Standing in the gap: The story of two southern pastors in 1968


Editor’s note: This story is adapted from the book “Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town

On the night of February 8, 1968, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith were killed by South Carolina highway patrolmen as they fled the scene of a protest in front of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The violence was the culmination of weeks of disruption over continued segregation in medical facilities and in a local bowling alley, including an attempt to integrate the bowling alley on the Tuesday before the shooting, which ended in a parking lot brawl between students and law enforcement officers. Communications between the college and the community reached a standstill. The National Guard rolled in. Officers loaded their weapons.

Changes for James Herbert Nelson

When the phone rang around 1:00 a.m. on February 9, 1968, James Herbert Nelson knew it could only be bad news. And it was. A family friend, a local funeral home director, had called to tell him what happened. Nelson had been on campus the evening before. He had talked to students and college officials. Everything seemed calm and quiet. Everything seemed okay. And now, this – it was almost unbelievable.

Nelson was pastor at St. Luke Presbyterian Church, Orangeburg’s historically black Presbyterian church. Originally from Sumter, South Carolina, Nelson was a long-time civil rights activist and had become actively involved with the student struggles at State College when he was called to work in Orangeburg. One part of his weekly duties was to meet with students of the Westminster Foundation, a student group supported by the Atlantic Presbytery.

He was a tall drink of water and pastoring ran through his veins – Nelson’s father was a minister as were three of his brothers. Clad in the uniform of civil rights movement pastors (dark suit and tie, white ironed dress shirt) and a fetching pair of horn-rimmed glasses, Nelson stood about a half-foot taller than anyone around him. He cut a striking presence whenever he walked into a room both visually and morally. George Dean, then the only black member of the South Carolina National Guard, remembers Nelson as someone who “stood in the gap.” Someone unafraid to act as well as speak.

Nelson began “speaking” as pastor of both Westminster and Congruity Churches in Clarendon and Sumter, South Carolina, before receiving the call to Orangeburg in 1961. His wife Johnalee was delighted to be moving back to her college town with their two children, James Herbert Jr. and Jemella, but Orangeburg had become a hotbed of protest. Black people in Orangeburg were fed up with Jim Crow and wanted action; there were frequent marches and sit-ins.

Now because of his position at an important black church, Nelson would be in the thick of this community activism from day one. And because he was working at State College as director of the Westminster Foundation, he would also understand the mood among college students.

Nelson was in the right place at the right time with a theology of hope and deliverance predicated on the actions of individuals and institutions. Change will come, he believed, but we can’t wait for it to come to us – we must act now.

Changes in the church

Nelson preached a social gospel and believed fundamentally that the church was supposed to be an example. And in order to be an example, the church had to seek social justice. He wrote on his résumé in the early 1960s: “The church is playing catch up with secular organizations; the church will certainly be in a bad state of affairs if she does not take longer strides and run a little faster.” Underscoring his belief in a socially active church was his understanding of Jesus as a man who desired social justice.

In a sermon to his Omega Psi Phi fraternity in 1955, he noted that central to Jesus’ message of social justice was the idea that we must all care for one another no matter who or where we are. “When the whole globe is a big neighborhood,” he notes, “no individual, group or institution can isolate itself from crime, disease and social blight.” We must all address social problems, he explained, by finding their roots.

The roots of the central social problem of his day – Jim Crow segregation – stretched deep into the ground of Orangeburg and of the U.S., and Nelson understood that pulling up those roots would take a lot of hard work. He prayed, he marched and he spoke out whenever possible.

He did something else, too. Something basic. Something obvious. He sought out the other Presbyterian minister in Orangeburg – the white Presbyterian minister, McLeod Frampton of First Presbyterian Church.

But Frampton was not a civil rights minister by any stretch of the imagination. He didn’t go to marches. He didn’t sit in at lunch counters. He even voted for Goldwater over Johnson. And he was admittedly nervous about the possibility of his church integrating on Sunday. How would congregants react? How would he react? What if he did the wrong thing?

First Presbyterian Church itself was no champion of radical change, either. In February of 1961 and October of 1964, the leadership of the church sent messages to their presbytery asking them to advocate for a resolution to dissolve connections with the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC). At the time, the NCCC was cooperating with efforts to advocate for Civil Rights in the South; the 1964 resolution noted that the NCCC was training people “for the purposes of invading the South and particularly Mississippi and thereby has interfered with their right to settle these problems locally in a peaceful manner.”

Changes in the community

But things were changing in Orangeburg and in Frampton’s church. On October 3, 1965, church member Dan Roberts, at a joint meeting of the church session and diaconate, advised everyone present that there had been an amendment to the Book of Order: “No one shall be excluded from participation in public worship in the Lord’s house on the grounds of race, color, or class.”

Church ushers were told to usher any black person who wished to worship into the sanctuary. No questions asked. Church leaders noted their approval of the amendment and the new plan of action in that meeting’s notes.

When the day came for them to execute this plan, things went off without a hitch. Some folks looked around. Looked at each other. Looked at Frampton. But nothing happened. The ushers escorted two black people to a pew. They sat down. The service started. Hymns were sung. Prayers were prayed. An offering was collected. A sermon was delivered. And the world shifted (ever so slightly) that Sunday morning.

But McLeod Frampton was no radical; he just believed that Jesus Christ taught that everyone was a part of the family of God, and they should be treated as such. Frampton was not naïve; he just had hope that things would change. He was not idealistic; he understood the reality that we’re all in the same boat, that we’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. Most of all, he understood that he was a sinner, too. This theological belief coupled with his self-deprecating nature won him many friends. Frampton had a noble mien coupled with a deep sonorous voice.

And just like Nelson, he was a presence when he walked into a room. He was a people person, but he was no radical. He wasn’t political by choice, but there he was in Orangeburg in a position of power and leadership after February 8, 1968. There he was – already involved and working to bridge the divide in his community’s most crucial moment. His friend Nelson was standing right beside him. Both men, standing in the gap.

Changes going forward

In the wake of the shootings, a “bi-racial human relations committee” was formed to address what happened and explore possible avenues for reconciliation. This was a demand of the college students. The committee, comprised of 20 whites and 20 blacks, elected Frampton chair and Nelson vice chair. Frampton was quoted in the New York Times saying, “We appeal to all our citizens of all races to put away hatred, animosity and racial strife in a solid attempt to find peaceful and permanent solutions to our problems.”

One of those problems, though, was the persistent structural racism represented by the committee itself which was appointed by the white mayor and the all-white city council. The appointments were met with suspicion by many African-Americans in the community. In fact, on February 13, 1968, only a few days after the committee had been formed, the NAACP lodged a complaint because “it did not approve of the Negroes named to the organization” and should have had some input in the groups’ formation. Ten days later, the NAACP gave its blessing to the committee.

Frampton was well known for his ability to defuse anger on both sides of an issue and get people to begin to relate to one another again. This was, perhaps, his moment to shine. At 60 years old, he had the experience and, perhaps, the wisdom. And Nelson had the credentials – he had been involved in the struggle from the beginning and carried with him the respect of many people, black and white. These two men were called upon to react in a moment of crisis.

There are few records of the group’s meetings, which lasted for a few years, but eventually ran out of steam; its agenda was picked up by later generations and some of its concerns remain unaddressed.

Changes noted

But some things had shifted since the massacre. Indeed, things had changed at both St. Luke and First Presbyterian, to a certain degree. On April 7, 1968, Frampton asked First Presbyterian’s leadership if he could preach at Nelson’s church. All present at the meeting were in favor – except for one.

Today, the two churches do more than trade preachers. They fellowship and, at times, work together. In August, the two churches collected school supplies and school uniforms and distributed them to people who needed them. It was collaborative effort.

A few years before she passed away, Nelson’s wife Johnalee, a venerated figure in her community in her own right, told me in an interview that this kind of work builds relationships – relationships that can lead toward true reconciliation. For many, the wounds are still fresh for good reason, she pointed out. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the deaths of those three young men and the wounding of so many others.

She explained that revisiting the violence of the past is not simply dredging it up, but rather it is about finding a better way to move forward. “Where wrong has been done,” she said, “wrong needs to be righted.”

With that, she returned to the need to forgive. “You know the passage in Mark about the man who wanted to know how many times to forgive a person? Jesus says, ‘Seventy times seven.’ So it’s a matter of forgiving a person each time someone has done wrong or you have done someone wrong, black or white. And we’re not prone to do that. … There must be a coming together, sitting down and putting all the cards on the table and really looking at those cards. It’s not a compromise; it’s an understanding.”

Jack Shuler is the author of three books including “Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town.” He teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and recently launched, an online magazine covering stories from Rust Belt and rural America.