More on Social Acceptance for the Negro

It was heartening to read Rev. Edward Heerema’s article, “The Negro’s Road to Social Acceptance” in the November TORCH AND TRUMPET. I agree completely with his claim that it is unbiblical to think of the Negro as “an inferior person” and with the need for every Christian to “desire to help these our neighbors in their struggle.” It is also important and necessary to stress, as Rev. Heerema does, that “hard work and honesty in all things” are necessary factors in gaining a lasting and sound social acceptance. Furthermore, the writer shows commendable awareness of and sympathy with the extremely difficult nature of the Negro’s struggle for social acceptance as compared with that pf other minority groups. Rev. Heerema is also on solid ground when he writes that he wants to avoid “mere pious preachments of hard work and honesty” and calls on Christians to “seek means whereby these our neighbors are actually helped in their struggle.”

Some people deeply involved in the Negro’s struggle for social acceptance would no doubt immediately point out that the writer betrays his own lack of personal involvement by using such words as “their” rather than “our” struggle. A suspicious Negro or sociologist might even claim that these verbal slips express the feeling that the “our” group of the white writer is separate from and superior to the “their” group of the Negro for whom he desires equality. I do not wish to comment on such factors, however, except to note that this is illustrative of the very difficult situation and strained relations which often exist as Negroes and Whites strive sympathetically as fellow Americans and fellow Christians to gain a sound and lasting social acceptance for all.




I do, however, wish to comment on Rev. Heerema’s rejection of “marches, demonstrations and parades” as a legitimate means for helping the Negro to win social acceptance. If he means that “industry and integrity” on the Negro’s part are needed in addition to “marches, demonstrations and parades” in order to gain social acceptance, then I can wholeheartedly concur. But if he means to say, as I believe his article does, that we as Christians should not hold, share in or support such demonstrations, then it seems to me that in his failure to suggest a concrete and practicable alternative plan of action he may well fall into the position of “mere pious preachment” which he explicitly wishes to avoid.

Even when one recognizes the limitations of civil rights marches, demonstrations and parades, several things must be said in their favor. They are, I believe, completely consistent with the freedom of assembly which we as Americans have always claimed as one of our basic and dearest rights. Furthermore, the explicitly non-violent nature of these marches is a clear illustration of the difficult-to-practice injunction of our Lord to “turn the other cheek.” Since it is quite clear that many, if not most, Negroes in our land were and are suffering under an unbiblical and unconstitutional denial of their rights and privileges as children of God and citizens of the United States, it follows that they and we are obligated to do something. In the eighty years from 1863–1943 the civil governments and the Christian churches did very little to provide the possibility for social acceptance which both Rev. Heerema and I see as the Negro’s right in God’s sight and under the Constitution of our land. Under less clear and less prolonged provocation and denial of human rights and constitutional guarantees we as Christians and Americans have readily rallied to do “righteous” and bloody battle. We can be thankful, I believe, that the mainstream of civil rights demonstrations has been peaceable and explicitly non-violent. At times violence has occurred and both Negroes and Whites share in the responsibility for this. It should be noted, however, that the occasional violence on the part of civil rights demonstrators usually occurred in spite of every precaution to prevent it, was perpetrated because of a denial of basic human and constitutional rights and more often than not was a response to persistent and aggravated verbal and physical provocation and violence on the part of those opposing the civil rights demonstrations.


It is clear, therefore, that both Constitutionally and Biblically there is no basic legal or theological reason for rejecting, and a great deal of material supporting the use by Americans and Christians, be they Negro or White, of marches, demonstrations and parades as a means for gaining the opportunity for social acceptance for Negroes.

Civil rights demonstrations, marches and parades are not only theoretically justifiable, but also extremely effective practically. It is a fact that in the past ten years the Negro in America has made more progress in gaining his basic rights and privileges as a creature of God and as an American citizen than he did in the ninety years since his emancipation in 1863. Many factors contribute to this gain. But an impressive array of evidence shows that in a host of particular cases during the past ten years Negroes have gained educational and employment opportunities, the right to vote and to use public facilities and their right not to be kept out of places to live, eat and sleep purely because of their race and color. And in many if not most of the areas and cases where these gains were made, marches. demonstrations and parades have been the means for achieving what in some cases were the first concrete gains in over 100 years. In fact, to the shame of the Christian Church and to all of us as Christians, it must be honestly admitted that the effectiveness of these public, organized civil rights demonstrations is the single most important factor in bringing the awful fact of racial discrimination to the Church’s attention in a way she could no longer ignore and in pricking the conscience of Christians so sharply that we are no longer able to keep our guilty silence. The reason that at this particular time Rev. Heerema and I are concerned about and speak out publicly on discrimination against the Negro while we did not do so in 1943 or 1953 is probably because of the very public demonstrations he would reject and ad· vise white Christians not to support.

It may be true that “marches, demonstrations and parades” do not and cannot achieve in themselves the sound and lasting social acceptance for Negroes for which all Americans and all Christians should work and pray. Rev. Heerema is quite correct in maintaining that if the Negro is to achieve social acceptance, he must demonstrate hard work and honesty in all of the new opportunities that are now slowly hut surely being opened to him. But the fact remains that the public, organized civil rights demonstrations that have been inspired and led by Negroes and supported and joined by Whites have been the single most effective means of providing the new opportunities in which Negroes can demonstrate the industry and integrity through which full social acceptance may slowly be achieved. 11ms it seems to me to be unrealistic if not self-contradictory to sympathetically call for full social acceptance for the Negro through industry and integrity while at the same time rejecting on this basis the public demonstration which has been the single most effective means for providing the opportunities from which such personal initiative can be expected. The Negro’s organization of and participation in successful, dignified public demonstrations have done much to produce the sense of self-confidence and personal dignity which will create and support further industry, integrity and social acceptance in the new opportunities gained through these demonstrations.


A final set of factors supporting the participation of both Negroes and Whites in marches, demonstrations and parades draws heavily upon psychological considerations. Because of the economic organization of many places in America, especially in the South, the Negro has good reason to fear losing his job and livelihood, meager as it may be, as soon as he does anything to protest against the discriminatory organization of society or to claim the rights and privileges that are his. Thus many Negroes need the support of Whites, who to them represent the “have” group, in order to rise above the constant fear of economic retaliation as they firmly and with a sense of personal dignity demand that they no longer shall be considered inferior persons and thus hopelessly caught in the net of second class citizenship.

During his long history in America the Negro was considered an inferior person, if indeed he was considered a person at all. This feeling of inferiority was and is rein~ forced in a thousand different ways by the educational, social, economic, legal and political discrimination of which the Negro is a victim. Thus it is no wonder that the Negro child almost ineVitably grows up feeling he is an inferior person. Hard work and honesty may well be the best and necessary road to full social acceptance. But for most individual Negroes, social acceptance of this kind is such a distant and unreal thing that it has little power in marshal. ling and focusing his energies for developing his talents through hard work. Any failure will make clear his constant feeling of being an inferior person. Often as the result of his fear of failure, he is unable to attempt or to work in a prolonged disciplined way at gaining the skills and making the achievements required for sound social acceptance. He receives little or no strong and consistent support from his family or social context in seeking with industry and integrity the goals upon which sound and lasting social acceptance can be established. Thus with an indifference close to despair he takes on the values and habits of the lower class Negro community in which he lives. Needless to say, these are quite different generally from the industry and honesty for which Rev. Heerema pleads.

Along with this resignation to a life of indifferent existence from day to day and of despair of ever rising higher on the socio-economic scale or of ever gaining full social acceptance as defined by the prevailing white middle class, the Negro will very probably develop a deep feeling of frustration which will center on the white man’s society of which he feels himself to be the victim. In such a situation, it is not hard to imagine what the Negro win think of any proclamation of the need for industry and honesty made by a middle class white minister. The Negro’s negative reaction will probably increase if the church involved is a white suburban church with its members located in a community whose fine living conditions are not accessible to him. A further contributing factor is the likelihood that the church’s members own or have well paid positions of responsibility in the business concerns where the Negro is doomed to spend his life in a frustrating day to day existence offering little possibility for advancement. For him, the words “industry and honesty” as used by the white minister have little meaning, and they might well call forth a charge of hypocrisy and a stream of anger and ill feeling against the Christian minister, all of his congregation and probably against all Christianity itself with its white man’s Jesus and a White God. A vivid picture of this rather common modern phenomenon is given by the Negro novelist James Baldwin in Another Country. Rufus was a young Negro who knew about and certainly needed the Christian message of sin, salvation and service, which, as Rev. Heerema rightly insists, requires personal industry and honesty. But as this able but hopelessly frustrated young Negro jumps from the George Washington Bridge to a violent and watery death, he shouts angry, arrogant and yet pathetic and fearful profanities at the “White God” whom he knows he is going to meet.


In such a situation of personal fear of economic retaliation and of personal inferiority, the mutual support provided by organized public demonstrations is extremely important for Negroes. It is clear also that genuine sympathy and active support by Whites in such marches can do much to calm the Negro’s debilitating fear and diminish his feeling of frustrating inferiority. Here also, as mentioned earlier, the feeling of personal dignity and of the potential power which comes from such a well organized and amazingly well-run demonstration as the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. cannot help but filter down to the individual Negro and give him both the desire and the confidence to use his energies in approaching with industry and honesty the new vistas which are opened to him.

Finally, and most important of all, the Christian minister and the Christian Church must bear God’s message of Sin, Salvation and Service to the Negro as well as the White. I agree with Rev. Heerema that this requires that we stress industry and honesty. But until we support and join the Negro in organized demonstrations, marches and parades, and thus convince him that we are serious in helping him gain meaningful new opportunities for industry and integrity, and until we give him every possible support in utilizing these opportunities, until that time our proclamation of the need for hard work and honesty is likely to fall on deaf ears. In fact, our failure to join and support the Negro in organized public demonstrations not only makes his ears deaf to the Divine message we bring, but may call forth such a stored-up stream of frustration, suspicion, and hate that he may reject completely and angrily the message of industry and integrity which we offer sympathetically and in good conscience. In the rejection of this legitimate aspect of the Christian message, he may well become so violent that he rejects the whole Christian Church and the Lord and Savior he has been taught from a child to love and serve.

Yes, the American Negro needs to practice “hard work and honesty in all things” in order to gain a sound and lasting social acceptance. The message of the Christian Church to all men, both Negro and White, must always stress industry and integrity as necessary responses to the gracious gift of salvation. But in rejecting demonstrations, marches and parades and in counseling White Christians not to join Negroes in these public, organized demonstrations in order to promote the message of industry and integrity, I fear that we may be creating unwise and almost insurmountable obstacles which will make it very difficult if not impossible for the American Negro to hear the message and gain the social acceptance which we as Christians and Americans desire for him as well as for ourselves and for all men.