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Dallas History

Sermon on the Hilltop: First Baptist Confronted By the Sins of Its Past

In a discussion about The Accommodation, the reverend Dr. Michael Waters explored Dallas' racial and economic history while Dr. Robert Jeffress addressed his predecessor's long support of segregation.
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Revs. Michael Waters and Robert Jeffress
Rev. Michael Waters, left, holds a Ku Klux Klan hood and a MAGA hat during a panel discussion with Dr. Robert Jeffress, the lead pastor at First Baptist. Bret Redman

Monday evening at SMU’s Dallas Hall, Dr. Michael Waters, a reverend who earned his doctorate from the university, elicited gasps from an audience of about 150 as he produced two props while speaking on a panel about the city’s history of racism. In one hand he held a Klansman’s hood; in the other a red MAGA baseball cap. The hood, he said, was an authentic artifact from the second rise of the KKK, in 1915, after the Methodist preacher William Joseph Simmons marched to the top of Georgia’s Stone Mountain to set a cross aflame. Simmons, Waters said, “put down a Bible, an American flag, a sword, and said he heard the very angels of heaven rejoicing as the Klan was born again.”

“I would suggest that this is the reincarnation of this symbol from a generation ago,” Waters said, referring to the red hat. “There are churches, both near and far, who advocate and express a vision of Christianity that is not the vision of the Christ that I serve, who came to liberate the oppressed.”

Waters, the senior pastor at Abundant Life A.M.E. Church, shared a stage with Dr. Robert Jeffress, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Dallas downtown; Rev. Virzola Law, the senior minister at Northway Christian Church in Preston Hollow; and Rev. Richie Butler, the senior pastor of the St. Luke Community United Methodist Church and the evening’s moderator. The occasion was one of the 40-plus events scheduled to discuss The Accommodation, retired journalist Jim Schutze’s 1986 book that explored how Dallas’ power structures—from political to business to ecumenical—worked to suppress the stories of racist violence that existed here during the civil rights movement.

The pre-panel buzz was that Jeffress—who has spent much of his life at First Baptist, first attending and then leading—wanted to address what the book detailed about his church in the 1950s and 1960s. A three-page chapter in The Accommodation focuses on W.A. Criswell, the former First Baptist pastor and, for many years, a fierce and vocal supporter of segregation. Under Criswell’s leadership, First Baptist became the largest Baptist congregation in the country, and Criswell was among the Southern Baptist Convention’s most respected voices. He was “speaking directly and specifically against court-ordered desegregation,” Schutze wrote.

The book quotes Criswell as saying, “Desegregating where we live is the stirring up of our people over a cause that, as of now, is not wisely presented. The people who seek to further this among us are not in sympathy with the great spiritual aims of our churches.”

Criswell’s dogma “was setting his congregation on fire back in Dallas,” and he took it national during two speeches in South Carolina in February 1956. The first was during the South Carolina Baptist evangelism conference, and the second was an address to the state Legislature the next day. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who would lead a failed filibuster to kill the Civil Rights Act the following year, had heard Criswell speak at the conference and invited him to share his doctrine with the Legislature. Criswell’s message was met with “shock” from other congregations around the country, Schutze wrote.

“It’s a fairly accurate chapter in what it reports about First Baptist Dallas,” Jeffress said Monday night. “We were not the only church that promoted racism and segregation, but we were certainly the most prominent church. We didn’t have any official dogma that said people of different races aren’t welcome here … we didn’t have to, because minorities didn’t feel comfortable.”

Jeffress said Criswell “said things that were absolutely wrong and racist.” But he described being 12 years old in 1968 and hearing Criswell preach a sermon titled “The Church of the Open Door,” in which he walked back his segregationist views and said “anybody can come” to First Baptist. Jeffress then shifted to more recent years. He told a story about former Mayor Tom Leppert joining First Baptist because, Jeffress said, Leppert found it to be the city’s “most diverse megachurch.” Jeffress pointed to the census of a second-grade class at the church’s school, which he said includes “four Whites, four Blacks, four Hispanics, and one Indian.”

The messaging from Waters and Law pushed the audience to think not just about representation, but about how inequality has shaped Dallas. Law, a Black woman, leaned more intimate, telling stories about how members of her congregation left Northway after her hiring. She spoke of being trailed by police officers in the Park Cities, despite having numerous degrees and leading a nearby church.

Waters spoke to the systems and policy that fuel inequality, often among racial lines. He cited an Urban Institute study from 2018 that ranked Dallas 270th out of 274 cities for “economic inclusion,” a statistic informed by income segregation, housing affordability, the share of working poor residents, and the high school dropout rate. He cited research by the University of Texas at Arlington that found that the city’s share of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty among non-White residents had doubled since 1990. There were 18 then and there were 36 in 2018.

Waters pushed the room to think about the language we use. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, about 374,000 Dallasites are considered food-insecure, and they’re disproportionately Black and Latino. Don’t call it a “food desert” Waters said, because “desert” implies a naturally occurring event; “food apartheid” is more accurate because it shows the intent. He cited a D Magazine story from 2017 that explored the rise of the KKK in Dallas. We gave it the headline “When Dallas Was the Most Racist City in America.”

“I believe that is true today, and I believe it is particularly true when we look at race and its dance with economics,” Waters said.

Law and Waters both said the church has a responsibility to advocate for policies that will aid the vulnerable. Law noted that Northway has partnered with organizations in South Dallas to help provide fresh food there, despite her church being between the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. “It’s not natural that it takes three hours in public transportation for people to get good food,” she said. “In these United States. In the city of Dallas.” She spoke of the need to create “a bridge” between the two communities.

Waters called out the churches that have preached the Gospel without addressing the fact that many of his congregants have to choose between paying the light bill or filling their prescription. He paraphrased Frederick Douglass, who wrote that “the slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.”

Waters spoke of the need to explore “christianities and churches,” emphasizing both words because “they are not all the same.” “We have to talk about America’s greatest Christian expression,” he said, “which has always been White Christian nationalism. Which, in my opinion, is idol worship.” 

None of his comments were directed specifically at Jeffress—this was not a debate—but First Baptist’s pastors have long had an outsized role in directing public discourse, particularly the role faith should have in policy. In a recent sermon, Jeffress said he believes America has been “uniquely blessed” by God but rejected the label of a “Christian nationalist” because “God is no respecter of people or nations.” In a 2014 book, Jeffress wrote that President Barack Obama’s policies “are paving the way for the Antichrist,” focusing closely on the legalization of gay marriage.

And he aligned himself closely with former President Donald Trump, literally praying over him and offering his support on platforms like Fox News. His church invited Vice President Mike Pence to speak during a service in 2020. He went on TV and defended Trump no matter the calamity: the “shithole countries” line, the presence of “some very fine people on both sides” after the deadly Charlottesville riot, apparently paying hush-money to the adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet an affair.

And yet, Jeffress said Monday, he felt his “personal endorsement” of the former president should not reflect upon his church. He said the public perception of First Baptist’s alignment with the Republican party occurred “not by intention but by happenstance.” (“I don’t own a MAGA hat, by the way,” Jeffress said.)

The event ended with a Q&A in which attendees were asked to submit questions on note cards. Someone posed a question to Waters: how will conservative churches buy into his calls for unity when he’s holding up a MAGA hat as a racist symbol?

Waters reached behind his seat and began digging in a bag that had held the Klan hood and the red hat. He stood up from his chair with a set of shackles and held them out to the audience. The chains had come from an auction block in South Carolina, he said, engraved with the auctioneer W.W. Wilbur’s name. Waters and his family had recently visited the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston; he told his sons that if they had been born two generations ago, “this would be the last time we saw each other.”

The room grew quiet. Waters noted that we were sitting on what used to be the Caruth family’s plantation, “where enslaved persons used to work the ground.” Waters wanted his audience to understand that the inequalities he had highlighted earlier originated with slavery and were fueled by racist policies like segregation that continue to impact us today. He believes it is all of our responsibilities to trace these matters to the root—that includes the church.

Perhaps that is the legacy of The Accommodation: the city is exploring why Dallas developed the way it has, who gets to tell these stories, and the role of our institutions—churches included—in changing our present.

“As long as we are unable to see the through line from the chains to the hood to the hat,” Waters said, “we will never be free.”

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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