Ministers’ Manifesto

Fifty years ago this coming week, eighty white members of the Atlanta clergy issued a manifesto on race relations. Read fifty years later, the manifesto seems mild. At the time, however, it was viewed as a revolutionary document that resulted in more than one death threat.

NPR has good coverage of this anniversary:

Fifty years ago, 80 white pastors in the Atlanta area took on segregationists in the Deep South. They took their beliefs to the front page of Atlanta’s main newspaper in 1957, issuing what has been called The Ministers’ Manifesto.

It was an appeal for peace during the debate over integration, when the state of Georgia weighed closing its schools rather than allow black and white children to attend them together. The ministers issued their statement on Nov. 3, 1957, after mobs had partially shut down Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

Lynn Neary speaks with retired United Methodist Bishop Bevel Jones, who helped write the manifesto, and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, about the historic document’s impact.

Jones says his parishioners weren’t surprised by the manifesto because he had been “preaching on the issue,” though they were “curious” about the tactic. “But I got some awfully, awfully hot letters from the public and some phone calls,” he adds.

Lowery was in Mobile, Ala., at the time. “We were very much aware of what had happened in Atlanta because all of us were traumatized by what had happened in Little Rock. So when these ministers in Atlanta spoke out, it was a breath of fresh air.

“Considering the environment and the times in which they issued a statement, it was a bold statement,” Lowery says.

Read today, the manifesto sounds “mild and extremely cautious,” Lowery says. “But at that time, it was a strong statement and we welcomed it for we needed leadership from the church.”

The statement never explicitly condemned segregation, but nevertheless it had a “sobering and calming effect on people across the South,” Lowery says.

Read it all here. Read the manifesto here.

Sadly, another group of local pastors — mostly Baptists and Pentecostals — issued a statement defending segregation a year and a half later. The Atlanta Journal ran it on the front page on March 25, 1959. It can be found here.

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