Reconciliation at the Intersection of Scholarship and Practice
Christian Scholars Conference
Panel: Race and Reconciliation in Churches of Christ: Civil Rights Activism at
Harding College, 1949-1964
June 8, 2012
Joel E. Anderson, Chancellor
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
This presentation is more a reminiscence than a paper carefully recounting the seven-year period from 1957-1964 at the institution then named Harding College, now Harding University, in Searcy, Arkansas.Â I believe my presentation was invited because I was a senior at Harding the year the college desegregated, because I was one of four Harding students who visited the University of Mississippi the day James Meredith became the first African American to enroll there, because I have had a commitment to racial equality since my student days at Harding, and because my campus, UALR, recently established an Institute on Race and Ethnicityâ€”about which I will speak on a panel this afternoon.
As I appear before you here today, I will argue that race, now broadened with ethnic dimensions due to the coming of a very sizable Latino minority, remains the Arkansas polityâ€™s biggest problem. Indeed, the same could be said for other states, and arguably the country. It is worth recalling that race was the issue that was the occasion for a massive civil war, the only civil war in our nationâ€™s history.
I will focus on my four years as a Harding student, from the fall of 1960 through the spring of 1964.
For me as a student, my years at Harding were very good years. I came to Harding fresh from a small 200-acre farm two miles east of Swifton, in northeast Arkansas, where school, church, and 4-H were the only places of ongoing activities for youthâ€”after the farm work was done, which for me included picking cotton by hand every fall from around age six to age 17.
In my earliest years, there were several sources of always-present vague fears. Polio was a dreaded disease that every summer seized some youngster. Family and children alike feared it until Jonas Salk developed his vaccine. Communism appeared to be on a worldwide march, and we feared that a Soviet hydrogen bomb might very well explode near us in the future. The pulpits also warned about that other major international threat, the Roman Catholic Church. As for race relations, Jim Crow ruled supreme. It was a malignant environment of signs proclaiming â€śwhite onlyâ€ť and â€ścolored only.â€ť Everything was segregated by raceâ€”schools, churches, restaurants, swimming pools, hospitals, collegesâ€”everything.
The 1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock was talked about a good bit. It was awful the way the U.S. Supreme Court was getting out of hand. It was incredible that President Dwight Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. Thank goodness for Governor Orval Faubus (who would go on to six terms as governor)! That was the local rhetoric. At the same time, I think people around Swifton were not all that concerned about events in Little Rock 100 miles away, which back then seemed a long way off.
In September 1960 when I left for Harding College and Room 228 in Armstrong Hall, I was at one with most Church of Christ members across the South believing ours was the one true faith, strongly anti-communist, and oblivious of any concerns about the place of African Americans in American society. Harding was still segregated.
Despite my very traditional southern, white, Church of Christ perspective when I arrived at Harding College, in less than two years I changed to a significant degree.
Courageous civil rights activism in those days is well-documentedâ€”Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Little Rock, the Freedom Rides, Ole Miss, and others. Less obvious though, were the subtle, spiritual conversions of young people like me in the formative years of college life.
â€śWhy did you change? Please tell your story.â€ť That is a request that I have received from time to time, and I have never been comfortable answering it, in part because I sense people would like to hear something profound or dramatic when the story is pretty ordinary for young Christians of the time. I have told you part of the story already by describing my roots. But here is the change part. I am willing to tell my story here because it tells you something about Harding College.
Why did I change?
First there were Harding faculty, including Bible faculty, who to my surprise would sometimes say quietly in reference to Hardingâ€™s being racially segregated, â€śThis is not right.â€ť These were people I greatly admired and in some cases was close to. I mean people like Evan Ulrey, James Atteberry, Earl Wilcox, Bob Gilliam, Gene Rainey, and others. No one I knew had ever told me that Jim Crow was wrong. Where would I have heard that in a small segregated southern community?
Second there were my fellow students. A majority of Harding students were from outside Arkansas, coming, as I recall, from 46 states. Although there was no real student activism on race, there were a good number of students who came from integrated high schools and who unhesitatingly would ask, â€śWhatâ€™s the big deal?â€ť I even recall one who said his best friend in high school was black.
Third, and fundamental, was the set of Biblical teachings I had grown up with, which included do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love your neighbor as yourself; all of us are created in the image of God; in heaven there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female; Jesus died for all; God is no respecter of persons (i.e., does not play favorites); and so on.
I said the third point is fundamental. Then as now, faith was an effort to align my life with Truth. It was a first for me to hear devout Christians cast doubt on the morality of segregation at Harding, which doubt of course extended beyond the campus to the whole Jim Crow system.
The result of these influences at Harding was an awakening that opened the floodgates to the full force of numerous Biblical injunctions against treating other human beings as inferior. I had many childhood memories of condescending and discriminatory treatment of blacks to think about against the backdrop of Holy Scripture. I remember vividly to this day seeing white adults inside and outside my family smile so unctuously when showing a very small kindness to a black. While the kindness was real, there was at the same time something self-righteous and fraudulent about it. It was a version of the excessive smile an adult shows a child.
This awakening to the radical equality of well-known and unequivocal Biblical teachings was the linchpin of change. Like many other college students of the day, my provincial blinders were removed and I was forced to think differently and more deeply than I ever had before. I discovered that the Scriptures included powerful injunctions that obligated Christians to be offended by segregation and the pervasive unequal treatment of blacks. I suppose one might say that Biblical yeast in the human loaf finally broke out and leavened it.
There were some other influences for sure. I would cite one book in particular, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, which made a strong impact on me. The movie about Harper Leeâ€™s book, â€śTo Kill a Mockingbird,â€ť was powerful. Also one day I bought a book in the Harding Bookstore that I knew nothing about but that looked interesting, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, after which I quickly became a C. S. Lewis fan and remain one to this day. Lewis did not specifically address the problem of race in the United States, but he certainly broadened my religious perspective and sharpened my moral reasoning and ethical concerns.
To anticipate a question, I was an avid reader of the newsâ€”state, national, internationalâ€”in the Arkansas Gazette and Newsweek. I watched some TV, but not much. I do not have a sense that any of these affected my thinking on race while I was growing up. Television was not yet the pervasive presence it was to become in a few years. I believe it correct to say that no student in my dormitory at Harding had a TV in his room. You had to go to the lounge on the ground floor to see TV, and the first one there controlled the choice of channels.
In any event, by sometime in my sophomore year, I was making what would become a 180-degree turn on race, coming to see my religious community and my state and my nation as a long way from measuring up to the Biblical injunctions to love my neighbor as myself and to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. In Biblical terms, these injunctions applied to all humankind.
For the first time I was able to start seeing African Americans as people, like all the rest of us. The issue of race led to a re-thinking of my faith, and my faith led to a re-thinking of the issue of race.
I was pleased then, when Harding College integrated at the start of my senior year, 1963-64. Although I was student body president, there was no cause-effect relationship. It was a complete surprise to students and, I think, to faculty and staff alike. I recall very well that a few days before the 1963 fall semester began, the Student Association officers and cabinet were on campus early for planning activities. One day our sponsor, Dr. Bob Gilliam, told us that at 1 p.m. President George S. Benson was coming over to meet with us. In the meeting, Dr. Benson told us that Harding was going to integrate, admitting three young black menâ€”Lewis Brown, Walter Cunningham, David Johnsonâ€”who would live at home, not on campus. He said that the student body had been ready for this step for some time, but college supporters had not. Along with many students, I was thrilled.
A few days later at the first chapel service of the year, President Benson made the announcement about the three black students, and there was a standing ovation by the 1200 people present. That first year of integration at Harding, in my observation, went very smoothly. I rarely saw any of the three black students, and I do not remember any discussion that year about this historic institutional milestone. (For an account of events at Harding College during this period, see the article by Barclay Key, â€śOn the Periphery of the Civil Rights Movement: Race and Religion at Harding College, 1945-1969â€ť.)
On November 14, 1957, shortly after the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School on September 4, the Harding student association, submitted what was known as the â€śStatement of Attitudeâ€ť, signed by 946 students, faculty, staff, and one administrator.Â The document expressed the Harding student bodyâ€™s readiness to accept admission to Harding of black students.Â This was a remarkable development, almost certainly without any close precedent in the history of Church of Christ colleges.
After reading panelist Michael Brownâ€™s fascinating account of the student activism at Harding in 1957-58 (Brown, 2012) I am intrigued by the fact that during the time I was there, starting only three years after that year of activism, I do not believe I ever heard the Statement of Attitude mentioned. My freshman year would have been the senior year of students who were freshmen in 1957.
By 1963, the events of 1957 seemed to have dropped out of campus memory, those of us who knew President George S. Benson can be sure that he did not forget. I have a hunch that what happened in 1957, in spite of President Benson and to his displeasure, in 1963 gave him confidence that integration would go smoothly on the Harding campus.
Perhaps 1957-58 had been an exceptional year simply because the crisis in Little Rock, 50 miles away, was a powerful stimulus. Yet it was fortuitous that there was a student body president (Bill Floyd) and a faculty member (Robert Meyers) whose faith required them to do something in response to the nationâ€™s preeminent moral issue. And not only were they motivated to do something, they had the remarkable ability to read the campus political environment and develop a deft strategy that produced an almost universal expression by students, faculty, and staff that proclaimed their readiness for Harding to integrate.
Whatever the explanation for the exceptional student activism of 1957-58, it appears that the next two years reverted to the norm. Certainly that was the case by the beginning of the third year, which was my freshman year. During the following four years while I was an undergraduate, I do not recall any discussion of racial equality or civil rights at any public gathering, save occasional negative references to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement by politically conservative visiting speakers.
There was an exception of sorts to non-involvement in the civil rights movement on September 30, 1962. That Sunday was the bloodiest day of the integration crisis at the University of Mississippi. There was a monumental face-off between the Federal government and the government of Mississippi caused by the Federal plan to go forward with the enrollment of James Meredith as the first African American student in the history of Ole Miss. Before it was over, the Federal forces included 538 U.S. marshals and 22,000 combat troops; and the crowds of citizens also numbered in the thousands. Two people were killed–a French reporter and a local residentâ€”and 29 Federal marshals and hundreds of other people were wounded Sunday during the rioting in the town and on the Ole Miss campus.
Radio and television were full of news from Oxford, Mississippi, that Sunday afternoon and evening. Sometime after 10 p.m. that Sunday, four Harding students decided to get in a car and go to Ole Miss. In those years, Harding had classes on Saturday but not on Monday.
I am not sure what all our motives were that Sunday night. Part of it was to be present at a place where big history was definitely happening, and relatively nearby. As I noted above, it had been back in the previous year, my sophomore year, that I had had a substantial change of heart and mind on race, and now at the end of September in my junior year, I was certainly supportive of the integration of Ole Miss and of all that the Kennedy brothers were doing to accomplish it in spite of the resistance by the state. Our trip also had the character of â€śit was a thing to do that night.â€ť We certainly had no clear sense of the potential danger or of the profound uncertainty that existed on the ground in Oxford about what might happen the next day when James Meredith was going to register and actually attend classes.
The four of usâ€”Jimmy Arnold, Douglas Vaughn, Ronald Wiltse, and Iâ€”were all members of the Harding debate squad. I was a junior. The three of them were sophomores. We arrived in Oxford sometime before daylight. We found a small cafĂ© open and went in to have coffee and toast and ask for directions to the campus.
At daylight we started for campus in the direction we had been pointed. Also at daylight, the Federalized Mississippi National Guard started conducting a dragnet of the town. They rounded up everyone who was out, and the four of us were soon marching in a two-by-two column with our hands on our heads, surrounded by soldiers. By the time we reached the campus and found ourselves in front of the Lyceum, our columns totaled 31 men.
[Show picture on screen.]
Here is a picture photographer Charles Moore made while we stood in front of the Administration Building (Durham & Moore, 1991, p. 67). You will see that the soldiers were armed with rifles, some with bayonets, and a number of them wore gas masks because the previous day the Federal marshals had used tear gas to control the mob. That Monday morning there were hundreds of empty tear gas canisters on the ground, and there was still lingering tear gas in the air.
A similar picture by a different photographer appeared in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. A line under the picture explained: â€śThe Mississippi National Guard rounded up these 31 prisoners after battling them with tear gas for two hours this morning. The prisoners were throwing bricks and bottles at the troops when they were chased down off the campus and arrested.â€ť While that statement was probably accurate for some persons in our columns, it was not true of the four Harding students who had the honor of being the front four in the two columns.
I suspect my picture was seen by more people around the world that day than any day since. In December of that year, while Harding was closed for the Christmas break, my roommate watched one of those TV shows that recaps the high lights of the year. He said he was semi-dozing when he looked at the screen and there the four of us from Harding came marching toward him with our hands on our heads surrounded by armed soldiers!
We spent a good part of the morning in the basement of the Lyceum, the Administration Building, holed up with companions we would have preferred not to be with. Over the morning we were called out one at a time and interviewed in another room by FBI agents, who took our watches and billfolds and other personal effects and placed them in a large manila envelope. Eventually they completed the interviews. Then each of us was handcuffed to someone else and ushered out to military prisoner buses. I was handcuffed to the young man who on Sunday had commandeered a fire engine and drove it into the fracas. A U.S. marshal fired a tear gas shell into the fire truckâ€™s seat where it exploded. That fellow was hurting. His eyes were badly swollen and his face was red.
During the day we were worried. We were incommunicado. Almost nobody at Harding, perhaps only two or three, even knew we had left campus; and our families did not have a clue where we were. We were hearing a rumor that we were going to be taken to the Millington Naval Base near Memphis and jailed there.Â It was a warm day and there was no air conditioning on the bus. The tear gas was still so strong that we were compelled to sit with our eyes closed most of the time. Our fears were heightened from time to time when the bus driver would take his seat and start the bus. We had c rations for lunch.
There were, in retrospect, some humorous aspects during what I believe were about eight or nine hours sitting on the bus. We could hear a radio from somewhere. Every hour on the hour we would hear the news and would hear a request that Governor Ross Barnett had made to people from out of state which ended with, â€śI have said before and I say again, please go home!â€ť We were completely agreeable to the governorâ€™s request but unable to comply. Also, we repeatedly heard the popular song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, â€śIf I Had a Hammer.â€ť As we sat there in handcuffs, we could not help but think about what we might be able to do with a hammer.
Sometime around 7 or 8 p.m. our long day started coming to a merciful end when some official came on the bus and called out a number of names, including all four of ours. We raised our hands and an officer came and released us from our handcuffs. We were then given the big envelopes with our personal items that the FBI had taken. The fellow I was handcuffed to was not among the ones released. We had learned during the course of the day that after the riots and the wounds of Sunday, the Federal marshals were determined that they were not going to release anyone who had been involved in the violence.
After we were released we managed to get back to the car although I have no memory as to how we did it.
During our time on the Ole Miss campus we had not been able to see James Meredith, Chief U.S. Marshall James McShane, or any state officials. In fact, though we were literally caught up in an historical event, we witnessed almost none of it with our own eyes.
At the end of the day we certainly were not heroes. We had not stood up to or faced down a mob. We had not been beaten or shot at. Nor had we been jailed on a military base. We were immensely relieved to be free, and we were very tired as we made the trip back to Searcy, arriving well after midnight.
We were concerned that we might be kicked out of Harding or in some way disciplined. I think what really happened was that in a meeting President Benson convened a few days later to discuss what we had done, the dean of the college, our debate coach, and a couple of other senior faculty members who knew us well vouched for us although we did not know it at the time. In our concern to avoid expulsion, that night on the way back from Oxford we had actually developed a plan which it was my lot to carry out.
President George Benson was nationally known for his anti-communism and his staunch political conservatism. I was well-acquainted with Miss Marguerite Oâ€™Banion, Dr. Bensonâ€™s secretary, who was from my home town. I asked for a short meeting with Dr. Benson, which she scheduled. I told him briefly about the trip to Ole Miss on Monday and proposed that he schedule my three friends and me for an all-campus chapel program during which we would speak on what an awesome thing it was when the Federal government decided to descend upon and take control of a small American town. I donâ€™t think he quite knew what to think about that. The proposed program, however, was never scheduled; nor did anyone ever say anything to us in the way of admonishment or discipline.
I did learn some lessons that day. When overwhelming military force starts rolling into a community and rounding up people, it is awesome. I had never seen such a widespread imposition of order nor experienced such coercion myself, either before or since. The time of sitting handcuffed on the bus, anxious and uncertain what they were going to do with us, has helped me forever understand how dependent all of us are upon the moral grounding (or lack of it), the sense of justice (or lack of it), and the good judgment (or lack of it) of U. S. Marshals, FBI Agents, and other persons in positions of authority. Our fates were very much in the hands of other persons that day. All of us have been taught not to â€śborrow trouble,â€ť which my friends and I did that day; however, I am glad we did. There is satisfaction in knowing that I was present, even if I was totally irrelevant to the â€śhappeningâ€ť that day, at a significant moment in our nationâ€™s history.
Now from the vantage point of 2012 what can one say about Harding College and the Church of Christ and their responses to the racial equality movement of the mid-20th Century? And I acknowledge that we should be very hesitant to apply the values and perspectives of our day to an earlier day. Hindsight can be 20-20. However, the day we are talking about was my day. I was a young adult. All of my growing-up years were in the Jim Crow era. I was immersed in the culture. In terms of the church, I was an insiderâ€”third generation on my motherâ€™s side of the family and fourth generation on my fatherâ€™s side. I remain a member and today am a part of the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock. I knew the people back then and loved them and therefore can speak sympathetically. Nonethelessâ€¦
–The response of the Church of Christ was disappointing, no better than that of more or less all the white Protestant denominations in the South. Nonetheless, there have been individual bright lights in our ranks. Jimmy Allen, a prominent evangelist and Harding faculty member, showed backbone on the issue a half-century ago.
–I believe that the church, when true to its purposes, will be made up of people who are good citizens, but who collectively will most of the time be counter-culture in their effect. This includes the role of speaking truth about the universality of the Gospelâ€¦and of speaking truth to power both public and private.
–Our record has been much more one of drifting along on the lazy tide of the prevailing prejudices and practices of the day. The result is moral flabbiness and an inability to show moral disgust. Yet the students, faculty, and staff at Harding College in 1957-58 were notable exceptions. The folks at Harding during my four years there were not.
–Let us acknowledge the positives. Progress on race has indeed been substantial. The doors of our churches and colleges are open to persons of all racial and ethnic groups today. I was particularly impressed by the reconciliation initiative led by Dr. Royce Money, President of Abilene Christian University in 1999. This initiative was capped by Dr. Moneyâ€™s appearance at Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, an historically black institution, where he apologized for past discrimination in ACUâ€™s admission policies. But race remains a problem in the second decade of the 21st Century. We still do more drifting on the lazy tide of prevailing prejudices and practices of the day than we do in showing determination to get out of the prevailing tide by rowing hard toward the shore of racial reconciliation.
–Even though it was belated, we should also note as a positive that Harding College, in 1963, was the first private college in Arkansas to desegregate. But by and large the Church of Christ and our colleges were on the sidelines on racial justice issues, and our concrete steps to come to terms with the issue were, and to a considerable extent remain, belated.
Jim Crow is dead but his ghost still roams and haunts. One thing I can say with certainty is that race remains a very big problem. It can legitimately be said to be the biggest problem the Arkansas governor and legislature face every year because of the number of citizens who still suffer unequal treatment and because race complicates every other major state problem. Think about itâ€”education, poverty, prisons, health care, economic developmentâ€”those are the major challenges on the agendas of state governments all across the nation. Race-related issues intersect them all and make every one of them harder to solve. And nowadays another sizable minority groupâ€”Latino/Hispanicâ€”has been added to the mix.
I believe our churches and our colleges stayed too long on the sidelines and wereâ€”and areâ€”too reluctant to take action on race; and the same can be said for individual Christians. However, if I return to my own spiritual odyssey, my ongoing effort to discover and to align my life with Truth, I must remark that my own conversion on race might be characterized as a subtle case of dramatic change prompted by influences present, even if below the radar screen, at Harding College.
Overt revolutionary action led by Dr. King and others changed the nation. Thank Heaven for them! But for impact everyone does not have to organize or march or sit-in, as my own change story shows. It was not such action by people at Harding that changed me.
It was a case of whites changing whites.
Good people at Harding, respected scholars, with not very many words in most cases, opened my eyes to pervasive racial injustice, to evil behavior, to sin of brother against brother and sister against sister. They said segregation is not right. We are, all of us, they reminded me, made in the image of God. He loves us all, and we must love Him and love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus said these things because they are truth. Several good souls at Harding did not keep the truth to themselves. Nor should we, for truth sets us freeâ€”as it did me.
I was changed.
But it is not enough for any one of us simply to reconcile ourselves with Biblical truths about love for all humankind. Each of us must lead by example and help others open their hearts and their minds to these truths Jesus taught.
Like my mentors at Harding, I have sought to use my role as an educator to help others recognize and rebel, sometimes quietly, against the sinister, systemic racism that continues to plague our communities and our nation.
Fortunately the public university I lead has long had a genuine commitment to racial equality. We have founded the Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to keep the issue front and center for Little Rock and for Arkansas.
Colleges and universitiesâ€¦and churchesâ€¦have great opportunity for bringing many folks along toward racial reconciliationâ€”both youngsters from Swifton and whole cities and states. That is a powerful reality we should acknowledge and celebrate.
Brown, Michael D. (2012, June 6).Â Distinction Which God has not Made: Despite School Sentiment Hardingâ€™s Leader Said no to Integration, Arkansas Times, pp.14-19
Durham, Michael & Charles Moore. (1991). Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, Inc.
Key, Barclay. (2009). On the Periphery of the Civil Rights Movement: Race and Religion at Harding College, 1945-1969. Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 68(3), 283-311.