Fred M. Webber Comments on Regents’ Prayer Decision: “Not a Great Tragedy”

BS Segregation Baltimore Miller Bros.jpg

Fred M. Webber 1962

It is surprising how frequently the news today echoes the news of the 1960s. As one example, courts in 2014 are hearing cases concerning prayer in public meetings and whether a Bible curriculum written by the conservative Christian and owner of Hobby Lobby can be taught in public schools. On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court delivered a decision on Engel v Vitale, a case involving a state-written prayer for use in the public schools in New York.

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.

“As supervisors of the state’s public education under New York law, the Board of Regents wrote this classroom prayer in 1951. Formal religion has no place in public schools, they said, but ‘teaching our children, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that Almighty God is their Creator’ would give the ‘best security’ in dangerous days. They recommended their prayer to local school boards; some accepted it, including the board in New Hyde Park, which voted in 1958 for the prayer to open each school day.” (1)

The parents of ten students in the Hyde Park school system objected and asked a New York court to stop the use of the prayer. The state court upheld the use of what became known as the Regents’ Prayer in the schools. In 1961, the Supreme Court accepted Engel v Vitale for review. And on June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court reversed the state court’s decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment’s ban against the establishment of religion. The court ruled that “any state-sponsored prayer, even if it is denominationally-neutral, represented an unconstitutional effort to promote religion and an infringement of the wall of separation that the Constitution set up between church and state.” (2)

As one can imagine, the decision sparked a great controversy, with a number of prominent church leaders and politicians speaking out against the decision.

President Kennedy was asked about the decision during a press conference on June 27, 1962:

And later that day, Fred M. Webber, General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore, spoke briefly at a celebration of the the 110th anniversary of the founding of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. Fred M. Webber addressed some of his comments to the Supreme Court decision and recommended that people “read and heed” what President Kennedy had to say. He is quoted as saying:

“I find it a little difficult to think that the striking down of that prayer is a great tragedy.”(3)

1962.06.28.Newspaper Prayer Comments

1962.06.28.Newspaper Prayer Comments 2

I’m with you, Uncle Fred.

***
If you would like to read more about Fred M. Webber, click the Fred Myron Webber tag/link at the bottom of this post.

Sources:
1. “The Warren Court, 1953-1969.” The Supreme Court Historical Society. http://www.supremecourthistory.org/history-of-the-court/history-of-the-court-2/the-warren-court-1953-1969. (June 23, 2014).
2.  ”Religion in Public Schools: Engel v Vitale.” Digital History. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=1197. (June 23, 2014).
3. “Cleric Says Court Ruling Is Not ‘A Great Tragedy’.”The Baltimore Sun.” JUne 28, 1962. Pg. 48.

3 Rabbis, a Priest, and a Presbyterian Minister …

walked into the Mandell and Ballow deli in Baltimore on February 7, 1962.

But they didn’t walk into Miller Bros. restaurant that day.

The group also included Dr. Furman Templeton, director of the Urban League in Baltimore – an African-American. They were refused entrance to the segregated restaurant.

After learning that my great uncle Fred M. Webber had participated in the 1963 March on Washington, I immediately started searching the internet to see what else I could find. I was excited by a link to Google Books.

The link took me to page 56 of Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore by Gilbert Sandler. Curious, I thought, since Fred wasn’t Jewish, but there was Fred M. Webber’s name on the first page of the chapter titled “Demonstrators: Baltimore Rabbis Confront Segregation.” And scrolling down to page 57 was a picture of Fred M. Webber! (The picture immediately below is the one referenced in the book, but does not appear in the book.)

BS Segregation Baltimore Miller Bros.jpg

Clergy standing outside Miller Brothers Restaurant after being refused entrance

The chapter begins:  ”Awakening on the morning of February 8, 1962, the Jews of Baltimore were stunned to see in their morning newspaper, a two-column picture that, for the Baltimore Jewish community, would close one era and open another. The picture would please some, disturb others and become the talk of the synagogue circuit.

The caption beneath the picture described the event depicted: Demonstrators: Five clergy and the Urban League director stand outside segregated restaurant that refused to serve them. They are from left: Rabbi Abraham Shaw, Rev. Fred M. Webber, Rev. Joseph Connelly, Rabbi Morris Lieberman, Rabbi Abraham Shusterman, and Dr. Furman Templeton.” (1)

In the weeks preceding the clergy protest, several restaurants in Baltimore had been picketed by biracial groups of college students who had previously been refused service. As reported in the Baltimore Sun newspaper, the clergy randomly selected two restaurants known to be segregated and called to inform them that they were coming – to give the restaurants “every advantage.” The clergy also notified the press. The protest was timed to coincide with the opening of the Maryland General Assembly, which was to consider public accommodations legislation that would desegregate all restaurants and hotels.

Although the group was seated at Mandell and Ballow and stayed for a half-hour lunch, the restaurant’s comptroller explained that the group was seated out of deference to the clergy and that the restaurant would remain segregated until passage of the public accommodations legislation. (2)

1962.02.08 Fred M. Webber newwspaper 1

1962.02.08 Fred M. Webber newspaper 2

I’m sure I read another source (but I can’t find it now!) that said that the clergy wanted to pay a visit to one Jewish restaurant as part of their protest. Mandell and Ballow fit the bill.

Shortly before the clergy protest in early February, Mandell and Ballow deli had experienced an embarrassing incident in which a “group of Israeli sailors, all originally of Yemenite extraction, had gone to the deli and been denied service because of their dark skin.” Once the manager learned the men were foreign Jews, they received apologies and were seated. (3)

Following the incident with the dark-skinned sailors, the deli was picketed by a youthful labor Zionist group and, the following week, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis urged Jews not to patronize restaurants that discriminated.

I’m guessing the deli management didn’t want any more bad publicity the day Fred Webber and his clergy colleagues showed up for lunch.

While researching this, I found a wonderful website with many personal stories told by civil rights activists in the south. Rosalyn Garfeld Lang picketed Mandell and Ballow and shared this and other stories. Check out http://crmvet.org/.

To view a photo of the clergy standing outside Mandell and Ballow deli that day, search for Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore and include Fred M. Webber in your search terms.

If you would like to read more about Fred M. Webber, click the Fred Myron Webber tag/link at the bottom of this post.

(1) Sandler, Gilbert. Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore. Charleston, SC: The History Press,
2012.
(2) Nordlinger, Stephen E. “Clergymen Demonstrate Against Bias.” The Sun. Feb. 8, 1962.
(3) Lang, Rosalyn Garfeld. “A Baltimore Girl Sits In.” http://crmvet.org/nars/balt61.htm
(June 15, 2014).

 

Fred Webber – General Presbyter of the Baltimore Area 1960-1971

Fred Webber InstalledOn Wednesday, September 28, 1960, the Rev. Fred M. Webber was installed as General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore. He remained in this position until his “retirement” in 1971. The installation took place at Faith Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

I’ve been digging around to learn more about my great uncle Fred and his involvement in the civil rights and ecumenical movements during the 1960s. To provide some background I’m considering these questions:

What did this move and new job mean for Fred Webber and his family?
What does a General Presbyter do?
What prepared him for this position?

Although I can’t really know what this new job and move meant to the Fred Webber family, I can imagine that Fred viewed it as a great opportunity. His wife, Carol, had been through several moves and job changes by this time – all part of the life of a minister. Three of Fred’s and Carol’s children were grown and on their own, so they were unaffected by the move from Hamburg, New York, to Baltimore, Maryland. However their youngest daughter, a Junior in high school, was “very angry (very, very, very angry)” with her father for moving before she finished high school and she did not make the move with her parents. Instead, Bea lived with the school librarian and her husband (members of Hamburg Presbyterian Church where Fred had been the minister), until the end of 11th grade. Happily, Bea reports that “the minister and his wife at the Catonsville Presbyterian Church (in Maryland), where Mother joined, had a daughter my age and she very graciously welcomed me that summer before our senior year. She met me on the way to school the first day and walked with me. After that, I found my own way and had a fabulous year, so I forgave my father.”

What does a General Presbyter do?

In my search for a job description, I found this one by The Rev. Dr. Kevin Yoho, General Presbyter of the Newark Presbytery: “As General Presbyter, I support and direct the work of the staff, provide guidance to the Mission Council, committees, and teams of the presbytery, represent and link the presbytery to educational, civic, and private institutions. I also serve as a pastor to the pastors and am available to offer confidential support, coach, and pray with our pastoral leaders. 

Many conversations emerge with opportunities for partnering with congregations seeking and changing pastoral leadership; supporting congregational leaders feeling the pain of transitions, stress, and conflict that comes from growth and transformation; encouraging congregations in their discernment and pursuit of their missional identity; offering leadership in the Synod and national Presbyterian Church, and fostering denominational, ecumenical, and interfaith relationships….

Building trust, celebrating growth, fostering discernment through appreciative inquiry, inviting collaboration, clarifying ministry, assessing wellness and effectiveness, offering guidance, leading presbytery staff; these are the kinds of activities that I hope add value to the entire presbytery as it helps every pastor and session fulfill their unique mission in the world.”

That last paragraph fits my imaginings of how Fred envisioned his role as General Presbyter.

What prepared Fred for his new job as General Presbyter and his involvement in the civil rights and ecumenical movements?

A rather stern looking family. Fred Webber 2nd from left

Fred Webber 2nd from left

Fred M. Webber was born to Dorinda Strange and M. D. Webber in 1906, the fifth of nine children. He was a younger brother of my grandmother Abbie. His father, M. D. Webber, served as a pastor in several small churches, although he eventually gave up the ministry in order to support his large family. Nevertheless, the practice of their Christian faith was a given in Fred’s family of origin.

Debate Champions

Debate Champions – Fred 2nd from left

Fred was an avid reader and enjoyed debate. He was named “Best Debater in the State of Iowa in 1926.” He graduated from The State University of Iowa in 1930 and later earned a Master of Divinity from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York. Fred began his ministry as a Baptist pastor in 1932, but was received into the Presbytery of Buffalo-Niagra in 1941 and served several churches in New York.

In a resume written around 1974, Fred summarized a few of his professional duties and accomplishments prior to his position as General Presbyter. It’s a little difficult to read, so I’ve typed in the highlights below.

Webber, Fred Myron 1974 Resume pt. 1

Webber, Fred Myron 1974 Resume pt. 2

* In Bath I followed a Pastor who had left under quite unhappy circumstances, so my first responsibility was a healing ministry, which I feel was rather well accomplished.
* (Weedsport) My major contribution to the life of this congregation was broadening its view of the total mission of the church; from virtually no support of mission outside the congregation, we moved to fairly significant support
* (Youngstown) I found here the same lack of support outside the parish, and brought that support up to a respectable figure. Growth in membership was about 20%, and in attendance about 40%
* (Hamburg) Once again I was confronted with a lack of concern beyond the parish … By the time I left, the church was giving $1.00 to general mission for every $2.00 for local mission. Membership grew from about 150 to over 1,000; a new church was erected.
* Fred was commissioner to the General Assembly in 1947, 1958 and again in 1965.

It does appear that these were valuable experiences that Fred could apply to his job as General Presbyter. In the resume above, he says the following about his work in the presbytery: Presbytery was severely divided when I came, and we made significant strides toward uniting it. 

In addition to the experiences listed above, Fred was known as having a “can do” attitude as exemplified by his favorite saying, “If you can read, you can do anything.”

Among the files sent to me by Fred’s daughter, Bea, is a humorous letter written in 1968 addressing the Presbytery of Baltimore at the 566th Stated Meeting. The letter was submitted by the congregation at Catonsville and speaks of Fred as an impossible man in an impossible job in an impossible place.

November 16, 1968

November 16, 1968

An additional question I have is what influenced Fred’s involvement in the civil rights movement. I haven’t read any of Fred’s sermons, so I don’t know if, when, or how often he preached on the issue of civil rights, but it is obvious from his resume that Fred always pushed his congregations to look (and give) beyond the doors of their church. I asked family members to offer their thoughts regarding what influenced Fred’s commitment to civil rights:

Anyone care to speculate what his early life and family experience played based on what you heard from Fred or what you heard about or experienced yourself in the home of Dorinda and M. D. Webber? Or maybe it was time spent in seminary, as a pastor?

I received the following responses:

* I think his civil rights position came from his Christian principles. I think civil rights became a big issue after he had a congregation.
* Bea found a 1920s prayers for social justice book in all the things she went through last year, so I think his convictions surely came from his full life experiences.
* One of our grandmother’s (Dorinda Strange Webber) brothers was killed by an Indian before she was born. She talked about that fact fairly often, but I never heard one negative word about that particular Indian or about Indians in general. I think that the Webber family was not into racial, ethnic bigotry at all. God made and loved each human being, no matter color, etc. I think that would have had an impact on anyone who lived with them – especially those who grew up with them.

To add a little more context, I did just a smidgen of research on the Rev. Dr. Kenneth G. Neigh, who gave the sermon at Fred Webber’s installation. Mr. Neigh was the general secretary of the Board of National Missions, a position he held from 1959-1972.

In 1996, the New York Times published an obituary for Kenneth Neigh calling him “a national Presbyterian church official who put the church in the forefront of the civil rights movement and broadened its commitment to social causes in the 1960s.” It continues – “For a man who was less than five and a half feet tall and had an uncommonly soft voice, Mr. Neigh wielded a lot of power from his office on Riverside Drive, then the headquarters of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States….. Although he had official power only within his own church, Mr. Neigh’s pioneering approach was credited with influencing similar efforts in other churches, especially after his friend and admirer, Eugene Carson Blake, the Presbyterian Church’s top ecclesiastical official, carried Mr. Neigh’s vision with him when he became head of the National Council of Churches and later of the World Council of Churches.”

So – there we have some background to place Fred Webber in Baltimore in the 1960s. Coming soon – a look at some of Fred Webber’s actions in support of civil rights and ecumenism – and perhaps a look at some of his other contemporaries, including Eugene Carson Blake.

If you would like to read more about Fred M. Webber, click the Fred Myron Webber tag/link at the bottom of this post.

Webber, Fred Myron 1930 College DiplomaWebber, Fred Myron Master of DivinityWebber, Fred Myron 1932 Baptist