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The Church of the Brethren and the Civil Rights Movement

(1950-1960)

The Church of the Brethren was a major proponent of civil rights and dedicated considerable resources in advocating for racial equality. Multiple documents preserved in Bridgewater College Special Collections exhibit the Brethren’s commitment to racial equality.  Archived sermons address racial harmony.   

Bridgewater College Special Collections contain administrative material regarding race relations and non-violent action dating back to 1935.  One early example comes from the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference on Race Relations and Nonviolence, 1948, in which it was avowed, “As Christian citizens, we consider it our duty to obey all civil laws which do not violate higher laws (of God). We seek, however, to go beyond the demands of law, giving time, effort, life, and property, in a ministry to human needs without regard to race, creed, or nationality.”  

Bridgewater College has roots in the Church of the Brethren, and a Brethren commitment to racial equality was reflected in the College’s stance on integrating African American students.  In 1953, Lessie Miller, a Black public-school teacher, applied to Bridgewater College and was admitted though did enroll. In 1954, a week after the Brown v. Board of Education US Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, Bridgewater College faculty asked the College’s board of trustees to approve the admission of Black students on the same basis as whites. The board simply replied that there had never been any addition to the school’s charter or legislation that allowed discrimination based on race or creed.  Karen C. Weaver Scott enrolled in 1954 and graduated in 1956, the first African American to graduate Bridgewater College.  William T. Jenkins, an African American man, was also admitted in 1954, but he withdrew before graduation. 

Atom and You Booklet

Atom Cover

Booklet, Atom and You by Shirley Olmstead. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Service Committee, probably late 1950s - early 1960s.

Bridgewater College Special Collections

Booklet, Atom and You by Shirley Olmstead.  Elgin, Ill.:  Brethren Service Committee, probably late 1950s - early 1960s.

Shown here is a page from the booklet, Atom, written and published by the Church of the Brethren, probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Atom’s illustrations portray how the Brethren suggest a resolution of racial issues. It is a short booklet with a strong political message.


Atom Transcription:

"Well what will keep it from happening, then? (Of course, I can't do anything about it even if you do tell me....... As you can see, I'm all tied up.)"

"You can't fool me, brother! I know you're all tied up. But you can untie yourself and I'll show you how to prevent destruction. That is—if you're interested in living a few more years."

"I sure hate to untie myself—it's such a comfortable feeling to leave the responsibility for war up to someone else!"

"Somebody else! Listen, bud, the attitude and actions of every single man, woman, and child helps to preserve peace or make war. You share responsibility for it—whether you admit it or not!"

"You mean that even a child can influence whether or not we have an atomic war?"

"Sure thing! When a child grows up feeling he's better than youngsters of other colors or races, you can't expect him later to work for fair treatment of others—and that's what prevents conflict."

Atom Pages 4-5

Booklet, Atom and You by Shirley Olmstead. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Service Committee, probably late 1950s - early 1960s.

Bridgewater College Special Collections

Booklet, Atom and You by Shirley Olmstead.  Elgin, Ill.:  Brethren Service Committee, probably late 1950s - early 1960s.

Atom Page 6

Booklet, Atom and You by Shirley Olmstead. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Service Committee, probably late 1950s - early 1960s.

Bridgewater College Special Collections

Booklet, Atom and You by Shirley Olmstead.  Elgin, Ill.:  Brethren Service Committee, probably late 1950s - early 1960s.