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Reverse Busing

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457px-Jerry_Falwell_portrait

We all know how much white conservatives opposed school busing. The most famous case was in Boston, when Louise Day Hicks became famous saving south Boston from the horrors of white kids going to school with black kids. So it was a strong principle for them, right? Busing is bad.

Well, L.D. Burnett shows us the answer is, predictably, no. The right was all about busing when it meant getting white people out of black neighborhoods to white religious institutions. Despite Jerry Falwell rising to prominence on opposing busing, he was all over it when it benefited himself.

A key leader in the 1970s church growth movement was Elmer Towns, a member of Falwell’s church and a co-founder of Liberty University. In 1973, Towns co-authored a book with Falwell describing the ministries of Thomas Road as models that other churches could follow to see similar growth. “The Sunday-school bus ministry has the greatest potential for evangelism in today’s church,” Towns wrote in Capturing a Town for Christ (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1973). “More souls are won to Jesus Christ and identified with local churches through Sunday-school busing than any other medium of evangelism” (34). This is a broad statement about the evangelistic potential of bus ministries in general. Towns follows up this general endorsement of church bus programs with an explanation of what makes the bus ministry at Falwell’s church stand out:

Many bus workers only work in the housing projects, ghetto areas, and among the poor in the slums. All people within a community must be reached, the poor as well as the affluent. Thomas Road Baptist Church has sixteen buses that operate in middle-class neighborhoods of twenty-five-thousand-dollar homes and above. One bus brings in thirty-five riders from the status Boonsboro district, while the next bus that unloads on Sunday morning is from the Greenfield Housing Project, and the bare feet and dirty clothes indicate a poverty level.

Lynchburg has only fifty-four thousand people and some feel the Sunday-school bus ministry has reached its saturation point. Now twenty-one buses leave the city limits and bring children in from rural areas and distant towns such as Bedford, Alta Vista, Appomattox, Amherst, and Thaxton. One reaches fifty miles to Roanoke (35).

There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs, and a lot going on around them. Housing projects, ghettos, and slums – in 1973 (and today as well, I guess) these words could be used to introduce race into a discourse without ever naming the issue. So I think Towns isn’t just talking about “the poor as well as the affluent” here – he’s also talking about black urban poverty and contrasting it with white suburban affluence. The assertion that “all people within a community must be reached” is not offered here as an argument that more churches should use busing to bring the black urban poor into their midst, but rather as a justification for churches to consider providing free bus service to white affluent suburbanites who might wish to become members. Busing can bring people of “status” into the church. And busing over long distances – well, that’s not a problem. What’s wrong with busing new members into a church located fifty miles away from where they live, if that’s where they want to be on a Sunday morning?

People picked up on the irony at the time, but Falwell certainly didn’t care about that.

Hope waking up to Falwell didn’t make anyone expurgate their breakfast.

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  • KadeKo

    For your last sentence, I can only wonder “Why do I eat breakfast before I come here?”

  • At the risk of overusing the phrase: This is my shocked face.

  • c u n d gulag

    “Hope waking up to Falwell didn’t make anyone expurgate their breakfast.”

    Nah.
    We can revel in the fact that he’s still dead!

  • Jhoosier

    There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs, and a lot going on around them. Housing projects, ghettos, and slums – in 1973 (and today as well, I guess) these words could be used to introduce race into a discourse without ever naming the issue.

    I wonder about this, especially in the wake of the Ferguson protests. As a white guy raised in conservative Indiana in a Republican family, I’ve been exposed to all the dog whistles you can count. So when I call people out on their bigotries, there’s a sudden backpedaling of “It’s not about race! How dare you intimate I’m a racist!”

    Does anyone have a taxonomy of racist dog whistles?

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      “Does anyone have a taxonomy of racist dog whistles?”

      I think you have to check the Peterson’s Guide to Racists, Assholes, and Conservatives

      It’s really quite useful for identifying internet trolls; when you hear one squawk “Bomb Gaza!”, it the Guide leads you right to the Yellow-Belly Arab Hater, commonly found hiding under a bed.

      • DrDick

        Under the bed is generally the favored habitat for most species of racist crackers.

        • Snarki, child of Loki

          Well, yeah, the ones that aren’t hiding in closets or sewers, that is.

          There are just some ecosystems that support an enormous diversity of (disgusting parasitic) species.

    • JMP

      Those are beyond a dog whistle, though. Maybe it was different way back in the 70s, but if anyone says “ghetto” or “slum” that’s about as overtly racial as screaming the N-word repeatedly. There’s no way anyone can claim not to be talking about race when using those words, and even the most hardcore racists know that.

  • FYWP

    I didn’t eat breakfast today, so just dry heaves. Thanks a million Erik.

  • Randy

    I think I speak for all of us when I say I am shocked, SHOCKED to hear that Jerry Falwell was a hypocrite.

  • cpinva

    I must take issue with one “given”, in an otherwise excellent post: the assumption that all of the poor people bussed into the church, and living in both the urban low-income housing, and rural locations were black. they were not, at least not in the Lynchburg/Bedford/Roanoke area, either in the 70’s or now. in addition to low-income white folks (residing mostly in the rural areas), there is growing population of Hispanics in the area, the majority of which are low-income, who I’m sure fallwell’s church bussed in.

    while I’m certain that the majority of the low-income folks are black, it is a fatal error to just assume all of them are. bear in mind, that area of SW VA is part of the blue ridge mountain chain, considered the Appalachia’s, noted for it’s own brand of rural white poverty.

    it would have been nice if, along with noticing the poor kids lacked shoes, the church had gotten appropriate footwear for them, as part of its ministry.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      They noticed that they had feet, and that cheered ’em right up.

      Or something, the translations from Aramaic are confusing on that point.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    (opens lg&m)

    hmm. Erik seems to have mixed it up and posted a pic of a live horse’s ass

    it’s always something

  • funkula

    I hate to interrupt a Falwell hate-on, but I don’t see this as hypocrisy. The whole point of school busing was that it was mandatory. Church attendance is completely optional. No need to manufacture a charge against Falwell when there are so many better-founded points of attack.

  • xq

    The right was all about busing when it meant getting white people out of black neighborhoods to white religious institutions.

    Not sure where you are getting this reading. In the newspaper article L.D. Burnett references, the minister says explicitly that he buses in black people. The Towns quote also suggests that he is busing black kids to his church. Maybe you think these ministers were lying or something, but I don’t see any evidence for that in the Burnett post.

    • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

      Yeah, Erik and the guy at the link completely misread the book (the whole thing is here: http://elmertowns.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Capturing_A_Town_For_ChristETowns.pdf) and then extrapolate that to where they already wanted to go.

      Towns is contrasting other “bus ministries” that are focused on bringing people in from the “slums” (who presumably are impoverished and don’t have transportation), and Falwell, who is busing in Lynchburg hillbillies, who also presumably don’t have transportation.

      Obviously, Falwell thought his church was awesome and that everyone should go to it, but I don’t see any connection to public school busing.

  • KmCO

    Hope waking up to Falwell didn’t make anyone expurgate their breakfast

    Well I did, and for that I blame you.

  • Sly

    Hope waking up to Falwell didn’t make anyone expurgate their breakfast.

    On the contrary. Whenever I see Jerry Falwell’s face, I’m instantly reminded that he’s dead.

    It may seem crude, yes, but I remember a time when Jerry Falwell was like this invincible force of darkness in American politics. He was such a proficient demagogue (the “best,” I’d argue, of 20th century America) that no matter how evil his words or deeds he would always have legions of oafish and spiteful admirers to keep him propped up. His death was my Moon Landing; something so shockingly impossible and wondrously reaffirming that I’ll always remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out it happened.

  • Davis

    1951: Linda Brown, an 8-year-old girl living in Topeka, Kansas, has to travel by bus to a distant school for African-American students, despite living within walking distance from an elementary school that is only for white children. This is due to segregation policies in the school districts. Linda Brown’s father sues the state school board of Topeka. The United States Supreme Court agrees to hear this case.

    – See more at: http://kids.laws.com/civil-rights-timeline#sthash.KWMreoxv.dpuf

    No further comment necessary.

  • Manju

    We all know how much white conservatives opposed school busing.

    From 1972-1996, NORC had a busing question on its General Social Survey:

    “In general, do you favor or oppose the busing of (Negro/Black/African-American) and white school children from one school district to another?”

    Whites Only, by Political Views (I think this is self-identification):

    Liberals

    FAVOR…..29.8
    OPPOSE…70.2

    Moderates

    FAVOR…..20.9
    OPPOSE…79.1

    Conservatives:

    FAVOR…..15.6
    OPPOSE…84.4

    Judging from this data, Erik’s statement is accurate but buries the headline. While there is a statistically significant difference between Liberals and others here, an overwhelming majority of Liberals still opposed busing.

    “We all know how much white people opposed school busing” would’ve given us a better picture of reality.

    http://sda.berkeley.edu/quicktables/quickconfig.do?gss12

  • L.D. Burnett

    Erik, thanks for linking to my post, and thanks to everyone above for the discussion.

    Cpvina is absolutely correct: no one should assume all the poor bussed to the church were black. I didn’t think I had advanced that assumption in my post (or built my post on it), but if that’s what you all came away with, then that’s unclear writing on my part — so sorry about that confusion.

    And I should have made it much clearer that I was talking less about the program itself, or who it *actually* reached/served, than about how it was packaged/pitched to other churches and how that description fit in with a broader discourse about integration, etc. JMP is right, I think — no matter the actual demographic breakdown of impoverished populations in rural, suburban, and/or urban Virginia, the “dog whistle” words are meant to evoke an image of African American poor, contrasted with the membership prospects from the “status” suburbs. Just as mentioning the ghetto was a way of signaling “black,” mentioning the suburbs was a way to say “white” — and also, as was made quite explicit in the description of home values/household income, “money.” In the text, Falwell was pleased to note that Sunday school attendance had doubled in two years — and giving had increased twelve-fold!

    Bob Loblaw is narrowly correct that the Falwell/Towns text with which I begin the post doesn’t explicitly mention school busing — but that’s the whole point of the post. The pro-busing boosterism of this text is a “self-contained” argument, but in its historical context, it’s a peculiar argument indeed — not just peculiar to a historian looking back at it, but peculiar and troubling to people at the time, as evidenced from the reactions of folks quoted in the news articles.

    As I said in comments at USIH, the evangelistic motives of Falwell et al — the willingness, even if not the desire, to invite people into their church whom they did not (as we know from other sermons, etc.) wish to receive in their schools or their public spaces — those evangelistic motives were probably sincere. (That doesn’t mean those motives didn’t also happen to accomplish other ends that were less altruistic.) But there was, I think, a real conflict, with people wanting to hold to two contradictory “traditions” or convictions about how the world ought to be. Some varied resolutions of that conflict: a denial that there was any epistemic crisis brewing, or a doubling down on racism and paternalism, or maybe some fumbling toward a different understanding of what race relations should look like in a “Christian” social order. Jason Sokol’s *There Goes My Everything* explores this epistemic crisis among white southerners, and William Martin’s *With God on Our Side* spends some time looking at race relations and the Religious Right. But I think it’s under-examined territory, historically speaking.

    Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to get some linkage from LGM. Thanks for the thoughtful critiques.

    P.S. On the block quote above, as you all probably assumed but I feel beholden to make clear, the two inner paragraphs are a direct quote from the book — I guess the formatting didn’t copy/paste.

    • cpinva

      ms. burnett, enjoyed the article and the discussions. yes, I at least got the impression the program was primarily dedicated to bringing in poor sheep wearing a distinctly darker wool, but also those whose wool was shampooed weekly. my point was that not all the poor sheep being targeted were darker hued.

      as to this:

      “But there was, I think, a real conflict, with people wanting to hold to two contradictory “traditions” or convictions about how the world ought to be. Some varied resolutions of that conflict: a denial that there was any epistemic crisis brewing, or a doubling down on racism and paternalism, or maybe some fumbling toward a different understanding of what race relations should look like in a “Christian” social order.”

      bear in mind the origins of the assemblies of god church: an offshoot of the original schismatic southern Baptist church, severed from the original American Baptist church, specifically to provide a Christian, moral underpinning for slavery in the soon to be confederate states.

      you’re raised in a strictly racially divided society, spending a great deal of your time railing at the injustice of the federal gov’t forcing those people on you, up to and including forcibly integrating your child’s school, by bussing in those people’s children. then, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, your church, your CHURCH! turns around and does the same thing, it can be………………confusing.

      o’l jerry never let that concern stop him from making a buck though.

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