Why Southern Baptists Say 'Amen' to Rosa Parks

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Can a Southern Baptist mourn the death of Rosa Parks? Some, such as the liberal Baptist Center for Ethics’ Bob Allen, say no, since the activism of the civil rights heroine is so at odds with the racist past of the conservative churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. And yet, it is only because of conservative evangelical conviction that the Bible belt came to understand that asking ladies to sit at the back of the bus because of the color of their skin isn’t just bad policy — it is sin.

In an article on the “Ethics Daily” website, Allen implies that recent statements by SBC leaders honoring Parks are hypocritical, tracing Southern Baptists’ slow embrace of the civil rights movement. Allen cites the exceptions, the activism of liberal Southern Baptists such as the late Henlee Barnette of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Foy Valentine, the longtime head of the Christian Life Commission.

Allen is right that when it comes to the racial issue Barnette and Valentine are heroes. Barnette especially was willing to march with Martin Luther King Jr., to teach African American students in the heyday of Jim Crow and to call prophetically for Southern Baptist churches to abandon the shame of segregation. What Baptist liberals often miss, however, is how the racially progressive wing of Baptist life was able to change hearts and minds on the race issue: through the rhetoric of orthodox evangelical revivalism.

How does one explain that despite the fact that Southern Baptists were situated geographically in the old Confederacy, the very heart of Jim Crow, the SBC never repudiated the civil rights movement? To the contrary, resolution after resolution passed the national body supporting legally sanctioned equal opportunity for African Americans. In 1965, for example, the SBC adopted a resolution commending the Civil Rights Act because “all men stand as equals at the foot of the cross regardless of color.” In 1968, the SBC adopted the “Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation” which specifically called for an end to segregation — not just in the abstract but in the areas of public services, education and employment.

Now, how did this happen among a people whose culture was entrenched in racial polarization? Historian David Chappell argues in his important book “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow” that the civil rights movement succeeded in the South because it spoke the language of Scripture, particularly to the equality of all persons as created in the image of God and redeemed through the blood of Christ. Liberal Southern Baptists may not have believed all the conservative tenets of revivalist theology, but they used the language of Zion to shame white churches for not really holding to what they preached from their pulpits.

How can you champion segregation, the prophets asked their segregation-supporting brethren, when you send your Lottie Moon money to evangelize Africa? How does Jim Crow line up with a common Adamic ancestry or, more bluntly, with John 3:16?

As Chappell demonstrates, some racial progressives may have believed the theology of Paul Tillich, but the teachings of Paul Tillich didn’t integrate the southern churches; the example of Billy Graham did. As evangelicals who believed in the blood atonement and the new birth challenged churches to live up to their own heartfelt beliefs, minds were changed. What was brought about was nothing less than repentance.

That’s why white supremacy failed. That’s why the SBC condemned its pro-slavery past publicly in 1995. That’s why African Americans are among the fastest-growing segment of new Southern Baptists. That’s why Southern Baptists recognize the racism of the vast number of dark-skinned infant body parts being emptied behind “clinics” in the United States of America. And that’s why Southern Baptists constantly remind themselves that the Bible stands above the culture, so “whosoever will” trumps “my people over all” every time.

It is quite ironic when groups that deny biblical inerrancy and penal substitutionary atonement express shock that evangelicals recognize Rosa Parks as a heroine. It’s not all that surprising. Rosa Parks didn’t keep her seat because she was a social revolutionary. She kept her seat because she understood what the Word of God has told us from the beginning — our God is not a respecter of persons. When we mourn the death of this great lady, we ought to remember: She changed minds by singing to us not just “We Shall Overcome” but also “Just as I Am.”

And that’s why conservative Southern Baptists can look back at a courageous lady in mid-century Montgomery and say “Amen.”

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.