The Growth of James McDowell Richards and Columbia
By Brian D. Hecker, Public Services Archivist
In the summer of 1932, James McDowell Richards (1902-1986), nearing the age of thirty, accepted an offer from the Board of Directors of Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) to become its president, a position he initially did not anticipate keeping for more than 5 years.1 Richards graduated from CTS just four years earlier, a member in the first class at the seminary’s new home near growing metropolitan Atlanta in Decatur, GA, and among the last to attend classes on the Columbia, S.C campus.
It would have been impossible to know the breadth and depth of his responsibilities when becoming president (accepting the position as he did in the midst of a great economic depression), as he remained in this position nearly forty often tumultuous years. Among the issues he perennially addressed over these years was racial justice. His advocacy for this issue during a turbulent time often silently formed his own understanding of reconciliation and peace. As a prominent educator, minister, and presbyter in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS),2 the various places he lived and visited in his early life would come to be mirrored in the negotiations and often competing trajectories he expressed in approaching issues related to racial justice.
The post-Reconstruction South that Richards was born into was embedded with nostalgic memorial practices and romantic myths surrounding a bygone Antebellum world and the Confederacy. Variations of white resentment were also frequently expressed through racial discrimination policies and horrific acts of spectacle violence. At this time the PCUS reflected white Southern cultural norms by promoting varying degrees of ecclesiastical racial segregation and providing only marginal support to institutions training African Americans for ministry.3
Richards’s father, Charles Malone Richards (1871-1964), and both of his grandfathers, John Gardner Richards (1828-1915) and James McDowell (1832-1913), were all graduates of CTS and active PCUS ministers; the latter two were Confederate chaplains during the Civil War.
Prior to attending CTS as a student, Richards travelled abroad from 1923-26 to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Perhaps for the first time outside the United States, Richards began to reflect on racial discrimination practices that were so common throughout the South. His diary reveals that he was confronted by a handful of students in October 1923 who compelled him to question whether such practices could be compatible with Christianity.4 Much of what he witnessed on his travels throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean left a long-lasting impression. He saw firsthand the power of nation-states to violate and marginalize persons when he visited a post-war impoverished Germany, witnessed fascism in Italy under Benito Mussolini, and while in Greece witnessed the migration of thousands of Turkish refugees.5
During his time as a student at CTS he had considered questions of racial justice, but not until assuming the presidency did he began to take serious consideration the injustices faced by African Americans.6 He was actively involved in the Atlanta–based Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) from the mid-1930s-40s. He regretfully admitted later that initially this involvement was only a means of making acquaintances and listening to grievances, but his engagement eventually permitted him to reevaluate certain learned prejudices he held surrounding the intellectual capabilities of African Americans.7
In 1935 when Richards was engaged with CIC, he was appointed by the PCUS General Assembly (GA) to the Committee on Social and Moral Welfare. The committee, an outgrowth of adopted insights from the previous decades’ Social Gospel Movement, was appointed by the GA to investigate and report on current social and economic problems.8 Race relations became an important part of the committee’s annual reports after 1935, detailing the disenfranchised conditions of African Americans, from basic housing and education needs to issues related to criminal justice and lynching. The committee also encouraged churches and individuals to support peaceful racial relations.9 Throughout World War II, the committee reports communicated to readers the hypocrisy of decrying Nazi treatment of Jews when rights were currently being denied to Japanese living in internment camps and had long been denied to African Americans throughout the South.
Throughout the 1940s, Richards appropriated and expanded on material summarized in these committee reports in numerous sermons and addresses; his earliest and most famous titled “Brothers in Black.”10 He repeatedly stressed to his white listeners the full humanity and rights belonging to African Americans and implored them to understand the shameless desecration they continually suffer. Numerous grave injustices including poor comparative wages and employment opportunities, the low quality of housing projects, marginal healthcare provisions, severe failures in the justice system and police brutality, high inequality in “separate but equal” schools, lack of recreation facilities, voting rights, and the low concern from white churches. He reminded his audiences that greed in white America was responsible for the initial presence of African Americans in North America, through the evils of trafficking and enslavement.
Richards’s recognition and frequent bold confrontations of racial injustices were not always met with an equal interrogation of his inherited white Southern imagination that buttressed those very injustices. With the intent to arouse a sense of justice for his audience, he appealed to the Lost Cause ideological “faithful slave” trope and the narrative of social uplift and progress to illustrate the value of African Americans (the latter into the late 1950s).11 When in his 80s, Richards self admittedly wrote, “a son of the Old South, I confess that my conscience in racial matters was slow in developing.”12
It took Richards several years to recognize that segregation itself was an injustice, maintaining waning support of it through the early 1950s.13 After the PCUS GA adopted the 1954 report from the Committee on Christian Relations condemning segregation, Richards met with PCUS ministers and ruling elders in March 1956 to draft a conciliatory document for the purpose of maintaining peace within the PCUS between those who supported and those who opposed segregation in one form or another.14 Similarly, Richards composed a draft of what would become the “Atlanta Minister’s Manifesto,” a document that did not outright condemn segregation as much as it condoned obedience to the law and peaceful relations. Signed by eighty Atlanta minsters, the document was printed on the front page of the Atlanta Journal–Constitution on November 3, 1957. Shortly after, a cross was burned on the lawn of the president’s house.15
Into the early 1960s, Richards was overt in his opposition to segregation while seeking to maintain peaceful relations with those in the PCUS who still supported it.16
Richards did not go in directions that would satisfy all in the PCUS, but sought to maintain what he considered moderation, even when that moderation continually permitted changes and adaptations from what was so familiar to him. His intentional rhetoric exceeded, and as much preceded and slowly educated his vision. Over time through his various engagements he was affected in ways he did not anticipate and assumed positions on racial justice he would have never imagined.17
- 1. McDowell Richards,As I Remember It: Columbia Theological Seminary, 1932-1971 ([Decatur: CTS Press, 1985), 23.
- Adopting a metaphor recently used by Esrkine Clarke, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019), 162.
- 3.Ernest Trice Thompson, “Black Presbyterians, Education and Evangelism after the Civil War,”Journal of Presbyterian History 51, no. 2 (1973): 174-98; David M. Reimers, “The Race Problem and Presbyterian Union,” Church History 31, no. 2 (1962): 205-6. There were a small number of ministers – including Richards’s grandfather John Gardner Richards – who devoted attention to African American congregations.
- Entries for October 19 and 23, 1923,RichardsDiary, J. McDowell Richards papers, 1858-1982, C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives, Columbia Theological Seminary; James Davidson Phillips, Faithful Servant: The Life and Times of James McDowell Richards (Franklin: Providence House Publishers, 2004), 158.
- Clarke,To Count Our Days, 174-75.
- Clifford Kuhn,“Oral History Interview with J. McDowell Richards, 1972-1980,” Living Atlanta oral history project records, MSS 637, Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/livingatlanta/do:ahc-637-125-001
- James H. Smylie, “The Bible, Race and the Changing South,”Journal of Presbyterian History59, no. 2 (1981): 201-2; Joel L. Alvis, Religion & Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama, 1994), 48; J. Wayne Flynt, “‘Feeding the Hungry and Ministering to the Broken Hearted’: The Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Social Gospel, 1900-1920,” in Religion in the South, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985), 83-137.
- Alvis,Religion & Race, 48.
- “Brothers in Black” was originally delivered in October 1940 as retiring moderator of the Atlanta Presbytery, in response to Georgia Governor Eugene Talmage vile comments against African Americans (Clarke, To Count Our Days, 182-84). The sermon was printed in 1941 by the CIC and again in 1946 by the Southern Regional Council. “Christianity and the Race Problem” was originally delivered on May 3, 1943, and was delivered again multiple times throughout the decade at various public gatherings and churches. “Our Responsibility for Negro Work in the South” was delivered at the PCUS GA on May 29, 1948 as the Chairman of the Committee on Negro Work. This address was later published in Alex R. Batchelor, Jacob’s Ladder: Negro Work of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Atlanta: Board of Church Extension, 1953), 27-38. See also, Committee on Christian Relations, “States’ Rights and Human Rights,” Minutes of the Eighty-Ninth General Assembly of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Atlanta: Office of the General Assembly, 1949): 177-193.
- 11.Batchelor,Jacob’s Ladder, 29-32; Richards, “Christianity and the Race Problem,” 7-8. See also David W. Blight, Race & Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 284-91, 319-21.
- Richards,As I Remember It, 75.
- “As to my own position with reference to segregation, I am not sure that I could give a brief and clear statement at the present time…There are some aspects of segregation which no doubt could be abolished and ought to be abolished now. On the other hand, I am not yet convinced in my own mind that a complete intermingling of the races in the public school systems and in various social contacts is the most desirable solution to the problem from the viewpoint of the best welfare and the largest ultimate contribution to be made by the Negro race any more than by the white.” Letter to John H. Marion, January 3, 1950, Richards papers.Early feedback in 1940 from a porter about his sermon “Brothers in Black” and admittance of African Americans to CTS within a few years were two steps that especially informed him of the injustice of segregation (Richards, As I Remember It, 74-77).
- “An Appeal to Fellow Christians,”printed in Southern Presbyterian Journal 14, no. 50 (April 11, 1956): 7-9 and in Christian Observer 144, no. 16 (April 16, 1956): 6.
- Clarke,To Count Our Days, 218.
- J. McDowell Richards, “On Segregation,” delivered on April 7, 1961,Columbia Theological Seminary, Department of Communications, C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives, Columbia Theological Seminary. https://cdm17323.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p17323coll9/id/2743
- Richards was awarded the Charles Watt Award in 1977 by the Christian Council of Atlanta for his influence throughout the area(Phillips,Faithful Servant, 164).