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Learning About Christians and Race in 1965

Doing some cleaning and rearranging at our house, I came across a paper I wrote when I was in college. OK, I haven’t saved all the papers I wrote in college or seminary, but this is a very special paper to me.

In 1965, I was a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi, a public university. My major was history with a minor in religion and philosophy.

At the time, there was not a single African-American student at the college. Our sister institution, Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) had been integrated about two years earlier with the assistance of the Army.

I was taking an ethics course with Robert Arrington, a young professor still working on his doctorate who was, to the best of my knowledge, not a Christian. When we were assigned a term paper, I asked if I could write a paper on “Christian Ethics and Racial Discrimination.” He not only said “yes,” he encouraged me to do so.

With the assistance of Louie Farmer, my Baptist Student Union director, and Harold Kitchings, pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, I was able to come up with some great resources.

I was introduced to Baptist ethicists T. B Maston (not knowing I would one day be campus minister at his alma mater, Carson-Newman) and Henlee Barnette.

I even had access to a paper written by Kirby Godsey (future president of MercerUniversity) at New Orleans Seminary. Of course, I also read Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph McGill, and some representative segregationists.

As I read it today, I think the paper holds up pretty well, especially the final paragraph: “If there is any fault in the modern Christian, it is a lack of understanding of what Christ was talking about. Many see Jesus Christ only as an extension of themselves, hindered by the same worries and prejudices. As long as this type of thinking continues, Christ will remain to many people only a Jewish philosopher who taught a rather interesting philosophy of love two thousand years ago, and nothing more. Can Christianity work? Rather, let us ask, has it been tried? ”

I am grateful to my professor for encouraging me to tackle this project, to Louie Farmer and Harold Kitchings for taking the time to help a young student broaden his horizons, and to those courageous writers who took a stand for what was right when it was not popular. These folks helped to prepare me for the new world that was breaking into our lives.

By the way, I got an “A” on the paper.

Ircel Harrison is coordinator of Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This column appeared originally in his blog.