[Editor’s Note: Dr. Brent Aucoin is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College at Southeastern. His published doctoral dissertation (completed at the University of Arkansas) is entitled, A Rift in the Clouds: Race and the Southern Federal Judiciary, 1901–1910. He continues to research race relations in America. So we asked him to evaluate where we are now 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. See below for more resources on race relations upcoming at Southeastern.]
When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008 and Fred Luter was elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012, some predicted that the elevation of these two black men to their respective offices would help solve the racial problems in America and America’s largest Protestant denomination. In the case of President Obama’s election, some prognosticators even began speaking of the advent of a “post-racial America.” However, events such as the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the recent upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, make it clear that racial strife continues in America. Likewise, the Southern Baptist Convention continues to struggle with an image tarnished by its pro-slavery origins and the fact that it remains a predominately white denomination. While it is safe to say that some individuals expected too much from the elections of Obama and Luter (particularly the former), it is also safe to conclude that those expectations, and the extraordinary attention given to their elections, indicate that the issue of race continues to be an important and pressing topic in America and in the church.
It is for this reason that I believe Americans and Southern Baptists in particular must take time to learn about and to reflect upon the history of race relations in our country and denomination. As a society and as a church we are grappling with the issue of race. This has been the case since the founding of both the USA and the SBC. America and American Christianity have been on a long and arduous journey when it comes to the matter of the relationship between black and white. If one wants to know where we are now in this journey and how we can move forward, then one needs to know how we have gotten to this point, and what is the ultimate goal.
America’s observation of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provides the perfect opportunity for us to do these very things. The passage of this monumental piece of legislation half a century ago has been dubbed as something just short of miraculous, considering its historical context. In a single moment racist practices and laws, which in some cases had plagued African Americans for nearly three centuries, were upended. The Act sought to transform America from a color-conscious society to one that is blind to race. The Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment, access to public accommodations, and education. Like the unprecedented, historic elections of Presidents Obama and Luter, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a momentous milestone in the history of American race relations.
However, like the elections of Obama and Luter, the Civil Rights Acts also failed to solve all of the racial problems that many hoped and expected it would. (See, again, the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri as an example of that failure.) It, like other milestones, marked a significant turning point in American race relations, and the taking of another step closer to the ultimate goal of racial reconciliation. But how close are we to that goal? How far along have we come in the journey? We know we are not there yet, but are we close, and what needs to be done to bring the journey to a successful end?
During a two-day event being put on by the Center for Faith and Culture called “Christian Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” these questions and others will be explored and discussed. On the evening of Tuesday, September 16th, Dr. Gerald Smith will consider the role that Christianity played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and how Christians can guide the ongoing quest for racial justice and reconciliation. On Wednesday, September 17th a panel consisting of scholars and a veteran of the civil rights movement will examine the history of race relations in America from the 1960s to the present. This Casual Conversation event will begin at 10:00 AM and be held in Binkley Chapel.
For information on these events please check out this link. And if you have questions you’d like to ask Southeastern’s Casual Conversation’s panel please submit them here: https://sebts.typeform.com/to/iF5AXv. Join the conversation on Twitter at #Secasconvo and on the livestream: http://www.sebts.edu/news-resources/livestream.aspx