By AT News Team, August 28, 2013
Adventists were present on the mall in the nation's capital in 1963 and heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., make his famous "I have a dream …" speech. Adventists supported the civil rights movement he headed and they were there again last Sabbath (August 24) and today, remembering it after 50 years.
There were also Adventists who felt that the March for Jobs and Freedom was a mistake, that were of the opinion that King was "an agitator with Communist connections," that God intended racial segregation. There may yet be some of similar views, although today they are less likely to express them.
Dr. Mervyn Warren, dean of the school of religion at Oakwood University, believes that King "beta-tested" the famous speech at an event on the Oakwood campus in Huntsville, Alabama, 17 months earlier on March 19, 1962. Warren has a recording from the 1962 rally in Oakwood's gym organized by local civil rights leaders and Adventist students. You can hear clips from it at the link at the bottom of this story and those clips clearly include lines that became much more widely circulated after the 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Anna Buchanan, a member of the Dupont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, D.C., was part of the march 50 years ago at 27 years of age and shared some recollections last week in the denomination's North American Division newsletter. "Some people were concerned that there would be retaliation. However, once the buses dropped us off and we reached downtown, we came face-to-face with many different races. That day we were just one group of people that melded together for one purpose."
Buchanan and her husband had experienced racial discrimination when they attempted to purchase a home in the Washington suburb of Suitland, Maryland. "The real estate company told them that the home they wanted was unavailable," NAD NewsPoints reported, and they were directed to a model home elsewhere. But when civil rights leaders arranged for "a Caucasian couple [who] went to the same neighborhood to inquire about purchasing the same home … it was for sale." With this evidence in hand, civil rights workers met with top officials of the real estate company and the Buchanans were able to purchase the home they wanted. They "later learned that the company had a designated street in the neighborhood for African American families."
The Adventist denomination had its own moment of confrontation a year earlier when the General Conference (GC) Session was held in San Francisco in 1962. More than a thousand people joined a demonstration that drew media attention for many days and as a result the denomination's leaders decided that they must include an African-American minister among the top officers. Pastor Frank L. Peterson was elected a vice president of the GC at that session, the first person of color to hold such a high office.
Despite what happened at the GC Session a year earlier, denominational leaders subtly tried to discourage Adventist participation in the 1963 march. The August 22, 1963, issue of the Review and Herald had a cover article by Ellen G. White with the headline, "Have Peace One With Another." Although it is not clear that White intended the piece to relate to ethnic issues when she wrote it, it told Adventists that "everything in social life must be held subordinate to the claims of religion [and] there is great temptation to speak of the supposed wrongs of some."
An editorial the previous week had told of an injustice in a New York City criminal case which had nothing to do with race but gave an opportunity to urge moderation. In the September 5, 1963, issue there was a letter from the GC president, Pastor R. R. Figuhr, quoting former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and urging "the middle of the road" as a "good philosophy for Seventh-day Adventists. … We have had many forms of extremism and liberalism down through the years," Figuhr wrote. "The writings of Sister White are replete with counsels to avoid every suggestion of extremism."
In January (1964) Pastor Charles Bradford, then president of the Lake Region Conference who would in the 1980s become the first African American to serve as president of the NAD, wrote privately to Figuhr regarding the impact of the civil rights movement on the Adventist Church. Harold Lee and Monte Sahlin published the letter for the first time in their 2005 biography, Brad: Visionary Spiritual Leadership.
"Dear Elder Figuhr, I have a great deal of respect for you. It is my firm belief that you possess rare qualities of leadership. But with all due respect to your position as our esteemed leader, I feel constrained to say that your recent letter to the believers, in the January 2 issue of the Review & Herald is definitely out of harmony with the time in which we live, as well as, the timeless counsels of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy. Having nothing positive and encouraging to say to 45,000 loyal Seventh-day Adventists of color, who live in the context of present-day society and who must constantly battle with the stern realities of life, we certainly must not revert to the 1904-1909 era for our framework of reference. The social world of today is just as different from the world of threescore years ago as is the world of science and technology. If Jesus were here in the flesh today, He would certainly pronounce a woe upon the Pharisees who pay tithe and make disciples yet have respect of persons. The issue is moral." He quoted James 2:8-9 and he quoted from an Ellen White article in the Review & Herald of April 2, 1895, that specifically addressed "what should be done for the colored race."
Bradford quoted White to the GC president; "Is not this prejudice against the colored people on the part of the white people similar to that which was cherished by the Jews against the Gentiles? They cultivated the idea until it became deep-rooted that the Gentile should not share the privileges of light and truth that were given to the Jews. They believed that the Jews alone should be recipients of heavenly grace and favor. Christ worked throughout his life to break down this prejudice."
"We are also doing our white believers a distinct disservice when we fail to declare unto them the whole counsel of God which includes particular instruction as to how they must regard their Negro brethren if they are to be saved," Bradford wrote. "How can we be silent on the matter and present it as an “option” or non-essential when great segments of our church membership do not understand that the frown of God is upon all who do not recognize and appreciate the dignity and intrinsic worth of every man? We must teach all of our people white and black that they cannot pray our Father when wounding Christ in the person of His saints. Politics is not involved here, nor can the issue under discussion be equated with a dispute between brothers over land ownership." More material is included in the book than Adventist Today has room to publish here.
By 2010 the majority of the membership of the Adventist Church in North America was made up of ethnic minorities. A third of Adventists in the U.S. are black, at least another quarter are Hispanic, Asian and Native American. The most widely known Adventists in America are African Americans such as Pastor Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric surgeon at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore who some believe will be the first Adventist to run for president of the United States.
Many Adventists participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s and a number continue to be involved today. They see their involvement as directly in line with the founders of the denomination who were part of the anti-slavery movement and the prohibition movement, as well as activists for health reform, dress reform, and school reform. Others feel that because civil rights deal with social justice it is too political and Adventists should stay out of it.
"The Adventist Church was impacted by the March in 1963," said Orlan Johnson, public affairs and religious liberty director for the NAD. "It not only changed America, but it also changed the world as we knew it. … Nothing would ever remain the same. When you look at the diversity in our churches, from the members to the pastors to the leadership … at every level, the impact of that march is evident in every corner of the Adventist movement."
Clips from Martin Luther King speech at Oakwood College on March 19, 1962: