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A Colorblind Campus? White Evangelical Colleges and Black Students in the Era of Civil Rights

Eleven young women wearing corsages pose on a staircase. One of the young women is black; the other ten are white.

Homecoming Finalists of North Park College in 1969. Although most white evangelical colleges admitted black students by the late 1960s, their colorblind policies made campus life challenging for black students. Courtesy of Covenant Archives and Historical Library, North Park University, Chicago.

Founders Week, 1970, Moody Bible Institute. It was the most important week of the year for the storied college founded by the famous nineteenth-century evangelist, D.L. Moody. A public protest at this time and place, Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins knew, would have maximum impact. Warren and Jenkins might have fit the profile of hundreds of other recent graduates of the college, but there was one important difference: they were black. On a cold Chicago day in February, Leona Jenkins stood on the doorstep of the college holding a large handwritten sign—“Woe unto you, hypocrites”—while Melvin Warren ceremoniously ripped their diplomas and tossed them in a trashcan. Warren told the media the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute. It certainly did that. To the administration’s chagrin, national media picked up the story and soon Moody faced a blizzard of accusations surrounding its history of segregated dorms and other forms of discrimination against black students. The dramatic protest intentionally raised a potent question: Were white evangelical colleges places of Christian community for all, or were they yet another place where investment in whiteness was cloaked in the name of Jesus?[1]

As this protest indicates, white evangelicals grappled with the consequences of the civil rights movement close to home as they confronted fraught questions about the nature of their own institutions. The historian Adam Laats has written that white evangelical colleges have constantly grappled with two imperatives that are often in tension.[2] They have aspired to rigorous and respectable academic standards equal to secular schools. At the same time, they have tried to stay on the straight and narrow evangelical path, creating campus environments that reinforce faith rather than undermine it. During the 1960s, race began to figure into both these imperatives in ways it never had before. Under the cultural and legal changes produced by the civil rights movement, nondiscrimination on the basis of race became part of what it meant to be a modern academic institution. Equally important, some white evangelicals began to wonder if opening the door of evangelical higher education to black Christians was now part of what it meant to be an evangelical college. By the end of the decade, efforts to build Christian academic communities had to account for these rapidly shifting racial norms.

As a result, many white evangelical colleges launched unprecedented campaigns to recruit black students. At Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, faculty pressure after the death of Martin Luther King led to the creation of a “Minority Recruitment Committee.” In the fall of 1970, the college welcomed ten black men, its first group of black students.[3] At Eastern Baptist College in suburban Philadelphia, the President established an “Advisory Committee on the Disadvantaged” in 1968 to explore how Eastern could help “non-white” people.[4] By the following year Eastern had nearly two dozen black students enrolled. Though the rapid social changes of the 1960s made recruitment of black students a matter of institutional self-interest, college leaders conceived of their efforts as expressions of Christian love. Loaded with irony, these race-conscious recruitment initiatives reflected an emerging colorblind theology that required visible displays of interracial unity to be credible. White administrators imagined that Christian concern could create harmonious campuses where students’ common identity in Christ could transcend racial identities and conflicts.

But when the first significant cohorts of black students arrived, controversy often flared. Some campuses found themselves embroiled in racial crisis. The new black students demanded reforms such as black studies programs and more diverse music styles in chapel services. They critiqued colorblind theology as a force that made whiteness normative and silenced black voices. As a black student at Messiah College declared, “Whites are often able to accept Blacks as people, but not as Black people.”[5] The formation of black student groups became flash points for controversy. Though these groups were almost invariably open to all students and sought to build interracial understanding, rumors swirled that they were militant and separatist, a threat to the unity of the body of Christ. Many white students indignantly asked why racially conscious groups belonged on a Christian campus at all. While black students insisted that systemic reforms were necessary to create a Christian academic community for all students, many white students countered that black students’ demands were damaging Christian unity.

By the middle of the 1970s, the era of racial upheaval was in retreat. Administrators refused to yield to most black demands, and initial black recruitment programs often collapsed altogether in the face of white resentment and black disillusionment. For the time being, the colorblind campus would be a space of token integration and white normativity. For many white evangelical students and administrators, the presence of black students proved far more difficult than they had imagined, in part because it forced them to encounter their own whiteness. Thinking about whiteness was theologically disturbing for many white evangelical students. It raised the possibility that their faith was not unmediated divine truth but was a racially conditioned religiosity. As one Wheaton College administrator admitted, “the college has allowed itself to think that white culture is the only Christian culture.”[6] Black efforts to reform evangelical institutions brought to the surface the investment in whiteness that marked the boundaries of evangelical identity. As colorblind theology took shape, it offered a way through the tension. White evangelicals could express a desire for unity and Christian love without engaging in systemic reform that risked redrawing the balance of power in their institutions.

As the contemporary struggles of evangelicals of color in predominantly white evangelical spaces attest, the work of racial reform begun in the 1960s continues. For white evangelical institutions, racial change has rarely come easily. Today, many historically white evangelical campuses have increasingly diverse student bodies. Will today’s students emerge from these institutions as anti-racist Christians prepared to serve their constituencies with courage in an era of resurgent racism? Or will enduring evangelical investments in whiteness have their say as they did in the civil rights era? These are questions charged with vital implications not only for evangelicalism’s future, but that of the United States.

Jesse Curtis is a PhD candidate at Temple University. His writing on racism, colorblindness, and civil rights has recently appeared in The Journal of American Studies and History & Memory.

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[1] “Bible Institute Grads Rip Diplomas; Protest Racism,” Jet, March 19, 1970, 30; “The Mood at Moody,” Newsweek, March 9, 1970, 51; “Dr. Culbertson Addresses Race Issue,” Moody Student, February 27, 1970, 1; Dave Broucek, “Admin. expresses ‘Mood at Moody,’” Moody Student, March 13, 1970, 3.

[2] Adam Laats, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] Steve Harris, “Blacks at Bethel, part 1, 1969-1971: How Bethel recruited black students,” Bethel Clarion, March 21, 1975, 4.

[4] “College to Aid Disadvantaged Students, The Spotlight, December 16, 1968, 1.

[5] “Minutes of the Ad Hoc Committee on Discrimination,” April 24, 1972, Discrimination Committee 1972-1974 XI – 2 – 3.1, Archives of Messiah College.

[6] Unsigned and undated document, Box 4, Folder 1, Office of Development Records, 1947-1983 (RG/07/001) College Archives, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

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