Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Roots of Dr. Louise Branscomb, MD’s Radical Embodiment of a Vision for Social Justice

This is a paper that I presented at the 2012 North Alabama Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s Louise Branscomb Barrier Breaker Award Breakfast. I want to thank Dr. Norma T. Mitchel and her daughter, Ann Virginia Mitchel, for the extensive interviews they recorded with Dr. Louise Branscomb that began in 1980.  Much of the detail that I share here came from those interviews.  I obtained that information from an hour and a half phone conversion with Dr. Norma Mitchel on May 18, 2012. I also served as Dr. Louise Branscomb’s pastor for nine years from 1984 to 1993 at the McCoy United Methodist Church.  That experience is also reflected in my comments.   I take full responsibility for how I used the information to interpret the roots of Dr. Louise Branscomb’s radical commitment to social justice.

The Roots of Dr. Louise Branscomb, MD’s Radical Embodiment of a Vision for Social Justice

Text: Isaiah 6:8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me’.”

We have lived with slavery; Jim Crow, the legalized segregation of the races; racism, the systematic oppression of all people of color; patriarchy, the oppression of women and children; and the rich living off the backs of the poor. These are past and current realities that have existed and still exist with the strong historic and current sanction of religion. However the biblical witness clearly declares that these realities are not the will of God. Prophets and prophetess across the ages; Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingham, John Wesley, Richard Allen, Martin Luther King Jr., Louise Branscomb and many others have spoken out for justice and peace in the face of these realities.

Standing against these historic forms of oppression to build beloved community for all people is the great work of God. So I want to take a few moments this morning to identify the roots of a radical social justice vision of the 20th-century prophetess, Dr. Louise Branscomb, who was one who stood with the biblical and faithful witness across the centuries.  She was born in 1901, the same year the white southern redeemers in Montgomery, Alabama, illegally made Jim Crow segregation the law of Alabama by creating the 1901 racist/classist constitution that was passed and implemented with voter fraud and hate. Knowing the roots of her strength for racial and social justice can empower our faithful witness today.

The 1901 Constitution was conceived and fraudulently passed in Alabama to end the populists movement of the late 19th Century.  Until 1901 Alabama had one of the most progressive constitutions of any state in the South. When the populist movement was developing under that progressive constitution, it was threatening to take power from the white southern redeemers. The big land owners, bankers, industrialists, railroad men, and merchants passed the 1901 Constitution to kill the populists movement and sustain their political control of Alabama.

The white male southern redeemers, all men, were supported by the Methodist Episcopal Church South who had to kill the antislavery and universal love message of John Wesley and keep Jesus in the grave so their bishops could own slaves.  However the universal social holiness message of John Wesley, who fought slavery until his death bed and who started red, white and black churches in America, was not completely dead. It was alive in Southern Christian Progressivism. Louise Branscomb was born into a Methodist family where this progressivism still lived with strength.

Louise Branscomb was born in 1901 in the parsonage of the St. John Methodist Episcopal Church South, in Birmingham, Alabama in the midst of a tornado.  Her parents were the Reverend Lewis Branscomb and Minnie Vaughn Capers Branscomb.  Louise and Jim Crow were born the same year.

So how was it that Louise Branscomb was not influenced by the white southern redeemers, but followed the social justice vision of the biblical prophets, Jesus and John Wesley?

The roots of Dr. Branscomb’s embodiment of a vision of social justice are four fold:

1.       Southern Christian Progressivism which was very much alive at the end of the 19th Century

2.       Her experience of helplessness as a child of 10 and as a young female doctor in Birmingham in the 1920’s and 30’s

3.       The Weslyan Service Guild, a predecessor organization of the United Methodist Women

4.       Her commitment to a life style that provided time and resources for the embodiment of her vision.

The first influence of her radical social justice vision was the Southern Christian Progressivism in her family. Dr. Louise’s momma, Minnie McGee Capers Branscomb in 1886 wrote her High School Senior Paper entitled, “What I Would Do If I Were Mayor of Birmingham.” This was an extremely radical theme in a time when women could not vote, much less hold public office.   Her paper included concerns for clean water, quality public transportation and an egalitarian vision that is still expressed in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church today. I am sure you can feel the power and influence that Minnie McGee had on her first born daughter.

Louise’s daddy was an elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church South; he did not support the Klu Klux Klan.  The KKK and the white southern redeemers held a common agenda of white male supreamacy.  Some Klan members finally talked him into going to a KKK meeting. At the meeting they asked him to pray.  He turned them down, because as he said, “He did not want God to know he was at a Klan meeting.”

Rev. Louis Branscomb was hesitant at first in supporting women’s suffrage; but while watching a women’s suffrage march on the streets of Birmingham he observed a middle aged white man that was drunk shouting obscenities at the women. He commented later that when he saw that ugly white man that could vote, there should not be anything in the way of those disciplined, informed, dignified women having their right to vote; so he joined the march with the women for their right to vote.

You get the picture. Louise’s parents were Southern Christian Progressives.  Much more should be said about them but they were clearly a primary root of Dr. Louise’s radical social justice vision. 

Southern Christian Progressivism is our life root also as North Alabama COSROW members and if you don’t know it you need to tap into it.

The second root of Dr. Louise’s radical social vision was her experience as a child of 10 years old, and her experience as a young female doctor in Birmingham in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

When she was ten, Louise was in the home of one of her girlfriends. Her friend’s daddy wanted her girlfriend to take a bath. He had filled the tub with water, but the little girl would not cooperate with her father.  She kept running around the house playing and giggling.  The father grabbed up the little girl, held her and forced her under the water in the bath tub with Louise watching.  The father held her under the water until Louise knew she was drowning to death.  Louise was overwhelmed with her weakness in the face of such power and lack of her own power to respond to her friend’s powerlessness.

At that moment, Louise declared to herself that when she grew up she would make herself strong enough to stand with the victims.

We know Louise graduated from Johns-Hopkins University with a medical degree in the 1920’s and came back to practice medicine as an OB-GYN in Birmingham.  She was the only female OB-GYN in Birmingham and there were only two other female doctors in Birmingham at the time. She practiced medicine at Hillman Hospital and started prescribing birth control for women.  The white male doctors there made her quit.  She finally got permission to start prescribing birth control again but she had to do it under the table. One of her nurses blew her cover and she had to quit again. 

Then she started practicing in the birth control clinics in Birmingham.  Guess who came to the birth control clinics in Birmingham?  The poor, women black and white, came.  The poor women brought their children. Louise went to their homes and found the squalor, poverty, hunger and slum housing.  So Louise tried to organize the white male doctors to do something about the slum conditions.  Well guess who owned the slum housing?  The white male doctors!

Do you know the poor women, black and white, in Birmingham today?  Alabama has more poor women today than in the 20’s and 30’s.  When you do get to know them, will you also declare with Louise that when you grow up you will be strong enough to stand with the victims?

The third root of Louise Branscomb’s radical commitment to social justice came on her return from fighting fascism in World War II in North Africa in 1945.  She became involved with the Methodist Church again.  The place she connected to was the Wesleyan Service Guild, the working women’s organization that was part of the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, a predecessor organization of the United Methodist Women.  She became the national president of the Wesleyan Service Guild.  In the 1950’s at a national gathering she had her first ever African-American roommate.  Iintegration and racial inclusiveness was not the major influence she received from the Wesleyan Service Guild. The most significant influence of the Wesleyan Service Guild was that they taught her to think systematically.  They taught her that the central focus of religion is justice not charity.  They taught her that unjust systems keep people poor, oppressed, sick and violent.  Poor people need justice not charity.  She learned that justice is access to resources and relationships that people need to have a meaningful and whole life.   Justice changes oppressive systems.  Religion as charity maintains the status quo.  The White Male Southern Redeemers that created Jim Crow and wrote and illegally passed the 1901 Constitution in Alabama were very religious men but they saw religion as charity.  The Wesleyan Service Guild taught Louise to understand how these oppressive systems create and sustain poverty and human suffering.

Today we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women.  COSROW continues to teach what Dr. Louise learned from the Wesleyan Service Guild and the United Methodist Women.  These are out roots! Get connected! Build the strength to stand with the victims. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God!

The fourth root of Louise’s ability to embody her radical social justice vision was her choice of lifestyle.  She chose not to marry.  She dropped the OB, delivering babies.  That was an unscheduled, all time work and she had to practice alone because no male doctor would partner with her.  She chose to be a gynecological surgeon, a medical work that could be scheduled to give her the time for her justice and social change work.

She also chose to live a frugal life style so that she could give 30% of her income to the Church and justice agencies.  She invested the rest of her income to become a philanthropist.  As a result she gave millions of dollars to justice causes. 

We need to tap into this root of radical stewardship that supports a radical vision of social justice.

We can hear Louise Branscomb saying with the prophet Isaiah, “Woe is me! I am lost; I am a person of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips! Yet my eyes have seen the Lord of Host! Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said; ‘Now this has touched your lips, your guilt is gone and your sin blotted out.’  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” and  Dr. Louise said, “Here I am send me.”


Presented at the 2012 North Alabama Conference, Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s Louise Branscomb Award Breakfast, Birmingham Southern College, Norton Student Center, Saturday, June 2, 2012 by The Reverend Doctor R. Lawton Higgs, Sr.


RLH 8/28/12



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