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The distance yet to be traveled: Reverend J. Raymond Henderson and the African American civil rights struggle, 1941-1963

David /. Neumann

“Accentuate the progress of the race, while keeping the soul of society sensitive to the distance yet to be travelled before the day of our complete freedom.” This is how Reverend J. Raymond Henderson, pastor of Second Baptist Church, a prominent Black congregation in Los Angeles, summarized his strategy for achieving “first class American citizenship” in a presentation to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1951 (Henderson 1951). This sense of tension in his concluding statement — acknowledging achievements while continuing to press for justice - captures the central dynamic that animated his career as a Christian minister in Los Angeles from 1941 to 1963.

On one hand, Henderson relentlessly advocated for civil rights. As a proponent of what Robert Wuthnow has called “public religion,” he urged churches to engage with the political, economic, and voluntary sectors of American society (Wuthnow 1994). In particular, he challenged pastors to play leadership roles in the Black public sphere - the middle-class network of newspapers; churches, community and civil rights organizations; and personal relationships that upheld Blacks’ dignity in the face of relentless racism (Habermas 1989, 1-26, Higginbotham 1993, 10-11). His aggressive zeal for civil rights pushed the boundaries, Whites - and some middle-class Blacks - envisioned, earning him the title “militant pastor” from The California Eagle, the city’s pre-eminent Black paper at the time (“Editorial” 1941b, 8A). He believed that rights must be actively wrested from “oppressive majorities,” through a “many-sided” strategy that included the gospel, Jesus, prayer, conferences, petitions, mass meetings, and politics. He stressed the need for “militancy” - nonviolent, he clarified parenthetically - in print, from the pulpit, over the radio waves, and in court. He proclaimed that the NAACP “deserves our most loyal support” (Henderson 1951).

On the other hand, Henderson was convinced that activism must be balanced with restraint. Patient cultivation of Black respectability - embracing White middle-class standards of dress and behavior - would play a crucial role in Whites’ eventual acceptance of Black equality.2 He consistently communicated his own respectability through his dignified dress and manner, articulate sermons, and robust civic engagement. But he was not willing to admit that Black respectability was merely a concession to White values. Respectability was also a crucial weapon. If African Americans made “more conscious efforts at culture and refinement,” rejected communism, promoted good citizenship in their communities, and highlighted their achievements, this would collectively communicate to White Americans that they deserved the rights for which they were fighting (Henderson 1951).

Henderson’s arrival in Los Angeles in 1941 coincided with tremendous possibilities for the city’s Black community brought on by World War II. The unprecedented scale of this global conflict paradoxically stirred utopian hopes in African Americans of an emerging era of justice - locally, nationally, and internationally. Throughout his tenure at Second Baptist, Henderson sought to maintain his dignity while aggressively pursuing civil rights.

As a case study of one important Black pastor, this paper contributes to several important fields. Civil rights scholars frequently acknowledge that Southern Black churches constituted “the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement,” but outside the South, assessments have been more tepid (Morris 1984, 4). Scholars of the City of Angels have largely ignored the Black church, including its involvement in civil rights.3 Such neglect risks distorting the picture of Los Angeles’ Black activism. Henderson reveals the centrality of church-based activism in Los Angeles well before the height of the national movement in the mid-1950s. Black churches, as part of a larger Black public sphere, played a central role in protest. More than any other civic organization, churches provided unique resources: spiritual and temporal leadership, organization and fundraising; and practical and sanctified gathering spaces for public gatherings. Henderson provides insight into Los Angeles religious involvement with two other dimensions of the mid-twentieth century civil rights struggle. His evident ambivalence toward communism suggests how church-based activism reflected the familiar tension between Black civil rights activism and leftist politics. Also, Henderson’s attention to the trans-Atlantic dimension of the civil rights struggle demonstrates an institutional religious link between the United States and Africa typically overlooked by scholars who focus on the US government’s image-management efforts in the Cold War-civil rights nexus (Borstelman 2001, Dudziak 2001, Von Eschen 2004).

This chapter begins by briefly exploring the development of Henderson’s respectability and militancy before turning to Second Baptist and the city’s larger Black community. Then it looks at the local scene, examining Henderson’s work with other Los Angeles leaders during World War II, particularly his alliance with the left-leaning Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor union, and his qualified sympathy for communism. Next, the paper considers his involvement in the international civil rights struggle. In advocating rapid independence for colonial Africa, he criticized the nation’s foreign policy and its Cold War allies. Finally, the paper explores Henderson’s support for the direct action campaigns of Martin Luther King, Jr., and especially his willingness to use his stature as a pastor to raise funds to advance the movement and support the Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi.

Ultimately, Henderson’s experiences reveal the limited appeal of “respectable militancy” to his white and Black critics alike. Unfounded accusations of communist sympathies undermined his reputation in the eyes of Whites, illustrating the tenuousness of a “respectability” that rested in large part of white standards of acceptability. On the other hand, the Black anger over the slow pace of racial progress that erupted in Watts shortly after Henderson retired also suggests the inadequacy of Henderson’s brand of militancy. Indeed, the language of “militancy” now generally associated with Black nationalism in the later 1960s bears little resemblance to Henderson’s approach to civil rights, which shunned boycotts civil disobedience, to say nothing of armed self-defense.

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