American Baptist College Was One of the Most Important Contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, but Now Its Future Is Unclear

American Baptist College in Nashville is among the SBC’s most substantial, and most little known, contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Photo by David Roach

At Nashville’s Woolworth on 5th lunch counter, much has changed since the sit-ins of 1960 that helped desegregate public accommodations in the Jim Crow South.

In 1960, Woolworth was among a handful of Nashville department stores where African American students were beaten and arrested, drawing national media coverage when they challenged a ban on black diners at the store’s lunch counter. All Woolworth food items at the time cost no more than ten cents.

Today at a refurbished Woolworth, tourists commemorate that history amid trendy memorabilia and a big screen showing a continuous loop of Motown, R&B and swing music. A fully dressed burger costs $23, and “lightly pickled shrimp on a bed of arugula” is “delectable as a shared plate or first course,” according to a restaurant review in The Tennessean.

Three and a half miles north, along the Cumberland River, another key site related to the Nashville sit-ins is a stark contrast. American Baptist College remains much as it was 59 years ago, with no tourists, plain brick buildings sitting on 53 acres and about 100 mostly black students preparing to continue the quest for social justice.

Formerly a joint venture of the Southern and National Baptist Conventions, ABC was founded in 1924 and received 71 years of SBC funding. During that time, the college produced leaders of the Nashville sit-ins, Freedom Riders and, according to journalist David Halberstam, more members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s executive staff than any other school in the nation — all while many of the Southern Baptists who funded it opposed efforts to end segregation.

ABC — legally named American Baptist Theological Seminary — is among the SBC’s most substantial, and most little known, contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

Yet ABC’s future is uncertain, as some National Baptists allege the school is adrift theologically and a pending lawsuit will determine the extent to which ABC maintains Baptist ties legally.

‘Subversive & mysterious ways’

“God has subversive and mysterious ways to achieve what God’s purposes are,” ABC President Forrest Harris said of the college’s SBC-funded civil rights heritage. “And sometimes we are not aware that we are being used for that.” Neither Southern nor National Baptists were “aware of what this school ultimately would come to be and how it would impact the Civil Rights Movement.”

Established to train black ministers when they were not permitted to enroll at SBC seminaries, ABC struggled in its early years to maintain funding, facilities and faculty, according to a 2018 paper presented by Keith Harper, a Baptist historian at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

From 1955-65, ABC averaged 70 students and 13 graduates per year, Harper wrote. It was not accredited until 1971. Halberstam’s book “The Children” called ABC “small and exceedingly poor” during the civil rights era.

Yet beginning in 1958, ABC students were among black Nashville collegians who attended workshops on nonviolent resistance led by activist James Lawson. When the workshops eventuated in lunch counter sit-ins Feb. 13, 1960, ABC students played key roles in the movement. Among them were then-future U.S. Rep. John Lewis and future King associates Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel. Lafayette went on to serve as ABC president.

After three months of sit-ins — which saw the participating students verbally and physically abused — blacks attained the right to be served at Nashville lunch counters. Lewis, Lafayette and Bevel all went on to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides, which also drew violent response and helped desegregate public buses in the South.

During the sit-ins, ABC students brought “a quiet, unwavering strength, a foundation which was based on unshakable religious faith,” Halberstam wrote. “They simply could not be bent and could not be discouraged.”

The social justice activism of ABC students has continued, Harris said, citing examples of present-day alumni battling poverty and mass incarceration.

A group of five current students told BP social justice organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference still have a presence on campus. Theology student Breon Cox said he attended a counter-protest last year against white nationalists who convened in middle Tennessee.

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Source: Baptist Press