Desktop version

Home arrow Religion

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Anticommunism and Henderson's tenuous respectability

In the decade after the war, Henderson’s national and international advocacy increasingly jeopardized his respectability. In 1946, Henderson invited Senator H.M. Basner, a member of the progressive minority party in the South African legislature, to speak to Second Baptist Church about his opposition to the emerging policy of apartheid - a struggle analogous to congregants’ own pursuit of their civil rights. South Africa became an increasingly important American trade partner and ally in the emerging Cold War, so the Truman Administration remained silent about the nation’s institutionalization of racism and expansionist policies to avoid offending its leaders (Borstelmann 2001, 73). Criticism of the president’s policies became a major focus of the NAACP’s annual national meeting in 1949, held at Second Baptist. Having campaigned on civil rights, Truman was unable to get any legislation through Congress; he did, however, institute an unconstitutional loyalty review program, prompting the NAACP to adopt a unanimous proposal condemning Truman and Congress for this “betrayal.” If conservatives linked civil rights agitation with subversive disloyalty, the NAACP turned the tables and argued that failure to support civil rights and institution of loyalty checks were truly un-American (“Truman and 81st Congress” 1949, 1).

From the pulpit, Henderson explicitly linked the global decolonization movement to the century-long fight for freedom in the United States. Both represented God’s will for human liberation. “He sent Mahatma Gandhi to deliver India from British imperialism. He sent Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Lovejoy, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Garrison to deliver Negro slaves from American slaves. It is our confidence that many of the present day civil rights leaders -certainly not all - have been sent by God to deliver the poor and oppressed minorities from the last vestiges of slavery to full freedom.” He then encouraged his congregation to get involved in the struggle for civil rights. “Let us not forget that we cannot stand aloof from the struggle. We cannot leave it to ‘others.” For the ancient call is the present challenge, ‘I will send you to deliver them’” (Henderson 1966, 160-161).

In 1949, Henderson proposed to lead a trip to Africa with a group of ministers to visit Baptist mission churches and schools. Wuthnow argues that missions organizations have historically constituted “one of the major ways in which the sacred was made public,” and that “the careful coordination of religious hierarchies” like the National Baptist Convention (NBC) made this expensive overseas work possible (Wuthnow 1994, 76).11 As with his World War II support for the CIO, Henderson positioned himself as a leader of public religion, whose concern for human dignity and freedom helped turn a missionary visit into a civil rights battle. After his return, Henderson delivered a series of lectures to Los Angeles-area audiences, announcing that “the British watchdogs are determined to keep Africans in subjection to British rule, and slaves in their own land and country,” so they “never expose the natives to any outside influence that may perhaps awaken greater interest in the world struggle for freedom and peace that has already taken root in Africa” (“The Sidewalk” 1950, 1). Not one to eschew controversy, Henderson lambasted the foreign policy of Britain, the United States’ strongest Cold War ally, while seeming to endorse revolutionary movements.

While Black commentators enthusiastically affirmed Henderson’s link between the church and Africa’s democratic future, White audiences were evidently troubled by his views.12 Henderson became increasingly concerned about his respectability in the eyes of Whites. His fears were not misplaced - California Senator Jack Tenney’s report on subversive activities named Henderson as a member of a communist front organization.1 ’ In 1952, apparently on the advice of legal counsel, Henderson wrote a curt letter to the city’s Civil Service Commission requesting a formal list of organizations defined as subversive by the Attorney General (Henderson, to Civil Service 1952). He sent a similarly terse letter to the FBI, noting “I have been through the years a constant opponent of Communism and have publicly urged others to have nothing to do with any disloyal group within our country” (Henderson, to Federal Bureau 1952). Both letters convey frustration with his inability to clarify the specific charges against him and thus to demonstrate his respectability beyond question.

In the face of growing accusations against alleged communist sympathizers, Henderson felt the need to burnish his anti-communist credentials publicly, and affirm his respectability as an American citizen. In 1954, he proclaimed himself “the only Negro minister in the city who constantly reminds his congregation of the perils of Communism” (“Pastor tells flock” 1954a, A3). In a sermon preached in February of that year on “The Terrors of Communism,” he warned the church: “Have nothing to do with Communism or Communists. If you have, through mistake, been a member of any subversive organization, drop out at once. If you are a loyal American, say so, and don’t hesitate to sign a loyalty oath.” Henderson patriotically proclaimed that “with all its imperfections, America is the best country on earth” (“Pastor tells flock” 1954a, A3). Henderson’s concession to anti-communist forces represented a clear change in position from the antiTruman rally he had sponsored five years earlier. The Red Scare made any criticism of the United States seem disloyal, forcing civil rights advocates to bend over backwards to affirm their civic credentials. The church also ran an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times that read: “Dr. Henderson says, ‘Both communism and Race Prejudice are Cancerous’” (Advertisement 1954b, A2). This ad appeared only in the general regional paper read by Whites, not in the Eagle; presumably Henderson only needed to demonstrate his non-communist credentials to a White audience.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics