2008 marks 100 years since the Federal Council of Churches was founded in Philadelphia. The past century has been rich with events and programs in which all member communions have played an important role: civil rights, peace, Bible translation, evangelism, church school development, faith and order, interfaith relations and many more.

Each month we'll be highlighting one of those events on these pages.

As we celebrate this anniversary, we'll welcome comments and suggestions -- as well as historical photographs -- from our surfers.  Please send them to pjenks@ncccusa.org.

Other Ecumenical Moments:

A modest WWII peace plan
An eloquent voice for civil rights
Social Creed of the Churches
The RSV is a best seller
W. Sterling Cary remembers

The bombs of August
Cynthia Wedel's September Song
Jorge Lara-Braud
Presidents who weren't
A birthday card

 

 

A moment in ecumenical history

April 1968: NCC President Flemming:
We will "no longer wait for justice"


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The president of the National Council of Churches had just announced a nationwide ecumenical program "to attack root problems of racial injustice" when the news came in from Memphis.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis to support the demand by garbage haulers for just and humane working conditions, was killed by a sniper at 6:01 p.m. April 4 as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

In the two years he had been NCC President, Dr. Arthur S. Flemming had been sounding the call for civil rights.

Described by his friends as a quiet and modest man, Flemmings's declarations in 1968 were far from moderate. Given the tenor of the times, they were breathtaking.

"We must confess the guilt of racism, ... ask for forgiveness and proceed to do do everything possible to rectify the conditions that confront us as a result of our sins," he said.

"The time for action is now," Flemming declared. "There is not time for gradualism. The Negro people, especially the young, will wait no longer for justice for opportunities and the means to participate fully in American society. The National Council of Churches believes that there is no time left for business as usual in the nation and in the life of the churches."

The assassination of Dr. King intensified the urgency, Flemming said. He joined three other national religious leaders, including the ecumenist Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, to say they were bowing "together in grief before the shameful murder of Dr. King, a unique apostle of the non-violent drive for justice." No memorial service would be "equal to the greatness of his labor or the vastness of our national need."

Looking back on the four decades since Dr. King's death, it is clear God blessed the National Council of Churches with a leader whose eloquence was matched by his courage and commitment to justice.

Even so, well-meaning church folks might have hesitated to cast Arthur Sherwood Flemming in so prophetic a role. He had been one of President Eisenhower's gray-suited bureaucrats, serving as director of the Office of Defense Mobilization and U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Eisenhower presented him with the Medal of Freedom for his services his first of two. Earlier, Flemming had worked closely with former President Herbert Hoover as a member of the Hoover Commission to Study the Organization of the Executive Branch.

But if Flemming, a lifelong Republican, had been branded with any unprogressive stereotypes, he soon shook them off. He had also chaired the first White House Conference on Aging and one biographer wrote that he "was a forceful presence at subsequent conferences" and "his advocacy for the downtrodden was unassailable and unavoidable." Flemming served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1974 until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan replaced him with a more conservative candidate. On the day he was dismissed, Mr. Flemming warned publicly that the Reagan Administration was drifting back to a philosophy of ''separate but equal'' in school desegregation cases. He was awarded his second Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Until his death in 1996, Flemming had known and worked with every U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt. But his greatest passion, friends recalled, was his role as a United Methodist layman. He had been president of Ohio Wesleyan University when Eisenhower drafted him to head H.E.W. During his tenure as NCC President, he was president of the University of Oregon and, later, of Macalaster College.

Flemming was a devoted member and bible class teacher at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, where he often expressed disappointment in the widespread lack of knowledge about the Christian faith. "America is plagued by millions of religious illiterates," he complained in 1966.

Following Flemming's death in 1996, his friend Elliot Richardson, former U.S. Attorney General, sought to summarize his life: "Largeness of mind and spirit will continue to be renewed as long as Arthur Flemming's example is remembered."

His example will not soon be forgotten in the annals of the National Council of Churches. For three years he was the NCC's prophetic voice, and his voice never wavered.

 

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