July 15, 1956

The Methodist College of Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction have heard this week, in their meeting at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, a prediction that there will be a decrease of radical discrimination in the South and an increase of it in other sections of the country. This forecast was made in a 48-page episcopal address prepared by Bishop William T. Watkins of Louisville, Kentucky, with the approval of the seven other members of the college. In predicting this decline in Southern racial discrimination, the bishops based their statements on the premise that racial relations are governed by the percent of Negro population, and they noted a movement of the Negro away from the South. This, in their report, indicates that as the Negro population thins out in Southern areas and increases in Northern ones, discrimination will thereby shift.

Well, their premise is not always true. Areas with large percentages of population have worked out democratic and satisfactory racial relations, while those with relatively few Negroes have, in some cases, had the most serious discrimination. But the good bishops did not ask for the opinions or information of your reporter.

Methodist memberships have given increasing attention to racial matters since the General Conference in May, at which time there was a proposed amendment to the constitution which would allow integration. The Lake Junaluska conference devoted much time to this. As one dispatch put it, “The change would not mean Negroes will sit side-by-side with whites in Southern churches (though parenthetically, the question might well be raised, why not?), but it could bring about absorption of the single Negro Methodist jurisdiction by the five geographical white divisions. As one bishop asserted, “The doors of racial brotherhood cannot be blasted open.” In comment, it is a sad commentary on the much-mouthed phrase of “Christian brotherhood” that such doors should have been shut in the first place. All men are brothers or they are not, and if that brotherhood cannot find practical expression in religious matters, then there is something wrong with our religion, or with us – and I speak as a Methodist. This is one of the few situations where the issue is clear-cut (I almost used the pun of black and white).


One of the basic principles in our constitutional system, a principle upon which many of our freedoms rest, including freedom of religion, is the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to due process of law. In the Compulsory Testimony Act of 1954, Congress, upon the recommendation of the attorney general of the United States, in effect amended our Constitution in an unconstitutional way and thereby committed an assault on the conscience and dignity of man. The Compulsory Act says that if a witness is assured that he will not be prosecuted for whatever he may testify to, he cannot then invoke his constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment to testify.

Early in congressional investigations of alleged subversion, witnesses challenged the right of the House Un-American Activities Committee to pry into their political beliefs, basing their refusal to answer on the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of thought, speech, and assembly. They had powerful historical justification for invoking this First Amendment, for as Dr. Alexander Meiklejohn said, this amendment admits of no exceptions. It tells us that Congress and by implication, all other agencies of government are denied any authority whatever to limit the political freedom of the citizens of the U.S. It declares that with respect to political belief, political discussion, political advocacy, political planning, our citizens are sovereign and Congress is their subordinate agent.

Pretty soon, however, congressional committees were no longer recognizing the First Amendment. Screenwriters who became known as the “Hollywood Ten” were cited by the [House ] Un-American [Activities] Committee for contempt, indicted, and convicted. Thus, only the Fifth Amendment remained – to use the words of a former Supreme Court Justice – “as a safeguard against heedless, unfounded and tyrannical prosecutions.”

Subsequent witnesses, equally unwilling to testify as to their political beliefs but preferring to stay out of jail, refused to answer questions under the protection of the Fifth Amendment. Their refusal was sustained by the courts but their victory was a costly one, for political demagogues coined the epithet, “Fifth Amendment Communist,” by which men were adjudged guilty until proven innocent, and this in direct violation of the principles on which our system of justice is founded. For asserting their rights of citizenship and for invoking the Fifth, men stood in danger of summary dismissal from jobs, of the blacklist, expulsion from unions, eviction from housing developments, denial of passport, deportation, and denaturalization.

Dean Erwin N. Griswold of the Harvard Law School, in his carefully reasoned little book entitled 5th Amendment Today, calls that amendment “one of the great landmarks in man’s struggle to make himself civilized.” He gives many reasons as to why a witness should logically, and legally invoke the Fifth Amendment, such as reluctance of a nervous though wholly innocent witness to venture on the stand; the fear of waiver of his rights too soon; and lack of confidence in the proceeding. Is it untoward today to question the good faith of a hearing before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, for example, when a witness already knows that its chairman, Sen. Eastland, though bound by his oath of office to uphold the law of the land, is leading the rebellion against the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision of 1954?

Whatever the reason that prompts a person to seek protection of the Fifth Amendment, his invocation thereof cannot label him a “Fifth Amendment Communist,” for the Supreme Court spoke decisively on this matter in the Slochower case on April 9, 1956, with Mr. Justice Clark reading the majority opinion:

“At the outset we must condemn the practice of imputing sinister meaning to the exercise of a person’s constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment. The right of an accused person to refuse to testify, which had been in England merely a rule of evidence, was so important to our forefathers that they raised it to the dignity of a constitutional enactment, and it has been recognized as ‘one of the most valuable prerogatives of the citizen.’”

Yet, the amendment, as a bulwark, has been weakened against political inquisition by the Compulsory Testimony Act. This act is the brainchild of the late Senator McCarren, who likewise spawned the Internal Security Act and the Walter-McCarran Immigration Act. Under the Compulsory Testimony Act, a witness faces grim choices: He may maintain silence and go to jail for contempt; or he may take, what is to many the odious way, of informing on the political beliefs of his associates and thereby sacrifice his own conscience and dignity. Whatever his course, he risks perjury. And this risk is particularly bad when a witness undertakes to answer questions concerning events 10 to 25 years in the past. Two witnesses who did testify freely in 1948, Remington and Hiss, were later convicted of perjury in trials whose outcome left a legacy of great doubt as to American jurisprudence.

What has all this to do with religion in the news? Everything. IF the Constitution can be twisted in order to get at, today, those whom some believe to be enemies to our way of life, it can, tomorrow, be twisted to discriminate against others, whether they be political or religious dissenters. Which, one may ask from a moral point of view, are the real subversives? Those who advocate undemocratic doctrines and do so within the framework of our constitutional system, or those who take solemn oaths, and this applies to Republicans and Democrats alike, to uphold the Constitution, and then proceed to subvert it under the cloak of saving that which they thereby subvert?


Another item in the news that reflects something of an inconsistency in our thinking about ourselves in connection with other peoples involves whether U.S. servicemen abroad should be tried according to U.S. laws or the laws of the country in which they are stationed. The U.S. Court of Appeals has just ruled that a foreign country has the right to try U.S. military personnel for crimes committed in foreign lands, i.e., off military posts. That is as it should be. Imagine how we would feel if we had an army of occupation in our midst and they were not responsible to our laws but could be tried only by the laws of their own country. Of course professional patrioteers, political demagogues, and others will view this with alarm, but veritably it is a matter of “As ye would that men do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”


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