Southern social justice: Brooks Hays and the little rock school crisis

Southern social justice: Brooks Hays and the little rock school crisis

Terry D. Goddard

Southern evangelical Protestantism (SEP) dominated the religious landscape of the South from the early nineteenth century until at least the mid-wentieth century.

John B. Boles has described SEP as being “individualistic, conversionoriented, provincial, and anti-institutional.” (1) SEP finds its meaning in a personal relationship with God-in-Christ which elicits a conversion experience. Moreover, revivalism, that swept over the South at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was in large measure responsible for shaping SEP, exhibited little concern for social justice or reform. That said, I contend that while the white expression of SEP was inadequate to meet the challenges of the civil rights movement, some white SEPs, influenced and inspired by the theology and ethics of a southern Social Gospel joined with others in the civil rights movement to struggle to bring about change in southern race relations. As a means of concretizing my argument, I present the life and career of Arkansas Congressman Brooks Hays. In fact, Hays described himself as a “Rauschenbusch Baptist.” (2) Moreover, Hays serves as an example of Reinhold Niebuhr’s notion of working out “proximate solutions” to the political problems of society. (3)

Brooks Hays

There is an anecdote told about Brooks Hays’s decision to go into politics rather than the ministry. A Russellville neighbor of Hays is credited with the story. Truth is that the neighbor and the tale were both the creation of the butt of the story, Hays himself. The story is that as Hays struggled over his choice of vocation, the ministry or politics, the church and politics fought over him. The yarn ends with “the church won the argument, so Brooks went into politics.” (4) The truth of the tale is that both the church and politics won in ways that even Hays did not fully understand when he created the story.

This humorous tale also provides deep insight into the man. First, it is an example of his self-effacing wit and humor that served him through many tough times. The story also is an example of how kernels of truth are often contained in jokes or humorous anecdotes. Hays would have most certainly attained high stature as a member of the clergy as he did in the political arena. Finally, the story exposes some of the real struggle Hays went through in deciding the direction his vocation would take him.

Lawrence Brooks Hays was born in rural Arkansas on August 9, 1898. Brooks, as he later chose to be called, diligently served his state, his country, and his church while being one of the most vilified and glorified men of his generation. Hays received many honors and awards during his long career in public life. None is more fitting than the tribute by David S. Broder of the Washington Post: Brooks Hays was “a moral force of almost unequaled dimension, from election to the House until his death….” (5)

Hays’s family had been Methodist for many generations until his father, Steele Hays, took the family with him to the Baptist church. The senior Hays brooked no defections to his religious plan. He saw to it that although his son had other plans, he became a Baptist. The younger Hays had been persuaded to make a public statement of his faith by a Methodist evangelist. His intention to make his “conversion” to Methodism official was terminated, however, when his father learned of it. From this point on, Steele Hays saw that his son was immersed in the Baptist faith, just as others in the family were. (6)

Hays’s brief encounter with Methodism was a prelude to a growing ecumenism. Over the years, Hays spoke of rural Arkansas Baptist ministers with some disdain. He found most to be uneducated racists with little to offer a discerning and spiritually hungry young man. Once Brooks left Arkansas for law school in Washington, D.C., he was able to sample from the cornucopia of available churches and preachers. Two preachers, Charles Wood of the Covenant Presbyterian Church and William Jennings Bryan, who preached at the First Baptist Church, stood out in his memory of this period. He also visited other Baptist and Presbyterian churches as well as the Methodist and Congregationalists. According to Hays, these experiences “climaxed forty-eight years later in my acceptance of the appointment as the first director of the Ecumenical Institute of Wake Forest University in 1968.” (7)

Steele Hays also introduced his son to the other important rural Arkansas institution at the time–the Democratic Party. The senior Hays, a small-town lawyer who was frustrated in his desire to hold elected office, became something of a “stage-father” in relation to his son’s political career. In the South before the 1970s, most people showed little patience with those that strayed from the accepted religious (evangelical, preferably Baptist) and political (Democrat) mainstays. Hays recalled attending his first Democratic convention in 1908 at the age of ten. The convention was the biennial county convention called to certify the results of a local election. This must have been a dry and boring meeting at best, particularly for a young boy. Yet, years later, Hays was able to remember the event in some detail. (8) The ability to recount such episodes was a tribute to his memory as well as a portent of his future vocation.

As a young man, Hays struggled with questions concerning his vocation. He vacillated between the ministry and politics. His developing philosophy was built on the summer tent Chautauquas and their preachers: (9) “I remember three of them,” Hays recounted, “Richmond Pearson Hobson, Eugene V. Debs, and William Jennings Bryan.” (10) Both Bryan’s fiery sermons and Debs’s idealism informed young Hays’s own evolving worldview and added to his confusion over a vocation.

His parents’ love of learning and particularly their love of books augmented his youthful development. Hays’s father was an easy sale for traveling book peddlers as their home bore witness. Shakespeare, TWain, poetry, and a broad selection of southern writers filled the bookshelves of the family’s home. Hays’s favorites included the following:

“[T]he ‘Youth’s Companion’ and the Baptist weekly, ‘Kind

Words,’ … as well as two single volumes of biographical

sketches….” One contained biographies of famous Americans while

the other focused on heroes of the Bible. According to Hays, those

two books in particular “contributed to [his] enthusiasm for

history and … fanned the flame of ambition.” (11)

Hays chose politics, yet, as his career evinces, not to the neglect of the church. After completing a degree at the University of Arkansas, he took his law degree at George Washington University School of Law. It was at George Washington University that the question of vocation was answered. Hays, although quite a good student at Arkansas, struggled at law school. He contended that this was due to his growing interest in church life and a career in politics. This struggle is undoubtedly true. However, Hays was separated for the first time from Marion, his future wife. They had met and fallen in love during their time at the university. The difficulty and expense of travel and inadequate and expensive telephone service in the 1920s complicated their separation. According to Hays, “I mistook dissatisfaction with the law course for a pull toward the ministry….” A young Lutheran pastor helped, however, by “interpreting the spiritual and moral aspects of a political course…. He was quite sure that if I chose a political career I could view it as a parish.” (12) Hays’s political life attested to this vision.

After stumbling in the Arkansas political arena by offending some powerful leaders of the state Democratic Party, Hays found himself on the wrong side of the local political establishment. His work, on behalf of FDR in the election of 1932, however, was rewarded with a position in the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Hays served as legal adviser to the Arkansas branch of the NRA, which allowed him to travel the state where he witnessed the extreme poverty that affected the masses of rural Arkansans. Hays shouldered the task of attempting to raise worker’s wages in the cases in which he participated. His demands for higher wages did not end with white workers. Hays also argued for higher wages for black workers as well, thus angering whites–owners and workers alike. (13) His fight for higher wages for all workers is but one example of the influence Niebuhrian ethics had on Hays. His activities on behalf of workers, black and white, earned him the reputation of hero or devil, depending on one’s point of view. Hays added to his standing as a “liberal” in a state that knew not the word by becoming a part of the newly formed Southern Policy Committee, later the National Policy Committee. This organization sought to expose the social problems of rural America, especially election abuses, racism, and poverty. (14)

Hays and others argued that politically he was a “southern moderate,” (15) While Baker offered a more complex description of Hays’s political philosophy. Baker contended that while Hays was free of the constraints of elected office, the 1930s and the decades following his defeat in 1958, he was “nothing if not liberal.” (16) Free of the watchful eyes of a conservative constituency, Hays followed the path of a true social and political liberal as well as the ethics that had shaped him from childhood. Moreover, according to Baker:

[I]f one looks carefully at [Hays’s] public record, even during the

40s and 50s, one finds a social and economic reformer, working

through the system,… still as committed as ever to providing

a better life for poor people. (17)

Hays’s moderate political position on race and other social issues while an elected official can be compared to Niebuhr’s argument that only “proximate solutions” to political problems can be found. Hays worked for a middle ground that allowed dialogue between the groups struggling with issues of race and society in Arkansas and the nation.

Following the closing of the NRA in 1935 (the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional), Hays was offered a post with the Resettlement Administration, an agency of the Department of Agriculture dealing with farm tenancy. Hays served as the administration’s legal liaison to Congress. The major achievement of his work for the administration was the passage of the Bankhead-Jones Bill. This law provided low-interest loans for the purchase of family farms. (18) Hays’s connection and commitment to the Bankhead-Jones Bill and others like it only added to his designation by critics as a radical and extremist.

While an employee of the Resettlement Administration, Hays spoke before a meeting of the Christian Rural Fellowship. Speaking on the topic of land and Christian conscience, Hays articulated his social activism in the context of his Social Gospel ethics. Hays was adamant that Americans’ farm problems were not only mundane, but involved the spiritual realm as well. That there was a need for an ethical basis for any new land policy permeated his talk. Moreover, Hays argued that any new farm policy must address the welfare of the human beings involved and not just the efficient cultivation of available farmland. (19)

The early seeds gathered from William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Debs and Hays’s own expression of Southern Baptist theology had had ample time to mingle together in the soil of the New Deal. The crop to be harvested was Hays’s own version of the Social Gospel. Hays built his message to the Christian Rural Fellowship around these words of St. Paul: “The husbandman that laboreth must be the first to partake of the fruit.” Hays argued that tenants, those who worked the land, had the right to the first fruits before those of the landowners. (20) This marked a significant point in Hays’s career as he began publicly to articulate his emerging “political-theology” of social Christianity.

Niebuhr’s theme of Christian action on the part of the church and its membership was an issue Hays never dropped in his long service to the Southern Baptist Convention. Reflecting on the history of Baptists, Hays noted that Baptists had been “sloganized out of an imaginative approach to faith that should take account of our social sins as well as of individual sinfulness.” (21) Hays acknowledged that the church in the South made a “feeble” attempt at implementing the social Christianity of Walter Rauschenbusch but rejected it as “northern” and therefore modernistic. His challenge to the church to engage the world rather than flee from it was still strong in 1976 as is evinced by his address to the annual meeting of the SBC. In his speech, entitled “Reflections on the Role of Baptists in Politics and the Future of America,” Hays challenged those present not to be as their foreparents in the church that shunned political action and attacked the Social Gospel, but to search out those areas where Baptist concerns intersect national concerns and work for positive solutions. (22) Moreover, while calling the church to action Hays pointed out the insufficiencies of early twentieth-century Baptist ministers and church agencies to address the social crisis of the Great Depression. Hays argued that “the problem [of giving social expression to the gospel] originated really from the reluctance of Baptists (and others) to go further. ‘I believe’ says the new convert and the transformation was regarded as ended.” (23) Here, Hays underscored one of the significant weaknesses of SEP’s focus on individual conversion as the mode of reforming society. Yet, Hays never wavered in his belief that the church (and SEP) for all its shortcomings was still “the conduit of eternal values.” (24)

Hays’s political-theology found voice in his service to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In 1948, Hays was appointed to the ethics board of the convention, the Social Service Commission, later named the Christian Life Commission (CLC). Hays’s appointment to the CLC was appropriate since it was the most liberal of the SBC’s boards. Hays found fertile soil in which to plant his concerns for race relations and poverty. The CLC provided the stage for Hays’s individual actions to spark institutional change in the Southern Baptist Convention. The report of the board in 1948 gave expression to his and others’ concerns in this area by calling on the Convention to “extend … to Negroes the right to vote, serve on juries, and receive equal treatment under the law….” (25) In response to the 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the CLC affirmed that the court’s decision was in tune with Baptist principles. Hays, who served as the CLC president in 1955-57, “did not necessarily agree at the time with the report’s assumption that the court’s decision was constitutional.” (26) Hays did support, however, the commission’s charge to the convention and its members in respect to Christians and race relations.

As the CLC delved deeper into the issue of race, Hays took on a more liberal stance in the SBC. On the eve of Governor Faubus’s calling out the Arkansas National Guard to block desegregation, United Press International published an article giving Hays’s understanding of Christian duty under the circumstances. According to Hays, Southern Baptists had three “clear duties” in regard to finding a solution to the race problem.

“Our first duty is to keep free and unfettered the prophetic voice

of the church.” Hays said attempts to “silence” a minister who

prods the sore spots of a congregation’s conscience are the “supreme

heresy.” “It is the lay-man’s duty to protect their clergy from

political, social or economic pressures.” (27)

The Christian’s second duty is to seek a nonviolent solution to their problems. Hays’s final charge to Christians was that they must strive to correct “specific situations where the actual practice of the community has produced injustice.” (28) Hays echoed Niebuhr’s call for justice in the political affairs of Christians. Again, Hays took a strong and unpopular individual stand in the hope of igniting change in his church and community.

In his role as congressional representative from Arkansas’ Fifth District, however, he became more tied to old South politics. Nothing illustrated more clearly the way in which Hays was yoked to the southern political machine than his acquiescence to the Southern Declaration of Principles, more commonly known as the Southern Manifesto. The Southern Manifesto, signed by all but two southern congressional representatives, was a declaration by southern white lawmakers to defend the right of southern states to control the course of race relations within their state boundaries. (29) Hays recalled how he agonized over signing, “I wanted so much to see the states meet their responsibilities….” (30) However, as history evinces, that was not the case concerning the segregation issue. Hays’s belief that the local community should have the right to decide matters of social change is in conflict with his religious understanding that more is required than individual conversion. Although he hoped for and worked for the right of individuals to decide the important issues surrounding race relations, he had always argued that social changes would not occur as long as all that was required of an individual was a simple “I believe.”

In 1970, while reminiscing about the Little Rock events, Hays recalled that Faubus came to Washington to apply pressure on him and two other Arkansas Congressmen who had not yet signed the Manifesto. Faubus warned of the danger of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizen’s Council gaining the political high ground if the state’s leaders did not take a strong stand on integration. (31) When asked about signing the Southern Manifesto, Hays replied, “Yes, and I did wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.” Faubus recalled that when Hays did sign he “was in travail, and said, “What will some of my good friends think of me now.” (32) Hays acknowledged that signing the Manifesto brought him into conflict with Negro voters. Moreover, during his reelection campaign in 1956, Hays was taken to task by a group of Negro ministers for his position on desegregation. One pastor challenged Hays by stating: “I simply cannot understand how a man with your background in good race relations could fail to maintain a high moral position.” (33) Hays could find little to say in the face of such charges. His defense was that although race relations were not perfect, meaningful change had occurred. Struggling for a “proximate solution” to the racial problems in the Arkansas had done some good. He pointed out that the very fact that a white congressional representative was meeting with his black constituents over such an issue was a sign of change. In addition, the group had “put him in his place”–which was equally significant. (34) Yet, Hays saw this as one of his most significant failings and a sign of his own pridefulness. Reflecting on these events, Hays insisted that if his “defeat in 1958 atones for that mistake then you’re looking at one of the happiest politicians that was ever defeated for office.” (35)

Although Hays signed the Manifesto, his record on civil rights was not one to cause shame. Hays’s stance on race relations was that of a southern moderate, a philosophy he helped define. He worked diligently for the steady improvement of life for all Arkansans and particularly the poor, both white and black. That his was a paternalistic perspective guided by a states’ rights philosophy does not alter Hays’s sincere efforts on behalf of African Americans. Moreover, with the rising passions brought on by Brown, Hays’s brand of moderation became impotent. In fact, Hays became identified with liberals and integrationists, and his moderate voice lost its audience.

Northerners argued that without substantial federal civil rights legislation, little would change in the South. Hays and other southern moderates could point to such racially mixed activities as the 1952 Arkansas Democratic Party primary. In his first Congressional success, Hays’s opponent (a segregationist) had warned the voters that Hays would work to change race relations if elected. Ten years later in the 1952 race, Hays’s opponent, again a segregationist, did not touch the issue of race. Why? During the ten years between the two elections, Hays through his individual acts had helped bring about change in race relations. In 1942, no African Americans were allowed to vote, but in the 1952 election, more than twelve thousand African Americans were registered to vote in the Congressional district. (36) Hays believed that his victory in 1952 was validation of his moderate stance on race issues and his desire and ability to work for proximate solutions to political problems as Niebuhr contended was the only possible alternative for a Christian.

An example of his individual attempts to work for the improvement of race relations while maintaining his position on states’ rights was the so-called “Arkansas Plan.” Hays suffered politically for his support of President Truman and his civil rights stance in the 1948 presidential campaign. Many southerners abandoned the Democratic Party and rallied to the newly created Dixiecrat Party and its candidate for president, Strom Thurmond. Intent on bringing together a moderate civil rights agenda that addressed civil wrongs in the South and elsewhere, while leaving social arrangements to individuals and local communities, Hays proposed a civil rights bill to the House of Representatives on February 2, 1949. Hays’s approach addressed four areas of race relations: integration of the military, abolition of the poll tax, lynch law, and fair employment practices. The Arkansas Plan differed from that of Truman in that enforcement of legislation would be left to the states rather than the federal government. Hays’s attempt to bring justice to the area of civil rights, like other early attempts at civil rights legislation, met with defeat. (37) Hays was not deterred, however, in his struggle to work for “proximate solutions” within the social structure of the South.

Hays’s southern moderate stance was tempered by a strong states’ rights bent and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Therefore, locally, in his district and state, he argued for the abolition of the poll tax, segregated primaries, and other impediments to the vote. According to Hays, the right to vote, like other basic rights, was governed by “the element of human dignity” (38) and no other lesser standard. His insistence that change arise from the local community, rather than being pressed upon it, led Hays to denounce Brown. That Hays’s political philosophy led him to this position should not result in the belief that he supported nullification and interposition, for he did not. Moreover, Hays argued against their inclusion in the Southern Declaration of Principles. Only after their removal and under extreme pressure did Hays sign the Declaration.

Hays’s commitment to a moderate position on race relations made him a consistent choice to serve on the National Democratic Party’s civil rights plank-drafting committee. He served in 1948 and 1952, and in the wake of Brown, his common sense and moderate voice were sought once again. (39) The statement produced by the committee and accepted by the convention affirmed that “all men are created equal” as the basis of the civil rights plank. Moreover, it acknowledged that all citizens shared equal political and legal rights and “should have equal opportunities for education, for economic advancement, and for decent living conditions.” (40) Although the plank did not refer to Brown by name, in muted terms it affirmed the Supreme Court and acknowledged that its “decisions [were] part of the law of the land.” (41)

Hays was proud of the fact that the civil rights plank offended no one. His goal and that of other Democrats was to win the presidency in November. Walter Lippman supported the efforts by Hays and other Democrats to produce a temperate statement on civil rights. He also acknowledged the courage that these moderates possessed:

The words of the platform are an unequivocal declaration in favor

of using persuasion to bring about compliance [to the Brown

decision]…. The Democratic leaders … were wise enough not to

force the hands of Southern leaders. There are great masses of

the Southern people who are not persuaded, and if they are to be

persuaded, it will have to be by people who live in the South and

know its problems.

For those who believe that segregation must be ended, but that it

can be ended only by consent, and never by force, there is nothing

weak in the civil rights plank. It is, indeed, a courageous act of

accommodation on the part of the political leaders of the South,

and one which does them great honor. (42)

Moreover, writing after the Little Rock crisis, Hays continued to insist that “evolutionary change–not revolutionary upheaval”–was the only path to the southern racial harmony. (43) He never let go of his hope that race relations could be addressed by the local community rather than mandated by the federal government. To implement such change, Hays turned to the Christian community. He called on it to assist in defining the community’s beliefs and goals. His analysis of the situation led him to assert that once that was done, people would have a clearer understanding of human nature, God, creation, justice, and freedom. (44)

Events took on a surreal aspect in the short span from 1955 until 1958. During this interval, the CLC advocated a congruence of Brown and Southern Baptist principles. As noted in 1956, Hays supported the Southern Manifesto, although he quickly recanted. In May of 1957, he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (unusual for a lay person) and found himself in the middle of the Little Rock School crisis intervening on the side of desegregation. Hays attempted to resolve the growing school conflict by mediating an agreement between Faubus and the federal government. Hays arranged a meeting between Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower in Newport, Rhode Island. While discussing the possibility of a meeting with presidential assistant Sherman Adams, Hays explained that Faubus was a reasonable man, not a “stubborn, last-ditch segregationist governor….” (45) At the meeting, the participants appeared to have settled their differences to the satisfaction of all. Hays and Eisenhower left Newport in high spirits. Faubus, however, had only appeared to agree to a settlement to placate the president and buy more time in his efforts to stall integration.

According to Hays, Faubus was politically moderate, and Hays’s greatest concern was not to allow the governor to be pushed into siding with extreme segregationists. Hays and Faubus found common ground in their acceptance of integration. Both, however, believed that a delay in its implementation would serve to ensure peace. Moreover, it was Hays’s belief that Faubus was sincere in his concern that violence would result from forced integration. Ultimately, however, it was Faubus’s conviction that a majority of Arkansans opposed desegregation, which led to his actions. As Faubus moved toward a more radical position, Hays counseled moderation, arguing that Faubus was sounding more like the state’s staunchest segregationist, Jim Johnson. (46)

On September 22, Judge Davies ordered Governor Faubus to desist from further attempts to block the integration of Central High School. The court order forced Faubus to withdraw the National Guard that had been surrounding the school. The withdrawal of troops ended his involvement in forcibly blocking the Negro students from attending classes. Beaten in his attempt to maintain segregation in the schools, Faubus left the state that same weekend to attend a conference of southern governors in Georgia. Continuing to add fuel to the fire, however, Faubus told reporters that violence would result from attempts to integrate the school. (47)

With the removal of the troops and the governor no longer directly involved in the integration situation, maintenance of peace fell on Little Rock’s mayor. Mayor Mann turned to Hays for help with the difficulties. The congressman readily agreed. He also assisted an ad hoc committee of past presidents of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. The efforts of both groups were limited, however, by the intervention of Federal troops on Tuesday September 24. Essentially, Hays’s public involvement ended as well. (48)

Hays paid a high price for his attempts at peace-making. In 1958, while running for reelection to Congress, Hays refused to align himself with segregationists and was turned out of office. His “loss shocked and shamed his home city and the Congress in which he served.” (49) Shortly after his stunning defeat at the hands of a “write-in” segregationist candidate, Hays spoke before the Arkansas State Baptist Convention and noted that his loss at the polls had the positive affect of awakening the populace to the dangers of extremism. Moreover, Hays took the opportunity to restate his politics of southern moderation. Southern moderation included, according to Hays, the concepts of equal justice under the law for all citizens, the unacceptability of lawless attempts to obtain change, “the search for alternative methods of desegregation,” improvement of economic conditions for the Negro, the affirmation of the Negroes’ human dignity, and the “denunciation of acts of violence and racial hatred.” (50) Hays concluded his discussion of southern moderation by declaring that it was the duty of the church to spread this message of reconciliation.

Ironically, that same year the SBC reelected Hays to a second term as its president. In his acceptance speech, Hays publicly gave his strong support to the CLC’s efforts in race relations. This quote from his address to the convention illustrates his resolute conviction that Christians should live the Social Gospel: “If our Christian doctrines regarding God, the world, and man are to be taken seriously it is apparent that this world is a Christians’ workshop.” (51)

Hays’s life-long concern and action on behalf of the poor, black and white, found ready companions on the CLC. According to Hays, race was the number one issue for the commission to wrestle with. However:

[T]here were other things to do–many other interests to engage

them. They [CLC] felt that, generally, on this struggle that was

taking place between the social gospel and the individualistic

expression of our faith that in that cleavage that there was a

great deal of work to do in conditioning the minds of our people

to admitting the Christian life elements of energy in our

churches. (52)

According to his biographer, Hays “seemed to grow more liberal on the race question as he helped the commission and convention deal with [the issue of race].” (53)

In life and in death, Hays has received many tributes and honors. TWo such honors shed light on the true measure of the man. The first appeared in the pages of the Christian Century, under the heading, “Southern Baptist Power & Portent.”

Many Baptists breathed a sigh of relief when the convention’s president, Brooks Hays, finished his farewell address. His two terms in office had so persistently focused the light of the gospel on the race question that it had produced a painful sunburn. The former congressman from Arkansas had leaped into national prominence as president of the SBC and champion of moderation, and lay and racial reconciliation. (54)

A second honor paid to Hays came in 1965 when the CLC established the “Distinguished Service Award for Social Ethics” and presented it to Hays in recognition of his years of dedication and service. Foy Valen tine, director of the CLC, in presenting Hays with the award said “that it was in recognition of unique and outstanding contributions to Southern Baptists, the nation, and mankind in the interest of world peace, social justice, and Christian citizenship.” (55) There is no more fitting epitaph for this social-justice activist. Hays’s public life, both in politics and in the church, showed the effectiveness of individual actions to spark institutional change. Hays met with political defeat, but the social changes he and others envisioned were not to be denied. Moreover, Hays, recognized that only proximate solutions to political problems were possible. By incorporating the elements of social Christianity with his own developed moderate political philosophy, Hays was able to bring into question the existing attitudes toward race relations in the South.


Hays employed a southern Social Gospel that incorporated elements of Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethics. As an example of the southern social-justice advocate, Hays by his words and acts joined the struggle to change the face of society in the South. By employing Niebuhr’s ethics, Hays struggled for proximate political solutions to the complex issues of race relations. His work in the Democratic Party to develop a civil rights platform that was fair and inclusive is but one example of these efforts. Another example was his attempt to mediate the dispute between Eisenhower and Faubus over the desegregation of Central High.

Further support for my contention that Hays was an example of a white southern social-justice advocate is clear from the influences on his thought and from the examination of his activities on behalf of desegregation before and during the Little Rock school crisis. Hays was no different from most of us in that the time and place of his youth shaped him. Although raised in the Jim Crow South, Hays had the good fortune to have parents who possessed a broad and more liberal view of life than the norm. His childhood influences coupled with his education, both religious and secular, prepared him for the volatile 1950s. By his individual actions and by maintaining his voice in the public arena, Hays helped keep the issue of desegregation alive.

I am not suggesting that Hays was either saint or sinner, for, of course, he, like all of us, was a little of both. Hays’s weaknesses lay in his confidence in people to do the right thing (particularly in the case of Faubus) and his moderation on racial change due to his concern with his white constituents (whom he relied on to keep him in office). Moreover, this propensity to see the good is clear in his relationship with Faubus. Hays sincerely believed that given the opportunity people would choose the good. Hays believed in social justice and his desire to work for proximate solutions to the social problems that confronted his community made him an easy target for those on both sides of the issue. Integrationists demanded that he seek immediate change, while segregationists argued that he maintain the status quo. Hays’s belief that the local community should have the right to decide matters of social change is in conflict with his religious understanding that more is required than individual conversion. Although he hoped for and worked for the right of individuals to decide the important issues surrounding race relations, he had always argued that social changes would not occur as long as all that was required of an individual was a simple “I believe.”

Hays was a product of SEP. He was steeped in the individualistic waters of evangelical religion. He believed that individual acts affected societal change, but his acts were never primarily directed at converting individual souls as taught by SEP. Nor were his actions aimed at reinforcing the status quo in the South as the actions of many white SEPs were. Those few white southerners, like Hays, who did use individual acts of social justice to affect change in the social structure of southern society were in the minority.

Moreover, social Christianity was never a dominant feature of SEP. Hays’s individual acts were directed at affecting institutional change. Moreover, from the foregoing, one can find evidence of a commitment on Hays’s part, as found in Niebuhr, to justice as the norm in society. Hays struggled to reduce coercive power in the social, religious, and political realms so that communal life moved from self-centered ends to those that best served the larger community. He joined with Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, and others who worked for the coming of the kingdom of God while understanding that its full realization could never be attained in this life. Moreover, Hays through his political theory of “southern moderation” recognized that only “proximate solutions” to political and social problems could be realized.

(1.) John B. Boles, The Great Revival: 1787-1805 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972), 194.

(2.) A. Ronald Tonks, Interview with Brooks Hays, August, 1977, 539 (Hays Supplementary Papers, Series Five, Sub-Series One, Box One, File Three. Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas).

(3.) See Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1932, 1960).

(4.) Brooks Hays, The Baptist Way of Life (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963; Macon: Mercer University Press, 1981), viii.

(5.) David S. Broder, “The Spirit of Brooks Hays,” Washington Post, November 25, 1981, 21A.

(6.) James T. Baker, Brooks Hays (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1989), 106.

(7.) Brooks Hays, Politics Is My Parish: An Autobiography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 46.

(8.) Ibid., 13.

(9.) An interesting historical footnote, in 1957, while serving in Congress, Hays was invited to speak at Chautauqua. Postcard from B. H. to his father, July 5, 1957 (Hays Supplementary Papers, Series One, Sub-Series One, Box Two, File Eleven. Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville).

(10.) Hays, Politics, 23.

(11.) Ibid., 24.

(12.) Ibid., 46-47.

(13.) Brooks Hays, A Hotbed of Tranquility: My Life in Five Worlds (New York: MacMillan Company, 1968), 157; and Brooks Hays, A Southern Moderate Speaks (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 17.

(14.) Hays, Politics, 120.

(15.) I argue throughout that Hays’s philosophy of southern moderation is compatible with Reinhold Niebuhr’s notion of Christian Realism. In both cases, the goal was the attainment of “proximate solutions” to the insoluble problems of political life. See, Hays, Southern Moderate; and John Kyle Day, “The Fall of Southern Moderation: The Defeat of Brooks Hays in the 1958 Congressional Election for the Fifth District of Arkansas” (master’s thesis, University of Arkansas, August 1999).

(16.) Baker, 55.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Hays, Politics, 122.

(19.) Hays, draft of speech to the “Christian Rural Fellowship” (Hays Papers, Series Two, Sub-series One, Box Twenty-five, File Twenty-three).

(20.) Brooks Hays, This World: A Christian’s Workshop (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1968), 39.

(21.) Hays, Politics, 66.

(22.) Brooks Hays, “Reflections on the Role of Baptists in Politics and the Future of America,” Baptist History and Heritage 11 (July 1976): 170.

(23.) Hays, Politics, 6.

(24.) Hays, “Role of Baptists,” 170.

(25.) Baker, 109.

(26.) Ibid., 110.

(27.) Louis Cassels, United Press International article, August 30, 1957 (Hays Supplementary Papers, Series Five, Sub-Series One, Box One, File One).

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Hays, Southern Moderate, 206.

(30.) John L. Ward, Interview with Orval Faubus and Brooks Hays, September 20, 1970, “Little Rock School Desegregation Crisis of 1957 Revisited,” 11 (Hays Papers; Series Three, Sub-Series One, Box Forty-five, File Twenty-six).

(31.) John Luter, Interview with Brooks Hays, June 27, 1970, Columbia Oral History Project, Columbia University (Ibid., Box Forty-four, File Twenty).

(32.) Orval Eugene Faubus, Down From the Hills, (Little Rock: The Pioneer, 1980), 119.

(33.) Hays, Southern Moderate, 208.

(34.) Ibid.

(35.) Ward interview, 11.

(36.) Hays, Southern Moderate, 5.

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Ibid., 5.

(39.) Ibid., 102.

(40.) Ibid., 113.

(41.) Ibid., 114.

(42.) Ibid., 123-24.

(43.) Ibid., 128. However, Hays also acknowledged that his conformity to segregation in the South (even while being moderate) led to his deserved loss in the election in 1957. See Brooks Hays, Public Address, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Ky., November, 1968.

(44.) Hays, Southern Moderate, 230.

(45.) Ibid., 137.

(46.) Ibid., 154; Jim Johnson had been Faubus’s opponent in the 1956 gubernatorial race and was active in fighting integration of the Hoxie School District.

(47.) Ibid., 166.

(48.) Ibid., 172.

(49.) Broder, 21A.

(50.) Hays, “Can Moderation Succeed in the South?” November 20, 1958 (Hays Papers, Series Three, Sub-Series Two, Box Forty-eight, File Twenty).

(51.) Hays, Christian’s Workshop, 18.

(52.) Tonks interview, 537.

(53.) Baker, 112. Foy Valentine disputes this assertion by Baker. He argued that Hays’s social ethics were maturely formed at least by the time he began college. Foy Valentine interview with author May 31, 2000.

(54.) “Editorial Correspondence,” “Southern Baptist Power and Portent,” Christian Century, June 3, 1959 (Hays Supplementary Papers, Series Five, Sub-Series One, Box One, File One).

(55.) Tonks interview.

Terry D. Goddard is instructor of history and interdisciplinary studies at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas.

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