Training Justice Crusaders to Do God’s Work

Dr. Forrest E. Harris addresses students of American Baptist College at the Spring Convocation on Tuesday, February 4, 2020. He spoke in the library where students can read the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Photo by Phyllis Qualls.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — American Baptist College (ABC) is where passionate young preachers go who want to change the world and learn how to do it.

During the Civil Rights Era, ABC was known as the “University of Nonviolence”. Students called their campus the “Holy Hill” and it was the civil rights movement’s research laboratory. “Here the nonviolent sit-in was first methodically theorized, practiced, and tested,” wrote historian Townsend Davis. 

Davis said an extraordinary number of Civil Rights Movement leaders got their start in Nashville. Among them were James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and C.T. Vivian. Their influence was felt throughout the South for at least a decade.

David Halberstam wrote a book about the Nashville Student Movement called “The Children”. In it, he describes the “Holy Hill “ as a place without pretense during a time of social revolution that became a magnet for many of the most talented and passionate young blacks in the country.

“It was a place filled with political ferment and passion. Its faculty was gifted and its students, many of them diamonds in the rough, were hungry to learn,” he wrote.

Dr. Forrest E. Harris, President of American Baptist College, was in grammar school during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. He was in the 6th Grade during the Freedom Rides in 1961. 

He grew up in Memphis with eight brothers and sisters. They were a close-knit family. His siblings are all still living and his mother, Sallie Mae Harris is 94. His father, W. T. Harris, passed away in 2010.

“I was raised in the heritage of the black church. My parents were devote Christians as well as my grandparents. My entire network of relatives were church people in the way we understand the southern Baptist roots,” Harris said.

That ethos and history marked him as as he grew older. ”I felt called to the ministry in terms of the preaching tradition in the way my family was anchored in the faith about love and justice and salvation and those things,” he said.

In the 1960s Woodstock High School in Memphis was still segregated. Harris was fed “bit and pieces” of history from a curriculum that didn’t reflect much black history or how African Americans experienced their lives. 

But his teachers exposed him to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, aka the Black national anthem, the writings of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. Later at Knoxville College he read Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time, and scholarly books about black history. That and his Baptist upbringing led him to become the scholar and teacher he is today.

In 1971 Harris got his BA in Sociology and Psychology, in 1980 a Bachelor’s in Theology from American Baptist College (ABC), attended Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School from 1983-91 where he earned his doctorate. 

Harris is a scholar of Black Theology and Social Ministry in the Black Church. He is the author of three books, dozens of journal articles, several published sermons, dozens of lectures, and several TV programs. 

He has been the Director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt University for 32 years. It has a $1.2 million dollar endowment for the perpetuation of religious study and dialogue in African American congregations. In 1999 Harris became President of American Baptist College (ABC). 

“We are a faith-based liberal arts college with a social justice curriculum,” Harris said. He is like the abbot of a monastery where young seminarians learn to take up the cloth, serve their people, and lead them towards the top of the mountain MLK talked about. 

Not all graduates become Baptist ministers like King and Harris. In the last five years about half of ABC graduates went on to other professions or to attend graduate school at places like Vanderbilt, Baylor, Howard, and Duke university.

“We’re very proud of our high-touch curriculum that prepares students for those kinds of vocations,” he said. 

Whether they become entrepreneurs, educators, or ministers, ABC’s students 

learn to express themselves in light of history, and as Harris puts it, “to struggle against its toxic residue”.  He doesn’t use the words much but Harris’s pedagogy is grounded in the moral language of good and evil.

“America is certainly a prima facie case of how racism has made the culture itself schizophrenic. It has made the culture itself fragmented and divided around a racist culture and black life experience, whether it’s a religious or political struggle, or educational attainment, has had to confront that complexity,” Harris said. 

He said African-Americans live with many contradictions. They know all about being separate and unequal. They know about social exclusion and feeling “less than”. They know life isn’t fair and they know the American Dream has been more like a nightmare for too many African–Americans. 

“Black people have had to struggle against these forces and not to be completely whole and healed in how they see themselves. The great story of black history, of black experience in this country, is how black people have shown up on the other side of the American original sin of racism and segregation and Jim Crow, and remained focused on who they are and how they understand that freedom is a right that God has given everybody,” he said. 

Despite that history and the stories of people who have given so much to the principles of justice and freedom, Harris said that the country and its politics are still infested with racism. His mission is to teach his students to struggle against it and correct the mistakes of the past.

 “As Martin King would say ‘the moral arc of the universe is long but it’s bent towards justice’,” Harris said. The struggle for equality continues “but that history has made America a better country and perhaps the strongest possibility for democracy and equality in the world because of this commitment to justice and freedom.”

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