Eskildsen: Adventism During the Civil Rights Movement

I was surprised to arrive at my in-law’s church this Sabbath and find a story about civil rights on the front page of the congregation’s newsletter. This just isn’t the kind of topic I see discussed often. Below is the article by Krystal Eskildsen.

“Adventism During the Civil Rights Movement”

In 1964, on a hot, muggy, Mississippi night, three men disappeared without a trace. The men, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, were civil rights activists. They were in Mississippi–at the height of the civil rights movement–as volunteers for the Summer Project, an educational initiative for racial integration within the state. It was later revealed that the men had been murdered for their efforts. The events that followed the discovery of the men’s bodies unveiled a countermovement of defiant resistance to change, political corruption,  and a heartbreaking denial of justice.

America in the 1960s was undoubtedly a miserable, bigoted place for many people who tried to reconcile the claims of “all mem are created equal, ” with evident racism, anti-miscegenation laws, and the infamous Jim Crow laws of the South. People fought to spread awareness and to encourage change on the national level, the state level,  and the individual level. People young and old got involved, believers and nonbelievers, Catholics and Protestants. Methodists, Babtists, Adventists? What was the Adventist Church’s role or participation in the Civil Rights Movement?

While the church has a general nonparticipatory policy concerning politics, it has been involved, to varying degrees, in civil rights issues. Our church should be commended for its ministry to blacks during a time when racial tensions made it a dangerous venture. We were, and still are, a church that strives to live counter-culture and to be a light within our communities. President Neal C. Wilson, speaking on racism in 1985, released this statement:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church deplores all forms of racism, including the political policy of apartheid with its enforced segregation and legalized discrimination. Seventh-day Adventists want to be faithful to the reconciling ministry assigned to the Christian church. As a worldwide community of faith, the Seventh-day Adventist Church wishes to witness to and exhibit in her own ranks the unity and love that transcend racial differences and overcome past alienation between races (Official Statements, Adventist.org).

Sadly, however, we have at times given into the practices and beliefs of our times. Some Adventists, while not staunch dissenters of civil rights activism, did nothing to promote its awareness either. One of the most notable incidents of accepting the world’s behavior was the discharge of a gravely ill woman, Lucy Byard, in 1943 from the Washington Sanitarium, upon learning that she was African American. She died not long after (“Death in D.C.”, Adventist Review). Another incident recounted is of six black youths visiting a white Adventist church one Sabbath, only to be stopped by a deacon who informed them that he had “six bullets for six niggers” (Seventh-day Adventist and the Civil RIghts Movement, 124).

So what was the church doing during one of the stormiest periods in American history, and no doubt, its own? Well, up until this point, the issue of racism or sensitivity to African American believers–or minority believers–was not a pressing issue. In fact, many black and white Adventists were content with the provisions made for their respective conferences and many reasoned that they could coexist peaceably though separately. Although Ellen White had urged the church that a great work needed to be done among African Americans, few took the counsel to heart.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Adventist church underwent years of introspection. In 1970, in a GC Executive Committee session, action was taken to remedy the state the church was in from its neglect of its duty to its black brethren (OU Goldmine, 12). Black leadership was an important measure set in place at the General Conference level, as this was a sticking point for many African Americans who felt underrepresented within the church. This step has undoubtedly pave the way for other minorities, including women.

In our day, we have social issues that call for our careful, prayerful study and sympathy. It is easy to fall into the world’s way of seeing things. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth. We have the history of our church to move forward, not politically, but spiritually. That is the point: not to pass blame or shame but to seek God and His kingdom and to invite others to that kingdom. Christ, in John 17:21, desired our unity. He wanted nothing to divide us. Why? Because in our unity is our testimony: that Jesus came, sent from God, to redeem us all.

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