“There’s a story called the ‘Cowtail Switch’ from Liberia that states that as long as a person’s name is spoken, they are never truly forgotten.”
–Laconia “Lott” Therrio, therapist, chaplain, professional storyteller, first African American student association president, Harding University
From the beginning, I believed that my story about a large group of white, Christian college students in the 1950s protesting racial segregation, at the same time as, and in the shadow of, one of the American Civil Rights Movement’s early battles at Little Rock Central High, had the “legs” to travel far.
But only now, three months after publishing my story ‘Distinctions Which God Has Not Made’ in the Arkansas Times, can I truly see just how far–and deep–it ran.
The reaction to the story has been overwhelmingly positive. Judging from it’s wide distribution on social networks (almost 800 “Likes” on Facebook) and the “buzz” that it created in the state of Arkansas and worldwide among Harding alumni, I dare say it was one of the most read and talked-about pieces that the Arkansas Times has published in some time.
I would like to thank the editors, Lindsey Millar and Max Brantley, for taking a chance on a relatively unknown writer like me and working with me to publish it. They treated me and my story with the utmost professionalism. They, and their publisher, seemed very pleased with the piece and the reaction it received. I got the impression that they would be willing to work with me again in the future–I hope we will.
I have heard from many Harding alumni who either signed the “Statement of Attitude” or who had friends or family members who did. Some were the descendants of Harding “icons”, well into their sunset years themselves. To a person, they all thanked me for putting flesh to the skeleton of a long lost, but vitally important, story.
One of the greatest joys I’ve had with this project is fulfilling the wish of many to receive copies of signatures. I can only imagine the pride the children and grandchildren of some signers must have felt when they discovered that their loved ones had put their names and reputations, literally, on the line in the defense of the kind of racial justice that God demanded of the early church, a command that was never rescinded.
Several professional historians and Civil Rights veterans weighed in on my piece as well. Eminent Restoration Movement historians Dr. Richard Hughes and Dr. Robert Hooper, after reading my story and listening to my presentation at the Christian Scholars’ Conference (CSC) at Lipscomb University last June, complimented me highly, taking special note of my meticulous research and use of primary sources.
A National Park Service guide at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, and a Harding alumnus, wrote, “Thanks for writing this; it needed to be known and shared. My hope is that Harding will turn a negative into a positive and issue an apology, as well as stating that, now, Harding is a place that welcomes all races and faiths.”
An historian at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, whose area of expertise is the life’s work of Dr. George S. Benson, contacted me. Needless to say, he is anxious to get his hands on some very important documents which were still hidden went he made a research trip to Searcy some time ago.
An African American woman, a civil rights veteran who is still active in the cause of racial reconciliation, spoke up at the end of my CSC presentation and said, “I’d like to thank you for your presentation. As an African American who helped in the desegregation process, I have never had the chance to hear what Caucasians have experienced in terms of making a hardline commitment to go through with desegregation and to consider what that might have been like. It has been very helpful for me to hear this. The fact that there were some who were willing to sign their names, that was almost like a death warrant in some situations. . . .that’s powerful! That fact that Harding has this history is powerful! I’m so glad that someone went into that dusty, old room before that building was demolished and found that petition, and that you wrote this story.”
Dr. Fred Gray, an iconic figure of the Civil Rights Movement and attorney to both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. was in attendance at the 2012 Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb, the theme of which was “Reconciliation”. In a formal ceremony, he receive not only an honorary doctorate from the school, but also a public apology and restitution for Lipscomb’s role in segregation and for their board’s misappropriation of funds intended for African American students at the Nashville Christian Institute in the 1960s.
I had the honor of sitting near Dr. Gray at a dinner during the conference. He had read my story. When he discovered who I was, he leaned over and said, “You did an outstanding job.”
But the feedback that I cherished most came from Laconia “Lot” Therrio, a therapist, chaplain, and professional storyteller who served as Harding’s first African American student association president in 1975. I had mentioned him briefly near the end of the story, and a fellow church member of his in Connecticut passed the story on to him. Here is his take:
“I wanted to personally thank you for your efforts and for illuminating this period in Harding’s history. I find myself humbled and proud to have followed in the footsteps of Bill Floyd. I found myself for the first time acknowledging my place in the Harding story. I’d had a hard time remembering the racist incidents that occurred to me while I was there that I’d repressed. For a number of years, I was very angry, but over time came to the conclusion that I’d gotten a good education, and that I , too, needed to exercise grace toward people. Your article has touched me deeply and has been very restorative. I thank God for your work. . . ..”
As a result of my story, another of Laconia’s fellow church members, a historian who is authoring a forthcoming book on the Civil Rights Movement, finally has the name of a Churches of Christ preacher to include in her collection of southern white ministers who were fired for preaching against Jim Crow–George William Floyd, Bill Floyd’s father.
Of course, any time you seek to tell the truth–even in love and with the utmost respect for an institution (after all, I am a proud Harding alumnus)–you can expect some push back. There were a few snarky, hastily-written insults and jabs in the online story, the kind that you expect to find in most comments sections these days, and some negative comments on Facebook.
For the most part, they seemed to reflect the idea that I was being too harsh on Dr. George S. Benson (This is old, irrelevant news! You’re being too judgmental! He’s dead–leave the man alone!”).
My response to such sentiments is twofold. Firstly, George S. Benson lived a large life, in the limelight, and thrived on the attention that he received through his writings and speeches. He played a significant role in laying the groundwork for the modern day “Christian Right”, and historians and commentators have been scrutinizing his life for decades, both before and after his death. He relished a challenge, and he was fully aware that his beliefs and practices were controversial. He deserves no special exemption from his own weigh-in with the scales of history–nor do I think he would have expected one. To suggest that he does, is at best, silly sentimentalism, and at worst, cultish adoration.
Secondly, I feel that I was exceedingly fair to George Benson in my story. I placed his comments–which I gleaned from his handwritten speeches–and actions in the context of the era and offered plausible explanations as to why he thought desegregation should be delayed. I took great pains to show that he “was a man of his time” who, when a different time dawned, made the best of integration regardless of how he personally felt about it.
While I was accused of having a “political agenda” by some (really, what could my accusers possibly know about my “politics”?), from the feedback I’ve received, I’m left to conclude that the majority of readers thought I struck the right balance. Some even thought I went too easy on Dr. Benson. Considering the amount of material that I had to work with that I didn’t include, I suppose one can always make that case.
I expected some raw emotions and backlash. What I didn’t expect was a very public confrontation with a Harding official during the Q&A of my presentation at the CSC.
I had noticed her, frowning and scribbling furiously, as I spoke. Afterward, when the moderator opened up the floor for comments, she came out of the gate hard, the first to speak. She addressed her comments to him, and avoided any eye contact with me. Apparently, she took issue with some of the moderator’s opening comments which she felt were overly critical of Harding, but in the litany of complaints that followed, it became evident that she didn’t think too much of my efforts either.
She thanked the last two speakers by name (I’d spoken first and been followed by two expert panelists whom I’d sought out for additional Harding desegregation stories and analysis) but didn’t mention me. She stated that the last two speakers had addressed the issue of race relations in Churches of Christ institutions within its appropriate “historical context,” implying, very strongly, that I had not.
She said it was “unheard of for the CSC to focus on the flaws of one institution without even initially characterizing them as a ‘slice of history'” and said that we had “indicted an entire institution on the basis of unethical and unscriptural actions.”
She said, “How would you like to sit and listen to the sins of ACU, Lipscomb, OC (Oklahoma Christian) and others articulated in a sort of ‘gotcha’ way?” (The irony was that many of us had just come from a session on race relations in Churches of Christ in which panelists had discussed in depth the aforementioned Lipscomb sin as well as a laundry list of racial sins of other Churches of Christ academic institutions).
She concluded, “I don’t believe this is scholarship” but instead “an axe to grind” and “a unilateral attack on an institution” that “mars the credibility of this conference.”
Those are some pretty heavy charges, and the audience, comprised of many Civil Rights veterans, historians, and high-ranking officials from numerous colleges and universities, was stunned. Had I wanted to include an object lesson to illustrate the kind of deep myopia that had beset Harding officials in the fall of 1957, I couldn’t have scripted a better one. Behold: “Exhibit A”.
Other attendees soon began to push back firmly, but gently, fitting for a conference with the theme, “Reconciliation”.
“Institutions of higher learning, whether they are Christian, public, or private, still have their piece in this systemic pie of racism in this country,” declared a 1970 African American graduate of Pepperdine, which at that time, had yet to “escape” the Watts section of downtown Los Angeles for the white enclave of Malibu. “Nobody is off the hook,” she said.
Another, a Harding employee whose parents were on the scene in 1957, said, “There is healing happening because of the telling of hard truths. Thank you for fleshing out the whispers that I’d always heard about this time in Harding’s history.”
A former Harding student from the early 1960s reflected on that fact that some of her most beloved professors had supported and signed the “Statement of Attitude”, and that most of them had eventually left Harding, either through termination, or resignation. “Thank you for reminding us who the heroes were,” she said.
When the session ended, I would have like to have spoken with the Harding official and asked her some questions, but she left the room quickly. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by audience members who had stopped to encourage me and thank me for a job well done.
I thought that was the end of it, but I was wrong.
Several days later, the official wrote a letter on Harding letterhead in which she sharpened her session comments to an even finer point and sent copies to numerous officials at various Churches of Christ schools in an apparent attempt to damage the careers and reputations of two men who had assisted me with the session. This upped the ante considerably, and one of the individuals named wrote to another Harding official and asked whether or not the first official’s comments were her own or were made on behalf of the school.
Fortunately, the official who wrote back, a true gentleman and scholar, reassured the named individual that the first official was acting on her own and that her comments and subsequent letter did not reflect the official policy or opinion of the university. He affirmed our work as being suitable for an academic conference and “regretted” any problems that the first official’s statements and actions had caused.
It is anybody’s guess as to the motivations of our antagonist. I have my own ideas and theories, but only she knows for sure.
On this occasion, the Harding official missed a softball-sized opportunity to embrace a difficult, but ultimately redemptive story that in reality reflects positively on the school and the progress it has made since 1957 and highlights the seriousness with which administrators, faculty, students and staff have traditionally reflected on scripture and its application to the important issues of the day.
As signer Barbara Floyd, Bill Floyd’s sister-in-law, put it, “We sensed a groundswell of change in the country about this issue that was making us think about something that we hadn’t given much though to before. . . .I suspect many were caught up in the moment, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, because if the moment catches us long enough to make us think, we may just follow through with action. . . .important changes bring about consequences that we are not prepared for, and that’s the next step in testing who we really are.”
I’m hopeful that one day, after the dust has settled and the leaven of this story has worked its way through the loaf, that the inspiring tale of the 946 Harding students, faculty and staff who signed the “Statement of Attitude” will surpass “Bluebirds and Blackbirds” in Harding lore, and that the university will own it, teach it, and learn from it.
Notably, nobody has refuted a single item from my story, save one: my statement that Harding was the first private college in Arkansas to integrate. I based that conclusion on Harding oral tradition as well as a couple of written sources, but unfortunately it wasn’t true (God knows I wanted it to be).
The College of the Ozarks, now University of the Ozarks, in Clarksville was first–ironically, in 1957 (I bet there’s a story there!). We must give our good, progressive Presbyterian friends their due.
At the end of this long road which started down nearly two years ago, I am proud of this piece and what it has wrought. I am honored to have been entrusted with the story of Bill Floyd, Robert Meyers, James Atteberry, James Atkinson, and the other signers of the “Statement of Attitude”. To the best of my ability, I have told the truth. This personal pilgrimage has helped me to understand my own religious roots and the many ways that the past has shaped me and guided my steps. No regrets; I would do it again in a heartbeat. I look forward to telling more important stories.
For as long as we name them, one by one, the signers of the “Statement of Attitude” will never be forgotten.
The question remains: Will we remember the lessons they have taught us?