The limits of Henderson's respectable militancy

Henderson’s last public involvement with civil rights revealed the limitations of his version of militancy within the Black community. A confrontation took place between police and members of the Nation of Islam outside a Los Angeles mosque on April 27, 1962. In the ensuing gun battle, six individuals were injured and one was killed (Sherman 1962, 2). Tensions quickly flared. The following month, Henderson once again offered Second Baptist as a sacred space for protest, despite the fact that in this case his religious and political views diverged sharply from those of the offended party. Henderson hoped the gathering would calm tension, but he underestimated his guests. Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X seemed intent on inciting outrage. “They say we preach hate because we tell the truth. They say we inflame the Negro. The hell they’ve been catching for 400 years has inflamed them ... If we don’t hate the white man, then you don’t know what you’re talking about” (“1,200 Negroes charge police brutality” 1962, 2). Henderson felt compelled to repudiate Malcolm X’s speech and in a spontaneous address to the crowd, he explained that he had only offered the church as a forum for a “peaceful assembly.” While acknowledging that it would be foolish to deny the existence of police brutality, he asserted that “we are here to find a positive, affirmative solution. Not to indulge in hate - of anyone or any organization. Let’s keep that in mind” (Simon 1962, 1). The meeting illustrated the growing divisions among civil rights activists in the early 1960s, and the increasing militancy of some groups. While Henderson had long been a “militant” advocate for civil rights, his was a very different kind of militancy.

In 1963, Henderson ended his 22-year pastorate at Second Baptist Church and with it his career. A 65-year-old man, he had selected this retirement date at the time he began his pastorate at Second Baptist. In that time, he had journeyed far both literally and metaphorically. Growing up in poverty, his retirement celebration at the Beverly Hilton in 1963 showed that he had achieved the dignified, middle-class status quo denied to so many African Americans (“Retirement Program” n.d.).14 Throughout his career, he doggedly pursued civil rights activism in Los Angeles during World War II and the early Cold War, fighting locally, nationally, and internationally. Two years after Henderson’s retirement, Blacks frustrated with pervasive racism and inequality launched a weeklong wave of rioting in Watts, a few miles south of Second Baptist. Dozens died, thousands were injured, thousands more arrested. While Henderson and his colleagues had made substantial progress on the road to equality, the outrage visible in the riots suggests the limits of the respectable militancy that was his life’s work. Henderson’s words from more than a decade earlier continued to resonate: there still remained a “distance yet to be travelled before the day of our complete freedom” (Henderson 1951).


  • 1 An earlier version of this chapter appeared as “A Respectable Militancy: Reverend J. Raymond Henderson and the Civil Rights Struggle in Los Angeles, 1941-1963” in Southern California Quarterly, 100 no. 4 (Winter 2018).
  • 2 Evelyn Higginbotham’s concept of Black religious respectability and its relationship to activism provides a key frame for the study (Higginbotham 1993). Other scholars have followed Higginbotham in using the framework of respectability to analyze the Black church. Victoria Wolcott (2000) addresses the efforts of blue-collar women to define respectability in an empowering way. See, most recently, White (2012), who applies respectability to a Pentecostal Black denomination.
  • 3 Deverell and Hise (2010), a compendium of the state of the field on Los Angeles, include no article on religion, much less on the Black church. De Graaf, Mulroy, and Taylor (2001) do not devote any sustained attention to Black churches. Smith, Ah, Brown, and Day (2013) examines Black churches in the civil rights movement outside the South. It includes a chapter on the church in the Bay Area, but nothing on Southern California. Smith (2006) is a partial exception. While his book focuses largely on Black entertainment, he does include a chapter largely devoted to the World War II activism of Clayton D. Russell, pastor of People’s Independent Church. Sides (2005, 150) devotes part of a paragraph specifically to Henderson, but he does not elaborate, nor does he document his statements about him.
  • 4 The year after he arrived at Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, he joined with leftist organizations to defend Angelo Herndon, a young Black Communist charged with incitement to insurrection as a result of leading a peaceful march (see Martin 1979). He also offered to be the clearinghouse for any claims of racial prejudice in hiring for New Deal Works Progress Administration programs (see Holmes 1972).
  • 5 He won two separate sermon competitions. One sermon was one of the top six of 90 entries for Great Century Pulpit magazine. Another was one of the top 25 in a competition with 650 others (“Reverend J. Raymond Henderson” 1941, 5).
  • 6 On church size, see Lincoln and Mamiya (1990, 143).
  • 7 This included Caston, Alvia Shaw of First AME, and Clayton Russell of People’s Independent Church (which had broken away from First AME earlier in the century).
  • 8 Mayors Bowron and Poulson; Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn; Lt. Governor (and later Governor) of California, Goodwin Knight; and Assistant Secretary of Defense James C. Evans. He also invited then-Governor, and future Chief Justice, Earl Warren to speak and sent a warm letter of support to Pat Brown as “the right man for the job” upon his election (Henderson 1959).
  • 9 Fully 10%. of all federal funds spent during the war were poured into this state, nearly half of which went to the Los Angeles area. At its peak, the Los Angeles area aircraft industry directly employed over 228,000 workers (Verge 1994, p. 305). In June 1941, only four African Americans were employed in Southern California’s aerospace factories (Starr 2002, 139).
  • 10 Indeed, one historian of Black Los Angeles claims that the Eagle'& editorial policy throughout the 1940s ran parallel to the Communist Party line (Leonard 2001, 320).
  • 11 Through denominational activities, Henderson had formed a friendship with C.C. Adams, the NBC’s director of missions (Adams 1947).
  • 12 One editorial in the Eagle connected Henderson’s trip with a report by leftist Howard University professor Alphaeus Hunton, a key supporter of pan-Africanism and critic of international capitalism (“The sidewalk” 1950, 1). Henderson certainly sympathized with much of the sentiment Hunton expressed, but he consistently avoided Hunton’s Marxist-inflected language.
  • 13 Jack Tenney had supervised several investigations of supposed communist-front organizations and their supporters, and then he named them (Tenney 1948).
  • 14 The program for the celebration was printed in a glossy commemorative brochure, complete with a detachable portrait of the pastor suitable for framing.
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