The movie Selma reminds us that white clergy protested and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and other African Americans in the 1960s on behalf of Civil Rights. But it also reminds us—as Anthony Bradley recently observed—that many of those clergy were from the North and were Protestant mainliners, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and Roman Catholic. One has to wonder: where where the conservative evangelicals?
I recently posed the following questions to several historians who have studied segregation and religion in the Southern United States during the years of Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement.
Did white evangelicals in the South respond to the Civil Rights Movement in different ways from their counterparts in other parts of the United States? Is it fair to say that the majority not only refused to engage but actively opposed it? If so, what historical forces formed their particular responses and attitudes? How did evangelical theologies form or undermine their engagement?
J. Russell (Rusty) Hawkins (PhD, Rice University) is an associate professor of humanities and history at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is currently finishing a book manuscript titled Sacred Segregation: White Evangelicals and Civil Rights in South Carolina (Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming), and is the co-editor of Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2013). He has also begun researching a new project on the white flight of churches from urban America in the second half of the twentieth century.
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There are two historical narratives about white evangelicals’ role in the civil rights movement; neither is cause for praise.
1. Evangelical Apathetic Non-Involvement with the Civil Rights Movement
I can tell the first narrative succinctly using a set of documents I came across a few years ago while doing research in the archival papers of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Among boxes of financial statements and press clippings, I came upon a cache of letters that the NAE received in 1964 and 1965 from anxious white evangelicals across the country. These evangelicals were concerned that the NAE was offering support to the civil rights movement, thereby becoming indistinguishable from the (more liberal) National Council of Churches or the (more Catholic) National Catholic Welfare Agency. Those anxious evangelicals needn’t have worried. Contrary to false reports about the NAE throwing its weight behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the association had instead come to the conclusion that civil rights “is not the business of the church; so the NAE has strictly stayed out of this area.” The following March, when Martin Luther King Jr. called for ministers from around the country to descend on Selma, Alabama, to support black voting rights, the NAE again demurred, this time stating that the association “has a policy of not becoming involved in political or sociological affairs that do not affect the function of the church or those involved in the propagation of the gospel.”
In the narrative above, white evangelicals were simply a nonfactor in civil rights: although they would not support the meaning or the methods of the civil rights movement, they nonetheless would not actively oppose the movement’s ultimate goals. For many white evangelicals today, this history represents something of a best-case scenario. After all, it is no secret that the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals missed the boat when it came to the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Casting evangelical apathy toward civil rights as the result of naïve or misguided notions about the political nature of the movement, therefore, at least offers an explanation of how white evangelicals could have failed so miserably during the national drama of the civil rights years. This history also offers a shorter road to redemption. If evangelicals’ previous social justice shortcomings were merely the result of failing to see the overlap of the sacred and the secular, the only corrective needed going forward is a broader understanding of which issues the church must engage today.
2. Evangelical Active Opposition to the Civil Rights Movement: Hermeneutics of Segregation
But, there is a lesser known—or lesser discussed, anyway—history of evangelicals’ encounter with civil rights in the American South that must be told given the outsized influence southern evangelicalism has had on the broader American evangelical movement. Unfortunately, it is a much darker story with a more damning legacy. To state it plainly, the majority of southern white evangelicals actively opposed the civil rights movement in its various manifestations in the middle decades of the twentieth century because they saw it as a violation of God’s design for racial segregation.
In researching evangelicals in South Carolina I discovered that these conservative white Christians utilized a biblical hermeneutic of segregation to oppose everything related to racial integration from the 1954 Brown decision to the bussing of public school children in the early 1970s. In their reading of Scripture, God was the author of segregation and therefore demanded evangelical resistance to integration at every turn.
In the public sphere this opposition meant that many evangelicals assisted in organizing Citizens Councils to thwart civil rights initiatives while petitioning their political leaders to stand firm in their segregationist convictions with the assurance that “we in the South will not mix because it is not God’s plan.”
Intramural opposition to racial integration in evangelical circles was even more vociferous. Throughout South Carolina, ministers who suggested integrating their churches were dismissed from their pulpits and when the state’s Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian colleges finally desegregated in the mid-1960s, white evangelicals withheld both their financial support and their children from the institutions. As late as 1969 South Carolina leaders still received letters from constituents reminding them that it was “against [our] religion to mix. It’s in the Bible that you’re not supposed to mix races.” In their public advocacy of God’s desire for segregation, their maintenance of segregated churches, and their fleeing of desegregated public schools, southern evangelicals from the 1950s through the early 1970s demonstrated that the hermeneutic of segregation exerted a powerful force over their thought and actions.
As a growing number of latter-day southern white evangelicals begin pursuing racial justice, recognition that a substantial percentage of their forebears opposed the civil rights movement on religious grounds becomes ever more imperative. A hermeneutic of segregation helped produce today’s society. Achieving racial justice, then, will require evangelicals to grapple with this historical truth and counteract its historical residue. If a hermeneutic of segregation justified white flight, its historical residue makes it possible to view evidence of deeply entrenched residential segregation with an untroubled conscience. If a hermeneutic of segregation justified a retreat to segregated private schools, its historical residue has allowed the resegregation of public schools to proceed unabated. And if a hermeneutic of segregation justified maintaining segregated sanctuaries, its historical residue is profoundly felt in surveys reporting that, while 11:00 Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour of the week, most white Christians are just fine with that.
 Clyde W. Taylor to W.R. Kliewer, March 23, 1965, National Association of Evangelical Papers, Box 52, Folder “Civil Rights 1965.”
 “Memo for Dr. Taylor,” March 12, 1965, National Association of Evangelicals Papers, Box 52, Folder “Civil Rights 1965.”
 Fred Hulon to Strom Thurmond, February 12, 1958, Strom Thurmond Papers, Subject Correspondence Series 1958, Box 24, Folder “Segregation I.”
 Betty Watson to Strom Thurmond, October 4, 1969, Strom Thurmond Papers, Subject Correspondence Series 1969, Box 4, Folder “Civil Rights VII.”
Editors’ note: The 2015 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership Summit, sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26 and 27, 2015. To learn more go here. Save 20 percent when you use the code TGC20.