In 1971, the year of my birth, a coffee shop empire started in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Intel released its first microprocessor, NPR began broadcasting, Disney World opened, and CBS aired All in the Family
. Blatty’s Exorcist
, ten Boom’s Hiding Place
, Gaines’ Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
, and Rawls’ Theory of Justice
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the city of my birth, that year also marked the 50th anniversary of a horrific outburst of racial hatred and violence, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
. The discovery of oil had made Tulsa a boomtown, the so-called oil capital of the world. On the other side of the railroad tracks, north of downtown, 10,000 African Americans lived in a prosperous community, Greenwood. Envy, hatred, suspicion, and violence converged in early June, and after twenty-four hellish hours, “35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of death began at 36.” Later estimates put the dead close to 300. More than 1,200 homes were burned and assets exceeding $200 million in today’s dollars were destroyed or looted. Thousands were left destitute and homeless. The city into which I was born labored then and now under a miserable legacy of racial prejudice and injustice.
I now recognize two other events of my birth year as personally important.
My agrarian and Baptist roots run deep. Generations of family members show up in census reports as farmers. They were invariably Baptists. My great-grandfather went a step beyond the ordinary and became a bi-vocational Southern Baptist minister (his day job was as a small-town newspaper publisher). Out of such stock, my Christian formation took place in churches of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
In 1971, that denomination—founded in 1845 by anti-abolitionist, slave-holding Southerners—convened in St. Louis and passed a Resolution on Prejudice
. It falls short of what we might wish. It explicitly disavows anti-Semitism, but sidesteps Afrophobic racism. Its cautious affirmation that “[t]here is something of the image of God in every man” piques. Is this theological circumspection about our postlapsarian condition? Or is it a hesitant concession that even “those people” bear something, if not as much of God’s image as the resolution’s authors? Its anodyne references to “persons of various ethnic, linguistic, national, and religious backgrounds” and to differences in “appearance, customs, life-styles, and group loyalties” leave us wondering what particular prejudices the SBC lamented.
Nevertheless, the resolution is part of a watershed on the other side of which lies greater grief and repentance for racist sins. It reminds that “God is no respecter of persons.” It calls members to refute “deeds, statements, inferences, implications, and innuendos which tend to engender suspicion and hatred between men for whom Christ died.” It affirms “the dignity, respect, and Christian love to which others are entitled.” It’s been nearly twenty-five years since I held membership in an SBC church, but I acknowledge the coincidence of my birth year and the SBC’s faltering, far-from-finished journey toward racial reconciliation.
Another personally significant event of 1971 was the publication of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins
. I first read it in my late 20’s with wonder at its splendid opening line: “Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question occurred to me: has it happened at last?” Its protagonist, Dr. Tom More, is hardly sympathetic, yet his voluble honesty and tenacious faith win out. His ontological lapsometer—a “stethoscope of the spirit” that measures how far we have fallen from ourselves—is by turns provocative and comic. But the most memorable lines for me address racism:
What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you had already passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all.
One little test: you flunk!
Fifty years on from the days that inspired Love in the Ruins
, we have not yet lived up to the promise of God’s grace, shared the blessings given to us, and passed one not-so-little test of loving our black neighbors as ourselves. I acknowledge with sorrow the coincidence of my birth year and the verdict that Percy has Dr. Tom More pronounce. With anguish, I grieve our continued American struggle with racism.
I also wonder how the trio of years—1921, 1971, 2021—might play out.
In his day, Walker Percy wrote searing critiques of American life and penned widely admired novels, working to renew an “old worn-out language” of Christian faith that had ceased to astonish or awe. He also helped charter a credit union and a Head Start program for the benefit of African Americans in Covington, LA. God bless him and all that do likewise.
In his aptly titled biography, Pilgrim in the Ruins
, Jay Tolson calls Percy “the most important American moralist since Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and he explores the heroic, exemplary dimensions of Percy’s life. I doubt Percy would describe his life as exemplary or heroic. It is, however, Christian: flawed and faithful, stricken with despair yet sustained by hope in Christ, grieved at discord, envy, war, sin, and strife, but overshadowed by merciful God-given charity. He confronted personal, familial, political, and social sin. He used critical insight and hard-won art to diagnose spiritual disease, and to point us through sign and story on the pilgrim way of Jesus. Percy is a pilgrim whose company we do well to keep close amid our ruined landscape.
1921. 1971. 2021. Of the affliction of racism in America, we ask, “How long, O Lord?” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us sinners—and please let it be before next year!
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689