I first learned about the “Statement of Attitude” when I read Bill Floyd’s essay about it in a 1966 book edited by Robert Meyers, “Voices of Concern: Critical Studies in Church of Christism.”
I was elated that such a large number from the Churches of Christ — the predominantly Southern religious denomination in which I was raised — and from my alma mater had engaged in significant civil rights activism. I wanted to find Bill Floyd and Robert Meyers and thank them.
I tracked down Floyd in Kelowna, British Columbia. Robert Meyers was not far away in Bellingham, Wash. Both had continued to write and teach, spending large portions of their careers in academia. Through the years, they had remained good friends. (Meyers passed away in January 2012.)
Inspired by Floyd and Meyers, I decided to write about the “Statement of Attitude.” I was in Searcy researching this article when I discovered the original “Statement of Attitude” in a manila folder labeled “Integration” inside a box of Benson’s files that a Harding employee had rescued from a building set for demolition.
Its pages were yellowed and smelled of 50-plus years of must and mold. All 946 signatures were perfectly legible. At the top, in the first blank, was the name “Bill Floyd, Pres: Student Body (Sr.).” The “Statement of Attitude” still resonated, a memorial to the revival-like flowering of social consciousness that had once spread across the Harding campus.
The file also contained segregationist propaganda, such as a satirical “mug shot” of NAACP Little Rock chapter leader Daisy Bates published by the Capital Citizens Council, Arkansas’s answer to similar racist organizations in Mississippi and other Southern states.
Several articles by Clennon King Jr., an eccentric and controversial African-American academic who in 1957 was promoting segregation and writing disparagingly of the NAACP, had also been filed away. Benson’s hand-written chapel talks on race were there, including the notorious “Blackbird, Bluebird” speech. Many pages appeared to have been gathered by Bales (some included his signature). Some were heavily marked and underlined; someone had pored over them with intent.
Clearly, George Benson was marked by the segregated society in which he was raised. He carried with him the same baggage of racism as many Southern white men. Doubtless, he feared the loss of conservative donations that would have followed early desegregation and felt an obligation to protect the school he had built. His dread of miscegenation was apparent to all.
However, Benson was also a man who turned down a lucrative offer by a Mississippi group to start a college in that state that would have excluded blacks from its charter. He personally wrote letters to gain financial support for Lewis Brown, Walter Cunningham, and David Johnson, the three black students who broke the color barrier at Harding in 1963. To one such contributor who had sent $50 in scholarship support for the three he wrote, “They are starting off well with their work. We hope all of them will continue to do well.” On some level, Benson too believed that “God was no respecter of persons.”
Whether or not Benson ever acknowledged his mistakes and racial myopia is unclear. Sometimes, though, karma smiles and God winks. Sometimes things come full circle, and the insight and redemption that elude us in our own lifetimes are discovered by others who carry on in our wake.
During an interview, a Harding official told me a story about a young man who currently attended the school, which is still conservative, but a shade or two more colorful than 1957. The student was dating a fellow Harding student and had recently traveled to meet her family.
What was unusual — and ironic — was that the young man, a direct descendant of Benson’s, was white. His girlfriend was a black woman from Uganda.
The official’s face lit up, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “I bet old George is rolling over in his grave,” he laughed.
Turning more serious, he leaned forward and added, “Everyone here wishes them the very best.”
— Michael D. Brown