Saturday, April 28, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 29

Texan Strikes Blow for Racial Justice  May 5, 1964

One of the main issues under consideration at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church was the proposed merger with the Evangelical United Brethren.  On May 5 the Church Union Commission presented its report. 

Proponents of racial justice listened in stunned silence as they realized that the Commission was proposing to retain the institutional racism that had been a stain on the Methodist Church since the creation of the Central Jurisdiction in 1939.  The Uniting Conference of 1939 that created the Methodist Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church created the Central Jurisdiction from the African American Churches of the MEC and MPC. 

In 1939 African Americans protested writing racial segregation into the church’s official structure.  None of the African American delegates to the Uniting Conference voted for the Plan of Union.  Now in 1964, it appeared that the Methodist Church was going to repeat the same mistake.

An alternate lay delegate, Dr. W. Astor Kirk, wrote in his Autobiography My emotions ranged from deep anger to almost uncontrollable outrage to profound sorrow.”  Kirk realized he had to act.  He sought recognition from the chair and offered the following amendment, “"the Central Jurisdiction structure of The Methodist Church not be made a part of the Plan of Merger."   

The “Kirk Amendment” was debated at length and then passed 464 to 362.   Merger with the EUB would abolish the Central Jurisdiction.   Some southern conferences claimed that jurisdictions had the right to maintain segregated annual conferences, but a Judicial Council decision in 1965 quashed that idea. 

W. Astor Kirk, was born in Harleton, Texas, (northwestern Harrison County).  He enrolled at near-by Wiley, but soon transferred to Howard University. He earned two degrees from Howard University and accepted a position at Samuel Huston College (now Huston Tillotson University) in 1947.  He attempted to enroll in the graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin but was denied admission because of his race.  As part of the consultations about his matriculation, he had a personal meeting with Attorney General Price Daniel (Methodist lay man from Liberty).  Daniel first told Kirk he would have to attend Texas Southern University.  Kirk refused.  Daniel then told him he could attend classes taught by UT professors at the African American YMCA in Austin.  Kirk refused again.  After the landmark case Sweatt v. Painter desegregated the UT Law School, Kirk enrolled in the political science doctoral program at UT.  In 1958 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Texas.   

In 1961 Kirk moved to Washington to lend his skills to the Board of Church and Society.  He moved back to Austin when Bill Moyers, then an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, suggested that he become regional director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.  Kirk refused at first, but Johnson summoned him to the Johnson Ranch and used his considerable persuasive powers to get him to reconsider.  The acceptance of the federal office brought him back to Austin.  

Kirk’s dedication to social justice was unwavering.  At the time of his death on August 12, 2011, he was preparing materials to be presented to the 2012 General Conference concerning discrimination against gay persons. 


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