EDITOR’S NOTE: Carlisle Driggers, retired executive director-treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, reflects on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Johnson 50 years ago when Driggers was pastor of 23rd and Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. Driggers became noted for his multiethnic ministry and later served on staff at First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., to help the congregation with its racial integration process.
It goes without saying that most people in America today who were of adult age on Nov. 22, 1963, remember where they were and what they were doing when the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination filled the airwaves and televisions screens. It was an unbelievably shocking and grief-stricken day all across the nation and around the world.
At that time I was a recent graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and had been the pastor for about two months of 23rd and Broadway Baptist Church in the west end of the city. It was located in what had become the highest crime district of Louisville. For several years the area around the church had been changing from predominantly white to black residents.
When John Kennedy became president in 1961, he began focusing on civil rights for all Americans. Soon there was talk in Congress about the need for civil rights legislation which would enhance the worth and dignity of all Americans, especially black individuals and families. To be expected, opposition surfaced from various sections of the country, and passage of the proposed civil rights bill was in jeopardy. President Kennedy pushed forward with the legislation even though he faced strong opposition. Then came the assassination, and it was concluded by many that the Civil Rights Act would be forgotten.
As is well known, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president less than two hours after Kennedy’s death. In a matter of days, as I remember, the new president let it be known that he was going to move forward on the civil rights agenda for two reasons — first, out of respect for President Kennedy who championed the right of all Americans to have decent and honorable lives and second, because it was best for America’s future. Johnson applied the full influence of his office plus the skill he had acquired over many years as a congressional leader to getting the bill adopted in 1964 as the most important civil rights legislation in U.S. history.
As a young pastor in an inner-city, racially changing community, I watched, listened to and read about with great interest the debate in Congress and around the nation about the pending civil rights legislation. As I recall, there was not a lot of opposition in Congress to the passage of the bill, but for sure, there was much opposition in certain sections of the country, especially my own beloved Southland.
For certain, large numbers of Southern Baptist churches, individuals, institutions and organizations were not in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 50 years ago. However, there were leaders among us, both local and national, who stood firm and tall for a new day in America that would provide equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of race or social status. Several who inspired our church and me in our endeavors were: Dr. Foy Valentine of the Christian Life Commission; Dr. Arthur Rutledge of the Home Mission Board; Dr. Duke McCall of Southern Seminary; the national leaders of the Woman’s Missionary Union; Dr. Henlee Barnette, professor of Christian ethics at Southern Seminary; and Dr. T.B. Maston, professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — to name a few.
It has been said that all of us stand on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was sorely needed in the land at that time and since, and it has helped to shape and encourage my own years of Christian ministry, especially in having a clearer understanding of and commitment to missions and evangelism as commissioned by Christ the Lord. Everybody everywhere deserves to know about the saving grace and mercy of the crucified and risen Savior. Without a doubt, the Civil Rights Act provided an even greater opportunity for the sharing of Jesus with all peoples in the greatest nation on this earth.
— B. Carlisle Driggers is executive director-treasurer emeritus of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.