Moving Forward in Truth: Truth Uncovered

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate…Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” 
– Revelation 3:15-16

An Old Story: Truth, excited that she’d discovered a way to help people live life and live it to the fullest, hurried out into the streets to tell everyone the good news. But as she approached people trying to tell them the truth, they would scream and run away. Some would cover their faces or cross to the other side of the street. Others would just ignore her altogether. Truth, naked and cold, was rejected by everyone in the village. Her nakedness had frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and sobbing. “I don’t understand,” blurted out Truth. “I have the good news they need. Why won’t they listen to me?”

Parable responded, “Look at yourself! You’re as naked as a jaybird. You have no clothes on and your blunt nakedness is scaring people away. You will need to wear a covering for people to welcome you into their homes and their lives.”

As I was thinking about how the Church has responded to matters of race, and perhaps other social issues, as well, this story came to mind. Truth, in its raw form, in its nakedness, has often been hard to digest, even for the churched. It has often required a covering to make it more palatable or digestible, whether it was tailored for us or by us for our individual use. And almost as if selecting clothing for our wardrobes, seeking the best fit and design, we have often adjusted the truth for a better fit or to make it better suit our tastes.

This was certainly the case during the Civil Rights Movement as the government began taking formal action to advance desegregation. The Civil Rights movement, much of which took place in the1950s and 1960s, was an organized effort by Black American to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law. During this time, the legality of many of the most racist practices and structures in American society were challenged, yet the legacy of racial inequality has persisted. As current events have revealed, racial disparities and injustices still hold fast and true in many aspects of life.

Individuals, organizations, businesses, and churches alike were being required to take actions they were uncomfortable with and certainly unaccustomed to that would lead to better and fuller lives for a greater number of people, right? One might have thought that the Church, made up of followers of Christ, would be at the forefront of the movement or, at the least, would not be among the last to board the train. Right? Throughout the Movement, however, the practices of the Church, or should I say, church folk, too often reflected the practices of the world, instead of the other way around. Instead of modeling Christ to the world, it appeared in some cases to be following in the world’s footsteps.

While researching materials on the Episcopal Church and Civil Rights, specifically, as it related Texas, I found a Thesis written by Caroline Booth Pinkston on the integration of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin. In her Thesis, “The Gospel of Justice: Community, Faith, and the Integration of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School,” written to fulfill requirements for her Master of Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin, which she has given me permission to share from, Ms. Pinkston,  sheds light on how privileged whites navigated questions of integration, especially in Christian communities. She uses the integration of St. Andrews, where she both attended as a student and later served on staff, as the subject of her study on how the Church has used its position to respond to and circumvent desegregation, especially in schools. It is an illustration of how Acts created by the government do not always result in, or at least immediately in, the heart changes necessary to move people to the desired and corresponding actions.

One of the cornerstone events of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In this case, the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional and helped establish the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all. The ruling in this case gave African Americans the formal, if not practical right to study alongside their White peers in primary and secondary schools. The decision was so groundbreaking that Thurgood Marshall, who had been raised as an Episcopalian at St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore and who later became the first African American to serve as justice on the Supreme Court, was so confident that a deathblow had been dealt to the Jim Crow system that he predicted all forms of racial segregation would be eliminated by 1963, when the United States celebrated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, according to Gardiner Shattuck Jr. in Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights. But not so fast.

Even though by 1955, the Episcopal Church had officially taken a stance in support of the Brown v. Board decision, declaring that “unjust discrimination and segregation are contrary to the mind of Christ and the will of God, Episcopalians were far from unanimous in their opinions about desegregation, and the Church found itself again facing the question of whether it would  choose the political convenience of neutrality over the opportunity to take a leadership position on a moral issue.

Bishop John Hines, when he succeeded Bishop Clinton Quin in December 1955, made Civil Rights his hallmark.  Working tirelessly and courageously against the stubborn forces of segregation in Texas, he insisted that “what impelled the church to integrate lay not in adherence to court decisions, but in the demands of the Gospel.” He urged his diocese to move “resolutely toward complete acceptance within our Church family of all people who come in faith and hope,” and warned against the danger of “a neutralism which neither offends or heals!”

But as Ms. Pinkston would point out, “Sharp divisions also existed between church leadership and congregations: ‘those in the pews were often considerably more conservative and prejudiced than those who faced them from the altars,’ and as a result, clergy could face serious consequences for taking a political stand contrary to the leanings of their congregation;” i.e, the loss of revenue.

In 1952, St. Andrew’s in Austin was established as an Episcopal school not to be formally attached to any one of the parishes and was intended to serve as an Episcopal school for “all” of Austin. Its students were to receive instruction in the Christian religion according to the teachings of the Episcopal Church. Students attended regular chapel, and curriculum and instruction was said to reflect and strengthen Christian values. From the school’s inception, moreover, the majority of seats on the school board were reserved for clergymen from Austin’s Episcopal churches, to ensure that the school’s leadership remained grounded in the Episcopal faith. 

As would be expected, in the early 1960’s, the doors of Saint Andrew’s were not open to African-American families. Nor was St. James’ Episcopal Church, the only African-American congregation in Austin, represented on the school’s board, although there were representatives from each of the White parishes. Its promotional materials excluded children of color, but it was not necessary because the existing structures of segregation and the cost made it exclusionary. In other words, the law and the times were such that they could adhere to a position they were not formally and publicly required to take. Ms. Pinkston suggests it provided parents with a conscience-free way out of integration for without being called or perceived as racist. Those enjoying such privilege she refers to as “limousine liberals,” who cast themselves as being in favor of integration, but who were able to escape its inconveniences through flight to the suburbs or private institutions. Religious schools , at the time, were not legally obligated to desegregate, which resulted in ongoing debates around their moral responsibilities towards the issue of race.

When it comes to faith, or our declarations of faith, I have often said the time will come when we will be called upon to put into practice what we have proclaimed we believe. Without such the faith or belief that we have professed to have bears out to be no better than a “good idea at the time.” The time for St. Andrews, and to a greater extent for the Church beyond in this Diocese, came in August of 1960.

On that date, the chairman of the Board of Trustees at St. Andrews, received a letter from an African-American woman and a member of St. James’ Episcopal Church, requesting that her two sons be considered for admission to St. Andrew’s. In her letter, she stressed the academic excellence of her two sons, aged nine and eight, as well as the Christian values of her entire family (she noted that she and her husband were both regular attenders at St. James and that both boys were baptized and confirmed there), and the value she and her husband place on a religious education. “We are motivated,” she wrote, “solely by wanting the best academic and religious training for our children.” She closed the letter with a Christian appeal, hoping that as the Board members considered her request, they would “be guided by those Christian ideals that we as Christians profess.” Along with this letter was included s an appeal from James C. Billingsley, the then White priest in charge at St. James’ who attested to the outstanding character of all members of the requesting family, and reiterated that the application should not be seen as a “trumped-up ‘test case.’” The boys’ former parochial school closed, he explained and the family was simply seeking another Christian institution, preferably Episcopalian.

The St. Andrew’s Board voted – “after full and open discussion” – to deny admission to the two boys, and to “continue the operation of the school on a segregated basis.” After being reminded of the absence of a legal requirement to desegregate, the Board justified their actions by supposing if they accepted them, they might end up withdrawing and  they would have denied the opportunity to other deserving students.

The following year, in April of 1961, a small group of protestors gathered outside the front entrance of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. Reverend Louis Buck, priest-in-charge at St. James Episcopal Church, had planned the protest, accompanied by a few other Episcopalians and several young African-American students at the University of Texas. Since the initial application to admit the two Black males, St. Andrews had voted twice to remain segregated. The second of these votes had prompted the protest.

The April 26, 1961 “Texas Observer: reported:

School ” integration in Austin took a novel turn Thursday, featuring an inter – Episcopalian squabble over segregated St. Andrew’s School. Rev. Louis Buck, vicar of predominantly Negro St. James church, -and Jack Woodward, an Episcopal layman, staged a picketing demonstration at the school.

Buck and Woodward, accompanied by several young Negro women, manned pickets reading, “This is a protest of the segregation action of the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School board—Do not support segregation.” and “The segregation policy of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is unfair to Negro Episcopalians.”

When confronted by the School Board Chairman, Buck responded that “all God’s children have equal rights before him,” and Byram said, tilting his head toward the Negro students, “I see you brought some of yours with you.”

As one of the last schools, public or private to comply with the mandate of the Austin Public School System, it would be another three years before St. Andrews would vote to integrate and then only after the rectors of St. David’s and All Saints, the other founding parishes of the school, petitioned the Board to “follow the integration policies of the Austin Public School System effective this September 1963.” St. Andrew’s would either have to sever its ties with the Episcopal Church or fall in line. 

The vote was cast by secret ballot for fear by those voting of being associated with a pro-segregation vote and won only by a four-vote margin. They also voted not to officially notify parents of the decision for fear that families would leave the school in potentially large numbers.

One day I had the thought: It’s like God said, “I’ll make them all the same; I’ll just make them in different colors and not tell them.” The only way we could ever possibly know of our likeness is if we were willing to talk to one another and find out. Perhaps, the hardest part is getting together, sitting down and talking and listening to each other to find out these things. In this story of St. Andrews, we are reminded again that while legislation is necessary to bring about change, a change of heart cannot be legislated. That is perhaps an issue we are still coming to more fully realize. As Bishop Hines said, we as Christ-followers, are moved not as much by court decisions as we are by the demands of the Gospel. The question remains, but is certainly worth the continued pursuit of an answer, “How do we truly see people or change the way that we look at them? Perhaps, one story at a time.

The Texas Observer, April 26, 1961
Council Notes 98th, 108th
Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights by Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.
“The Gospel of Justice: Community, Faith, and the Integration of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School”
By Caroline Booth Pinkston, The University of Texas at Austin May 2014

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