Bob Jones University Apologizes for Its Racist Past
Bob Jones University, the Bible college in Greenville, South Carolina, did not admit black students until the 1970s. Then, for a 30-year period, interracial dating was prohibited. Now the university has announced that its polices were wrong.
Lost in the spectacular news accounts of the election of a black man as president of the United States is another event — this time in higher education — that stands as a milestone in racial progress. In an eloquent statement, Stephen Jones, great-grandson of the founder and the fourth president of Bob Jones University, has apologized for the institution’s racist past.
President Jones stated, “For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.
“In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.”
By way of background to this remarkable announcement let’s review the racial history of Bob Jones University.
The university’s founder, Bob Jones, was a fundamentalist evangelist who believed that the theory of evolution was an abomination. He called the pope the anti-Christ and dismissed Catholicism as a “Satanic counterfeit.” He once said, “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House.”
Jones Sr. was of the view that twentieth-century blacks should be grateful to whites for bringing their ancestors to this country as slaves. If this had not happened, Jones wrote in 1960, “they might still be over there in the jungles of Africa, unconverted.” Integrationists, according to Jones, were wrongfully trying to eradicate natural boundaries that God himself had established.
With the help of wealthy supporters, Bob Jones founded a college near Panama City, Florida, in 1926. Bibb Graves, who had just been elected governor of Alabama with the official backing of the Ku Klux Klan, gave the keynote address at the groundbreaking ceremony. When classes began in 1927, admission of students was officially restricted to members of the white race, a policy that persisted until 1971.
Experiencing Depression-related financial difficulties in 1933, Bob Jones was forced to sell the Florida land and move his college to Cleveland, Tennessee. In 1936 a young Billy Graham entered the new Bob Jones College in Tennessee. But he quickly became disenchanted with its strict religious doctrine and social policies and transferred to Florida Bible Institute. In 1947 Bob Jones College moved once more, this time to its present site in Greenville, South Carolina. Now financially sound, the college began to offer master’s and doctoral degrees and assumed the designation of a university.
When Bob Jones Jr., the son of the founder, became the institution’s president, he continued the institution’s policies of rabid bigotry. During his tenure he bestowed honorary degrees on George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Lester Maddox. When Pope Paul VI died in 1978, Bob Jones Jr. called him the “archpriest of Satan, a deceiver, and he has, like Judas, gone to his own place.”
When Bob Jones III assumed the presidency of the institution in 1971, male students were required to wear jackets and ties to classes. Women were obliged to wear dresses or skirts. Rock music was prohibited on campus. Students were forbidden from attending movies. Students were not permitted to go on off-campus dates without a chaperone. On campus, the university maintained two “dating parlors” where students could meet to talk. Touching was not allowed and kissing was strictly prohibited even if the couple was engaged to be married. Male and female students were not permitted to speak to each other after 7 p.m. The campus was separated from the city of Greenville by an iron and barbed-wire fence.
Under federal government pressure, Bob Jones University finally opened its doors to unmarried black students. But strict regulations were established by the university to prevent interracial dating. In 1976, during the administration of Gerald Ford, the policy on interracial dating resulted in the Internal Revenue Service’s revoking the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University retroactive to 1970. The IRS demanded the payment of $490,000 in back taxes. The university appealed the ruling. Eventually, in 1981, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case. The new Reagan administration initially supported the position of the university but, after a public outcry, switched sides. In 1983 the Supreme Court ruled against Bob Jones University in favor of the IRS by a vote of 8 to 1. The lone dissenter was late Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist.* On being advised of the decision of the Court, Bob Jones III ordered that the American flags on campus be flown at half-staff.
In 1998 Jonathan Pait, a public relations spokesman for the university, explained the school’s prohibition against interracial dating: “God has separated people for his own purposes. He has erected barriers between the nations, not only land and sea barriers, but also ethnic, cultural, and language barriers. God has made people different from one another and intends those differences to remain. Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers God has established.”
In 2000 the university ended its official prohibition against interracial dating. Now eight years later, the university has admitted that its policies were wrong.
This change of heart at Bob Jones University comes on the heels of recent good news about black enrollments at the nation’s other Bible colleges. JBHE’s database shows that in 1997 there were only nine Bible colleges where blacks made up 10 percent or more of total enrollments. Today there are 29 such schools.
*William Rehnquist had a long history of opposition to the advancement of blacks. He opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and as a young GOP pollwatcher in Arizona, Rehnquist was active in challenging black voters’ qualifications.
For more on the racism of Rehnquist, see “The Racial Views of the Chief Justice of the United States,” JBHE, Number 23, Spring 1999, p. 72.