Christian Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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civil rights discussionFifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) hosted a two-day reflection on America’s struggle for social equality and the roles people of faith played in the Civil Rights Movement.

The events were held in partnership with the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS and consisted of a lecture on Tuesday, September 16 and a panel discussion on Wednesday.

The speakers touched on a variety of topics including the history of the struggle, the challenges America still faces in this area and how the church can get involved moving forward.

Gerald Smith delivered Tuesday’s lecture entitled “‘The Child of a Storm:’ The Civil Rights Act of 1964” at Wake Forest Baptist Church as part of the annual Drummond-Bush Lectureship. Smith is the Martin Luther King scholar-in-residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Smith earned his B.A, M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky all in history. He is the author, editor or co-editor of three books and has nearly forty other publications in historical journals and encyclopedias.

Smith posed the question, “How can a separation such as segregation exist in the Church?” He believes that the church should be the safest place to discuss race.

The following morning, Southeastern President, Daniel Akin, led a panel discussion in a special “Casual Conversation” in Binkley Chapel.

Akin was joined by Smith, as well as civil rights historians David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press in Nashville, Tennessee, and Brent Aucoin, associate professor of history at Southeastern.

The final panelist was Clarence Henderson, who participated in the 1960 sit-in at the whites-only Woolworth diner in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 2013, Henderson was appointed by the governor of North Carolina as the chairman of the Martin Luther King Commission.

February 2, 1960 was a significant day for Henderson, then only 19. “The day I walked into Woolworth was a defining moment, but the moment doesn’t define us; what we do in the moment does,” Henderson emphasized.

Henderson said that people responded by ignoring them or calling them names. “We put Jim Crow on trial to see if the Bill of Rights really meant what it said,” he explained.

“We sat down to stand up for freedom,” Henderson said. “I was not just sitting down for a particular group of people but for America as a whole”

Despite how far American laws have come since then, Smith thinks that society still has a ways to go.

“De facto segregation and segregation by custom are still issues we face even though legal segregation has ended,” Smith said.

“There are still those who judge by the color of skin over content of character,” Henderson explained. “Christians have to be the conscience of America.”

Smith spoke about the concept of a “collective memory.” He believes that this type of memory can be handed down through the generations. Even when one generation of people has not experienced something, the memory of their forefathers influences how it interprets and receives the world. “It could be anything,” he said. “Images are so important.”

Smith explained that this collective memory can contribute to a lack of trust between people. “We don’t trust each other because of pain from the past,” he added. “How do we overcome and move beyond that?”

Roach shared that in the past, white Southern Baptists were not pushing for integration. “This was not a positive action from the SBC,” he noted.

Akin agreed explaining that Southern Baptists were at best sitting on the sideline.

Addressing the role of the church moving forward, Roach expressed the importance of educating church pastors about preaching the full racial implications of the Gospel.

“The gospel solves the problem of alienation from God, but also solves the problem of alienation between people,” Roach said.

Aucoin called for Christians to take a holistic approach with the big picture in mind when addressing relationships. He encouraged Christians to be advocates for cultivating minorities in places of prominent leadership. “You as an individual can make a difference,” he emphasized.

To watch these messages online, please click here.

To view photos from the events, please click here.

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