This Week in Texas Methodist History April 25
One might think that the selection of a city to host General Conference might not be controversial, but from the formation of the Methodist Church in 1939 until the later 1960’s, there was a always a problem. The Discipline recommended that the site of General Conference be rotated among the jurisdictions, “provided satisfactory arrangements can be made for entertainment, with special reference to the requirements for equality of accommodations for all races, without discrimination or segregation”.
Obviously non-discriminatory arrangements could not be found in the states of the former Confederacy. Racial segregation was not just the custom; it was enforced by local governments throughout the South. Even if a non-discriminatory convention hall could be found, African American delegates attending a General Conference in the South would be subject to discrimination in hotels, restaurants, taxis, city busses, depots, air terminals, and the like. Attending a General Conference in the South would have been a constant humiliation for African American delegates.
The General Conference locations since the creation of jurisdictions in 1939 had been as follows:
Atlantic City (1940) Kansas City (1944) Boston (1948) San Francisco (1952) Minneapolis (1956) Denver (1960) and Pittsburgh (1964).
The Committee on Entertainment met at Pittsburgh to decide the location of the 1968 General Conference. It was obvious that the suggestion to rotate among the jurisdictions had not been met. The Southeastern Jurisdiction had never hosted a General Conference and the South Central only one and that in the border state, Missouri. The Committee on Entertainment consisted of two members from each of the six jurisdictions. When Dallas was proposed as the site of the 1968 General Conference, the two delegates from the Central Jurisdiction, Thurman L. Dodson, a lay delegate from Washington, D. C. and Dr. L. Scott Allen, editor of the Central Christian Advocate from New Orleans, dissented vigorously.
In addition to segregation in public accommodations and the well known control of Dallas by a conservative oligarchy, less than six months earlier Dallas had been the scene of the Kennedy assassination. William A. Holmes of Northhaven Methodist Church in Dallas preached a sermon on Sunday, November 24, 1963 on the assassination from the text of Pilate’s washing of his hands and saying “I have no responsibility for the death this man.” The sermon linked the climate of hate in Dallas to the tragedy. The sermon included the report that local school children had cheered the assassination. National news outlets picked up the story, and Dallas became known, not only as the site of an infamous murder, but as a city in which children had been taught to hate.
The internal deliberations of the Committee on Entertainment are not part of the historical record, but it finally voted 9-3 to hold the 1968 General Conference in Dallas.
At the same the General Conference was deliberating in Pittsburgh, another deliberative body was considering a proposal that would make Dallas a more hospitable place for African American delegates four year hence. That body was the U. S. Senate.
In June, 1963 President Kennedy called for the passage of a civil rights bill that would guarantee non-discrimination in public accommodations. That bill was going nowhere, but on November 27, in his first address to Congress after the assassination, President Lyndon Johnson announced his determination to see it passed.
The main obstacle to passage was a filibuster organized by Johnson’s mentor, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia who was a Methodist lay man. Johnson turned to Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois for help and finally broke the filibuster after 57 days. President Johnson signed it into law on July 2. When African Americans came to Dallas in 1968, they would find the law on their side rather than opposing them.
The 1968 General Conference turned out to an historic one. The Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church became the United Methodist Church. It was also the General Conference that finally took action on abolishing the Central Jurisdiction.