This morning about 120 souls gathered for a breakfast here in observation of the fiftieth anniversary of The Minister’s Manifesto. It was a powerful moment in the relation of Christian leaders to the movement for civil rights in Atlanta and throughout the South, or as they called it “our beloved Southland’. Ralph McGill, member of All Saints’ and famed editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution challenged the white clergy to speak about the racial issues that were tearing apart the city too busy to hate. He told them: “If you say something I will print it.” Eight clergy responded including Milton Wood, rector of this parish. They drafted a ‘manifesto’ subsequently signed by eighty clergy, including Frank Ross, then an assistant here, and a number of other Episcopalians. It was published on Sunday November 3, 1957 on the front page of the paper. A year later it was revised and signed by 315 clergy from throughout the city.
Much of the manifesto makes rather tame reading today. The ministers spoke on their own behalf rather than in the names of their congregations. They urge that if people of conscience dislike the Supreme Court decision of 1954 which began the desegregation of the public schools, they should work within the law and the constitution. These ministers find the word ‘integration’ unfortunate because many hear it as ‘amalgamation’. Whatever that meant, the ministers did not “feel that amalgamation is favored by right thinking members of either race.” But they also said some strong gospel truths. “Hatred and scorn for those of another race, or for those who hold a position different from our own, can never be justified…No policy which seeks to keep any man from developing fully every capacity of body, mind and spirit can be justified in light of Scripture.” They admit their own failings and dedicate themselves to prayer.
We were blessed to have Tom Key at the celebration. Tom read from the manuscript for a play about this that is being developed for the Theatrical Outfit of which he is the artistic director. In that scene he reminded us and made clear that the ministers who signed the manifesto were moving into a place of very public disagreement with many, often influential members of their congregations, some of whom would rather see schools close than have black and white children educated together. They acted from conviction. Somehow the grace and truth of the Gospel gave them courage to speak truth to power. By all accounts their action was critical in moving Atlanta and much of the South with it toward a manifestly more just society for all people.
Those who remember that time and remember that all was not light and sunshine even here at All Saints’. Some people left the church and either did not go anywhere because they could not find somewhere that suited them socially and where the minister could be considered ‘safe’, or they went to the congregations of those clergy who had declined to sign the manifesto. History has certainly shown the norms and taboos around race that seemed so important to so many to be harmful and degrading and wrong. We are all richer as a result of people convicted in light of the gospel that there had to be change in the ways white and black related to one another.
The end of our observation last Thursday included The Rev’d Gerald Durley, an oft jailed veteran of the early movement for civil rights and current Senior Pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church here in Atlanta. He asked whether there were not things around which Christians could speak with one voice today. He suggested the issues of Grady Hospital and the issues of our response to the environmental crisis. I would hope that we might continue to speak with one voice about issues of human freedom and dignity for all God’s children, but am not sure what it will take for Christians to be convicted and then speak and act with one voice. For everyone who signed that first manifesto, there were plenty who did not. I’m fairly certain that clergy who can unite to celebrate the voice of civil rights would have a hard time signing a manifesto today in support of, for example, gay marriage. It is worth remembering that history judges some stances to be opposed to the gospel of love and opposed to the insight and revelation of science and just plain wrong.
I know this:.those ministers including Milton Wood and Frank Ross were courageous with the courage of their convictions. And I know how costly those convictions can be when friends walk away resisting the winds of change, the wind that I associate with the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost.