In May 1954, the Supreme Court deemed segregated schools unconstitutional in its decision on Brown v. Board of Education. Following the ruling, the debate over integration swept the country. In Asheville, residents responded passionately for and against the decision.
On Sept. 4, 1955, Dr. Nelson L. Bell, a former medical missionary, Montreat resident, co-founder of the Southern Presbyterian Journal and father-in-law to prominent evangelist Billy Graham penned an opinion piece published in the Asheville Citizen-Times‘ Sunday edition.
In it, Bell wrote that segregation was legally indefensible. However, he continued, “This in no way precludes the expediency, wisdom and right of voluntary alignments along races and other social lines (and it should not be forgotten for one minute that it is the Christian thing at times to be expedient).”
Within the same letter, Bell professed it inexcusable to hate an individual based on skin color. Yet, he also considered it “utterly foolish to think that wishful thinking, an act of the Supreme Court or an act of Church Assembly — any of these — can destroy race distinctions which are God ordained.”
Throughout the piece, Bell condemned the court’s decision, proclaiming that “forced integration cannot be defended, either on legal or moral grounds.”
In the following week’s Sunday edition, Beaverdam resident Jim Stokely Jr. (husband of writer Wilma Dykeman), offered a rebuttal. Calling Bell’s piece “a curious document,” Stokely asked: “When, by precept or example, did Jesus ever advise expediency rather than justice — or love — or respect — no matter how unfashionable these virtues were, no matter how unfamiliar to the society in which he lived?”
Appalled by Bell’s message, Stokely concluded:
“The Southern White Christian, as represented by Dr. Bell, presents a fascinating study in schizophrenia. Proclaiming their love of God and their fellow man on one hand, with the other they deny half of their neighbors the full welcome and fellowship of their hearts.”
The following day, local Jewish businessman Hebert Wadopian sent Stokely a personal letter applauding his piece. “I wanted in the worst way to write an answer to [Bell] but could not find the backbone to do it,” he wrote Stokely. “In my own defense I must say that I reasoned that because I am a member of another minority group I felt it would sound better coming from someone of Dr. Bell’s own faith[.]”
Continuing, Wadopian declared that the very thought of Bell thumbing through his Bible “to find ‘reasons’ for continuing an obvious injustice” made the businessman “want to step outside and vomit.”
Near the end of his correspondence, Wadopian thanked Stokely again for speaking out against the doctor’s words: “You have done a real service to Humanity and I hope this one small voice will help you grit your teeth and fight off the nasty letters I am sure you will get.”
Indeed, letters appeared in the following week’s paper. In multiple instances, Bell’s supporters pointed to Genesis, Chapter 10. They insisted all African Americans descended from Ham, whose son Canaan was cursed by God to be his brother’s servant.
“This servile gift is peculiar only to the Negro race,” a Mrs. S.F. White wrote in her letter to the editor. Echoing Bell’s sentiment, she continued: “The Negro is precious in [God’s] sight and should not be enslaved. He should be encouraged to advance in his own God-given privileges, but to mix with other races is absolutely contrary to God’s word as well as to nature.”
Other responses, while less dogmatic, still opposed the Supreme Court ruling. “I believe in segregation, entirely as a matter of principle,” wrote one T.D. Williams. “I don’t believe integration will work in the South, certainly at this time. Maybe it will come when the present generation, with all its prejudices, is gone.”
Yet other letters supported Stokely’s stance and the civil rights movement.
“The Southern papers, proud stewards of the public truth, have loosed a cannonade of angry editorials against desegregation, the United States courts and Negro leadership,” wrote David D. Carrol. But, the writer continued:
“No Southern newspaper has ever held a symposium in which national Negro leaders could themselves state their aims. The Southern air has been filled with radio and television attacks by white leaders upon desegregation. But the aspirations of Negroes have been stated by white men, not by Negroes. … Judge the Negro leaders by their own words and acts, not the misgivings of their accusers.”
Editor’s note: Antiquated and offensive language is preserved from the original text, along with peculiarities of spelling and punctuation. Wadopian’s letter comes courtesy of Jim Stokely III.