A longer version of this article originally appeared in Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly: The Witness of Some Southern Presbyterian Pastors for the Cause of Racial Harmony in the 1950s and 1960s, compiled by James S. Currie. All rights remain with the original publisher.
In 1953, the Little Rock School Board employed a new superintendent of schools. A few days after the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education the Little Rock board announced it would implement that ruling.
I’ve been asked to write about the events surrounding the 1957 Little Rock Central High School crisis, paying special attention to the involvement of people of faith, particularly Presbyterians. I was involved in some of the events and knew a lot of the players. While the actions that many people took during this time may seem cautious to us today, I can attest from my own experience to the courage these actions required in that day and age, and to the specific witness raised by people of faith in Little Rock.
Run-Up to the Crisis
In 1954, the same year of the Brown v. Board ruling, an interracial Arkansas Council on Human Relations, affiliated with the Southern Regional Council, was formed, and in 1955 a Methodist minister was employed as staff. Although small and under-financed, it became a force for interracial cooperation. Many of us Presbyterians joined it.
In April 1956, an organization called Arkansas Citizens for Orderly Compliance was created. White and black clergy and lay leaders from all over the state came together in the hope that Arkansas, being something of a border state with a reputation for being liberal, would avoid the conflicts over desegregation that were raging in the Deep South.
The presidency of the Greater Little Rock Ministerial Alliance rotated yearly from one denomination to another. 1957 brought the Presbyterians’ turn. Rev. Dick Hardie of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church was initially asked to fill that slot but had to declined due to an already full plate. However, a minister named Dunbar Ogden had come to Little Rock in 1954 to pastor Central Presbyterian, a downtown church that was struggling. Dick suggested Dunbar be elected, as a boost to his morale. Nobody foresaw what lay ahead.
Meanwhile, things were heating up on the integration front. In February 1957, some ministers from Little Rock and the rest of the state visited the state legislature to protest a package of proposed segregation bills (that were later adopted), particularly one creating a State Sovereignty Commission.
As 1957 rolled on, the implementation of integration was postponed until two new high schools were built: Horace Mann, for black students on the east side, and Hall High, for whites in an affluent region of the city. Neither Mann nor Hall (where the children of most of the school board members and their friends were to go) was to be integrated, but only the old Little Rock High, now named Central, located in a middle-and-working-class neighborhood. Black students interested in going to Central had to be approved by the staff, or superintendent, as measuring up to health, ethical, emotional, and academic standards.
On July 7, 1957, Rev. Dr. Marion Boggs told the Little Rock Second Presbyterian Church congregation that instead of preaching a sermon he was going to have a heart-to-heart talk with them about the up-coming desegregation of the schools.
Critics have pointed to these decisions as elitist and minimalist. Looking back, they do seem timid, and yet the school board members who approved them paid a high price for their daring. One member was married to one of my first cousins. She was a racist and accused her husband of being a radical. It so tore their household apart that he chose not to run for a second term. The man who was chairman of the board in 1956 and 1957 was a prominent surgeon. As a result of his service on the school board, he lost so much of his practice he had to go to work for the VA to make a living.
As fall approached some black parents declined to let their children be subjected to the stress they would clearly experience upon integration. Something like 40 students applied; the screening process reduced the number to 17. The superintendent persuaded eight of those students to withdraw, telling them that if they went to Central they could not participate in sports or any other extra-curricular activities.
On July 7, 1957, Rev. Dr. Marion Boggs told the Little Rock Second Presbyterian Church congregation that instead of preaching a sermon he was going to have a heart-to-heart talk with them about the up-coming desegregation of the schools. A condensed version of that sermon was printed on the editorial page of the Arkansas Gazette on Sunday, September 1, just before schools were to open. It is a remarkably forthright statement for that era, proclaiming that “…segregation by law should be eliminated because it is a direct contradiction to the Christian doctrine of the dignity of man (sic)…” He cited the action of the 1954 PCUS General Assembly, reaffirmed in 1955. He acknowledged that while some of his members would take offense, they had the right to know the position of their Church.
Episcopal Bishop Robert Brown reported that the week before schools were to open “the clergy” sent out copies of Dr. Boggs’ sermon. While Dr. Boggs got the most publicity, all the other Presbyterian ministers in Greater Little Rock except for one stood with him.
The Little Rock Nine: A Time for Public Witness
Monday was Labor Day. That night Governor Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent desegregation of Central High School. I was awakened the next morning in Crossett, AR, where I was a minister, by Will Campbell, the National Council of Churches’ representative on race relations in the south, telling me about the action the previous night. Will was heading to Little Rock and asked me to go with him, but I could not leave town because we had a baby that was overdue. Instead, he took our Yale Divinity School classmate George Chauncey, the Presbyterian pastor in Monticello, who insisted on wearing his clerical collar.
That same day, sixteen Little Rock ministers issued a statement protesting the Governor’s action in calling out the troops. On September 9, the United Church Women took a similar action.
It had been agreed the nine black students would not appear that first day, September 3, but would wait until the fourth. On the night of the third, Daisy Bates, head of the local NAACP chapter and “den mother” for the black students, phoned Rev. Dunbar Ogden, although they had never met, because he was president of the ministerial alliance. She asked him to round up some ministers to accompany the students to Central High. His son writes that Dunbar could not get any colleagues to agree, and that he himself wrestled all night with whether or not to go. At the last minute he decided he would walk with them. One son, David, insisted on accompanying his father for protection, though they were turned away by the troops. George Chauncey told me he and Will had met with the Little Rock Nine the morning they left for Central High and were present across the street as the black students tried to enter.
That same day, September 4, the local college in Monticello opened. Freshmen were invited to come to the town square where the ladies of the local churches served punch and cookies. All the other pastors were there. Everyone kept asking, “Where is George?”, but no one knew. That night when they turned on the news, there was George Chauncey in his clerical collar at Central High!
On the night of the third, Daisy Bates phoned Rev. Dunbar Ogden because he was president of the ministerial alliance. She asked him to round up some ministers to accompany the students to Central High.
There were rumblings in the congregation. Some were furious at what George had done. Years later, I asked him if that was the beginning of the end of his ministry in Monticello. He replied, “No, it would have been if elders Lamar (Sr.) and Adrian (Sr.) Williamson had not said, ‘We think it was a tactical mistake on George’s part. But he was following his conscience. And we don’t want a pastor who does not follow his conscience.’” George said that ended the discussion, and he stayed on for another year. There is power in an elder’s witness.
Dunbar continued to meet with the students and Daisy Bates every Thursday throughout 1957-58, as told in Bates’ The Long Shadow of Little Rock and in Ogden’s My Father Said Yes. The latter also recounts the consequences for Dunbar’s family. Central Church lost membership and finances, and plans were announced to cut Dunbar’s salary in 1959. He eventually resigned and took a call as an associate pastor in West Virginia. David, the son who had walked with Dunbar on September 4, remained in Little Rock after his parents moved. He was persecuted at work and eventually committed suicide.
Although there was token integration of Central High in 1957-58, the Governor and state legislature closed the four high schools in the city in the fall of 1958. As a result 3,665 senior high students were in limbo for the ‘lost year’. Parents scrambled to find alternative possibilities for their children. A white private segregationist academy, Raney High, was started. Second Baptist Church, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and Westover Hills Presbyterian Church offered temporary makeshift schools. Students who could transferred to towns near Little Rock, elsewhere in Arkansas, or out of state. While most white students found some alternative, only 50% of the black students got any education that year.
Up to this point, while some ministers and religious organizations had spoken out, no lay people had publicly used the word “integration.” However, as soon as the high schools were closed, lay people swung into action. Adolphine Terry, wife of a former Congressman and a social “grande dame”, declared since the men had failed to do anything she guessed the women would have to take over. She gathered 58 middle class white women in her home on September 12 and formed the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. By the 23rd, the group in her house had grown to 170. Terry was an Episcopalian, and the group included people from a variety of traditions, including Presbyterians, Catholics, and Jews. Within months they had grown to over 1,000. Membership lists were kept secret so the husbands would not suffer in their business or profession, although the leaders were identified publicly.
As soon as the high schools were closed, lay people swung into action.
In September a city-wide election was held with a rigged ballot, offering only two options: integrating the whole system immediately or closing any school that was desegregated. Bishop Brown of the Episcopal Church, Dr. Dale Cowling of Second Baptist, and Dr. T. B. Hay of Pulaski Heights Presbyterian went on TV advocating an opening of the schools. The women did their best to get out the vote, but the results (by over 2.5 to 1) were against desegregation, even if it meant closing the schools. Five members of the School Board resigned.
At this point the Women’s Emergency Committee went to work. They found five people willing to run for seats on the school board. Now as before, the WEC deliberately did not invite any black women to join; they were quick to clarify that they advocated neither segregation nor integration – they were just trying to get the schools open. In retrospect, we may (and perhaps rightfully) find this witness lacking, but at the time, it seemed deeply courageous.
On May 8, 1959, the three segregationist members of the school board voted not to renew the contracts of 44 teachers and administrators they suspected of being “liberal”. There was an explosion of anger and a demand that the segregationist members be removed. Within days, a group of young professionals came up with the name STOP (Stop This Outrageous Purge) and circulated a petition to recall the segregationists.
To pre-empt any special session of the legislature to pass new segregation laws the school board rushed to open the high schools early, on August 12. When that happened three bombs were set off, one of them destroying the office of the Little Rock Mayor, an elder at Second Presbyterian Church. The windows of that church were also damaged.
In 1959, black students were assigned to Hall High as well as Central, but the number was reduced from nine to three in each of the two schools. It was not until 1966 when bussing was required that significant numbers of black student were taken into formerly all-white school. And white flight began.
The Aftermath: Continued Struggles for Justice
In 1960 a representative of the American Friends Service Committee and a Disciples minister formed an inter-racial group called Christian Unity. They held several meetings at the United Methodist conference grounds. In the same year, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have given the Governor power to abolish public schools throughout the state was submitted to the people for a vote. Two women elders went all over the state, including the delta, speaking against it. The amendment, although backed by the Governor, was soundly defeated by a margin of 3-to-1. That was Faubus’ first political defeat.
In April 1961, I moved from Crossett to Little Rock to organize a new congregation at the western edge of the city. Shortly after I arrived, I received a phone call inviting me to a secret gathering of ministers at a Methodist Church near the state capitol. The purpose was to meet with, and pray for, John Raines, a younger brother of one of my Yale Divinity School classmates. He was one of the Freedom Riders testing segregation on interstate travel. As soon as John and his fellow riders got off the bus and entered the terminal, they were arrested and jailed. He had been freed and was about to get back on the bus for Shreveport, which had the reputation of being the meanest city in the South as far as integration was concerned. Even as we prayed with him, we knew there was the possibility he could be killed.
1963 brought several interesting developments. The Women’s Emergency Committee decided for the first time to include black women. However, the cohesion of that group had become fractured once the high schools were re-opened in 1959, due to division among members over candidates for the school board and state legislature. In May, the Women’s Emergency Committee was disbanded.
A second development was the formation of the Greater Little Rock Conference on Religion and Race. The Catholic bishop, the rabbi of the Reformed Temple, and the president of the Arkansas Council of Churches initiated this movement, and I was asked to be the Presbyterian representative. Of course it was inter-racial, although many of the black clergy could not attend meetings since they had secular jobs. The Conference took forthright stands on racial issues. The first president was Father David Boileau, a professor at St. John’s Seminary who served from 1963-64, and I was elected to succeed him. The Conference continued in existence until 1967.
In April 1961, I moved from Crossett to Little Rock. Shortly after I arrived, I received a phone call inviting me to a secret gathering of ministers at a Methodist Church near the state capitol.
A third development in 1963 was the birth of the Panel of American Women. Sarah Murphy, a Presbyterian who had been in the Women’s Emergency Committee, got the idea from the superintendent of schools in Kansas City. Sarah invited 35-40 of her friends to have lunch at the Sam Peck Hotel. They were all white; before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks could not eat there. These women were mostly from the wealthy west end of Little Rock. A number of them were Presbyterians. Recently when I asked a Presbyterian friend who had been in the WEC if she was part of the Panel, her reply was, “No. I was not elite enough.” They were probably no more aware of this “elitism” than the school board had been when they integrated Central High but not Hall High. However, as soon as the Panel was formed, some black women were included.
The format of the Panel was to let one WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant), one Catholic, one Jew, one black person, and sometimes an Asian-American person speak for five minutes about her own experience with prejudice. Then the floor would be opened to questions and discussions. I remember how they jolted, and changed the thinking of, many in my congregation when they came. The Panel was invited to appear in over 200 places, including segregationist strongholds in the Arkansas delta, and even as far away as Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They became a major factor in dissipating some of the racial prejudice in the state. They continued until 1972 and, after a couple of name changes, still exist in 2015 as the “Public Policy Panel”.
In 1965 Dick Hardie, pastor of Westover Hills Church, called me to say he was going to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, organized by Martin Luther King. He invited me to join him. I had to decline again because my wife had just returned from an extended hospitalization, so he got one of his elders to join him. Dick told me later that up until that time he regularly had inquiries from pastor nominating committees. After Selma he never received another one!
I don’t see our younger successors teaming up the way we used to back in those days. I wish they did, for we have a long way to go.
I remained as a pastor in Little Rock until 1973. Some healing took place between the black and white communities, especially while Winthrop Rockefeller was governor, for he took a courageous stand. Among the liberals, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish clergy and lay leaders bonded, although a hard core of segregationists opposed every advance.
My work took me to Atlanta and Louisiana from 1973 to 1991. When I returned to Little Rock, Dick Hardie warned me the ties between black and white ministers were much weaker than when I left, and I have found this to be true. When I run into people with whom I worked forty years ago, we reminisce warmly, but we rarely join forces to tackle current problems. Maybe we’re all just too old now! The students in the public schools are predominantly black, Hispanic, or Asian-American, while the majority of middle class whites enroll their children in charter or private or church schools, each with a few token blacks to ease their conscience. I don’t see our younger successors teaming up the way we used to back in those days. I wish they did, for we have a long way to go. The battle is not yet won.
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Don Campbell grew up on a cotton plantation and did not realize he was a racist until he had a conversion on the subject just before entering seminary. He was pastor of Presbyterian churches in Crossett and Little Rock, Arkansas; served on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. before reunion; was General Pastor of the Presbytery of South Louisiana, and dean of an ecumenical retreat center in Little Rock before retiring in 1995.