committee for consideration. The Executive Committee would revise the draft, significantly softening a section on the collective guilt of Southern Baptists for the racial crisis and injustices.
The final draft put forward offered a confession for “national shortcomings” and “allow[ing] cultural patterns to persist that have deprived millions of black Americans, and other racial groups as well, of equality of recognition and opportunity in the areas of education, employment, citizenship, housing and worship.” After much debate and several amendments, Southern Baptist messengers adopted the statement with super majority of 5,687 (73%) to 2,119 (27%).Newsweek touted the statement as a call for integration of all SBC churches — a 1968 study of the Home Mission Board found that only 510 of the SBC’s 34,000 churches had black members. The Christian Century called the statement the “strongest in the SBC’s history — an urgently worded appeal for efforts to correct the national crisis.” North Carolina editor Marse Grant heralded its passage as “a victory for moderation, tolerance and understanding” and a defeat for “provincialism, racism and prejudice.” Daley provocatively pronounced that Southern Baptists “were reborn” in Houston — a statement that surely troubled traditionalists who warned a creeping social gospel would soon smother the evangelistic fervor of the denomination.
Reaction among Southern Baptists was mixed, however, with conservative leaders emphasizing that the progressivism of the original draft had been significantly tempered in the final version. Conservatives could also take some comfort in the election of W.A. Criswell, pastor of the SBC’s largest congregation, First Baptist Church of Dallas, and nationally known for a widely circulated 1956 sermon where he declared that “segregation is natural” and “integrationists are dead from the neck up.”
The election of Criswell was “especially perplexing” for many journalists, according to Baptist historian John Finley. At his first press conference, Criswell was peppered with questions from reporters on his past segregationist stances. He was quizzed about how many African Americans were among his church’s 15,000 members. Just a week prior to his election, Criswell met with deacons of FBC Dallas to adopt a racially open membership policy hoping to avoid criticism. Although the adoption of the Crisis statement and Criswell’s election were incongruous to most observers, denominational insiders believed Criswell could be a stabilizing force among the conservative rank-and-file.
Most Southern Baptists largely ignored the Crisis statement, committed to their culture-shaping role of preserving the remaining elements of Jim Crow or content in their culture-captivity mode of sitting silently and allowing the perpetuation of racist sentiments and systems. However, for a minority of Southern Baptists, the Crisis statement was a significant turning point. James Dunn, the firebrand executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, later called 1968 a “watershed year for Baptists” that launched a “programmatic commitment to ecumenical political engagement that was not provincial…seeking social justice”
Forty-nine years after the adoption of the Crisis statement, I was privileged to help draft, endorse and solicit signatures for a new but similarly-themed Baptist statement titled “A Statement Concerning Racism in our Nation” condemning racism, white supremacy and bigotry and committing to confront “any form of racism we encounter — individual and systemic.”
This letter came in the aftermath of the racist violence and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists rallied and protested the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument leading to a neo-Nazi protester ramming his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more. More than 750 clergy and laity of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have signed this statement.
“This moment requires more from us as churches and as a nation,” the Racism statement says. “As Dr. King reminds us, the greatest tragedy is not the ‘strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’ Silence is not an option. Silence is not Christian. Silence is an affront to the Gospel. We will not be silent.”
When one visits the #MLK50 page on the National Museum of Civil Rights website, they are greeted with a quote from Dr. King that reads: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
The page then transitions and greets guests with the poignant question:
Where do we go from here?
We commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of his death knowing that this moment requires more of us as Christians, as churches and as a nation.
From here, we must go there.
There is reconciliation. There is redemption. There is the creation of the beloved community.
In his final speech on April 3, 1968 to Memphis’ striking sanitation workers, Dr. King offered a hopeful challenge that still rings true today:
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
Aaron D. Weaver serves as Communications Director for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He received his Ph.D. in Religion and Politics from Baylor University, where his research focused faith-based advocacy and environmental justice. Weaver is the author of several books including James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom and Different and Distinctive but Nevertheless Baptist: A History of Northminster Baptist Church (1967-2017).