Robert Parham for EthicsDaily.com
As slavery was at the heart of the
founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, racism was at the heart of
the beginnings of the anti-public school movement and the founding of the
Christian academies in the 1960s. Denial
of either engages in historical revisionism and moral dishonesty.
Nashville, Tenn., is a
case in point about racism and public schools. Despite the widespread, intense
influence of Christianity, Nashville has a troubled history of race relations as
evidenced by its school integration story over the past 50 years.
The buckle of the Bible Belt,
Nashville houses the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention, the
Tennessee Baptist Convention, a Baptist university, a Free Will Baptist college,
a Church of Christ university, a Nazarene university, a Methodist-related
divinity school and agencies of the United Methodist Church, as well as a host
of Christian-affiliated organizations. Churches are everywhere. The city
probably has more ordained clergy and earned doctoral degrees in theology than
any other city in America. But geography and chronology trump prophetic
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court
struck down school segregation.
Thirteen days later, the SBC met
in St. Louis. A. C. Miller, a Nashville resident and executive secretary of the
SBC’s Christian Life Commission, and J. B. Weatherspoon, the CLC’s board
chairman and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made support
for the Supreme Court’s decision part of their report. They said the court’s
ruling was "in harmony … with the Christian principles of equal justice and love
for all men." They persuaded the SBC to adopt their controversial report on
Four months after the court’s
decision, Nashville’s Father Ryan High School became one of two Catholic high
schools in Tennessee to integrate. Both actions represented hopeful beginnings.
That hope was soon dashed, however.
A lawsuit in 1955 pressed the
Nashville school board to allow a black student to attend a white school. Two
years later, school officials let African-American parents decide where they
wanted their children to attend. Only a handful of children went to the white
schools. One school was bombed after an African-American child attended on the
first day. The court rejected Nashville’s
voluntary attendance plan and pressed for desegregation. The court instructed
Davidson County in 1961 to integrate grades 1-4. In 1967, the school system was
still segregated—schools were all white or all black. In 1971, the court ordered
Before the bussing decision,
however, the move toward Christian schools had begun with Goodpasture Christian
School in 1965. In 1969, Nashville-area
Christians for "the glory of God" started Brentwood Academy. Other Christians started Franklin Road Academy
the same year. Between 1965 and 1985,
Nashville Christians went on a building crusade, launching a number of Christian
academies. Historic, non-sectarian private schools also flourished.
White enrollment in public schools
dropped 20,000 during the decade of the 1970s, as whites moved to Christian
schools and suburbs spread. Twenty years after the rush to build Christian
schools, race remains a dominant issue in Nashville’s education system. Minority
enrollment in the prominent Christian academies is generally between 3 percent
and 6 percent.
If race were not an issue
in these schools, why would minority enrollment be so low when the minority
population is so much higher?
One can’t understand southern
Christianity and the disdain for public education without recognizing the role
- Some parents who send
their children to Christian academies or homeschool them admit the entrenched
reality of racism and seek ways to reform culture. They make their decisions for
a variety of reasons other than race. Not all Christian school parents
and homeschoolers are racists (and not all public school parents are free from
- Other parents know that
explicit racist-talk is politically incorrect and convince themselves
that racism is something confined to poor whites with mullets, red necks and
tattoos with the number of their favorite NASCAR driver.
- Still others attack those
who link the issue of race with the anti-public school movement as
union supporters, gay activists, liberals, those with an economic conflict of
interest and enemies of God.
Racism’s roots run deep into the
soul of conservative Christianity, despite the vigorous protests that born-again
evangelicals are color-blind, prejudice-free, full of love for all God’s
children. The racism deniers have an inadequate understanding of the power of
sin—sin that sculpts culture, shapes social power systems and shades
America’s original sin. As American Christians, we need to confess our sin of racism,
apparently on a continuous basis. We need to reflect deeply about why public
school hatred is so intense in conservative Christianity and to identify the
other manifestations of racism in our social order. We need to work toward the
betterment of public education, not retreat into false compounds of religious
purity. Public education needs and
deserves the support of all Christians.
Parham is executive
director of the