“Late we come” — The Presbyterian Outlook and Southern Presbyterians on race

Speaking at the March on Washington in August 1963, Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), began with an apology to Martin Luther King Jr. and others gathered: “We come and late we come.”

Blake, who had recently been arrested in a demonstration to integrate a Baltimore amusement park, spoke the truth. With notable exceptions – African Americans, some other people of color and numbers of prophetic whites – Presbyterians did come late to the struggle for civil rights for all Americans. Nationally, most Presbyterians may have come tardily to the movement, but they provided strong leadership from the early 1960s onward. They still do.

Southern Presbyterians were, for the most part, the latest of the late. Representatives of the Presbyterian Church U.S. (PCUS) formed in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War in the South, failed even to endorse that March on Washington — the only so-called mainline denomination to demur. But change had begun for the PCUS decades before. The Presbyterian Outlook, through the witness of its publisher, its editor and its contributors during the 1940s and 1950s, was a significant force in fomenting the PCUS shift to a more progressive perspective.

Photograph of President John F. Kennedy meeting with leaders of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Pictured are (L-R): Willard Wirtz, Martin Luther King Jr., Eugene Carson Blake, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Walter Reuther. Other present include: A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young, Mathew Ahmann, Joachin Prinz, Roy Wilkins, Floyd McKissick. (Photo credit: White House (Washington, D.C.), Photographer (NARA record: 1126641))

The story of that change in the first half of the 20th century – from a denomination supporting segregation to one active in seeking desegregation in all aspects of American life – is a tale worth recounting. It involved the witness of many courageous black and white PCUS leaders who stood for equality. Some ministers lost their pastorates as they engaged in demonstrations, or even if they just spoke about the human dignity of every person. That change opened the way for African American leaders to emerge among Southern Presbyterians; and, as opponents left the PCUS in 1971 and formed the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), eventually a reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUS took place in 1983. Here is a brief summary of the change.

Ernest Trice Thompson detailed much of this transformation in his three-volume history, “Presbyterians in the South,” completed in the 1970s — almost 50 years ago. Many have grown up not knowing that history, much less reading Thompson’s magisterial trilogy.

Thompson, who in 1923 joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, taught church history there until his retirement in 1963. During those years, he also wrote weekly Sunday school lessons for The Presbyterian Standard, then for Presbyterian of the South, then for Presbyterian Outlook. He helped found the Virginia Council of Churches, and he led for several years the PCUS Committee on Moral and Social Welfare. His remarkable ministry continued when he retired from the faculty at Union and then taught several years at Austin Seminary. During all those years publishing and editing the Presbyterian Outlook was a priority.

Starting in 1937, Thompson refashioned Presbyterian of the South as he edited it for several years. In 1942, with encouragement and financial backing from others, he purchased and renamed it the Presbyterian Outlook. His major partner in this enterprise was Aubrey Brown, a pastor in West Virginia, who became the editor while Thompson remained publisher. Soon Thompson and Brown were joined by Brown’s brother James, who managed the Outlook’s finances and kept the magazine solvent for decades.

Aubrey Brown remained editor of the Outlook for 35 years. He and his family lived the life he advocated — participating in congregations both black and white in Richmond, Virginia. They organized groups to seek racial reconciliation, promoted women’s ordination, advocated for children’s ministry and tirelessly worked for Presbyterian reunion.

E.T. Thompson and Aubrey Brown in turn enlisted prophetic voices as members of the Outlook board and contributors, with columns, news items and editorials. Dunbar Ogden, Kenneth Phifer, Harrison Ray Anderson, Charles King, Charles Diehl, Sara Little, Rachel Henderlite, Al Winn, Isabel Rogers, John Leith, J. Randolph Taylor and many others – nationally and internationally – contributed. African American Shelby Rooks soon numbered among them, as did noted South Carolinian James McBride Dabbs, who accused the South of raising up a “new god” of race when he averred, “This white god is busy creating a colored god to stand opposite him.”

In 1945, Brown printed Lillian Smith’s “The white Christian and his conscience,” a straightforward condemnation of white racism. Thompson later described the article as “the first suggestion in any of our church periodicals that segregation was a denial of the Christian gospel.” Brown recalled some years later, “You can imagine the kind of responses that came in.”

The Outlook rejoiced in the election of an African American as moderator of the Louisville Presbytery in 1948, and the paper frequently printed news of the Snedecor Memorial Synod, a non-geographical body comprising African American presbyteries and congregations in the PCUS. Each year, reports on the synod were extensive. The 1946 General Assembly, for example, gave additional status to “Negro work” and more autonomy to the synod. The Outlook quoted speeches of those opposed and those in favor of the change — an extended treatment of the actions. And in 1947, the magazine reported on reorganization of the synod.

When Charles M. Jones was forced from his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, pulpit in the early 1950s, the Outlook fiercely defended the progressive pastor. Jones advocated civil rights legislation, befriended those in sit-ins and opened the family home to black and white protesters. A commission from Orange Presbytery, without charging him and without a trial, instructed the church to seek a “more orthodox” pastor. On appeal, the General Assembly requested a trial, but the presbytery would not grant a necessary change of venue and Jones finally withdrew from the church in 1953.

In 1954, a Ralph McGill editorial on segregation from the Atlanta Constitution was reprinted in the Outlook: “The Christian today cannot help but wince at the full implications, and the jarring clash of the creed with discrimination against any person because of color.” A subsequent issue that spring featured an account by Benjamin Mays, distinguished president of Morehouse University, of his trip to India. Mays said he was pleased to report some progress on the race issue in America — some integration in areas of entertainment and sports, some loosening of Jim Crow practices in business and interstate trains. Desegregation will be without upheaval, he promised, “provided leaders take a Christian view and proclaim it to the nation.”

That year, 1954, of course, brought the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education outlawing school segregation. The Presbyterian Outlook hailed it. The editor recited unequivocal words from Wade Boggs, the newly-elected PCUS moderator, calling segregation “unjust, undemocratic and un-Christian.” The editors complained, nonetheless, that the church should be leading in civil rights rather than just following along as it had been doing.

In 1955, as synods, presbyteries and congregations in the PCUS grappled with the movement to desegregate, the Outlook followed the fracas closely. Marsh Calloway, for example, was ousted from his pulpit in Durant, Mississippi. The Outlook told of elders in the Durant church following White Citizen’s Council requests to fire the preacher, Marsh’s response and the decision of the presbytery to fire him.

Number by number, issues of the Outlook called out opponents of integration by simply stating the facts of many cases. When a congregation in Greenville, South Carolina, sought to withhold funds on account of the work of the Council on Christian Relations, the Outlook printed a complaint from an elder in that church and rebutted the argument. When some commissioners to the 1957 assembly objected to positive references to Koinonia Farms, the Christian community in Americus, Georgia, that was fully integrated, the Outlook told of the debate and the upholding of the affirmation of Koinonia. When Atlanta Presbytery failed to pass a strongly worded demand that congregations receive worshippers without regard to race, the Outlook named opponents and told of their turning away African Americans who sought to worship there.

The first issue in 1963 featured a letter by Albert Freundt, an opponent of integration, refusing to apologize or repent of the violence surrounding admission of James Meredith to Ole Miss, as the PCUS had requested members to do. In a response, the Outlook reprinted some of the pro-integration sermons from PCUS preachers, some as early as the 1930s. Brown and the Outlook praised progressive steps in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Charlottesville, Virginia. Another article was offered by Sam Williams, a professor at Morehouse. Shelby Rooks, an associate editor, also contributed a piece. And when the March on Washington occurred in late summer, the Outlook lamented the negative decision on PCUS sponsorship. Brown said if the PCUS had a better idea, the church should undertake it. Among many printed reactions, the Outlook featured a defense by Marion Boggs of the negative stance, as it likewise featured long letters from Randy Taylor, Tom and Peggy Cleveland and Carl Prichard telling of their support and of the events of the day. Portions of the address by Martin Luther King Jr. were also offered. Soon Randy Taylor, the Clevelands, Aubrey Brown, E.T. Thompson and scores of other progressive leaders, many early in ministry in the PCUS, formed a Fellowship of Concern, seeking more active involvement of the denomination in matters of racial justice. The Outlook reported their membership and activities for the several years of its existence.

The Outlook noted states resisting desegregation and well as Presbyterian church courts — especially those in the Carolinas and Virginia. Immediately following the death of King in April 1968, the Outlook published a lament: “All across the nation, there are cries of anguish at what has happened. There are tributes to the sanity and selfless dedication” of King, “the man who became the embodiment of America’s moral conscience.”

As congregations maintaining segregation left in 1971 to form the Presbyterian Church in America, the Outlook chronicled their departure, too.

It should be noted also that seeking racial justice was not a “one-string guitar” for the Outlook. During these decades Brown and Thompson paid constructive attention to the intricacies of church union, evangelism, Christian education and the need in the Southern church to ordain women for formal leadership.

At the same time, the periodical kept naming pioneer Presbyterians who, as African Americans, contributed to the mission of the church and social welfare, asking them for editorials and articles. When Aubrey Brown retired as editor in 1978, subsequent editors followed the same progressive path set by Brown and Thompson. Of particular import is the Outlook Forum of June 1998, convoked by then editor, Robert Bullock. Several outstanding African American Presbyterians were asked to reflect on King’s legacy and the state of the church. Katie Cannon, Oscar McCloud, James Costen and Patricia Brown were among the panelists. Patricia Brown said of the King legacy: “Racist hatred expanded from what once was a simple matter of black and white” to become a weaving of many colors. And the Outlook had by that time expanded its coverage to include the broader issues as well — economic justice and inclusion of all people of color.

In recent years, issues of gender equity in Christian leadership and gender identity in seeking justice and mercy have become part of the ethical focus of the Outlook. And we note gratefully that the “new editor” (for four years) Jill Duffield, stretches the palate of concerns to include all the continuing emphases as well as the most recent.

The Presbyterian Outlook editorial perspective and coverage make a refrain: “We come.” Here’s hoping readers continue to heed the messenger and the message.

LOUIS B. WEEKS is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife Carolyn.

Special thanks to Douglas Brackenridge, Ben Sparks and Peter Hobbie for their contributions to this article.