NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Forty-five years ago, civil rights attorney and preacher Fred Gray filed a lawsuit that exposed deep divides between black and white members of Churches of Christ.
The 1967 lawsuit challenged the transfer of more than $400,000 in assets from the closed Nashville Christian Institute — a school that trained hundreds of future black church leaders — to David Lipscomb College, a higher education institution with a history of racism.
On a recent Friday night, that same Christian college — now known as Lipscomb University — presented Gray with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, the highest award the university bestows on an individual.
“It is not every day that you file a lawsuit against an institution and that institution later sees fit to honor you,” Gray, 81, told a crowd of 500 that witnessed the ceremony in Lipscomb’s Allen Arena.
Fred Gray accepts an honorary doctorate from Lipscomb University, saying he’s “honored, appreciative and humbled” by the recognition. (PHOTO BY KRISTI JONES)
Who, Gray asked, would have thought such an honor would be possible for an Alabama boy who grew up in a shotgun house with no running water?
For a boy who rode segregated buses and witnessed the frequent mistreatment of black people?
For a boy who, before he became a lawyer determined to “destroy everything segregated” he could find, performed manual labor in the yards of Lipscomb professors?
“If each of us would be really honest ... we would say that we never thought this would be possible,” Gray said of the Lipscomb honor.
However, he was quick to add, “We serve a God with whom all things are possible. Notwithstanding whatever our adversaries may have been, things can be different. Individuals can change. And so can institutions.”
“It is not every day that you file a lawsuit against an institution and that institution later sees fit to honor you." Fred Gray, civil rights attorney and preacherTHE REMEDY FOR HISTORY
A longtime elder for the Tuskegee Church of Christ in Alabama, Gray served as the first civil rights attorney for Martin Luther King Jr.
He’s perhaps best known for representing Rosa Parks, the black seamstress who refused to give up her Montgomery, Ala., bus seat to a white man in 1955.
Lipscomb recognized Gray during the 32nd annual Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars Conference, focused on the theme “Reconciliation: At the Intersection of Scholarship and Practice.”
At the ceremony are Norma Burgess, dean of Lipscomb’s College of Arts and Sciences; Lipscomb President Randy Lowry; Fred Gray; and David Fleer, scholars conference director. (PHOTO BY KRISTI JONES)
In honoring Gray, Lipscomb sought to underscore its commitment to racial reconciliation.
The conference highlighted the importance of apologies and forgiveness in allowing both sides of a conflict to move forward, Lipscomb President Randy Lowry said.
“But the part that leaves me a bit unsettled is the sense that we could gloss over that particular moment and move back into a life that was the same as the moment before,” said Lowry, Lipscomb’s president since 2005. “It seems to me that the remedy for history, well, it is forgiveness, but it is also attempting to be reconciled, and it is also commitment to move forward in a different way.”
In the audience was Harold Hazelip, who served as Lipscomb’s president from 1987 to 1997 and later as chancellor.
In 2001, Lowry noted, Hazelip traveled with then-President Steve Flatt to historically black Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, “to make this university’s formal apology to our African-American brothers and sisters for the horror, the terror, the disappointment, the sorrow and the shameful history that we have had as a segregated institution.”
Today, African-American students make up 8 percent of Lipscomb’s undergraduate enrollment. In the last school year, 216 black students received $1.6 million in institutional financial aid.
Nonetheless, suspicion has lingered among some black church members, much of it tied to the handling of the Nashville Christian Institute’s closing.
Wes Crawford Wes Crawford, minister for the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas, examined the closing as part of his Vanderbilt University doctoral dissertation in church history and homiletics.
From the end of the 19th century until the late 1960s, most black members of Churches of Christ acquiesced to white-imposed segregation, paternalism and racism out of necessity, Crawford reported in a paper titled “Shattering the Illusion of Unity: The Closing of the Nashville Christian Institute.”
But the institute’s closing “brought their feelings of resentment to the surface,” the white minister said.
“The board’s decision to close NCI and the subsequent lawsuit created a deep wound in Churches of Christ that has festered for over 40 years,” Crawford wrote.
Given that history, Crawford characterized the tribute to Gray as “monumental.”
“The fact that Lipscomb University, of all places, granted Dr. Gray such an esteemed honor certainly indicates we have come a long way,” Crawford said.
But Tanya Smith Brice, who is black and presented a paper titled “Race Relations in Churches of Christ: Strategies Towards Reconciliation,” voiced skepticism.
“We, as a body, have kept a friendly distance from each other,” said Brice, a social work professor at Baylor University and a member of the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, Texas. “We have parallel structures — one that is white and one that is African-American. We pretend as if we are one body, but we are not.”
“We have parallel structures — one that is white and one that is African-American. We pretend as if we are one body, but we are not.” Tanya Smith Brice, Christian scholar
ONE OF MARSHALL KEEBLE’S ‘BOY PREACHERS’
From 1943 to 1948, Gray attended the Nashville Christian Institute, an elementary and secondary school.
He traveled with longtime school President Marshall Keeble as one of the influential black evangelist’s famed “boy preachers.” Before his death in 1968, Keeble baptized thousands.
In 1967, the white-controlled board of the Nashville Christian Institute voted to close the school and transfer its assets to Lipscomb. In the Gospel Advocate, Keeble outlined reasons for the closing: shrinking enrollment following the integration of Nashville schools, the threat of losing accreditation, the difficulty of retaining teachers on their low salaries and the overwhelming need for updated facilities.
But many blacks who had sacrificed to keep the school going felt betrayed and filed a lawsuit. Gray represented plaintiffs identified in court papers as “Negro members of the Church of Christ and alumni, patrons and students of NCI.”
Tanya Smith Brice, social work professor at Baylor University and member of the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, Texas, presents a paper on racial reconciliation in Churches of Christ. (PHOTO BY KRISTI JONES)
“Negro brethren are convinced that the ‘takeover’ was morally questionable,” Jack Evans, longtime president of Southwestern Christian College, said in a 1968 Christian Chronicle story.
The Chronicle portrayed the lawsuit as a sign that “many of the 100,000 people who make up a Negro brotherhood, separated from the white brotherhood by scars far deeper than the railroad tracks in Terrell, Texas, are ready to exchange servility and dependence for independence and, if need be, estrangement.”
The black church members lost the lawsuit, but Gray said they never expected to prevail in a Southern city with powerful white Christians.
“We simply felt that a wrong had occurred,” he said, “and that we should at least attempt to do something about it.”
“We simply felt that a wrong had occurred, and that we should at least attempt to do something about it.” Fred Gray, civil rights attorney and preacher
HEALING OLD WOUNDS
David Jones Jr., a 1958 Nashville Christian Institute graduate, has preached for the predominantly black Schrader Lane Church of Christ in Nashville for nearly 50 years.
When he started in 1963, 140 people comprised the church. The congregation has grown tenfold, topping 1,450 members. Asked recently to describe Lipscomb’s relationship with black churches over the years, Jones replied simply, “It hasn’t been healthy.”
David Jones Jr. Giving the Nashville Christian Institute’s assets to Lipscomb upset black members who “had in many cases raised a lot of the money by doing all kinds of little things with their meager incomes,” Jones said.
The board placed the money in a scholarship fund for black students at Lipscomb. Black church leaders argued that black students would be reluctant to attend Lipscomb because of its long history of segregation and its “only tokenly integrated” status at that time.
“That has been a sticking point for years,” Jones said of the lingering concerns over how the closing was handled, “and nobody was willing to talk about it.”
But last year, Lipscomb invited Jones to be one of the keynote speakers for its annual Summer Celebration lecture series and hosted a reception for Nashville Christian Institute alumni. The university plans to host another reception over Labor Day weekend.
Lowry and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean presented Jones with an award given by Lipscomb to individuals who are “tireless servants of God.”
The award recognized Jones’ leading role in the Schrader Lane church’s growth and its “tremendous efforts to serve the community.”
Lipscomb’s intentional efforts “to correct some of those misfires or deliberate actions” of the past — as Jones describes them — impress the longtime minister.
“They have a leader there now who is determined that he’s going to lead them into a more inclusive direction,” Jones said, referring to Lowry.
Still, healing old wounds takes time.
Explaining why, Jones shared a story from his childhood: As he rode his bicycle and delivered newspapers before school, a dog bit him.
“I love dogs, but I’m very careful around dogs, primarily because I remember the pain and the surprise of this dog running out and biting me,” he said. “Well, when you get bitten, and you get bitten time after time after time, it takes you a while to believe, ‘I can trust what’s being said here.’”
Fred Gray, center, flashes a smile during a panel discussion on racial relations in Churches of Christ. At left is Andrew Hairston, longtime minister for the Simpson Street Church of Christ in Atlanta. At right is Doug Foster, church history professor at Abilene Christian University. (PHOTO BY KRISTI JONES)
That attitude is just fine with Lowry, who said he did not grow up in the South and does not pretend to understand its history.
“My sense in coming to Lipscomb was that there was no speech I could give that would have the right words, the right oratory … that would have the African-American community believe it would be any different,” he said. “And so what I try to say humbly and quietly is, ‘Just watch us.’”
Gray said he accepted the Lipscomb honor on behalf of all the Nashville Christian Institute students who could not attend the university because of the color of their skin.
“In my opinion, I think the Lipscomb family should know that not only do I appreciate you for what you are doing here tonight,” he said in his speech, “but that the African-American brotherhood of the Church of Christ appreciates you for what you are doing here tonight.