by Zack Jackson
In examining the era in which segregation was a daily topic of discussion, images of prominent religious leaders often come to mind. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the fight against segregation, but it is also important to remember that the fight to maintain segregation as a social institution was also often associated with the Christian tradition and religious messaging. This segregationist messaging too was often characterized by a kind of anti-communist, pro-American fervor, which emphasized the role of the white man in shaping the United States and discouraged racial mixing that would threaten American Christian purity.
The social movement to end segregation, like many social movements before and since, played out in very real ways on American college campuses. Institutions of every size, with every conceivable mission, and from every corner of the country would have to come to terms with a changing social landscape and practical steps to respond. However, Christian colleges and universities positioned themselves during the decade leading up to the Civil Rights Movement to have a significant impact on the way this issue was discussed and debated. The focus of this look at the relationship between segregation and spirituality in the final years of segregation’s grip on American life will be on the experience at 1950s Baylor University, a growing institution out of Waco, Texas. This work will examine the language used by campus leaders like President W.R. White, as well as those in the broader community. Specifically, it will explore the ways in which these individuals explained how Baylor, as a Christian institution, interpreted this critical era in United States history, particularly in light of fears of communism and socialism.
Baylor University, founded in 1845 by Baptist pioneers, remained a full 70% Baptist in 1948 at the beginning of President White’s tenure. Baylor’s Baptist heritage was still largely affecting the university’s student demographic and experience. White, himself a lifelong Baptist, first came to Baylor as a student in 1913, only to transfer to Howard Payne College because of problems with his health (Baker, 1987). After graduating in 1917, he spent a period of time at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary earning his doctorate and teaching missions courses. After his time at the seminary, he pastored in a couple different churches across Texas and went on to serve as executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1929 to 1931, only to return to full-time ministry at prominent churches in Fort Worth and Oklahoma City (Baker, 1987). His career as an administrator in higher education began at Hardin-Simmons University, where he served as president from 1940 to 1943. After a brief stint with the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, White returned to the pastorate and led First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas until he was called on by Baylor University to serve as president in 1948 (Baker, 1987).
White was the first minister to lead the Baptist institution in nearly fifty years. In his role, he took a much more passive approach than his predecessors had, avoiding tough decisions for as long as possible (Baker, 1987). However, his goals for Baylor University remained very clear throughout his tenure. The university would lead the way in academic rigor, in global reach, on the athletic fields of play, and in its Christian mission. At his inauguration ceremony, President White alluded to the type of institution he wanted to see Baylor become as he remarked, “We shall give fresh and new emphasis to intercultural projects and courses at Baylor. We shall seek to train those who will become diplomats, business and professional men with right attitudes” (Baker, 1987, p. 223). Already, White was envisioning a Baylor with a global focus and impact.
Under White’s leadership, the university saw its enrollment rapidly increase. Additionally, through unprecedented fundraising successes, the endowment grew just as quickly. In fact, White saw such success in his quests at fundraising and public relations that he was able to convince the trustees in 1959 to allow his duties to focus on promoting the institution and bringing it wider acclaim (Baker, 1987). At that time, School of Law Dean Abner V. McCall stepped into an executive vice president role that gave him sole power to make day-to-day administrative decisions. Until 1961 when White became chancellor and McCall president, this arrangement persisted (Baker, 1987).
Throughout the 1950s, White, with his widely varied and extensive experience in a number of Baptist posts, sought to bolster Baylor’s Baptist roots and Christian mission. In many ways, he was successful in this attempt, but this foundation sometimes proved problematic when segregation became the topic of the day. How Baylor, as a Christian institution and a Baptist symbol to the broader nation and world, came to address this issue has gone largely unexplored. However, White’s personal papers give us some answers.
White’s Personal Papers and What They Tell Us About Baylor in the 1950s
Frequent discussion on segregation was not mainstream and widespread at Baylor until the latter half of the 1950s. In 1955, the student voice was expressed in the unanimous passage of a resolution by the Student Congress to end the practice of segregation (Baker, 1987). Although the university would not pass its own resolution to implement integration until 1963, the message conveyed by the passage of this resolution was clear, and the university would come to debate the issue both internally and within a larger state and national context for a period of several years (Baker, 1987).
In the heat of the conversation, President White set the tone for his role in the debate in a February 5, 1957 letter to each member of the Board of Trustees:
Baylor University is becoming more and more environed by a changing situation… There is no integration in a strictly social sense, but in official deliberations all races are working together… Baylor University will not admit bona fide students of the Negro race until you as trustees authorize it. (White, 1957a)
With this statement, the president was acknowledging the forthcoming tide of social change, and he largely deferred judgment on the matter to the Board of Trustees. He did not close the letter without expressing his opinion on the matter though, as he stated, “I have not presented the question to you for action for the reason that no good purpose could be served. In fact, much harm would result… Any action would throw us into a bitter conflict among ourselves” (White, 1957a). Reflective of his tendency to delay difficult decisions, President White asked that no judgment be made for the time being. However, he could not ignore the way in which the conversation would dominate discussion in the coming years.
White knew that the various factions within the university and broader Baptist communities possessed widely varying stances on segregation. Of them all though, Baptist missionaries seemed to position themselves as the one group almost entirely opposed to the thought of racial separation. In an August 9, 1955 letter to President White, 11 Baylor graduates wrote to note the experiences of missionaries around the world regarding the segregation issue. They noted that missionaries from around the world had shared at their recent Woman’s Missionary Union Week that “…treatment which we in Christian America…afford to the American Negro is the subject of much discussion and adverse criticism when exchange students or native workers from their countries visit ours” (W.M.U., 1955). This letter also pointed to the unfortunate story of one Baylor graduate and missionary named John Mills who had won a Nigerian to Christ. This fledgling Black Christian experienced a call to ministry and expressed interest in receiving his education at the alma mater of the missionary who first shared Christ with him. Mills had the unfortunate task of informing this man that Baylor University had no place for him among its ranks (W.M.U., 1955). If this heartfelt appeal did not pull at President White’s heartstrings, these 11 alumni appealed to broader social and political trends:
We feel that since the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that segregation of public schools is unconstitutional, and since the Southern Baptist Convention has expressed itself in support of this ruling, and since our seminaries and some of our colleges have opened their doors to Negro students, that it is the time for Baylor to do so, too. (W.M.U., 1955)
In the sentiments expressed by these 11 Baylor alumni, we see the total argument for integration, and White’s personal papers reveal that many of these same arguments loomed over White as he led an institution largely divided on the issue.
These debates were coming at an interesting time in the history of Baylor University and the United States. In the shadow of communist and socialist fears, pro-American fervor came to a head and social movements perceived as undoing the fabric of American society were challenged at every turn. In this environment, President White worked diligently to bolster Baylor’s religious mission. During the late 1940s and 1950s, staff positions were added, as W.J. Wimpee was added as Director of Religious Activities and a university chaplaincy was established. Furthermore, Baylor Religious Hour programs were significantly expanded, and the impressive Tidwell Bible Building was constructed during this period. A full week dedicated to bringing attention to the university’s Christian mission came to fruition in 1959’s Christian Emphasis Week. Hiring decisions, policy resolutions, and the implementation of various student programs focused on Baylor’s unique mission during this period, and this fact informed a distinctive framework for discussion on the merits and problems associated with segregation in general, but especially at a Christian institution. The Christian voice on segregation was decidedly mixed though. In conversations between dissenting groups, White would largely serve as a mediator.
In a September 19, 1955 letter to Mr. D.K. Martin, a recognized leader of the Texas Department of Transportation and a giant in the Baylor community for nearly three decades, one Wylie Johnson argued against the thought of an integrated university:
Every American has an individual responsibility under God to help his unfortunate, under-privileged neighbor, and I believe that Texas Baptist Laymen stand ready to perform that responsibility. They want Negros to have equal educational opportunities in so far as they are capable of utilizing them. But, you know D.K. that it is not educational equality but social equality, that is back of this issue, and my brand of Americanism includes the right for every man to choose for himself, who he will eat with, study with, worship with or work with. (Johnson, 1955)
While this represents the voice of but one man, this view was not uncommon during this era. Like this writer, many of the era were only willing to stretch Christian hospitality so far as to offer black students some degree of exposure to education, but most certainly not the same degree of education offered to their white peers.
Fearsome of communist or socialist takeover from within, a brand of normative Americanism was used to shield American society from social change. In this cultural space, black students were pushed to the periphery in every sense. In a 1956 work titled “Our Greatest Crisis,” White reveals how the fear of communism helped point to integration as a kind of radical social reorientation, devoid of practical application in his perceived reality:
The Communists agitate, aggravate and exaggerate the situation. They seize on everything to embarrass and weaken our prestige and leadership in the world. They seek to stir up strife and create incidents among us in order to supply their propaganda guns with ammunition. They are not interested in the Negro except as a tool for their malign purposes. But we cannot afford to let them maneuver untenable positions. (White, 1956)
Here, White reveals the way in which the argument against integration was often discussed within a decidedly pro-American framework, which denied Black Americans membership as full citizens and worked, in a rather insidious way, to label any efforts aimed at giving Black Americans equal rights as communist, and thus anti-American. At this time, acting in such a way deemed un-American meant acting in such a way that could not be considered Christian. As a result, the fear of communism helped solidify pro-segregation sentiments by impacting the way Christian leaders like President White, Christian institutions like Baylor, and Christian people across the country came to understand the integration argument.
Not everyone in the Christian community felt this way. In an October 14, 1954 letter to The Baylor Line responding to an earlier statement to alumni by President White on the topic of segregation, Robert D. Lovell, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fort Davis, Texas, wrote to explain that a variety of factors ought to point Baylor toward integration, especially as a Christian institution:
Dr. White states that Baylor “has followed the accepted tradition in this area” regarding segregation. Since when has God given Christians the command to meekly “follow accepted tradition”? Christians are not to be “conformed to this world” but to the will and purpose of Jesus Christ…It is up to us now to translate these fine principles into concrete Christian actualities. One place of beginning is with our alumni. What would happen if we alumni were as interested in erasing the stain of segregation from Baylor’s record as we are in supporting football? This will take vision, courage and faith. I believe Baylor graduates have it. If Baylor loses the support of some white supremacists, then it is the price a Christian institution must pay for following a Lord who was not popular but crucified. (Lovell, 1954)
Often less outspoken, but nonetheless present in conversations on segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, were men like Reverend Lovell. Espousing a more inclusive and moderate conservatism, Lovell’s stance on the segregation debate was not particularly uncommon, and came to be very much like that of President White’s ultimate conclusion on the issue.
W.R. White as Mediator
With such opposing views even within one faith and denomination, someone had to help steer the conversation. President W.R. White positioned himself as the arbiter of Baylor’s great dilemma:
Baylor and Baptists can be torn to shreds on either side of the present issue. Some of us must be in a position to arbitrate. Some of us feel called to such a responsibility. It is neither a cowardly nor compromising position. Somebody must be qualified for a mediating role. We are waiting to risk the verdict of history. Good Christians are on both sides. (White, 1957b)
While White began more reserved and presented himself as clinging to the traditional conception of separate education for black and white students, he came to fill more of a mediator role in which he deferred ultimate judgements to the Board of Trustees and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, as we saw in his 1957 memo to the Board. In an article from the period, he reiterated his mediator role:
We must realize that equally sincere Baptists are on both sides of this issue. We be brethren; some of us must mediate lest a worse situation develop than any problem we now face. All of us must be Christian, not only in our principles but in our spirit and attitude. (White, 1956)
By examining his personal papers, we can almost see White’s own spirit and attitude shift over time. From a tradition stance, to mediator, to encouraging more thoughtful Christian practice, White comes around to the idea of Christian Baylor embracing this new social order.
By examining segregation on Baylor’s campus in the 1950s, one is able to see a confluence of faith, politics, economics, and a certain level of fear at the Baptist institution, as leaders like President White worked to bridge the gap between segregationist and integrationist factions. With communist and socialist fears looming, the stage was set in the 1950s for a perfect storm of factors, which led to pro-American thoughts that had men like White himself, knowingly or unknowingly, denying rights to Black Americans. White would come to embrace integration at Baylor as communist and socialist arguments against integration no longer stood up to scrutiny, and as pressures mounted to integrate as other institutions like T.C.U. and S.M.U. had already done. In many ways, the segregation experience was quite specific to its time, but in other ways, some of the very religious, political, and economic factors that contributed to Baylor’s crisis are remarkably fresh and new. White was the arbiter of his time, but the lessons learned are perhaps applicable in all of time.
Baker, E.W. (1987). To light the ways of time: An illustrated history of Baylor University 1845-1986. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.
Johnson, Wylie. (1955). Baylor University Correspondence: Wylie Johnson Letter (Box #1, Baylor Board of Trustees). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Lovell, Robert D. (1954). Baylor University Correspondence: Robert D. Lovell Letter (Box #2, Ex-Student Association). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
White, W.R. (1957a). Baylor University Correspondence: Letter to Trustees (Box #1, Baylor Board of Trustees). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
White, W.R. (1957b). W.R. White Personal Papers: The Larger Good (Box #2, Articles). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
White, W.R. (1956). W.R. White Personal Papers: Our Greatest Crisis (Box #2, White Articles 56-57). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
W.M.U. (1955). Baylor University Correspondence: Glorieta, New Mexico Letter (Box #1, Baylor Board of Trustees). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.