LYNN NEARY, host:
We turn now to the story of how a handful of men took on segregationists in the Deep South. They were white pastors and they took their beliefs to the front page of Atlanta's main newspaper in 1957. It's been called the Minister's Manifesto.
It said, in part, hatred for those of another race can never be justified. It came out at a tense moment in race relations throughout the South. Mobs had recently shut down Central High School for a time in Little Rock, Arkansas. Schools in Atlanta and elsewhere were also on the verge of closing to avoid integration.
Joining me from Atlanta are retired United Methodist Bishop Bevel Jones, who helped write the manifesto, and Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Thanks to both of you for being with us.
Bishop BEVEL JONES (United Methodist Church): Well, thank you, Lynn.
Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Southern Christian Leadership Conference): Thank you for having us. We're delighted to be here.
NEARY: Bishop Jones, let's start with you. How exactly did this manifesto come about? Was there kind of a groundswell of feeling that something needed to be said?
Bishop JONES: Yes, it was. Of course, the whole public opinion was rife at that time about the whole issue. But one of our colleagues in Atlanta, Dr. Roy McLaine(ph), who is deceased now, made the statement that the pulpit was paralyzed on this issue. And so the Atlanta Constitution wrote to a number of us clergy and opened its columns to us. So we met privately and did this work.
NEARY: Now, 80 pastors signed on to this manifesto. Were there some who were not interested in signing on? Were - did it represent all the pastors in the area?
Bishop JONES: All that we could get the addresses of — I must say that in fairness. And that's the way we got together to deal with this particular crisis as the leaders here, you know, of governor, were threatening to close the schools rather than to integrate.
NEARY: And the manifesto was published on a Sunday morning. I'm curious, were some parishioners upset about it? Were they supportive of you?
Bishop JONES: Well, I think it depends on the church. I have a brand new church. My first assignment as a minister really, and I have been preaching on this issue so that my people weren't surprised. Of course, the tactic we used, they were curious about that, but I got some awfully, awfully hot letters from the public and some phone calls.
NEARY: Reverend Lowery, what was the effect of the manifesto at that time?
Rev. LOWERY: Well, I was not in Atlanta, you understand, at the time - I was in Mobile, Alabama. But we're very much aware of what had happened in Atlanta because all of us were traumatized by what had happened in Little Rock. So when these ministers in Atlanta spoke out it was a breath of fresh air. Considering the environment in which they - and the times in which they issued a statement, it was a bold statement. Today, of course, it sounds mild and extremely cautious, but at that time, it was a strong statement and we welcomed it, for we needed leadership from the church.
NEARY: You just said that if you look at the statement today, it seems kind of mild in a way. It never explicitly condemns segregation. Was this the way it had to be worded at this time?
Rev. LOWERY: Well, I'm sure those who composed it felt that way and they've probably been right. But nevertheless, at that time, it was a bold statement. And I believe it had a sobering and calming effect on people across the South.
NEARY: Let's talk about the present day. Are you satisfied now with the public school system in Atlanta? Like many cities, Atlanta schools are virtually segregated even now.
Rev. LOWERY: Well, of course, we're not satisfied because we haven't reached the maximum potential of brotherhood and justice in this country. But these ministers were more courageous than white ministers generally are today. We simply do not hear the calming, prophetic voices that this statement represented a half-century ago.
NEARY: Bishop Jones, what has become of those prophetic voices as Reverend Lowery called them?
Bishop JONES: Well, that's a good question. I will say this that one of the reasons for celebrating this manifesto is not to honor us who were involved in it at the time, but to use this as an example of the kind of influence and impact that the church should have in these days of conflict in the spirit of unity as clergy persons and people of faith.
NEARY: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us.
Bishop JONES: Thank you.
Rev. LOWERY: Thank you.
NEARY: Reverend Joseph Lowery and Bishop Bevel Jones will be speaking about the Minister's Manifesto this weekend in Atlanta.
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NEARY: To read the document and an early draft, go to npr.org.