Buried on the fourth page of the regular Friday edition of the Optimist in 1954, a letter written by a group of freshmen and sophomore boys posed a question to the faculty and students at the all-white Abilene Christian College.
“We are all one, yet we cannot associate ourselves with our dark colored brothers and sisters in Christ on campus. Why?”
The letter was signed by ten students from Mabee Hall, including John Bailey, Sonny Hollis and Joe Schubert, father of current ACU president, Dr. Phil Schubert.
“Every race on the face of the earth is permitted to attend ACC except the Negro? Why?”
Whether the letter – nearly a decade before the integration of the university – created waves on campus is hard to know. In fact, Betty McDermett McLemore,Â Optimist editor in chief from 1953-54, said she doesn’t even remember it. What she does remember, however, is segregation.
“I grew up with segregation all my life, and that was the same for all the other southerners,” McLemore said. “That was just the way life was back then.”
During the years before and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Optimist published few front-page news stories echoing the racial tension in the South. But the opinion page often reflected a diversity of thought on integration.
“If God will accept them in heaven, can we not accept them in our school?” the ten freshmen and sophomores wrote in 1954.
“Most of us felt like this needed to be said and this was the best way to start saying it,” McLemore said. “It wasn’t the paper; it was the students.”
Charlie Marler, professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication, enrolled at Abilene Christian College in the fall of 1951, when Plessy v. Ferguson left schools across the South neatly segregated.
“We were living in a separate-but-equal day,” Marler said. “ACU was living in a separate-but-equal day.”
Marler became editor in chief of the Optimist in 1954, when the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education rendered public school segregation unconstitutional.
“More or less, there was a general silence on integration,” Marler said. “It wasn’t necessarily on the front burner of the news budget; it was just culture of the South.”
Yet, nearly ten years before federal legislation emerged, students used the pages of the Optimist to debate the topic of racial mixing.
On November 14, 1945, in a column simply signed “D.M.,” Optimist reporter Delbert Matthews argued for the preservation of the all-white ACC campus and the segregated order.
“If negros were put in classes with whites, the negros could not receive the greatest amount of good, for they would require special classes.”
Matthews went on to suggest that “negros” could be admitted to ACC only if separate departments, classes and teachers were assigned to them.
“The negro surely had rather associate with people of his own understanding.”
And one month later, in a lengthy column on the second page the Optimist, an ex-student named J.W. GossÂ challenged D.M.’s words in the following letter to the editor.
“Jesus, breaking both the social tradition and the religious dogma has pointed the way. Shall we follow?…The enrolling of Negros in regular classes of ACC would seem to be a step forward in the fulfilling of the high and lofty purposes for which ACC stands.”
It was the first discussion of integration and segregation on the pages of the Optimist, and it came a full 15 years before an ACC faculty member broke the issue wide open.
In 1960, Bible professor Carl Spain challenged the campus integration policy in his Lectureship speech, “Modern Challenges to Christian Morals,” to a packed Sewell Auditorium.
“Are we moral cowards on this issue?” Spain said. “We must preach righteousness and educate in a Christian way before any legislation will prove effective- Brethren, we are not recommending revolutionary legislation. We are merely suggesting that we offer Christian education to all Americans without respect of persons.”
ACC continued to house an all-white student body until the early ’60s, when the first African American graduate, upperclassman and freshman students were admitted to the university. In 1990, almost 30 years later, Dr. Royce Money, 10th president of ACU, issued a formal apology on behalf of the university, expressing regret and seeking forgiveness for its racist and discriminatory admissions policy of the past.
“Before we focus on the future, we need to confess the sins of racism and discrimination of the past against our African-American brothers and sisters,” Money told a gathering at historically black Southwestern Christian College that year.Â “We are truly sorry.”
Through it all, the Optimist forum encouraged public debate.
Sonny Hollis, one of the freshmen signatories of the letter to the editor that ran on March 19, 1954, said the boys had hoped for campus integration by fall.
“It had been on our hearts,” Hollis said. “We began to realize that there were students from every country of the world, but there was an absence of African American students.”
Hollis said the letter grabbed the attention of the entire student body, and that just several months later, summer vacation would allow the message to reach hometowns and churches all over the United States.
“We knew we were planting a seed into the hearts of than no less than 1,500 students,” Hollis said. “Everyone read the Optimist, and if you didn’t, then good night, you weren’t caught up.”
Marler said the Optimist staff learned quickly that their words did cause a widespread debate.
“Churches of Christ were in a time of searching and trying to find out what the scripture was saying,” Marler said. “But I’ve always believed that exploration is better than indoctrination.”
After the typical Friday edition of the Optimist published the letter, the boys received overwhelming support, Hollis said. Other signatories included Ellis Long, Ted Pemberton, Howard Norton, Walter Kreidel, Larry Hornbaker, Kenneth Oller and Bob Barnhill.
Dr. Phil Schubert said he had heard of the letter co-signed and primarily written by his father, Joe.
“He was ahead of his time,” ACU’s president said of the ’57 graduate and nationally ranked debate team member. “He was among the minority who spoke his mind and went against the norm.”
Schubert said he has always appreciated his father’s willingness to go his own road, despite the changing tide.
“This group of freshmen and sophomores put together a letter dealing with one of the most sensitive and polarizing issues of this day,” Schubert said. “It was an incredible commentary, and I believe it was one of the major factors of the university moving forward.”
Schubert said the Optimist has served as a credible platform for students and staff members to engage in dialogue.
“I believe that’s what were called to do on this campus as Christians,” Schubert said. “We try to understand God’s call for us and stand out in leadership in big and small ways.”
Schubert said the letter serves as a reminder of the people who have shaped the character of ACU – people like Hollis.
“We felt like we helped pioneer civil rights for everyone,” Hollis said. “For all students of every race under the sun; if it was right for ACC, it was right for everyone.”
Hollis said he still has the highest regards for the student-run publication.
“The Optimist did not have any fear of producing what it believed to be just and of good report,” Hollis said.
On a recent campus visit to escort his granddaughter April (Ward ’06) Farris, a Homecoming Queen nominee and former Optimist staffer, Hollis witnessed the integrated student body he had written for.
“Every kid, regardless of race, can come to ACU,” Hollis said. “That was the hope we had, and God answered that hope.”