Lasting Change: South Carolina’s Baha’is and Race in America

With the coming of Juneteenth, a celebration of emancipation from slavery, I find myself reflecting on the remarkable changes that have occurred in the United States since the Civil War and even since the civil rights movement half a century ago. But recent months have been full of tragic news from across the country, ranging from widely-publicized instances of police brutality to evidence of persistent discrimination on college campuses. My home state of South Carolina experienced its own traumatic events, including a fatal police shooting of a black motorist in North Charleston and the massacre of nine worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

As racial injustices continue to provoke outrage, protest, and soul-searching, many Americans wonder how we can, at long last, create a society that wholeheartedly protects the rights of its black and brown citizens and fully accepts their humanity. More than a generation since Selma, Jackson, Orangeburg, and Watts, a complex set of interlocking challenges remains: how do we bring about lasting change in people’s ideas and attitudes about race, and how do we identify and implement additional structural and systemic reforms to make our country more just, more prosperous, and more united?

For South Carolina’s Baha’is, contributing to this lasting change in the life of the nation is a personal and collective calling. For over a century, members of the Baha’i Faith have been addressing what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the color-line,” building bonds of community and shared identity against what often seemed like insurmountable odds.

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Baha’is and friends in Columbia, South Carolina in the 1940s. Jessie Entzminger is second from R, waving. Louella Moore is third from R, partially hidden. Louis Gregory stands in the back. Courtesy Columbia Baha’i Archives.

Today, academic sources and the media recognize the Baha’i Faith as the second-largest religion in South Carolina, and the community is widely respected for its public-service radio station and commitment to education, interfaith dialogue, and interracial harmony. And South Carolina’s Baha’is form part of a nationwide religious body that is astonishingly diverse. But things were vastly different when the faith first arrived in South Carolina over a century ago.

When Pearl Dixon, the widow of an African Methodist Episcopal minister in Columbia, South Carolina, first heard about the Baha’i Faith from two white northerners in 1938, she could hardly believe her ears. In far-off Persia only a few decades earlier, she learned, a new religious movement had emerged, one that decreed that it was God’s will that all the peoples of the world, of whatever race, religion, or nationality, must embrace each other as members of one family and citizens of a just and peaceful global commonwealth. This meant, sooner or later, the dismantling of every system people had devised to take advantage of each other — including America’s Jim Crow racial order.

Dixon’s grown daughter, Jessie Dixon Entzminger, was initially skeptical. “I had never heard tell of the Baha’i Faith,” she recalled years later. “It sounded like a funny name.” But Dixon immediately embraced the new message and invited the northern women to lead a study class in her home. After a few months of study, Entzminger became a Baha’i. Also in the class were Edward and Louella Moore, a white couple from nearby North Augusta, and their grown daughter, Louise Moore Montgomery. The families would remain lifelong friends.

The fledgling Baha’i group in Columbia was like nothing South Carolina had ever seen. In the midst of a society dedicated to preserving the status quo, and with a long history of punishing dissenters, the Columbia Baha’is — and their co-religionists in cities and towns across the South — were crossing lines of race, class, and gender to create a new kind of faith community. In a religion without clergy, men and women, blacks and whites, old and young, northerners and southerners, natives and immigrants, rich and poor, all learned to worship, study, teach, and administer their affairs together as equal partners and intimate friends. They even married across the color line where it was legal; one interracial couple with South Carolina ties was Louis and Louisa Gregory. As they worked to build their own model of grassroots spiritual democracy, they reached out to leaders of thought, proclaimed their message through public lectures and in the mass media, and sought to encourage individuals and organizations that were struggling for civil rights.

Their numbers were miniscule, their methods were hardly flashy, and sometimes they failed to live up to their own ideals. But their work was truly radical, entailing personal risk for both whites and blacks. In 1911, the faith’s first adherent in South Carolina, an African-American lawyer in Charleston, was condemned to a pestilential insane asylum on charges of “religious obsession.” Baha’is were targets of ostracism, slander, intimidation, and violence by neighbors, local and state officials, the FBI, conservative clergymen, and the Ku Klux Klan. Through it all, they never resorted to violence, refrained from political partisanship, and upheld racial justice as first and foremost a matter of spiritual principle rather than of political or economic expediency.

With decades of experience building interracial fellowship in the most inauspicious circumstances, the Baha’is set out to take their message to towns and hamlets across the Deep South. Through outreach efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, some 20,000 South Carolinians — blacks, whites, and members of the state’s virtually invisible Native American communities — became Baha’is.

Today, in South Carolina and around the country, Baha’is are working to engage even larger numbers of their friends and neighbors in the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. At the heart of their efforts is a program of grassroots community education that nurtures the capacity of diverse participants — particularly children and youth — to understand their social environment and take up lines of collective action that serve the greater good, neighborhood by neighborhood. It’s a long-term endeavor that seldom makes headlines, but we hope it will contribute to the meaningful and lasting change that the country needs.

America’s continuing racial dilemma defies easy solutions. But the experience of South Carolina’s Baha’i community over the last hundred years demonstrates that racial healing and genuine reconciliation are indeed possible. What’s required now is a concerted effort to make sure the rising generation has the intellectual and social tools — and most importantly, the moral sensibilities — to create the “beloved community,” that truly just multiracial society that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement.

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