Marking the 60th anniversary of Brown decision

May 19, 2014

Commentary by the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell -

I was 20 and a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black university, on May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.

I had grown up moving from city to city with my Methodist-preacher father, my mother and my three sisters. Each time, I attended the racially segregated schools in those cities. From first grade in Winston-Salem, N.C., to high school in Texas to the completion of my college career in Greensboro, N.C., I never sat in a classroom with students who were not black.

But when I learned of the Supreme Court decision, I made the decision to apply to Duke Divinity School to prepare for Methodist ministry in the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction. I naively thought that I might find welcome even though I had experienced racial segregation in some churches and at Lake Junaluska as one of the few black members of the North Carolina Methodist Student Movement.

Duke responded to my quest for admission with a letter that I did not keep. But I recall it said something like this: “We regret that our trustees have not changed the racial segregation policies of the divinity school. Thus, we must reject your application for admission. We hope you will find a seminary to meet your needs.”

That seminary was Boston University School of Theology, from which I graduated in 1958, three years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his Ph.D. there. It was at BU at the age of 21 that I sat for the first time in a classroom with students who were not black. It was not until 1961 that Duke University’s board of trustees voted to desegregate its graduate and professional schools. Both Duke and BU are United Methodist today.

I hope The United Methodist Church and the United States might view the 60th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education as a fresh opportunity to continue and deepen our prayerful reflection, discussion and action on matters of race — particularly the long racial journey that blacks and whites have taken separately and together.

My granddaughter’s question

I have a personal reason for this hope. That reason is my granddaughter, Ashley. She is 9, and I am 80. She calls my wife “Nana” and me, “Papa Cane,” (because of the cane I use).

In 2005, the year she was born, I self-published a book, “What Mean These Stones?” My title was drawn from those words in the Book of Joshua: “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground’”(Joshua 4:19-24).

Later as gently as I could, I have shared with our granddaughter portions of my racial journey. I have shared with her stories and pictures of my presence at the March on Washington, participating in “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” the Selma to Montgomery March, and a Martin Luther King-led March in Boston.

As she heard the stories and saw the pictures, my granddaughter asks questions. She wonders why, after the civil rights movement and changes made in the racial practices of the  church and the United States, “do we still have racial problems?”

Working toward true integration

My responses to her question shape my suggestions for The United Methodist Church and the nation:

1. Deepen our understandings of why in the United States, with all of the genius of our human-equality based founding documents, it was necessary for the Supreme Court to issue a ruling declaring that racial segregation in public schools was invalid and unconstitutional. We seem to have collective amnesia about the reasons for that decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, public accommodation and other laws. It is in remembering the racial segregation that made necessary these actions, that explains to both young and old, why they were needed and why they are still needed.

2. The election and presidency of Barack Obama and the residency of his family in the White House, we must admit, have unleashed in a few Americans their unresolved racial prejudices. We would do well to view the presidency of Barack Obama as not ushering in a post-racial/racist era, but instead it giving us fresh opportunities as a nation and a church to explore, assess and then transform the attitudes that provoke racial insensitivity and racism. 

3. The journey to racial understanding and action is not a journey limited to any one
racial group. Although privilege and power may belong to some because of who they are racially, racial prejudice has an “equal opportunity” aspect to it that must be recognized. Anti-whiteness or anti-any group because of their race, ethnicity or religion is psychologically sick, democratically untenable and theologically unjustified.

4. Years ago, I first heard this description of the differences between racial attitudes in the south and the north: "In the South, whites don’t care how close blacks get to them, but they don’t want them to get too big. In the North, whites don’t care how big blacks get, but they don’t want them too close.” Although this rather crude analysis may have expressed some truth in the past, we must not allow old analysis or assumptions to shape the future. Because to do so is to dismiss the progress that we all must acknowledge has been made on matters of race.

5. The “stones” that have made possible the journey to “dry ground” as a church and a nation, must not be viewed as the actions of one political party or mindset. It takes a left and right wing to fly an airplane. The same must be true politically, if we are to accomplish authentic racial equality and justice.

In 1955, the Supreme Court revisited the issue of racial discrimination in public schools and urged that the principles of the Brown ruling be carried out “with all deliberate speed.” It represented a recognition of the challenges that moving from racial segregation to racial integration would pose.

My hope is that United Methodists observe this 60th anniversary by beginning to discuss and act on racial justice as never before.

My granddaughter Ashley will be 19 and I will be 90 when the 70th anniversary of the decision arrives. May racial bias and discrimination have faded so much by then that most persons will wonder: Why did it take us so long? May The United Methodist Church be a leader in this effort.

*Caldwell, now retired, was one of the founders of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and its second national chairperson following the Rev. Jim Lawson. He was appointed the first African-American district superintendent in the New England Annual (regional) Conference in 1968 when he was 34. During his ministry, he has served as senior pastor of five predominantly black membership churches, and four predominantly white membership churches.