Recalling a dad who stood tall with stand on civil rights

By James Rupert, Special Contributor…

My father died a few weeks ago, a quiet hero of our human struggle to love.

Born in West Virginia during the Depression, the Rev. James C. Rupert grew up, fought and was wounded in America’s cultural civil war. His battle won’t be recorded in history books—but as one of countless individual sacrifices during the civil rights movement, it helped win perhaps our country’s greatest expansion of democracy and justice.

U.S. commentators note the divide between our church-going traditionalists and secular liberals. But that fracture is not complete. My father was moved by his church-bred faith by his and secular sense of fairness.

James Rupert

I first remember Dad in his latter 20s, a six-foot-tall Methodist minister whose flowing white surplice and passionate voice in the pulpit signified for me, every Sunday, his status as the world’s most important man.

After the service, I would run to find him at the church door, where everyone lined up for his greeting and handshake. When the church ladies—notably the perfumed, bosomy Mrs. Bauman—would bend down to pinch my three-year-old cheeks, I would back into the folds of Dad’s robes.

In 1966, the Methodist Church sent our family to Salem, a racially divided town amid the marshes and farmlands of southwestern New Jersey. That year, white supremacists began burning crosses in black neighborhoods and at churches in Salem County. While their opposition to integration was already on the losing side of history, their extremism fueled anger and risked racial violence.

Among Salem’s blacks and whites, intimidation, hopelessness and apathy had their effect. The local NAACP was having trouble organizing a protest big enough to show the (few) extremists and (many) fence-sitters that, even if racial equality was a distant goal, it was where we were going. My generation would be spared the disease of segregation.

Dad met a few other prominent white citizens—a Quaker leader, the school superintendent and the publisher of the weekly paper—willing to stand with our black neighbors. He talked to the black preachers and NAACP leaders who planned to bus supporters from Philadelphia to fill the main street for a protest. Requiring our neighbors to depend on such distant help would have damaged our community and increased the risk that a peaceful march could turn violent.

The Rev. James C. Rupert in 1963. PHOTO COURTESY JAMES RUPERT

From the pulpit, Dad told our all-white congregation that the church had shamefully let our national birth defect of racism fester. Black and white folks played major league baseball as teammates, fought together and rescued each other in war and made music together in Memphis and Chicago. Yet the church had not integrated? It is to our everlasting shame, Dad preached, that Sunday morning was America’s most racially segregated hour.

Eventually, Dad and other white citizens joined our black neighbors in the march. That day, Mom watched from outside the shoe store where we bought our Buster Browns and listened to the white store owner exclaim with disgust, “Well, look at this! Here’s the preacher, marching down the middle of Broadway with the niggers!”

That march was no singular act for my parents. They had opened a youth center in the church basement, scandalizing some parishioners because it welcomed black kids and had a pool table. They had knit ties with the local Jewish congregation by taking our Sunday school classes to visit the synagogue. Our family hosted the Hernandezes, a Cuban family that sought refuge in the United States.

Our congregation was divided enough over integration that some organized to have Dad removed. The church hierarchy signaled that it did not want a troublemaker in its ranks and ordered our transfer to another town. Transferred again a year later, Dad left active ministry.

On the civil rights battlefield, thousands of people suffered more grievous wounds. But the implementation of America has required an ocean of those sacrifices across generations, and it requires them still.

In our simple goal of treating others as we would like to be treated, we often seem so burdened by history, tribalism and, especially, fear. While our ability to see, respect and love different people as brothers and sisters is still incomplete, it is immeasurably greater than when my parents’ generation began that work. Their readiness to bear the costs of doing the right thing was one of their greatest gifts to their children and to ours.

A few weeks ago, thyroid cancer had taken Dad’s voice. Still, he was able, on his last good day, to hear me tell him that I am not just proud to be his son, but fiercely proud. His eyes filled a bit. “Thank you,” he whispered.

No, Dad. Thank you.

Mr. Rupert is a longtime foreign affairs journalist.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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