After the United States Supreme Court declared segregation invalid in 1954, there was massive opposition (more than violent defiance) in the South to the ruling. Georgia's Governor declared that his state was going to resist mixing the races in the schools if it was the sole state in the nation to do so, while Mississippi Sen. James Eastland announced that the South would not abide by or obey the ruling. Louisiana's legislature branded it a usurpation. White Citizens Councils formed committed to preserving white supremacy by all means, and achieved substantial membership. Attempts to integrate schools led to riots, with George Wallace famously standing in the door at the University of Alabama to prevent its integration. Meanwhile Southern politicians drummed up anger and resistance for political reasons, and stymied attempts in Congress to pass civil rights legislation. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were arrested and imprisoned, protests where broken up with police dogs and firehoses as the nation watched on television, freedom riders were attacked by angry mobs along the way and terrorized, and civil rights workers were threatened and some murdered (with the killers getting acquittals from all white juries). Four young black girls died attending Sunday school in a Baptist Church that had hosted civil rights meeting.
The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, when the growing opposition in the north to slavery led the pro-slavery southerners to secede and form their own group. It is the largest Protestant body in the United States, with 1100 local organizations, and is the second largest Christian body in the United States, after the Catholic Church. It carries, and always has carried, enormous influence in the South. The mass of Southern Baptists opposed the civil rights movement vehemently, and some of them were responsible for the acts of violence described above. Many of the leaders were openly defiant, and urged others to be. In February 1956, Wallie Amos Criswell, pastor of the Southern Baptists' largest congregation and arguably Southern Baptists' most popular preacher, bitterly denounced and indeed ridiculed the idea of integration. "Let them integrate," he thundered, "Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up." Leon Macon, editor of the Alabama Baptist, complained that the decision "jarred to the foundation a Southern institution" and warned against the dangers of "outside interference" into Southern concerns. He later wrote that white Baptists opposed the civil rights movement and its goal of integration, because it would result in "a mongrel race" and lower the moral conduct of whites to that of blacks. That same year, Norman Jimerson, a Northern Baptist minister who worked to establish interracial dialogue in Birmingham, began searching to find a Baptist church in that city where he could be admitted into membership and still acknowledge his sympathies with the civil rights movement. He was not able to find such a congregation.
"The nation needs to strengthen the prophetic voices calling for compassionate and constructive action in human relations…I am confident you would agree that, having acted in many areas, we should not forsake the practice of prayer, even though as offered by some it might be ‘pious wind.’”
That was the reality of America when Lyndon took office in late November 1963. Johnson had developed sincere compassion for the poor, and had watched with admiration and ever-deepening support the courageous struggles of blacks in the civil rights movement. His personal commitment to ensuring full equality for minority citizens was the top thing on his agenda as President, and he very quickly moved to effect it with the passage of real, sweeping civil rights legislation. To do this, Johnson took advantage of the national sympathy and mourning surrounding Kennedy’s tragic assassination. In public speeches and private talks, he urged passage of a civil rights act as a lasting legacy to the martyred president. Building widespread public support, he urged religious leaders throughout the nation (especially in the South) to use their influence on behalf of such an act. The actual battle in Congress would take all of Johnson’s political skills, as he was faced with strong opposition from many Republicans and most Southern Democrats. He resorted to his renowned, forceful personal powers. He told Georgia Senator Richard Russell, a major opponent of civil rights legislation, that “if you get in the way, I’m going to run you down.” In the Senate, the President faced a long filibuster, but he managed to get the votes to end it. He worked the telephones himself and lobbied personally, “twisting arms” of legislators still unsure of how to vote. Enlisting White House aides, civil rights and labor leaders, and key congressional civil rights advocates, he pulled out all the stops to gain a legislative victory.
But as a southerner himself, he realized that it would not be enough to pass the legislation, he would eventually need to have opponents' cooperation, or at least acquiescence, to end the bitterness, restore peace, and make the measure work. On March 25, 1964, in the midst of the push for passage of the Civil Rights Act, he courageously went to the lion's den so to speak, and spoke before the Southern Baptist Christian Leadership Seminar. He delivered a message that swung between blunt franknesss, urging, flattery and cajoling. "We are going to pass the civil rights bill," he said in no uncertain terms. "But," he continued, "Our efforts alone are not enough. I am proud to say that in this cause some of our strongest allies are religious leaders who are encouraging elected officials to do what is right. But more must be done, and no group of Christians has a greater responsibility in civil rights than Southern Baptists. Your people are part of the power structure in many communities of our land. The leaders of states and cities and towns are in your congregations and they sit there on your boards. Their attitudes are confirmed or changed by the sermons you preach and by the lessons you write and by the examples that you set… This cause, too, this cause of human dignity, this cause of human rights demands prophets in our time, men of compassion and truth, unafraid of the consequences of fulfilling their faith. There are preachers and there are teachers of injustice and dissension and distrust at work in America this very hour. They are attempting to thwart the realization of our highest ideals. There are those who seek to turn back the rising tide of human hope by sowing half-truths and untruths wherever they find root. There are voices crying peace, peace, peace, when there is no peace. Help us to answer them with truth and with action. Help us to pass this civil rights bill and establish a foundation upon which we can build a house of freedom where all men can dwell. Help us, when this bill has been passed, to lead all of our people in this great land into a new fellowship."
Johnson continued his campaign for support, or at least not open opposition or obstruction, among the Southern Baptist leadership. Typed Letter Signed, on White House letterhead, May 15, 1964, to James Wilson Storer, Executive Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention, mentioning his recent speech and supporting the principles it articulated. “…I am pleased that you gave me this opportunity to express some views on the vital question you raise as to action by the churches to help in the solution of urgent national problems. First, you will appreciate the fact that the Baptists have a special place in my affections. Beginning with my great grandfather Baines, the family of my mother has been identified with many Baptist causes and I have a personal pride in their contribution to Baptist life…At the moment I am deeply concerned over the moral aspects of the civil rights proposals. I am confident you would not expect or want me to be deterred from stressing such moral elements by the respect which I entertain for former colleagues in the Congress who might disagree with my conclusions. For this reason it gave me considerable satisfaction to meet with members of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission’s seminar on citizenship recently, and to convey to them my strong feelings regarding our nation's duty to the minority racial group. I would suggest that one thing Baptists might do in the direction of establishing justice and righteousness in our society is to continue to support the Commission and to concern themselves with the findings and recommendations of the Commission as it pursues the Convention’s mandate…Individual congregations would do well to ponder its findings. Coupled with this agency which, according to my understanding, seeks appropriate ways to build bridges from the Christian community to the governmental area, is the Joint Committee on Public Affairs which is rendering notable service in the field of citizenship…I would be gratified to find stronger encouragement given by all churches to pulpit independence. The nation needs to strengthen the prophetic voices calling for compassionate and constructive action in human relations…I am confident you would agree that, having acted in many areas, we should not forsake the practice of prayer, even though as offered by some it might be ‘pious wind.’” This is the most significant letter of Johnson about civil rights that we have seen reach the market, and is also our first. A search of public records for the past 40 years shows just one other Johnson letter on this topic, and it was post-Civil Rights Act and did not relate to his successful struggle to make that act work.
Johnson’s persistence and political talents succeeded. On July 2, 1964, he signed the Civil Rights Act, his greatest legacy and achievement. And although he got little outright support from the Southern Baptist Convention, the organization refrained from calling for resistance or disobedience in the face of the law, with many leaders asking for compliance. Surely Johnson considered this effort a success.