Though Southern Baptists were not known for their advocacy of racial justice 60 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. once told a fellow black Baptist minister that the 1957 Southern Baptist Convention president "suffered with us" in the cause of civil rights.
King's reference was to the late U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays, D-Ark., who served as SBC president from 1956-58. After helping to mediate a conflict over integration at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Hays lost his bid for reelection to a ninth term in Congress to a write-in segregationist candidate.
Six years later, Hays was serving as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, and he walked by the door of a room in the White House where King was sitting as he waited to meet with the president. "Mr. Hays," King called out, according to an oral history of Hays by Ronald Tonks.
Hays stopped, and King, turning to the Baptist minister who accompanied him, said, "Mr. Hays has suffered with us."
That statement, Hays said, was "a reference to the Little Rock experience and my defeat." He added, "I can't remember anything else he said ... I never could forget that."
Hays the mediator
In 1957, Little Rock's school board stood ready to begin court-ordered desegregation of local public schools, beginning with Central High. But Gov. Orval Faubus, fearing violence and convinced a majority of Arkansans opposed integration, deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering the school.
As tensions escalated, Hays helped organize a meeting between Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower. Hays also served as a go-between for state and federal officials for two weeks, hoping for peaceful desegregation, according to his memoir "A Southern Moderate Speaks."
When violence broke out, Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to enforce integration, and many segregationists saw Hays as a crucial foe of their cause.
During the conflict, King sent Eisenhower a telegram urging "a strong forthright stand." Following the president's deployment of the 101st, King wrote in another telegram, "I wish to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock ... Spiritual forces cannot emerge in a situation of mob violence."
The 101st remained at Central from mid-September until December, Hays wrote. Federalized National Guard troops didn't leave until the end of the school year.
The episode left Arkansas Baptists divided.
Pastors of three churches that cooperated with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention signed a letter condemning Faubus' deployment of the National Guard, and one pastor joined a coalition commending the governor, the Arkansas Baptist newsjournal reported.
Arkansas Baptist Editor Edwin McDonald editorialized that "since the race issue is one that finds our Baptists of the state on the fence and on both sides of the fence ... we are taking no stand either for or against integration."
Sam Agee, a former Arkansas Air National Guardsman who was deployed to Central High, remembers Hays as principled and courageous.
Hays "was standing up for what he believed in," Agee, 82, told Baptist Press. "... He thought that he was doing what was right."
Agee, a life-long Southern Baptist, said he didn't feel animosity toward African Americans in 1957. Still, he thought blacks "had their own schools," and he "wondered why we would want to cause problems" by integrating.
During the desegregation standoff, black students approached Agee and fellow guardsmen, he said. An officer "told them that they couldn't come in."
As years passed, however, Agee said he realized schools for black students "probably weren't as good as Little Rock Central High" and separate was not equal.
Hays seemed intent to win over citizens like Agee, who voted for him in defeat during the 1958 election.
While Hays sought equal justice for people of all races, he held "a strong states' rights bent" and believed "enforcement of [civil rights] legislation" should "be left to the states rather than the federal government," according to a 2003 article by historian Terry Goddard in the journal Baptist History and Heritage.
In 1956 Hays joined other Southern congressmen in signing the infamous "Southern Manifesto," which argued against racial integration of public places. But later he said he regretted that action, Goddard wrote.
Hays labelled himself a "southern moderate," noting the only use of the word moderation in Scripture is positive (Philippians 4:5 KJV).
"The word 'moderation' as generally used fits my approach," Hays wrote. "And I am a Southerner. I speak as an American, too, and as one who believes that sectional conflicts can be harmonized and that the national interest can be conserved through an appeal to reason and to reasonableness on both sides."
Civil rights 'solutions'
In the aftermath of the Little Rock crisis, Hays not only lost his seat in Congress, he also received an icy reception from at least one Baptist state convention he addressed in his capacity as SBC president, Hays wrote in "A Southern Moderate Speaks."
Additionally, he felt compelled to urge Billy Graham to cancel an evangelistic meeting scheduled for Little Rock because the city was "in a state of shock," Hays wrote. Graham heeded the advice.
In lauding Hays, King apparently believed his "moderation" included praiseworthy elements, including the price he paid for not embracing segregationists. Perhaps another feature King admired was Hays' belief that Christians should help lead the country in racial reconciliation.
"In the last analysis," Hays wrote, "it will be the churches and the local community of organizations that will provide solutions to the problems of civil rights."