In 1956 there may have been no more influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention than W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the enormous First Baptist Church in Dallas. The Supreme Court had recently struck down racial segregation in schools in the Brown v. Board of Education case. A conflict was building between the Eisenhower Administration and the Governor of Arkansas over a plan to desegregate Little Rock’s public schools. Dr. Martin Luther King was organizing bus boycotts in Montgomery. It was not certain where Baptist congregations would line up on the emerging movement for racial justice. Criswell took the opportunity to clarify the matter.
At a convention in South Carolina Criswell turned his popular fire and brimstone style on the “blasphemous and unbiblical” agitators who threatened the Southern way of life. Southern Baptists were not alone in defending segregation, at least not in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. What made the Baptists unique in their long, stubborn defense of white supremacy was the relative independence from any centralized authority and the absence of any accountability to congregations and officials outside the South.