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 theology.
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 race.
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 school busing.
Before the busing 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 of racism.
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 racism).
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 self-perception.
Racism is 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.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.