The ESCRU logo
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, left of MLK, at Lovett School in Atlanta, 1966.
Jonathan Daniels with children, 1965
An ESCRU Organized Demonstration in
Chicago, Illinois, c.1965
An historic exhibit titled The Church Awakens: The Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU) & The Search for Racial Justice is currently on display at the Archives. The exhibit honors the work of this prophetic group by chronicling the early civil rights struggles in the Episcopal Church. It also celebrates the Archives’ acquisition of the records of ESCRU in 1998, along with the personal papers of founder and former director, the Reverend John Morris.
Episcopalians Moved to Challenge Segregation in the Church
In December 1959, approximately one hundred lay and ordained Episcopalians responded to a call for meeting issued by the Reverends John Morris and Neil (Cornelius) Tarplee, to form an organization committed to removing all vestiges of segregation from the life of the Church. The group, which adopted the name Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), took issue with the de facto racial segregation that dominated much of Church life in the South, which included refusing African-Americans admission to church-run institutions and to white worship services. By adopting many of the tactics used by other civil rights protesters, such as peaceful protest and civil disobedience, ESCRU sought to publicize long-standing problems of segregation and racial division in the Church and to promote racial unity and “harmony among peoples.”
ESCRU’s membership grew from approximately 100 in 1959 to over 1000 in 1961. At its peak in 1966, ESCRU counted 5000 members in 29 chapters, of whom two-thirds were lay persons. Its strongest support was in northern urban areas, including Chicago, New York, and Boston, but chapters were also located in Atlanta, Texas, and Maryland. The Society’s national office, which oversaw most of the outreach of the Society, was in Atlanta under the guidance of the Rev. John Morris, who served as Executive Director from 1960-1967. Projects taken on by ESCRU include the “Prayer Pilgrimage,” a chartered bus ride for Episcopal clergymen who planned to visit segregated Episcopal schools; the picketing of the Lovett School in Atlanta, an Episcopal-affiliated school that had denied admission to the son of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Operation Southern Justice, a program formed with other civil rights organizations to alert the public to racist judicial practices in the South following the murder of Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels. ESCRU was especially effective at publicizing and bringing attention to racial injustice in the Church, but also assisted with the organization of numerous local pickets and sit-ins, and prepared documentary reports and programs on national civil rights issues. In addition, an annual Convention offered members a chance to gather, develop national strategies, and discuss local concerns.
Eventually the emerging Black Power movement overshadowed the conciliatory work of ESCRU. A new militancy gained strength among African-Americans within the Church which mirrored national events of the late 1960s. In 1966 and 1967, tension between two factions of ESCRU, one headed by Executive Director John Morris which sought continued work on unity within the Church, and the other headed by Board President Malcolm Peabody which supported a shift in emphasis toward northern racism and the urban crisis, came to a head. When the majority of ESCRU members endorsed the direction supported by Peabody, Morris resigned as Executive Director. At its June 1967 meeting, the Board of Directors committed its “primary attention to combating white racism.” In 1968, a group of African-American clergy and laity organized the Union of Black Clergy & Laity, later known as the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE), which would begin to speak forcefully and innovatively on issues relating to racism in the Church. ESCRU’s redirection in focus, coupled with the rise of new organizations that spoke from within the African-American community, led to a drastic drop in membership by the latter years of the 1960s. In 1970, the group disbanded.
Working as an independent organization, ESCRU had a profound effect in openly challenging the hierarchy and Episcopal cultural institutions that had leant meager support to the two decade long agitation for full integration of the Church. The courage of individual witness ultimately caused substantive changes in local Church policies and in the national Church agenda. Racism as a grievous offense against God and the Christian community entered the common lexicon of the Church. ESCRU impelled the Church forward and demonstrated how Episcopalians, black and white, and from all walks of life, could use their unity to right a wrong in their midst and thus alter forever the landscape of human relations.
Archives’ Exhibit Opened in 2001
The exhibit on civil rights and ESCRU is the result of a six-month project with significant contributions made by seminary student and communications consultant Carol Brorsen. The exhibit highlights five flashpoints of historical encounter when ESCRU members met resistence to their nonviolent protests against inequality and segregation. Text and illustrations give dramatic evidence of the attention of Episcopalians to the sin of segregation and the Church's internal weaknesses. The exhibit draws from the rich resources in the ESCRU Collection along with others in the Archives that document the African-American experience in the Church, such as the personal papers of Executive Director John B. Morris, the records of the American Church Institute for Negroes (ACIN), and the General Convention Special Program.
In 2003, the Archives plans to digitize the exhibit so it may be utilized as a permanent web education tool. The web version will allow Archives' staff to periodically add documents and expand on chapters of the ESCRU story.
The ESCRU Archive
The ESCRU Collection comprises 34 linear feet of administrative files, correspondence, chapter records, financial papers, project files, convention records, photographs, artifacts, and tape recordings, spanning the years 1959 to 1970. Much of the collection consists of ESCRU’s national office files, where most of the organization’s mailing, project proposals, and reports were generated. Of particular note are the project files which document the civil rights related activities of ESCRU, such as the Prayer Pilgrimage, the Lovett School Integration controversy, and the work and murder of seminarian Jonathan Daniels.
The Archives of the Episcopal Church acquired the records of ESCRU along with personal papers of its founder, the Reverend John Morris in 1998. The collection had been on deposit at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in Atlanta before it was transferred to the Archives, and is currently open for research.