My “Witness,” Part 1

My “witness” Part 1: My father is an alumnus of the Stetson University choir. (Class of 1956) At some point between 1963 and 1967, the Stetson Choir was on tour through Florida. By then my father was Minister of Music at East Hill Baptist Church in Pensacola. The Stetson choir was to perform at East Hill. There was one Black student in the choir. Our family hosted this woman and her tour roommate. My parents explained to my brother and me that these would be guests in our home and that we were to treat them with respect. I found out nearly ten years later that there was at least one member of East Hill who vociferously objected to a “Negro” being in the sanctuary and leading in worship. As far as I’m aware, no one lost his/her employment over the event. There certainly were MUCH more bitter fights going on elsewhere in the South about integrated worship services.

By 1968 we were living in Jacksonville, Florida. One thing about Jacksonville that I did not know until June 11, 2020 was that a mob of 200, including some Jacksonville Police officers, had attacked a Civil Rights Sit-in on August 27, 1960. Some of the attackers used axe handles to beat the non-violent demonstrators. As a result, that day was called “Axe Handle Sunday.” The fact that I did not know this until almost sixty years later indicates how little of the racist history of our country is generally known. My father was Minister of Music at First Baptist Church. In in 1968 First Baptist was observing its 125th anniversary. There was also an observation of 100 years since the formerly enslaved persons at First Baptist had left to form “their own church.” The summer of 1968 was a time of high tension in the United States and there certainly had to have been some tension in Jacksonville (which is rightly called the largest city in South Georgia). Nevertheless the leadership of both First Baptist and its African American “daughter” church developed plans for a joint celebration of the 125th and 100th anniversaries.The celebrations would include joint worship services at both First Baptist and the African American church. The guest speaker for the service at First Baptist was W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas. Criswell was the closest thing to a Southern Baptist “Pope” as existed in the second half of the 20th century. For some reason Criswell thought that the way to connect with this interracial audience was to tell Negro “Dialect” “Jokes.” No doubt “Axe Handle Sunday” was a living memory for many of the Black worship attendees. My father was sitting on the platform near Criswell and was genuinely afraid that someone might take a shot at Criswell, miss and hit him. The next morning Homer Lindsay, Sr. the pastor at FBC Jacksonville was driving Criswell to the airport. Criswell said “Homer, I blew it didn’t I?” “WA, you blew it as bad as it’s ever been blown.”

I recall that there were some Black students at my elementary school, so I guess Jacksonville was under “Freedom of Choice.” Jacksonville is divided by the St. John’s River. The part of Jacksonville where we lived was the “White” part of town. That meant that little school integration would have happened, given the residential segregation that reigned then and now.

The division between the White people I knew in Jacksonville over the 1968 Presidential election was between supporters of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. My parents supported Nixon. My parental grandparents had been anti-Roosevelt Republicans, so support of Nixon didn’t necessarily have a racial component. By 1969, when I started fifth grade, I had been in at least two “integrated” worship services (“Special” services, for sure) and had had at least a few Black classmates in public school. No one in my family or my church family were overly exercised about it, as best I remember. In October 1969, due to events in my family, we moved to Jackson, MS, where my father would be Minister of Music at Broadmoor Baptist Church. A lot of other “stuff” would also happen that year.

About jaltman81

United Methodist Clergy
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