By Riley Manning
OXFORD – In the words of William Faulkner, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
It was with this in mind that the Rev. Eric Hankins and his congregation at First Baptist Church in Oxford passed a resolution to retract and nullify a 1968 vote by the church to ban African-Americans from its pews.
“Too often apologies are made to no one specifically,” Hankins said. “But a true apology has to acknowledge someone specific. The vote in the ’60s was cast by the whole congregation during a Sunday service, and we passed this resolution in the same way.”
When FBC presented the resolution to Oxford’s historically black Second Baptist Church in August, the Rev. Andrew Robinson said he felt a sigh of relief from both groups.
“When First Baptist Church took this step, it wasn’t just the church. For the white community to offer an apology so openly is a true sign of humility and repentance,” Robinson said. “And to me, that shows it’s serious, that people are moving in the direction of healing.”
Hankins first came to First Baptist in 2005, and quickly sensed some lingering race-related burdens carried by the congregation.
“Every once in a while, an older member would vaguely mention how the church was on the wrong side of a few racial issues,” Hankins said.
As 2012 drew to a close, Hankins finally received the full story. In 1968, when integration was a fast-approaching reality, the pastor and deacons drafted an open-door policy, allowing anyone to become a member. However, the measure was voted down by the congregation.
“Rejecting an open-door policy meant adopting a closed-door policy,” Hankins said.
So it went into the ’70s. As attitudes shifted and Ole Miss students of all varieties began to attend and join the church, the ruling became essentially obsolete.
“There was kind of this collective decision to forget,” Hankins said. “The question is, ‘What is our responsibility for the past?’ Sure it happened a long time ago, before we were here, but it was still hurtful and sinful. It was clearly wrong and needed to be put right.”
Within the week, Hankins sought out Robinson, with whom he had been friends for years. As they strategized over how to mend old wounds, the complexities of history and race in the small town of Oxford – and the South as a whole – became apparent.
“Part of the challenge,” Robinson said, “is how do we as Christians talk about these issues without politicizing them? You build relationships as members of the body of Christ. The past can only be overcome by submitting to what we learn by our faith, and setting a living example.”
Over the next few months, Hankins and his deacons drafted a resolution nullifying and apologizing for the 1968 decision. In July, it was presented to the entire First Baptist congregation, which approved it, over 600 members voting in favor and only four against.
“Even the few that voted against it shows we didn’t push this on anyone, and we let everyone have their opinion,” Hankins said. “I think it’s clear the real heart of First Baptist Church is to elevate the gospel and break barriers.”
Robinson, who predicted at least a few dozen to vote against the resolution, was surprised at the spirit of readiness displayed by both congregations.
“I was overjoyed,” he said. “I expected some opposition in my own congregation, but the gospel has the power to change many hearts. People are tired of carrying this around with them. After they presented the resolution to us, people were happy. They were talking after the service as Christians loving Christians.”
In moving forward, Hankins and Robinson said their churches will take one step at a time, but with history finally put to rest, they look forward to helping the community as a united front.
“Now that the air is cleared, we can move forward,” Robinson said. “We don’t have to be so careful around each other, walking on our tip toes.”