Pauli Murray, civil rights advocate, feminist, lawyer and ordained minister.
Image by:Women' Division Archives
Source: Women's Division
It was a historic moment in the midst of the year-long celebration of the 135th anniversary of United Methodist Women and its predecessor organizations. The occasion was the commemoration of the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation. The place was the fall 2004 meeting of the Women’s Division in Stamford, Connecticut. Two extraordinary presenters had been invited: Mrs. Mai Gray, the first African American President of the Women’s Division (1976–1980); and Dr. Carolyn Johnson, the youngest elected President of the Women’s Division (1992–1996).
Dr. Johnson set the societal context for the presentation. The year 2004 marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill; the 30th anniversary of the passage of the bill authorizing bilingual education; and the 10th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from imprisonment in South Africa. A major resource for the development of the Brown decision was a book authored by Pauli Murray and published by the Women’s Division, States’ Laws on Race and Color.
Mrs. Gray outlined the history from the perspective of the Women’s Division’s ongoing commitment to addressing issues of racism in church and society. She noted the 1947 meeting of the National Seminar which called for the formation of a Committee of Racial Policies. This committee drafted the first Charter for Racial Justice Policies. In 1952 in Buck Hill Falls, the Charter was adopted by the Division and sent to the conferences for ratification. The ratification process called for each conference to certify whether or not they agreed, disagreed, or had taken no action on the Charter. The signatures were presented and the Charter was ratified at the Women’s Division Assembly on May 17, 1954, in Milwaukee.
May 17, 1954, was the day that Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the Brown v. Board of Education decision, declaring that “separate but equal” had no place in public education. The Women’s Division was the first organization in The United Methodist Church to acknowledge this historic decision.
The message for United Methodist Women from Mrs. Gray was powerful. She noted that she was a first-year teacher in a segregated school system when the Brown decision was announced. She said that she was not allowed to have a library card “because of the color of her skin,” although her family paid taxes which helped fund the local library. Although this station in life was imposed by societal laws, the organization of United Methodist Women afforded a sign of hope. Mrs. Gray described us as special women who are willing to “go where there is no path and to leave a trail for others to follow.”
Brown v. Board of Education was a bold attempt to dismantle separate but equal practices in the United States. Dr. Johnson provided analysis on the steps achieved, but also the challenges still before us in addressing the sin of racism in our society, the church, and the world. She noted that Brown v. Board of Education did reaffirm the ability to take legal recourse as a viable strategy for change. At the same time, dismantling racism means moving far beyond removing “colored only” signs. It calls for United Methodist Women to work persistently and strategically to examine and remove barriers to equality in the various structures of church and society.
Dr. Johnson challenged United Methodist Women to understand that we need to be fully equipped for this struggle. This means a process of personal introspection and commitment. She admonished us to “know your personal story of how you were raced,” i.e., how racism was imposed in your life; to examine which aspects of how you were “raced” you are now able
to let go; and to recognize whether you have the strength to act alone, if need be, in the struggle to dismantle racism. Dr. Johnson said that we are called to ask, seek, and be persistent. She challenged this generation of United Methodist Women to make their mark in history in the mission to dismantle the sin of racism.
On July 29-31, United Methodists involved in public education will arrive in Nashville, Tenn., and set the direction of 1-million member United Methodist Women as they advocate for quality public education in the United States. Continue to check this web site throughout the next week for information on the Public Education Summit.
Jul 27, 2005