30 years ago, controversy over King holiday sowed seeds of Episcopal racial justice work today

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 22, 2020
Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Participants march in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event Jan. 16, 2017, in Phoenix. Arizona didn’t add a paid King holiday to its calendar until 1993, one of the last states to do so. Photo: Associated Press

[Episcopal News Service] Thirty years ago, as Arizonans prepared to go to the polls, the state’s Episcopal bishop urged them to vote yes.

“Establishing a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. represents a moral commitment that unites all religions, races and political affiliations,” Bishop Joseph Heistand said in a state-issued pamphlet outlining arguments for and against the 14 ballot measures in the Nov. 6, 1990, election. Two of the propositions asked whether the state should restore a holiday honoring King.

Other Episcopal leaders had joined Heistand that year in lobbying for passage, but it was not enough. By a slim margin, voters said no to a King holiday, leaving Arizona among only a handful of states that had yet to follow the federal government’s lead in recognizing the civil rights leader on their calendars. Arizona’s 1990 election bore no direct effect on The Episcopal Church, yet the propositions’ failure initiated a chain of events in 1991 that continue to shape how the church engages with issues of injustice and systemic racism and how it confronts its own historic and modern-day complicity.

The 70th General Convention in 1991 marked a turning point. Church leaders initially faced a backlash for meeting in Phoenix – bringing thousands of Episcopalians and their travel dollars to Arizona right after voters rejected a King holiday. The controversy compelled the church that year, through the triennial gathering of its governing body, to commit to examining its own racism over the next nine years.

The church “made a turn in 1991 because it was pushed. And that’s the way most things work,” Diane Pollard, who attended the Phoenix convention as a Black deputy from the Diocese of New York, told Episcopal News Service recently. “That’s why we should have councils that have a variety of voices on them. Because if we don’t, we will never be able to hear the truth.”

In 2000, General Convention renewed that commitment for another triennium. Subsequent measures have broadened and deepened the work, with dioceses offering anti-racism trainings and, more recently, congregations conducting research into the role of slavery and racism in their own histories.

Deon Johnson

Missouri Bishop-elect Deon Johnson, in a photo posted to Facebook, joins a group of Episcopalians in participating in a racial justice protest May 30, 2020, in St. Louis County.

Earlier this year, many Episcopalians and Episcopal leaders joined widespread calls for an end to police brutality against people of color after the May killing of George Floyd. Since then, the church has approved dozens of grants to support local racial healing initiatives as part of Becoming Beloved Community, a churchwide reconciliation framework unveiled in 2017 in response to the 2015 General Convention’s making racial reconciliation a top priority.

Black clergy and lay leaders say The Episcopal Church has come a long way in confronting racism – and it still needs to do more. Its recent progress has put the church at the forefront of public debate on such issues, but the mostly white denomination also has inspired frustration along the way, particularly decades ago when it was still slowly awakening to the white supremacist roots of American racism.

Catherine Meeks, executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Diocese of Atlanta, wouldn’t yet describe the church as ahead of the curve on those issues, but “we’re at least trying to stand up,” she said.

She and other Black leaders were pleased to see Episcopalians this year speaking out against institutional racism. At the same time, the rise in racist rhetoric in American society, particularly fueled by politicians, calls for an even greater response, Meeks said. “White supremacy is an indefensible issue, and the church should be clear on that,” she told ENS. “I think the church needs to be a bit louder. Actually, I think it should be a lot louder.”

The Rt. Rev. Arthur Williams Jr. became bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Ohio in 1986. Though now retired, he still serves the diocese as an assisting bishop. Photo: Diocese of Ohio

Bishop Arthur Williams Jr., a retired Ohio suffragan, was among the Black bishops who attended the 70th General Convention “under protest.” That convention passed an unprecedented number of resolutions on racism, but it was equally important for the church to follow through, he told ENS. Episcopalians who care about fighting racism have to “push the church to do what it’s committed itself to do,” he said.

Pollard, now 75, is a member of Executive Council and New York’s reparations committee. She credits the church with diversifying its leadership and listening to the perspectives of people of color. “I do think that 1991 was a turning point,” she said. “We did a lot of really good work at that convention, more than I think we may have done at any other.”

House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing told ENS that dioceses and congregations still may struggle with how best to respond to racism today, but that is reason for hope.

“We’re still talking about it,” said Rushing, who attended General Convention in 1991 as a Massachusetts deputy. “Usually, in The Episcopal Church … if it hasn’t happened in nine years, it’s gone. It’s forgotten. Nobody remembers it.” But nearly 30 years later, the church continues to follow through on the commitments it made at the General Convention in Phoenix.

“This is going to be around for a while, if not forever, in The Episcopal Church,” he said.

Tracing racism’s roots throughout church history

The Episcopal Church’s complicity with racist systems can be traced to the earliest days of British colonization of North America. Settlers arrived in what now is Virginia holding a royal charter that commanded “the true word of God be preached, planted and used not only in the colonies, but also as much as might be, among the savages bordering upon them.”

The church’s roots also intersected with the roots of American slavery, starting in 1619 when enslaved Africans first arrived in the British colonies. The colonies and the new nation they would become reflected economic and political systems dependent on slavery, and many Episcopal churches benefited from slavery as well.

Today’s Episcopal congregations have begun to untangle and tell their parts of that story – of churches built with slave labor, of clergy who owned slaves, of Southern churches supporting the Confederacy, of Black worshippers denied seats in the pews next to white Episcopalians, and of Episcopal leaders’ defense of Jim Crow segregation.

Black students also were denied admission to prominent Episcopal seminaries for most of the church’s history. Virginia Theological Seminary wasn’t integrated until 1951. The School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, didn’t accept its first Black student until two years later.

In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” it was addressed to “my dear fellow clergymen” in response to a statement by eight Alabama clergymen urging moderation. They had argued, in part, that the “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens” led by King was “unwise and untimely.” Two of the eight were Episcopal bishops.

By then, however, church leaders – including those Alabama bishops – were voicing general support for the civil rights movement’s goal of racial equality, even if they sometimes disagreed on the movement’s tactics. General Convention had passed a resolution in 1952 saying Episcopalians should “consistently oppose and combat discrimination based on color or race in every form, both within the church and without.” In 1955, it advised churches to “welcome people of any race at any service.”

That General Convention in 1955 was significant for another reason: Church leaders canceled plans to meet in Houston, Texas, because local authorities wouldn’t ensure desegregated facilities. The convention convened in Hawaii instead. That decision stands in contrast to how the church 36 years later handled another controversy over the racial implications of a host jurisdiction’s policies.

When the Arizona controversy hit during the planning of General Convention’s 1991 meeting, church leadership was still predominantly white and male, but no longer exclusively so. Women had been seated in the House of Deputies since 1970, the same year that Bishop John Burgess of Massachusetts became the church’s first Black diocesan bishop. The first female priests were ordained later in the decade. The House of Bishops grew to include several Black bishops, and in 1989, the Diocese of Massachusetts consecrated Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris, the first woman and first Black woman to serve as bishop in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Harris, who died this year, was preparing for her first General Convention as bishop in 1991.

Phoenix Civic Center

The 70th General Convention was held at the Phoenix Civic Center July 11-22, 1991, but the choice of location faced strong objections after Arizona voters narrowly rejected a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the 1990 election. Photo: Episcopal News Service

Seeing Harris seated in the House of Bishops was to be a personal highlight for then-Rev. Gayle Harris, who in 1991 was a priest and deputy from the Diocese of Washington. She told ENS in a recent interview that she also looked forward to celebrating the work of Episcopalians from the Navajoland Area Mission, the convention’s co-host with the Diocese of Arizona.

“General Convention sometimes is The Episcopal Church as its best, when it comes together to speak up and act out for justice,” said the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris, who now serves as Massachusetts’ bishop suffragan after succeeding Barbara Harris in 2003. The two aren’t related.

But in 1991, General Convention “was being set against something that was offensive and painful for those of us who were Black,” she said. “That’s what racism does. It divides and separates.”

Internal revolt presses church to confront sin of racism

Most states already honored King with a paid government holiday around his birthday in January. Arizona eventually would add the holiday, after a 1992 referendum, but when the question was put to Arizona voters in 1990, it fell just short of passage.

The National Football League responded by moving the 1993 Super Bowl away from Phoenix. The city’s business leaders feared they also might lose the substantial economic boost that comes from hosting The Episcopal Church’s General Convention. But Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, despite listening to calls for a new location, never appeared to waver.

“The Episcopal Church will go to Phoenix,” he said a week after the November 1990 election. “The business of the church is to witness to the Gospel, and that is exactly what we will do in Arizona. … There are people of good faith in Arizona who are working and fighting to overcome prejudice. The fight has been a very bruising one, and they need our support.”

Even so, The Episcopal Church faced an internal revolt. The dioceses of Washington and New York supported moving or canceling General Convention. The Diocese of Atlanta offered to take over as host. Other dioceses warned that canceling a Phoenix meeting would mean deserting Arizona’s Black community.

“We want to support the presiding bishop, but my hope is that we would not meet in Arizona, even if it costs money,” Washington Bishop Ronald Haines said. The church “needs to stand in solidarity as well with our minority communities and others who are gravely concerned about the vote in Arizona.”

Prominent Black Episcopalians joined other church leaders in a 90-minute conference call that November with Browning to discuss options, and in December, Browning called for a special meeting of Executive Council.

On Jan. 5, 1991, Executive Council met at a hotel near the Newark, New Jersey, airport. After listening to various arguments for and against meeting in Phoenix, Executive Council decided to proceed mostly as planned while embracing Browning’s plan to focus more on racial issues.

Nell Gibson, an Executive Council member, said at the time that the meeting had reaffirmed her impatience with the church. “We [African Americans] have been asked to put our agenda aside and have done so every time. When will the church put its agenda aside?” she asked.

1991 MLK Day in Arizona

Episcopal leaders join a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Jan. 21, 1991, to honor Martin Luther King Jr. They are, from left, Arizona Bishop Joseph Heistand, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, and Bishop Herbert Thompson of Southern Ohio. Photo: Episcopal News Service

Some Episcopal leaders talked of boycotting, but in February 1991, the Episcopal Commission for Black Ministries and the Union of Black Episcopalians issued a joint statement that urged members to go to Phoenix. Williams, the Ohio bishop suffragan, was chair of the Black ministries commission. Now 85, he recalled that a boycott was seen as counterproductive. “People said we really need to be there,” he told ENS. “If you’re not at the table, you become the menu.”

On July 11, the 70th General Convention opened with a liturgy honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Then, as the House of Bishops convened, New York Bishop Suffragan Walter Dennis rose to say he was disturbed to be meeting in a state that didn’t observe a King holiday. He and 33 other bishops went on the record as “present under protest.”

A protest was underway in the House of Deputies as well, led by Antoinette Daniels of New Jersey and other Black deputies. Daniels read a statement objecting to the meeting location. More than 200 deputies added their names to the statement.

“Episcopalians of color were ignored and not consulted seriously when the response to the events in Arizona were being formulated,” Daniels told the House of Deputies, according to a Living Church report. “They were disregarded, and we see this reaction as more typical than extraordinary of their experiences in the church.”

Rushing, Pollard and Gayle Harris were among the deputies who signed Daniels’ statement of protest in 1991. “It was in my mind that if I went, I was going to get something out of it, and the something I wanted was a serious conversation about race and racism in The Episcopal Church,” Pollard said.

That conversation produced eight resolutions on racism and discrimination. Some focused on clergy deployment and unequal representation in church bodies. The resolutions targeted racism in the country and called on dioceses to fight racism in their communities and within the church. One resolution created a scholarship fund in Martin Luther King Jr.’s name.

Church leaders also oversaw an audit of General Convention membership that found a “clear pattern of institutional racism” in the church, and another resolution, though brief, committed The Episcopal Church to nine years of self-examination “in order to become a church of and for all races.”

Gayle Harris

The Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris has served the Diocese of Massachusetts as bishop suffragan since 2003. Photo: Diocese of Massachusetts

“This church really did start looking at its own internal markers around racism, sexism and homophobia,” Gayle Harris said, and she partly credits Browning’s leadership. “I remember it was he who said in this church we will not have any outcasts,” she said. “He engaged not only the conversation but the work.”

The House of Bishops followed up in 1993 with a pastoral letter condemning the sin of racism, and in 2000, General Convention intensified its call to fight racism at all levels of the church for at least another nine years. Since then, some dioceses have taken up that fight more than others.

“There’s been considerable effort to continue to support the work … but it needs to be much, much more than it is,” Meeks, the Absalom Jones Center director, told ENS. “This is not some little extracurricular thing that you can engage in if you choose to. This work of racial justice and healing is central to our well-being as a community of faith.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.