Toward a Bahá’í Mass Movement, 1963–1968
Abstract and Keywords
Shortly after the election of the Universal House of Justice, successor to Shoghi Effendi (d. 1957) as head of the faith, it announced a new nine year plan that would focus on enrolling large numbers of new Bahá’ís, especially in the rural areas of the world. Against a backdrop of increasing chaos in society at large—as seen in, for example, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Orangeburg Massacre, both in 1968—the Bahá’ís in South Carolina saw a steady stream of new believers and the establishment of communities in new localities, prelude to the large-scale expansion that would cement their place in the sweeping social transformations of the twentieth century.
More than any other religious group in the state, by the middle of the 1960s the Bahá’ís of South Carolina embodied the vision of the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King Jr. had articulated as the civil rights movement’s ultimate goal: a spiritualized polity, rooted in Christian millennial expectation and characterized by justice, love, and the “total interrelatedness” of all people. Notwithstanding the leap forward that the Ten Year Plan represented globally, however, the Bahá’ís’ small numbers in South Carolina and elsewhere severely limited their ability to promote the wholesale social transformation anticipated in their sacred scriptures and for which enlightened leaders of thought like King were increasingly calling. Some six months after its formation, the Universal House of Justice wrote pointedly that in order for the worldwide Bahá’í community to “extend its influence into all strata of society,” it must “grow rapidly in size.” Referring to the achievements of the previous decade, the body wrote that the “foundation of the Kingdom has been securely laid, the framework has been raised,” making further expansion both possible and necessary. The next task facing the worldwide community, it wrote, was to “gather the peoples and kindreds of the world into the ark which the Hand of God has built.” Announcing a Nine Year Plan (1964–1973), the first in a series that would continue Shoghi Effendi’s pattern of global teaching plans, it called for “a huge expansion of the Cause of God” marked by consolidation of the gains of the previous decade, the continued dispersal of pioneers to new territories, and a “vast increase in the number of Bahá’ís” around the world. Early on, the House of Justice encouraged all National Spiritual Assemblies to experiment with the methods that had successfully introduced the faith to the “masses of mankind” in rural areas of (p.244) several countries during the previous plan. It also outlined a campaign designed to bring the faith to the attention of the world’s political and religious leaders, set for 1967 and 1968 to coincide with the centenary of Bahá’u’lláh’s initial proclamation of his mission to the monarchs and ecclesiastics of his own time.1
In Greenville, South Carolina’s largest local Bahá’í community, the opening years of the Nine Year Plan saw continued measured growth, both in new members and seekers and in public activities in support of civil rights. These trends continued even after Richard and Joy Benson and their children, who had been central actors over the course of almost a decade in the revitalization of the Greenville community, left for Guam as international pioneers in late 1966. In South Carolina as a whole, however, there was little discernible growth.2
In the second half of the 1960s, as formal racial barriers faded across the South and cultural and political upheavals rocked the country, imperatives within the Bahá’í community met heightened social and spiritual concerns in American society at large. In October 1967, in a message to six intercontinental conferences called to commemorate the centenary and to generate commitments to fulfill the goals of the Nine Year Plan, the Universal House of Justice indicated that a “hundred-year respite” since the beginning of Bahá’u’lláh’s proclamation had come to an end. Its political and religious leaders having largely rejected Bahá’u’lláh’s counsels, humanity was now entering “the dark heart of this age of transition,” a long period of increasing social disintegration along the route to the global order that he had envisioned. But the House of Justice did not counsel despair. Amidst the deepening gloom, it wrote, the Bahá’ís would find new opportunities to extend the influence of the faith: “Sustained by our love for each other and given power through the Administrative Order … the Army of Light can achieve such victories as will astonish posterity.”3
World events during the following year certainly seemed to bear out the prediction of increasing chaos. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, secessionist warfare in the southeast resulted in a widely publicized humanitarian crisis. In Tokyo and several European capitals, massive demonstrations against the war in Vietnam ended in violent confrontations with police. In France, student protests led to a general strike that paralyzed the country and nearly toppled the government, while in Czechoslovakia, Soviet troops (p.245) invaded to overthrow a new liberalizing regime. On the eve of the opening of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, soldiers killed more than five hundred students demonstrating for greater democracy.4
The United States was hardly immune from social and political upheaval. In January 1968, Viet Cong guerillas launched the Tet offensive, a massive assault against the South Vietnamese government and its U.S. allies that belied American civilian and military leaders’ confident public assertions that their forces were close to winning. Support for the war effort among the public and in the mass media plummeted, and the Democratic Party—the dominant force in American politics for a generation—began to splinter. Two anti-war senators mounted challenges to the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, for the party’s nomination, and in a televised address on the last day of March, Johnson stunned the country by announcing that he would not seek a second full term in the election that fall. Four days later, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where he had come to assist a strike of black sanitation workers. News of the assassination spread quickly across the country, and black residents in some 125 cities took to the streets to pour out their grief and anger. The rioting, the worst in a wave of ghetto uprisings that had begun in the summer of 1964, seemed to confirm what King himself had come to fear: in the face of white intransigence and black impatience with the slow pace of change, there might be nothing civil rights leaders could do but let violence “take its course.”5
Indeed, King’s assassination and the riots that followed heralded a season of unprecedented violence and political upheaval. At the end of April, New York police forcefully removed black and white student radicals who were occupying buildings at Columbia University, leading to demonstrations that shut down the university. In June, a Palestinian nationalist assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of the slain president and front-runner in the Democratic primaries. In August, Chicago police used tear gas and nightsticks against anti-war activists, counterculture radicals, and journalists outside the Democratic National Convention, while inside the hall, a deeply divided party nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a close associate of Johnson, as its presidential candidate. In the fall general election campaign, former Alabama governor and third-party candidate George Wallace set the tone by calling for “law and order,” an appeal to many whites’ resentment of Johnson’s domestic policy initiatives and four years of campus protests and urban uprisings. Wallace and former vice president Richard M. Nixon, the Republican candidate, won most of the South, signaling an end to (p.246) white southerners’ traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party. In one of the closest elections in American political history, Nixon emerged as the victor without receiving a majority of the vote.
In early February, deadly violence came home to South Carolina when state highway patrolmen opened fire on a crowd at State College in Orange-burg, the first shooting of unarmed student demonstrators on an American university campus. Nearly four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the young people—all local high school and college students—had been protesting the continued segregation of Orangeburg’s only bowling alley. The culmination of three nights of tension between students and police, the shooting left three students dead and more than thirty injured, the majority shot from the side or rear as they dove for cover from the advancing highway patrolmen. At a press conference the morning after the shooting, Gov. Robert McNair, who had been elected as a racial moderate, expressed primary concern not for the dead and injured but for South Carolina’s public image, blaming the violence on “black power advocates.” Based on reports by the state police, McNair believed that the protests in Orangeburg had been part of the national Black Power movement and pinned the blame on Cleveland Sellers, a young South Carolina native and veteran civil rights worker who had come to the State College campus to develop “Black Awareness” among students. Later, nine highway patrolmen were acquitted of civil rights violations in connection with the shootings, and Sellers, who had come to campus that night to attempt to quiet the students, was convicted of rioting and sentenced to a year in prison. The violence at Orangeburg and the miscarriage of justice that followed it left many black South Carolinians shaken and bitter. Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, field secretary for the South Carolina NAACP, lamented that “despite all that might be considered progress in terms of interracial cooperation, beneath the surface South Carolina is just about in the same boat as Alabama and Mississippi.” Annette Reynolds, a State College student who had grown up in a middle-class home in Darlington, recalled the event as a traumatic first encounter with the ugliness of racism. On the night of the shootings, she was walking from the library with two friends when they saw the crowd of students. One friend, Samuel Hammond, went to investigate and was killed in the ensuing gunfire. Like many other students, Reynolds fled the campus the day after the shootings. She refused to return out of fear for her safety, opting instead to enroll as the first black student at Limestone College in Gaffney. She became a Bahá’í a few years later.6
Against a backdrop of increasing turmoil at home and abroad, Bahá’í teaching and community development in South Carolina accelerated. In 1966, when the National Spiritual Assembly appointed a new statewide teaching committee, called the State Goals Committee, there were seventy-six voting-age Bahá’ís in nineteen localities around South Carolina, almost the same as at the end of the Ten Year Plan three years earlier. That fall, the annual state convention was a small affair, held in the banquet room of a Columbia restaurant. Only twenty-two people voted in person, selecting two white South Carolina natives as the convention officers and a black South Carolina native, Charles Abercrombie of Greenville, as their delegate to the 1967 Bahá’í National Convention. But there were indications of a new vibrancy in several quarters. In Greenville, the Local Spiritual Assembly reported a population of nineteen adults and nine youth, with a full calendar of activities open to the public, four marriages, a doubling of contributions to the local fund, and four enrollments during the previous year. In the Pee Dee region, Jordan Young’s black and white patients arranged for him to speak about “Bahá’u’lláh of Persia” to large audiences in local churches, and Bahá’ís and their friends in Florence, Dillon, and Lake City gathered frequently to observe the Nineteen Day Feast and Holy Days. More than a half-century after Louis Gregory’s first visit to his hometown as a Bahá’í, a local community was finally emerging in Charleston with the settlement of new pioneers—including a white Charleston expatriate who had become a Bahá’í in the navy—and the enrollment of local residents.7
With regular community activities in the Augusta, Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia, Florence, and Greenville areas as a solid basis for expansion, an increasing pool of energetic teachers willing to travel within the state, and occasional visits by teachers from outside, there was a steady stream of enrollments during 1967 and 1968. Virtually every issue of the State Goals Committee’s newsletter welcomed new believers. They included individuals in the established urban communities, in nearby small towns, and, in the midst of an escalating conflict in Vietnam, on military bases: Charleston, Charleston Air Force Base, Columbia, Clemson, Darlington, Florence, Fort Jackson, Greenville, Hanahan, Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, Pendleton, St. Stephen, and St. Helena Island. In the Columbia area, growth during the summer and fall of 1968 was robust enough that a new Local Spiritual Assembly for Richland County and a Bahá’í student association at Benedict College were formed the following year.8
(p.248) Also during 1968, home-front pioneers settled in Rock Hill and Winns-boro, bringing the faith to two towns that had been stops on the first Freedom Ride seven years earlier. In June, a white family originally from the Midwest, Charles and Helen Thomas and their children, relocated from Laurinburg, North Carolina, to Rock Hill. They quickly began teaching acquaintances made through his chiropractic office and her sewing business. At about the same time, three families also from the Midwest—two black and one white—settled in Winnsboro, part of a regional plan to establish the faith in small towns in several southern states. They secured employment or started businesses, enrolled their children in the segregated local schools, and began to teach their neighbors and host interracial gatherings in each other’s homes. One of the new Winnsboro pioneers was Elizabeth Allison Martin, formerly of Adrian, Michigan, whose family had learned of the faith from Louis Gregory in Nashville and whose mother and brother had helped establish the Local Spiritual Assembly of Greenville. Another was Lacey Crawford of Chicago, a professional photographer who had become a Bahá’í after shooting a major story on the faith for Ebony magazine. By 1968, the number of adult Bahá’ís in the state, including new believers and home-front pioneers, had nearly doubled to 132. The 1968 state convention, held at Columbia’s Masonic Temple, was three times as large as the one two years earlier, with 49 voting adults and some 20 children and youth in attendance.9
While the South Carolina community was growing in numbers, the State Goals Committee also encouraged active engagement in public relations. In late March 1968, only six weeks after the shootings in Orangeburg, a delegation of Columbia Bahá’ís presented a new volume entitled The Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh, comprising passages from his letters to the kings and rulers of the world, to Gov. Robert McNair as part of the campaign called for by the Universal House of Justice. Immediately after Martin Luther King’s assassination in early April, the committee sent a telegram of sympathy to his widow, Coretta Scott King, assuring her of the prayers of the South Carolina Bahá’ís “for the spiritual progress of humanity.” Later that month, Horace Brown, a member of the committee and the lone believer in Spartanburg, mounted a local proclamation effort that involved some five hundred mailed announcements, press coverage, and a favorable meeting with the mayor. In the fall, the committee organized the presentation of a booklet about the ghetto uprisings, prepared by the National Spiritual Assembly and entitled Why Our Cities Burn, to state-level government officials and encouraged individuals to share it with friends and business associates.10
(p.249) The growth in South Carolina was part of a nationwide trend. Between 1963 and 1968, the Bahá’í population of the United States grew by around 60 percent, from eleven thousand to nearly eighteen thousand. Most of the new believers were teenagers and young adults, and college campuses became centers of Bahá’í activity. In 1967, a national task force proposed concerted action to teach the faith to blacks, including sending youth and young adults “to live and teach in [black] neighborhoods and towns until a breakthrough occurs.” In June 1968, a national youth conference held at the temple in Chicago adopted a five-year youth program, subsidiary to the Nine Year Plan, that called for deploying 500 young pioneers at home and abroad, including 350 in the southern states. Meeting less than three weeks after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the conference attendees focused their deliberations on how to bring the Bahá’í teachings to the younger generations more effectively than before. In November, buoyed by their own successes as well as by national developments, the Bahá’ís who assembled at the South Carolina state convention adopted a new expansion goal for the rest of the Nine Year Plan: to form three new Local Spiritual Assemblies per year in the state during 1969, 1970, and 1971 and four per year during 1972 and 1973. Given the South Carolina community’s record of slow growth over several decades, such a vision must have seemed audacious. However, neither the Bahá’ís in South Carolina nor the national leaders of their religion had any idea of the magnitude of the changes that would come in the wake of Jim Crow’s demise. At the end of the Nine Year Plan in 1973, the goals of the 1968 state convention—if anyone remembered them at all—would have appeared as an artifact from another era. For beginning in 1969, Bahá’ís in the Deep South, led by the South Carolina community, launched an energetic new teaching program that resulted in growth that was unprecedented for the faith anywhere in the Western world. The expansion they wrought would permanently alter the identity, structure, and aspirations of the Bahá’í movement in the United States, cementing the place of the South Carolina Bahá’í community in the sweeping social transformations of the twentieth century.11 (p.250)
(1.) King, Why We Can’t Wait, 128; Universal House of Justice, Messages, 1963–1986, comp. Marks, 2.10, 6.5, 6.10, 14.4, 18.1. For treatments of the “beloved community,” see Smith and Zepp, Search for the Beloved Community, esp. chapter 6, and Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America, esp. chapter 8.
(2.) “Good Afternoon,” Greenville (S.C.) Piedmont, September or October 1966, clipping, private collection of Joy F. Benson.
(3.) Universal House of Justice, Messages, 1963–1986, comp. Marks, 4, 46.3.
(6.) Bass and Nelson, Orangeburg Massacre, 137; Magdalene Bahia Laursen, “The War of Racism,” undergraduate research paper, Francis Marion University, 2008, copy in author’s possession. Released early from prison for good behavior, Sellers went on to complete graduate degrees at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, eventually becoming director of the African American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina and, in 2008, the president of historically black Vorhees College in his hometown of Denmark, South Carolina. Despite the trauma and grief she experienced, Reynolds went on to spend virtually her entire career as a home economics instructor with the Orangeburg County extension service. While the state has never conducted an official investigation of the event that became known as the Orangeburg Massacre, Gov. Mark Sanford issued an official apology in 2003.
(7.) “Preliminary letter to South Carolina State Goals Committee Newsletter,” (p.285) September 1966, copy in author’s possession (for membership); South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 1, no. 3 (November 1966) (for the convention); “Feast of Ridvan,” April 20, 1966, private collection of Joy F. Benson (for Greenville); Young interview (for churches); Kahn, “Encounter of Two Myths,” 244 (for Charleston). For Pee Dee–area meetings, see, for example, South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 1, no. 3 (November 1966); South Carolina Baha’i Bulletin, October 1967. Jordan Young adopted the locution “Bahá’u’lláh of Persia,” uncommon in the American Bahá’í community, for his talks in churches as an equivalent to “Jesus of Nazareth,” a title used frequently among Protestants in reference to the historical Jesus.
(8.) South Carolina Baha’i Bulletin, June 1967, October 1967, November–December 1967, and January 1968; South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 1 (April 1968); South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 3 (August–September 1968); South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 5 (November 1968) (all for enrollments); National Bahá’í Review 19 (July 1969): 9; “By-Laws: Bahá’í Association of Benedict,” CBA, Columbia, S.C. (both for Columbia).
(9.) South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 3 (June–July 1968) (for the Thomases); Jack McCants to Elizabeth Martin, May 18, 2006, copy in possession of the author; Martin interview; Bennett, “Bahá’í: A Way of Life for Millions” and booklet of the same name in author’s possession (all for Winns-boro); Hampson, “Diffusion and Growth,” 239 (for membership); South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 5 (November 1968) (for the convention). The Ebony article, written by a well-known journalist and author and published under a cover story on the death of Nat King Cole, likely brought the Bahá’í Faith to the attention of large numbers of African Americans. After its publication, the Bahá’ís received permission to reprint the article as a stand-alone booklet. The “Ebony reprint” was a standard teaching tool in South Carolina and other Deep South states during the 1970s.
(10.) South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 1 (April 1968); South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 4 (August–September 1968).
(11.) Hollinger, “Introduction,” in Hollinger, ed. Community Histories, xxx; Hampson, “Diffusion and Growth,” 232–33 (both for growth trends); Glenford Mitchell, Sarah Pereira, and Eugene Byrd, “The Most Challenging Issue: Teaching Negroes—A Task Force Paper,” 1967, copy in author’s possession; Hampson, “Diffusion and Growth,” 236–37; South Carolina Baha’i Faith State Goals Committee Newsletter 3, no. 5 (November 1968). (p.286)