Throughout their history, Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken a rather impotent stance against racial segregation. This has been an issue for Jehovah’s Witnesses, not just in the United States of America, but worldwide.
Among Jehovah’s Witnesses, racial segregation was tolerated for a very long time, and was NOT on a path to change were it not for the diligent efforts of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and others during the 1960s and 1970s.
As far back as 1914, we have references to the separation of blacks and whites at Kingdom Hall meetings and during viewings of the Photo Drama of Creation. Racist statements were made by Joseph Rutherford through his writing staff, including those who authored Golden Age articles which indicated that a black man’s skin was somewhat a curse and would eventually be turned white.
During the presidencies of Nathan H. Knorr and Frederick W. Franz, there were no black or Hispanic leaders among Jehovah’s Witnesses, aside from a few rank and file elders and circuit overseers. It was not until 1999 that a black man, Samuel Herd, was appointed to the position of Governing Body member.
It is interesting to note that Herd was appointed to this position, in view of his occupation as a District Overseer for many years on the East Coast of the US, with Maryland as one of his central states of oversight. Baltimore Maryland has in the past, and even recently, been the center of riots fueled by the inequality of race and the resulting police brutality.
Sam Herd was no doubt aware of the inequalities in Baltimore, not only in the community, but among Jehovah’s Witnesses. In other words, in Baltimore there were white congregations and there were black congregations. And the two did not meet.
Racism runs deep in the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sickness that has carried over even through the turn of the 21st century.
Why was a prominent black Jehovah’s Witness leader such as Sam Herd unable to contain and repair the problem of segregation of congregations in Baltimore and elsewhere? It seems that he kept his mouth shut due to the Governing Body’s long held belief that Jehovah’s Witnesses must remain no part of this world (John 15:19), which includes avoiding activism for change, even if this change is supported by Bible principles.
On page 96, we find the topic labeled SEGREGATION:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses know that God made out of one man every nation of men to dwell upon the earth and that He is not partial. (Acts 10:34; 17:26; g98 2/22 25-7; g93 8/22 3-11; g77 10/8 20-3; w73 9/1 515-18) But Jehovah’s Witnesses do not try to reform this system of things, including its laws and its strong prejudices regarding race, color, or language. Witnesses themselves should practice Christian love, with no discrimination. (John 13:23, 35; 15:17; w96 11/15 25-7; g84 11/8 7-11) Where the law of the land legislates certain segregation practices, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not flout such laws. Also, we take into consideration predominating local sentiments and customs. While not endorsing segregation, Jehovah’s Witnesses keep foremost in mind the commission to preach the good news, not making a big issue of segregation or integration any more than Christians in the first century made an issue of slavery. (1 Cor. 7:21, 22; Philem 10-12, 16) We realize that only God’s Kingdom can bring true oneness and equality to mankind. However, even now Jehovah’s Witnesses have made significant strides in overcoming prejudice and racial pride”
It is absurd that Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to not make “a big issue of segregation,” which is an open admission that they have no interest in promoting change for the better, telling their followers that only “God’s Kingdom” can solve such problems. This is a cowardly stance which amounts to saying “fighting segregation is not our platform, so we will NOT expend our resources fighting it.”
Further unbelievable is the statement that “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not try to reform this system of things…” This is an incredibly bold lie considering the large financial expense and thousands of attorney-hours expended over the years in litigation against the United States and other countries, legally fighting for their right to preach, their right to knock on doors without permits, and their right of refusal to salute the flag.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have absolutely lobbied to reform this system of things whenever it suits their needs.They have published their court battles in booklets such as Defending and Legally Establishing the Good News. But when it comes to equally important issues such as racism, they sit idly by and let “worldly” activists do all of the work, while they attempt to take credit for being an unbiased and equal opportunity religion.
Sam Herd spoke last year to over 1 million Jehovah’s Witnesses during the US Branch meeting. He related the story of how he was once a poor black yard boy for a wealthy white family. He was told “Sammy, do this” and “Sammy do that.” One cannot help but sense his internal struggle with racism, and how he had finally achieved personal vindication over this worldly rich white woman who paid him around 3 dollars for his day’s work. It was as if he was telling the world – ‘look where I am now, I am at the highest level of God’s Organization on Earth, and I have everything including the respect of the white people who once treated me as a slave.’
Herd’s experience reminds one of how a person can overcome personal obstacles in his life while neglecting to use his prominence or power to effect change for the better. You would think, who better to stamp out segregation inside the Jehovah’s Witness ranks than a black man of authority. Herd rose to prominence in the turbulent 1970s as a District Overseer, yet yielded to the all male, all white government of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had zero interest in publicly shaming those who practiced racial segregation within individual congregations. From Baltimore Maryland to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, congregations were often divided into white and black congregations, with no objections from Herd or other leaders, at least to my knowledge.
Jehovah’s Witnesses love to take credit for their international brotherhood of equality, yet have failed to initiate any campaigns against racism or any other social evils. In a similar way they promote alternative medical procedures involving “bloodless surgery” while simultaneously destroying thousands of lives by forcing adherents to submit to a no blood transfusion policy. With regard to blood, Witnesses claim that this no-blood mandate comes from God himself, as revealed in the Bible. They back this up by quoting the book of Acts, chapter 15, verses 28 and 29:
For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you except these necessary things: to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols, from blood from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you!
These scriptural verses are an obviously tenuous argument for avoidance of a life saving transfusion, yet Jehovah’s Witnesses’ leadership proudly propagates these laws and will shun any Witness who disobeys them. Yet the very same book of Acts speaks out clearly on the matter of equality and segregation. Acts 10: 34, 35 says:
At this Peter began to speak, and he said: “Now I truly understand that God is not partial, 35 but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
It would seem that the argument for equality from Acts chapter 10 is a much stronger argument than the flimsy interpretation from Chapter 15, as applied to blood. Yet the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses not only chose to avoid challenging discrimination and racial segregation, they sat back idly during the 1960s and the 1970s while this inequality was permitted freely within their congregations.
And there was nothing Sam Herd could do about it – not if he wanted to play the game and rise within the ranks of Jehovah’s Witness leadership. Had he spoken out against racial segregation and used his power to integrate congregations, he would have found himself out of the organization and back picking up leaves for the rich white woman who once gave him orders.
The point of all of this is that change does not occur by sitting back and taking credit for the work of others. Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization have done nothing to advance desegregation, despite their claims of making “significant strides in overcoming prejudice and racial pride.” Making this claim is just too little and too late. The early presidents of the Watchtower organization made every effort to interpret and enforce the principles on the Bible, yet conveniently overlooked the scriptures implying that all men are equal in God’s eyes.
Decades have passed, and we have seen the fall of apartheid in South Africa, desegregation in the US, even the election of our first black president. All done without the help or intervention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The men and women who have sacrificed their lives for this greater cause are truly the ones who can say:
All men are created equal.