Most great reconstruction: The Baha'i faith in Jim Crow South Carolina, 1898-1965
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DEDICATION …………………………………………………………………………….. iii
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS …………………………………………………………………... iv
ABSTRACT ……………………………………...………………………………………... v
INTRODUCTION ………………………………………………………...……………….… 1
1. FIRST CONTACTS, 1898-1916 …...…………….....……….….………….…………... 20
2. THE DIVINE PLAN, THE GREAT WAR, AND PROGRESSIVE-ERA RACIAL POLITICS, 1914-1921 ...……….………...………… 73
3. BUILDING BAHÁ’Í COMMUNITY IN THE AUGUSTA AREA, 1913-1917…………….…138
4. THE GREAT DEPRESSION, THE SECOND WORLD WAR, AND THE FIRST SEVEN YEAR PLAN, 1935-1945 …………………………........…… 200
5. POST-WAR OPPORTUNITIES AND COLD WAR CHALLENGES, 1944-1953 ……...…… 268
6. BROADENING THE BASE STATEWIDE, 1950-1965 …………..…..………………….. 312
EPILOGUE: THE BAHÁ’Í FAITH AS MASS MOVEMENT ……….……………….………... 374
“Some movements appear, manifest a brief period of activity, then discontinue. Others show forth a greater measure of growth and strength, but before attaining mature development, weaken, disintegrate and are lost in oblivion…. “There is still another kind of movement or cause which from a very small, inconspicuous beginning goes forward with sure and steady progress, gradually broadening and widening until it has assumed universal dimensions. The Bahá’í Movement is of this nature.”
—‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Washington, D.C., April 22, 1912
I I started to hear the stories shortly after I encountered the Bahá’í Faith. 1 During a series of growth campaigns from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, thousands of my fellow South Carolinians from all walks of life—from young white college students to elderly black former sharecroppers, from the foothills to the coast—had become Bahá’ís. Interracial teams of Bahá’í youth had fanned out across the state, talking with people on street corners and front porches, singing in folk and gospel styles, distributing literature, and conducting evening mass meetings in tents and rented halls. Their message was as simple as it was radical, and it was the same one that had attracted me: in the Orient in the middle of the nineteenth century, Christ had returned. His new name was
1 Among general introductions to Bahá’í history, theology, and community, two of the best are William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá’í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion, rev. ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2003) and Peter Smith, An Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Bahá’u’lláh, the “Glory of the Father,” and the transforming power of his Word would excise the cancers of prejudice and injustice from the broken body of humanity. They had found ready listeners, with the largest number of new believers among African Americans in rural areas. Old people and young, I heard from those who had been there, had dreamed dreams telling them that the Bahá’ís would come with a new message from God. Almost overnight, the South Carolina Bahá’í community had grown from some two hundred members in a handful of cities and towns to some twenty thousand in hundreds of localities. It was a modern-day Pentecost, a phenomenon the Bahá’ís in my Upstate city of Greenville called “entry by troops.” I was fascinated. As I met more Bahá’ís, particularly at the Louis Gregory Institute, a retreat center near the Lowcountry town of Hemingway, my father’s family home, I asked everyone I could about the heady days of the 1970s. The more I learned, the more I realized that the origins of South Carolina’s Bahá’í community lay not in the 1960s or 1970s, or even in the 1950s, as some of the older Bahá’ís told me, but far earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century. The interracial fellowship that I saw in every Bahá’í gathering was not simply a by-product of the civil rights movement; it had been built, painstakingly, during the long decades of segregation and disfranchisement. Black and white South Carolina expatriates, I found, had first encountered the Bahá’í Faith in urban areas of the Northeast, Midwest, and Upper South in the late 1890s, shortly after the religion’s arrival in the United States. The first Bahá’í traveling teachers and settlers had come to South Carolina beginning in 1910, as the new Jim Crow legal regime was tightening its grip on the social, economic, and political life of cities and states throughout the region. Over the course of more than half a century—
decades that witnessed two world wars, the Great Depression, the emergence of the Cold War, and an intensification of the black freedom movement—the Bahá’ís in South Carolina had struggled to create an interracial faith community within a racially segregated and religiously orthodox society. Decades before Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated the ideal of the “beloved community,” the Bahá’ís in South Carolina had gone farther than most of their Christian and Jewish fellows could contemplate towards interracial fellowship and social action. Here was a story, I thought, that needed to be told. Little did I know as a young high school student that I was not only exploring the heritage of my native state and my newfound faith, but setting the course of my career as an historian. This dissertation is a first effort to reconstruct and analyze the early growth and development of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina. It offers an initial examination of some of the internal and external factors that affected the development of the religion in the state, from the first contacts in the 1890s to the formal dissolution of the Jim Crow regime in the mid-1960s. It suggests that the relatively speedy and robust growth of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina after 1965—the first such large-scale growth of the religion in the developed world—was the result of complex interactions inside and outside the movement. In one sense, the rapid expansion of a religion with a bold claim to fulfill Christian prophecies, a spiritually-based program for addressing social problems, and an optimistic vision of humanity’s peaceful and unified future—coming as it did in the immediate wake of the civil rights revolution and as a welter of new religious movements signaled an unprecedented restructuring of American spiritual life—was not surprising. At the same time, it was six difficult decades of interracial community
building, initiated by the Bahá’ís themselves in response to the fundamental teachings of their faith and its international leadership, that prepared the South Carolina movement to take advantage of dramatic changes in the wider society. From its first arrival in the South in 1898 and in South Carolina in 1910, the Bahá’í Faith represented a significant and sustained, spiritually-based and deceptively subtle challenge to the ideology and structures of white supremacy and to the Protestant orthodoxy with which they were inextricably linked. With few exceptions, Protestant churches in South Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century were strictly segregated, if not at the level of the denomination, then at the level of the local congregation. Interracial religious activity, while not unheard of, was limited, occasional, and usually structured so as not to upset regional mores of gender, class, and race. The state’s small Catholic and Jewish congregations followed suit. 2 In contrast to nearly every other religious organization in South Carolina, the Bahá’ís explicitly promoted racial integration from the local level up. Called by the scriptures of their faith to “associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance,” they deliberately sought converts from diverse backgrounds, forging bonds of shared religious identity across traditional social boundaries. 3 In the emerging Bahá’í community, blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor, rural and urban dwellers, natives, migrants from other states, and the foreign-born learned to worship, study, socialize, and manage their collective affairs together as equals. In particular, they sought to build grassroots
2 For a useful historical overview of various religious denominations in South Carolina and their specific relations to issues of race, see Charles H. Lippy, ed., Religion in South Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).
3 Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, trans. Habib Taherzadeh, 1 st
pocket-sized ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988), 21.
community institutions that were part of the faith’s “Administrative Order,” a worldwide system intended gradually to reorganize social, economic, and political life—not just of the South or of the United States, but of the entire planet—around the spiritual principles of unity, justice, and collective decision-making. Their local councils, Bahá’ís in South Carolina believed, were among the foundation-stones of the emerging Kingdom of God on earth. Numerically insignificant and apparently powerless during the period under review, the Bahá’ís’ rejection of the racial and religious status quo nevertheless made them frequent targets of intimidation by neighbors, law enforcement agencies, and conservative Christian clergymen. They openly proclaimed their message through the mass media, public programs, and personal contacts, but segregation law and practice often forced them to conduct their community activities at night, in secret, or otherwise far removed from the gaze of the white public. They focused on building their own model of interracial fellowship (eventually securing legal protection for their activities), even as they sought to encourage or collaborate with other individuals and organizations, both religious and secular, who were working for civil rights. By the mid-1960s, as a combination of federal legislation, judicial rulings, and ad hoc arrangements at the state and local levels dismantled the Jim Crow regime, the tiny Bahá’í community already represented a cross-section of the state’s population, and it extended its influence beyond its members to their friends and family members and other spiritual seekers. With the major legal barriers to interracial association removed, the Bahá’ís—and thousands of other South Carolinians—were ready for unprecedented growth of the religion. (South Carolina’s dual school system, the last and largest vestige of segregation, fell during the
1970-1971 school year, also the most dramatic year of Bahá’í expansion in the state before or since.) By the turn of the twenty-first century, the Bahá’í movement in South Carolina boasted local organizations in some forty localities and members in more than a hundred more, a regional training center and community-service radio station near Hemingway, and a museum dedicated to its first traveling teacher and native son in the heart of historic Charleston. 4 Well known in South Carolina for its commitment to promoting racial harmony, interfaith dialogue, and the moral education of children and youth, as well as for the adherence of several prominent individuals, the Bahá’í Faith was the state’s largest religious minority, and South Carolina’s Bahá’í community was among the largest and strongest in the United States. 5
II The Bahá’í Faith is a worldwide religious movement whose wide-ranging teachings relate to a variety of academic disciplines and contemporary concerns. Since the 1970s, a
4 The training center was the Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Institute, founded in 1972 as an agency of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. The radio station, Radio Bahá’í WLGI, began broadcasting from the Institute’s campus in rural Georgetown County in 1985. Covering northeastern South Carolina and southeastern North Carolina, it was the only Bahá’í radio station in North America. Gustav Niebuhr, “Hemingway Journal: A Little Bit of a Change From Old-Time Religion,” New York Times, 31 March 2000. The museum was the Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Museum, the boyhood home of the state’s first Bahá’í teacher. Renovated and opened to the public in 2003, it was the first museum in the city of Charleston dedicated to a single individual. Stephanie Harvin, “The Ripple Effect: Influencing the Tide of History,” Charleston (SC) Post and Courier, 2 February 2003.
5 Kristina Lee Knaus, “One Region, Many Faiths,” The State (Columbia, SC), 5 September 2003, B8. By at least the early 1990s, South Carolina had fallen to second place in Bahá’í population, behind California, but it remained the highest per capita. The Bahá’í National Center listed 15,287 adult Bahá’ís living in South Carolina for the 2000-2001 Bahá’í administrative year. Steve Brisley, Operations Supervisor, Information Services Office, Bahá’í National Center, Wilmette, IL, telephone interview by author, 20 December 2001. Prominent South Carolinians to embrace the Bahá’í Faith included influential jazz trumpeter and Cheraw native John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993); physicist and astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986), a Lake City native who was the second African-American in space and died in the Challenger disaster; and award-winning Columbia television journalist and social activist Susan Audé (b. 1952). Likenesses of both Gillespie and McNair appear in the African-American Monument on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, dedicated in 2001; Audé was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor, in 2006.
new field of Bahá’í Studies has begun to take shape, with an international network of scholarly associations, annual conferences, and peer-reviewed journals; the publication of numerous articles and monographs by other academic journals and presses; and the creation of endowed chairs or Bahá’í Studies centers in a handful of universities around the world. In these venues, scholars of the Bahá’í Faith—members and non-members, often with impressive academic credentials—have attempted to explore the faith’s teachings, history, and practices in the context of a variety of disciplines and methodologies. However, many mainstream academic presses and journals seem to have been most receptive to works treating the Bahá’í Faith as a subset of Middle Eastern Studies. 6 Authors that have assumed it as a social and religious phenomenon with its own conceptual categories and worthy of study in its own right have often resorted to publishing by official or independent Bahá’í presses and journals, where their work has unfortunately received smaller circulation and remained on the periphery of academic discourse. 7
At least two facts seem to me to require new approaches to the academic study of the Bahá’í Faith. First, while they were born and reared as Muslims and pursued their ministries within Islamic societies, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) and his prophetic precursor, the Báb (1819-1844) clearly envisioned their religious system as a universal movement,
6 Among the best-known such works by historians are Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Juan Cole, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Bahai Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
7 Notable recent exceptions to this trend are three works by sociologists: Michael McMullen, The Bahá’í: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity (New Brunswick, N.J. and London: Rutgers University Press, 2000), which focuses on the Bahá’í communities of greater Atlanta, Georgia; and Nader Saeidi, Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Bethesda: University Press of Maryland, 2000) and Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008). The latter work by Saeidi is first in a new Bahá’í Studies series co-published with the Association for Bahá’í Studies—North America.
designed for the whole of humanity rather than for any particular cultural or religious group. On the first night of his mission, the Báb called the kings of the world to carry his divinely-revealed verses “to the peoples of Turkey and of India, and beyond them … to lands in both the East and the West.” 8 “The summons and the message which We gave,” Bahá’u’lláh pointedly affirmed, “were never intended to reach or to benefit one land or one people only…. The whole earth is illuminated with the resplendent glory of God’s Revelation.” 9 The conceptual dialogue with its Islamic parent culture that runs throughout the faith’s scriptures should not be allowed to obscure its consistent claim to be a new and independent world religion quite apart from Islam or any other historic religious system. The second fact springs from the first. A central theme of Bahá’í history has been the strong tendency towards geographic diffusion and the consequent enrollment of an ever-widening diversity of human beings as adherents of the faith, processes that accelerated markedly with the introduction of systematic growth campaigns in the mid-1930s. Fifty years later, nearly ninety percent of the world’s Bahá’ís lived in the “Third World,” with the highest concentrations in South Asia, sub- Saharan Africa, and Latin America, while Bahá’ís in the faith’s Islamic heartland constituted less than seven percent of the total. 10 By the last quarter of the twentieth century, then, the vast majority of the world’s Bahá’ís were not of Muslim background, and few if any saw their faith primarily in culturally or historically exclusive terms. Treating the Bahá’í Faith as a compartment of Middle Eastern Studies has, perhaps
8 The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb, trans. Habib Taherzadeh (Haifa, Israel: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978), 41-2.
9 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi, 1 st pocket-sized ed. (Wilmette, IL.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983), 96.
10 Smith, Introduction, 82-3.
inadvertently, overlooked essential aspects of the phenomenon, minimizing the creative genius of its founders and marginalizing the lived experiences and worldviews of most of its contemporary adherents. I have attempted here to avoid such reductionist errors. By focusing on the early development of the movement in South Carolina, a state where it eventually gained among its largest and most influential followings in the Western world, this dissertation seeks to claim the Bahá’í Faith as an integral element of the modern history of the United States. In this respect it follows other works that have viewed the faith in the light of American religious and social history, particularly Gayle Morrison’s pioneering biography of Louis Gregory, the son of South Carolina freedpeople who became one of the foremost national and international leaders of the Bahá’í Faith in the first half of the twentieth century, and Robert Stockman’s work examining the development of the American Bahá’í movement from 1892 to 1921. 11 In particular, the dissertation attempts to relate the Bahá’í Faith to the historiography of race, religion, and social change in the post-Civil War South. In both American and international context, the Bahá’í Faith has addressed itself to what W. E. B. Du Bois identified as the essential problem of the twentieth century, “the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in
11 Gayle Morrison, To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982); Robert H. Stockman, The Bahá’í Faith in America, vol. 1, Origins, 1892-1900 (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985) and The Bahá’í Faith in America, vol. 2, Early Expansion, 1900-1912 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995). Stockman plans a third volume covering the period from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s 1912 visit to North America until his passing in 1921. The larger project also includes Stockman’s doctoral dissertation in American religious history, which explores some social, organizational, and theological aspects of the early development of a distinctly American Bahá’í movement. Robert H. Stockman, “The Bahá’í Faith and American Protestantism,” Th.D. diss., Harvard University, 1990. Also invaluable to the study of Bahá’í history, particularly that of North America, are several volumes in the Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History series (1982- ) by Kalimát Press, an independent Bahá’í publisher in Los Angeles.
Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” 12 At the heart of Bahá’í teaching and practice is Bahá’u’lláh’s vision, articulated in the second half of the nineteenth century and markedly different from any of the social and political philosophies of his day, of human unity and solidarity in a just global commonwealth that will transcend traditional barriers of race, class, nation, creed, and language. As this dissertation seeks to document, his followers in early twentieth-century America sought to eliminate the color line, not primarily by joining in frontal assaults on any of a number of unjust social, economic, and political institutions—which they believed were in advanced stages of collapse already, without any need for an extra push from a group as small as their own— but by pursuing the parallel but related and no less important path of erecting the framework of what they saw as a new, divinely-ordained social system destined ultimately to take the place of the tottering old one. One would think that the boldness and intellectual innovation of Bahá’u’lláh’s program alone would be enough to commend the American Bahá’ís to the attention of contemporary historians, who have tended to be attracted to the radical (even if relatively obscure) in the nation’s past. Aside from its marginalization in Middle Eastern Studies, several factors seem to have kept the Bahá’í Faith nearly invisible to historians of religion and race in the United States. In its origins neither a Christian sect, nor a faith primarily of immigrants, nor a typical “new religious movement” that eschews contemporary social concerns, the Bahá’í Faith defies easy categorization. Ideologically and programmatically, as well, it does not fit neatly with the approaches of most other organizations that are concerned with racial justice. The social and theological
12 Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk, with new intro. (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), 9.
radicalism of the Bahá’í program is tempered by scriptural injunctions (against aggressive proselytizing, involvement in political controversy, disloyalty to the state, membership in parties, and civil disobedience, for example) which sometimes limited the ways Bahá’ís in the early twentieth century could engage with mainstream civil rights groups and contributed to a relatively reserved public image, then and now. The Bahá’ís’ relatively small numbers during most of the century, their refusal to engage in traditional forms of protest, their manner of organization that militated against the emergence of charismatic individual leaders, even their consistent preference for building social capital rather than erecting local worship facilities—all may have helped further to disguise the religion’s significance to many observers, including most historians. This study is the beneficiary of a wealth of recent works in the history of race relations and religious experience in the modern South. By examining the social and intellectual history of the Bahá’í community of South Carolina, it contributes to a growing literature on the roles of interracial movements, of religious motivations and identities, and of the appeal of different visions of America’s racial future, in the profound social transformations of the twentieth century. It follows important recent works that explore the promises and limitations of moments of interracial cooperation in the post-Reconstruction South. 13 In contrast to several of these, the dissertation focuses on an organization that sought to foster interracialism as a matter of spiritual principle (rather than primarily of economic or political reasoning). It thus joins other recent
13 For example, Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Daniel Letwin, The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
works that have argued that the religious worldviews of black and white Southerners, and the various religious organizations through which many of them channeled their energies, are of central importance to understanding the struggle for (and against) racial justice. 14
In particular, the study examines the difficulties resulting from the Bahá’ís’ simultaneous transgression of regional racial, gender, and religious orthodoxies. 15 Here I particularly benefited from the insights of Daniel Letwin regarding interracial union activity among early Alabama coal miners and of Tracy K’Meyer regarding the interracial Christian communalism of Koinonia Farm in southwest Georgia. Letwin argues that what gave black and white Alabama miners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the “breathing room” to collaborate across racial lines was their adherence to key elements of white supremacy, including rejection of any charges of promoting social equality. Moreover, the single-gender nature of the job meant that interracial union organizing was less viscerally threatening to white male supremacy than if it had also crossed the gender line. K’Meyer notes that the Koinonians—all of them white Southern Baptists—won acceptance from local whites during the era of the New
14 Notable such works include Tracy K’Meyer, Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997); David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); and Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Among biographies of major lay activists, one that is notable for explicitly placing religious motivation at the center of its analysis is Edward J. Blum, W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). 15 The Bahá’ís were certainly not the only such transgressors in the early-twentieth century South, but among religious groups they were probably among the most consistently interracial in character while being among the farthest from the Protestant mainstream. A useful comparison may be with the Pentecostal movement, which emerged, roughly contemporaneously with the Bahá’í Faith in the United States, from a racially diverse, millennialist revival in Los Angeles in 1906. As Pentecostalism spread in the South, however, it separated into black and white congregations (and denominations), some of which maintained occasional interracial contacts. See Iain MacRobert, The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988); Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001); and Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001).