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Book review: Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity

Trevor O'Reggio

 

Protest and Progress is one of the most significant books written about an area of Adventist history often over-looked by church scholars. Chronicling the struggles of black Adventists for equality within the organization, Calvin Rock recounts in section 1 the four major protest movements by black Adventist leaders. In section 2, he addresses the question of the continuing relevance of black-led conferences.

Dr. Rock identifies the first period as the push for social and administrative participation, starting in 1889 and lasting until 1929. Although the early Adventist pioneers advocated abolition, equality, and justice and supported the North in the American Civil War, by the time the denomination entered the last decade of the nineteenth century, it had abandoned its earlier progressive views. At the end of this first period, Rock describes the outcome in the following way: “Black church employees still found themselves excluded from critical discussions and decision making. The result was that they remained trapped in second-class status, being systematically denied parity in matters of employee education, equal salary, and benefits, church budgeting and enhanced service opportunities and even basic facilities such as cafeterias.” (23)

The second phase of the black struggle began in 1929 and ended in 1944. It called for accommodation within the organizational structure. Marking a significant turning point and the most successful phase, it came in the after-math of sustained marginalization by the organization. The black constituency of the denomination compelled the leadership to the bargaining table, not necessarily for a separate administrative structure but for full integration and equality. Rather than granting that request, the organization chose to give them a separate governing structure, black-led conferences. Nonetheless, it would prove to be a blessing and accelerated church growth among blacks. The West Coast would follow a different model but, even there, leader-ship recognized the need to provide special black supervision over its work.

The third phase of the black struggle ran from 1969 to 1980. This phase, the push for black unions, continued the call for greater autonomy and representation for the black work. This third phase would be the most divisive and would create deep divisions among black leadership. The presidents of the black conferences spearheaded the movement, putting them at odds with black leaders already embedded in the various hierarchical structures of the denomination. Many well-known black leaders in the upper echelons of the church opposed the move. Unfortunately, at times, their disagreement degenerated into name-calling on both sides. The pro-union group lost the battle, but one of the most highly respected black leaders of that time was elected as president of the North American Division and thus ended the drive toward black unions.

The fourth phase of the struggle, from 1998 through 2000, was a push for equitable retirement security. Black retirees were fewer in numbers, lived fewer years than their white counterparts, and were paying much more into a system than they were receiving. They asked for an adjustment—but without success. The higher organization refused to accommodate the wishes of the black conferences. The leaders began to explore other retirement options, found one far superior to the denomination’s, and presented their case to the North American Division. After much debate, the division leader-ship approved the plan and requested compensation for lost revenue. Rock correctly identifies this outcome as a signal victory for black Adventist leadership. It marked a capstone in their struggle for equal treatment within the denomination.

In section two of the book, Rock deftly shifts from simply describing the unfolding drama of history to becoming a polemicist. Marshaling a series of arguments, he engages in sociological, cultural, historical, theological, and practical analyses to make the point that blacks are better served by their own leaders. Now is definitely not the time to do away with black conferences. They have served their purpose well and are still very much needed. Although at times this section seems disconnected from the first one, I think Rock is attempting to create a cohesive theoretical framework for the history that he described in the previous section.

A retired General Conference vice president, Rock does an excellent job identifying the issues and major players. A more qualified person could not be chosen to write this history. He had a front-row seat in the drama, witnessing many of the significant events of the last two phases. Furthermore, he was well connected to the major players and had an important role. This close connection, however, has its downside, leading the reader to wonder how objective the author could be when he was so intimately connected with many of the issues and the persons involved.

Nevertheless, Rock has carefully crafted and persuasively argued a historically well-documented and powerful account of the struggles of African-Americans to achieve some level of equality and justice within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Because of the paucity of this information within the larger Adventist historiography, his book is a much-needed work that fills a vacuum. It should be read by all Adventist leaders concerned about justice and equality within the organization.

—Reviewed by Trevor O’Reggio, PhD, DMin, professor of church history, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States

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