It will joy and comfort give you, take it then where ’ere you go
Precious name, O’ how sweet, hope of earth and joy of heaven
The words of the hymn greeted messengers as they entered the old Savannah Auditorium late on a November afternoon in 1946. They were coming for a night of worship, celebration, fellowship and goodwill, and it promised to be one of the most unusual meetings of Baptists to take place in the segregated South.
The year had seen “citizen soldiers” coming home from World War II. Thousands of returning G.I.s married their sweethearts and started families and new careers. Many took advantage of the G.I. bill to further their education or purchase a home. Across much of the United States, it was a time of great hope and optimism.
But for many, the outlook was not so bright. Racism was on the rise as it had been after both the Spanish American War and World War I. African Americans returning from the war found the freedoms they fought to protect were once again being denied. Instead of hope, there was growing fear in African American communities, especially in the South.
Earlier in the year, a race riot in Columbia, Tenn., had left 3 dead and many more wounded and more than 100 sitting in jail cells. National Guard troops remained in the city for a week to keep the peace.
In late July, the Moore’s Ford lynching – one of the last in the South – had taken place near Athens, Ga. Two African American couples were abducted and murdered by a mob. Both men were veterans who had been home less than a year. The investigations of the murders left more questions than answers. No one was ever charged.
The aftermath of the Columbia Riots and the Moore’s Ford lynching resulted in outrage across the country. In December, President Truman would establish the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which became a turning point in the civil rights movement. But on that November evening, the president’s actions had not yet happened. The future was uncertain.
Adding to the racial tensions in Georgia were the recent actions of America’s first neo-Nazi organization called the Columbians. The group had incorporated in Atlanta in August. To join, one need only to pay a $3 membership fee and to openly profess hatred of Blacks and Jews. Dressed in khakis, the group patrolled the streets of Atlanta in gangs seeking to enforce “neighborhood racial boundaries.” They could be seen marching in goose step fashion around the city.
In late October, one of the gangs attacked a Black man walking through a “contested neighborhood.” Had the police not arrived and arrested the attackers, the man may have been killed. About a week later, the Columbians were in the news again for demonstrating in front of the home of an African American couple who had purchased a home from a white family.
It was against this backdrop that the Savannah Fellowship Meeting took place. The meeting was the first of its kind between Georgia’s largest white and Black Baptist conventions.
The week before, the two conventions – the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia and the Georgia Baptist Convention – were scheduled to meet separately in Savannah. The editor of The Christian Index mused in a column that it would be good if the two conventions could have a joint fellowship meeting. A motion to that effect was made as the Georgia Baptist Convention convened, an arrangements were made for the meeting to take place at the Savannah Civic Center later that evening.
When messengers arrived at the Savannah Auditorium, the music greeting them had begun as a prayer meeting was concluding. African American pastors had gathered early to ask God’s blessing on the evening. As they arose from their knees they broke into song. These were poignant words, considering the fear gripping much of Georgia.
Take the name of Jesus ever
as a shield from ev’ry snare
When temptations round you gather
Breathe that holy name in prayer
What happened at the meeting was less important than the fact that the meeting took place at all. There were those who did not approve. Others understood the message the meeting could send to Georgia and the nation.
Word spread quickly of the gathering. Inquiries came from Chicago to the Savannah Morning News requesting “a thousand words on the event.” An Associated Press reporter was there. The following day the New York Times ran an article under the dateline: “Savannah, Georgia, November 12 (AP): NEGRO, WHITE BAPTISTS MEET IN JOINT MEETING FOR FIRST TIME IN HISTORY TO ‘PRACTICE GOOD WILL.’” Papers all over the country ran articles on the meeting.
It was the 75th Anniversary of the General Missionary Baptist Convention and the 125th of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Few if any of those gathered that November evening are living today, but they are living the final verse:
At the name of Jesus bowing
When in heaven we shall meet
King of kings, we’ll gladly crown Him
When our journey is complete.