Episode 12: Championing Race Unity (Part Two)

The second in a 3 part sequence exploring how the early American Baha'i community championed race unity - perhaps the best example of society building by Baha'is in the Western World. This episode explores Abdul-Baha's talks to African American audiences in 1912.

Society builders pave the way, to a better world, to a
better day. A united approach to building a new society.

Join the conversation, for Social
Transformation. Society Builders.

Society Builders with
your host, Duane Varan.

Welcome back to Society Builders, and
thanks for joining the conversation

for social transformation.

In our last episode, we laid out the
historical context of the America

that was, as Abdul-Baha arrived here.

As part of that, we explored some of
the forces driving racism in America

and the different approaches to
promoting racial justice that evolved.

Today we're gonna go a little
bit deeper in understanding this

amazing chapter in our history.

Today we're gonna dive deep in discovering
why there was so much interest in

hearing Abdul-Baha and His message.

And we'll learn more about
what that Message really was.

And then in our next episode, the
third and final episode in this

sequence, we'll explore the impact
this all had on Black America and on

that generation of Baha'i believers.

So fast on your seat belts.

It's gonna be a great ride.

Abdul-Baha's Message on race

almost immediately captured the attention
and imagination of Black America.

I mean, Abdul-Baha's travels in America,
got a lot of media attention, but

it's nothing like the attention He
got from America's Black Press where

the coverage was truly extensive.

Now before we discuss what Abdul-Baha's
message was that got such attention, I

think we need to first set the stage.

Why was there interest in
hearing from a Man, the Persian

Prophet, as He was dubbed?

I mean, we know He wasn't a Prophet, but
that's how the press referred to Him.

Why was there such interest in
hearing His views in the first place?

Now, there are a number of
dimensions to this fascination

with Abdul-Baha. For one thing,

abdul-Baha's timing was picture perfect.

Abdul-Baha arrived in America
when fascination with Persia

was at an all time peak. In 1911,

just a year before Abdul-Baha's
arrival, an American named William

Morgan Schuster had gone to Iran to
serve as the National Treasurer at the

invitation of Iran's first Parliament.

It's Majlis.

Schuster quickly emerged as a Persian
hero, stamping out corruption and

bringing order to Iran's finances
for the first time in over a century.

But this antagonized, both Russia and
England, who were both manipulating

and controlling the Persian nation
and benefiting from this corruption.

In fact, Schuster, so antagonized
the foreign powers that Russia

literally went to war with

iran, demanding his removal as a
condition for removing their troops.

And so it was that Schuster, this
Persian hero, was forcibly removed from

his office in Iran only months after
it had taken up this role in 1911.

Well, Schuster returns to America, a hero -
a man who stood up to the Russians and the

English - an American who single-handedly
caused the outbreak of a whole war.

And he began going on a national lecture
tour exposing the immoral tactics

used by both the Russians and the
English superpowers to control Iran.

His exposé is detailed and riveting.

And eventually it led to the
publication of his bestselling

book, 'The Strangling of Persia'.

But the book itself didn't come out
until the summer of 1912, in the middle

of Abdul-Baha's travels in America.

But the lecture tours he gave were
extensively covered, and this gave rise to

a new fascination with all things Persian.

In fact, the fad of the day became
hosting Persian parties where guests

arrived, dressed in Persian attire.

So Abdul-Baha arrived literally at
the peak of this new fascination

with all things Persian.

So when the papers announced a talk
by the Persian prophet, well, that

immediately got people's attention.

That was page one news.

His talks to predominantly Black
audiences also had another dimension

which gave them credibility.

Because Abdul-Baha Himself had spent
almost His entire life as a Prisoner.

So here was someone who could empathize
with the plight of the oppressed.

This added a certain
credibility to His message.

But perhaps the most important
reason why His talks captured Black

attention, and we know this because
the Black press coverage tells us -

so the most important reason
was because it was almost the

only religious engagement on
questions of race at that time.

Again, remember, America's churches
had largely gone silent on the

issue of race for Black America.

It was a deafening silence.

And here was a religious leader
from the other side of the

world, from the East, preaching a
Message of taking a stand on race.

The contrast was stark.

It exposed the American church's silence,
and in fact, there are editorials that

appear that make this specific point.

'Why is it that America's churches
are silent and that the only

religious voice to take a stand
is from this Persian Prophet?'

So you can imagine that there was an
interest, a fascination, a hunger to

hear what this Persian Prophet had to say
even before he delivered His speeches.

In fact, just speaking to some of these
audiences was itself taking a stand.

It was a radical thing to do.

So there was an appetite, a hunger to
hear what the Persian Prophet had to say.

So what was Abdul-Baha's
message to Black America?

What's perhaps most important here
is to appreciate that in His talks,

Abdul-Baha introduces a new dimension
to the race discourse in America.

At the time, Black America is seeking
acceptance that diversity be tolerated,

but Abdul-Baha brings a Message
that truly transcends all of this.

He brings a Message of race unity.

In Abdul-Baha's talks, He
explains how racism is unnatural.

That in the realm of nature you
don't see animals discriminating

on the basis of their color.

You don't see black and white
pigeons, for example, segregating.

Now think about it.

Framing racism as unnatural represents
a powerful and direct challenge

to the kind of scientific racism
that is so prevalent at the time.

And not only is racism unnatural, but Abdul-
Baha positions diversity as attractive.

A lack of diversity is
dull and boring. Here

he draws on that example that
all Baha'is know so well that

were like flowers in a garden.

That a garden with only
flowers of one color is dull.

That it's the diversity of color
that brings the garden to life.

And He draws on similar analogies
with gems of different colors.

Now, this is such a contrast
to the discourse of the day.

Abdul-Baha not only positions
racism as unnatural, but he also

positions diversity as attractive.


So far from being something
we tolerate, diversity is

something we should appreciate.

We become stronger as a
result of our diversity.

Now, this was an entirely new
perspective for the audience.

It elevated the race discourse
to an entirely different level.

It articulated a vision that transcended
what people thought was even possible.

Again, the predominant discourse
at the time was accommodationist.

Don't make waves. Live with small gains.

Now there was another strand that
advocated for Black Americans to return

to Africa, a Black nationalist stand.

But this got little traction and
there was a new social justice strand

seen as somewhat radical at the time
that advocated for justice, and this

particular strand was very nascent
at the time. But now you have a

fourth paradigm, an entirely fresh
perspective that Abdul-Baha introduces.

Now to draw a modern parallel,

this is much more akin to the type of
speech that Martin Luther King delivered

in his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.

It's a speech that articulates
a vision of what is possible.

It's a vision elevating race unity.

It has an appeal for both
White and Black America.

Now, I'm not saying that Abdul-
Baha's speech had the same

impact as Martin Luther King's

'I Have a Dream' speech, but it served
a similar function acting to help His

audience look beyond the horizon, look
beyond their limitations, to see a future

that transcended the past and present.

It was a message of hope
and it was inspiring.

Now, what's particularly interesting,
I think, is that Abdul-Baha's speeches to

Black audiences didn't appease them.

Yes, it articulated a vision.

It upheld their rights and dignity.

It demanded social justice.

It inspired them to imagine
new possibilities, but it also

challenged its Black audience.

I say challenged because Abdul-Baha's
goal is not just social justice per

se, it's something even greater.

It's race unity.

It's a step beyond justice. So it doesn't
focus on punishing the white aggressor.

Instead, it forges a bridge, and
there are challenges for White

America, but there are also challenges
for Black America in that call.

So for example, Abdu Baja calls on
African-Americans to not demonize all

White America, but to also appreciate the
sacrifices that so many White Americans

made in the cause of freeing them from
their bonds of slavery. To also appreciate

the sacrifices of their White brothers.

This is a challenging idea, right?

It speaks to a higher goal race unity.

You can see in this guidance how Abdul-
Baha's focus was on race unity, bringing

the races together, and there are
ideas that Abdul-Baha advocates in the

cause of race unity that were truly
radical by the standards of the time,

including, for example, His promotion
of the virtues of interracial marriage.

Now, this was truly controversial.

I mean, people were literally
hanged for advocating this idea.

In fact, in the majority of US states,
30 states, in fact, interracial

marriage was actually outright illegal.

So Abdul-Baha's talks were not just
inspiring platitudes, they were

substantive, they were inspiring,
they were challenging, and they

introduced an entirely new dimension
to the race discourse in America.

And most important, it was
a message which got noticed.

The Black press covered these
talks extensively, and it

got Black America talking.

It captured the attention and
the imagination of Black America.

Okay, now I think we've set the stage.

Our last episode gave us
the historical context

PRIOR to Abdul-Baha's arrival. In this
episode, we explored what happened

DURING Abdul-Baha's visit, and
particularly what his message was.

So we're now ready for our
next chapter here, and this

is really the heart and soul

of my entire theme here, the focus
of our discussion, which is on how

it was that Abdul-Baha's message
transformed the American Baha'i

community, and trust me, it did.

And how that Baha'i community went
on to interact with and helped shape

the emergence of the nascent modern
Civil Rights movement in America.

How's that for society building?

Now you have to remember that the entire
Western Baha'i community at the time, and

I'm talking across both Europe and the
United States, was about the size of what

we currently think of as a Baha'i region.

I mean, there was only 3000 Baha'is
in the entire Western world.

So this is about the size of
your regional Baha'i community.

And what you'll discover in our
next episode is just how incredibly

influential this community became in
their society building endeavors,

particularly in engaging with
the race discourse in America.

It's probably the best example of society
building in the Western Baha'i world.

It's just such a remarkable story.

And we're going to focus on this
impact in our next episode. And just

to whet your appetite a bit more, our
next episode includes interviews with

leading Baha'i scholars, including

robert Stockman,

Dr. Chris Buck,

Dr. Guy Emerson Mount.

So you're in for a real treat.

So you really won't wanna miss our
next episode where we continue to

explore the early Baha'i engagement
with the race discourse in America.

That's next time on Society Builders.

Society Builders pave the way, to a better
world, to a better day. A united approach to

building a new society.

There's a crisis facing inhumanity.

People suffer from a lack of

unity, it's time for a brand new path to new society.

Join the conversation, for Social transformation. Society Builders.

So engage with your local communities
and explore all the exciting possibilities.

We can elevate the atmosphere in
which we move. The paradigm is shifting.

It's so very uplifting.

It's a new beat, a new song, a brand groove.

Join the conversation, for

Social Transformation. Society builder,

The Baha'i Faith has a lot to say, helping
people discover a better way with discourse

and social action framed by unity.

Now the time has come to lift our

game and apply the teachings of the Greatest Name.
And rise to meet the glory of our destiny.

Send us your comments at info@societybuilders.com © Duane Varan 2022