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The Mandate of Justice: Woke a Hundred Years Ago

Janet Ruhe-Schoen | Sep 23, 2020

PART 1 IN SERIES The Wisdom of Louis Gregory Fighter for Racial Justice

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Janet Ruhe-Schoen | Sep 23, 2020

PART 1 IN SERIES The Wisdom of Louis Gregory Fighter for Racial Justice

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Louis George Gregory (1874-1951) was an African-American attorney, the son and grandson of slaves, and a dedicated champion of justice who devoted his life to the Baha’i principle of the oneness of humanity.

In the early years of the 20th century Louis abandoned four successful endeavors – his Washington DC law practice, his real estate business, his prestigious job at the U.S. Treasury Department, and his elite position among the black intelligentsia – to become an activist in the Baha’i cause of creating amity among diverse people. Louis wrote:

Louis Gregory

Earth and air, fire and water, the stars in their courses, the high tide of destiny and the Will of divine Providence are all arrayed against the forces of oppression.

Louis, born during the hell of the Reconstruction Era, had a tragic childhood. His father died when Louis was four. His mother and his older brother Theodore also died before Louis became an adult. In Elsie Austin’s biographical sketch about Louis, Above All Barriers, she wrote:

The eager happy adventure of his childhood was marred by violence and hate when, on one terrible night, a hate inspired mob of white men seized and lynched his grandfather. The bitterness and distortion which might have developed from this experience were deflected by the prayers and teaching of his grandmother, whose life was miraculously spared by the mob.

On August 22, 1904, The Washington Post published a letter from Louis saying he had also witnessed a “lynching bee” in Nashville, Tennessee during the time he attended Fisk University there in 1891.

Embracing the oneness of humanity at a time when white supremacy had majority approval in the U.S., and Jim Crow had become a social institution and the law of the land in many places, Louis forsook the rage and alienation he could easily have felt to identify himself as a Baha’i and a world citizen. He accepted into his heart the gift of justice, making the virtue of justice the cornerstone of his character, as the Baha’i teachings advise:

O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

Elsie Austin, an African American attorney from Cincinnati, Ohio, was a generation or two younger than Louis — he liked to be called by his first name because he said it made him feel young — and she followed in his footsteps in many ways, championing oneness and justice, forging bonds of amity in the U.S., Africa, and on the global stage.

Helen Elsie Austin

From her own personal experiences and through knowing and working with Louis, she understood his struggles better than most. In Above all Barriers, a brief biography of him she wrote shortly after he died, Elsie Austin said:

Some men falter when they perceive the summons of a Divine Truth. Some men avoid or defer the moment of complete dedication, fearing its price. But others, knowing when they have found the highest altar of life, and felt “the Spirit’s Breath,” place all they are and hope to be upon its altar with a love which banishes reluctance and fear. 

Such a man was Louis Gregory. 

Who can estimate the inward victory which he achieved? 

Surrounded by the beckonings of material achievement, torn by the need for leadership among his own people, stirred by the groundswell of their rising protest against the discrimination and injustice that dogged their lives, and pressured by the demands and duties of his chosen profession and the ambitious course he had chartered for his life, Louis turned his heart to Baha’u’llah, Prophet of a rising World Faith; he made that great choice which took him from a world of blackness or whiteness into a realm for all humanity. 

Charles Wragg, a white Baha’i from Australia who traveled and taught with Louis in the Deep South in 1933, described his responses to “the abrasive reactions” they sometimes received, not only from white people but from African Americans as well: 

On such occasions, his facial expressions were most illuminative, changing quickly from… great anguish to a completely passive inward look, as though searching his innermost being and beyond for a solution to a change in the relationship. 

This was his invariable reaction to difficulties and problems. I never saw him show anger, impatience or resentment, always it seemed to be an expression of earnest self-searching and seeking for guidance beyond self-identity. 

I imagine this was the reason why ‘Abdu’l-Baha said of him, ‘He is like pure gold.’” – Champions of Oneness.

The anguish that Wragg read in his friend’s face was wrenching and deep. Louis’ niece, also a Baha’i, wasn’t shy about sharing with friends her perception of his suffering at the prejudicial treatment he received, not just outside the Baha’i community, but sometimes within it. The prejudice within it hurt the most. Along with his wife, Louisa, his niece was probably one of the few intimates to whom he revealed glimpses of the anger and pain he had to tame. What iron discipline and faith it took to overcome that anger and pain, only God knows. But Louis Gregory called it “the joy of over-coming:”

The work of overcoming is full of hope, and adds immeasurably to the joy of life. The efforts are highly inspirational to the youth in life’s green spring; and to the aged they disclose the fountain of perpetual youth, another name for divine happiness. – Ibid.

To overcome insult, mistreatment and rejection, Louis employed empathy, even if it had to be informed empathy – which meant using his intellect and the detachment born of his independent eye, the eye of justice, to quiet his personal reactions. With just vision, with informed empathy and prayer, he could not only quiet, but train his reactions to be those of a peace-maker, a creator of amity. Thus he won freedom of spirit.

At the end of his life, with the richness of experience, he wrote to an African-American friend who was upset with some small-minded white Baha’is: 

We must give people credit for their sincerity, however much their views may clash with ours. The Faith if adhered to will inevitably train people out of their prejudices and insularities of thought. Oftimes those most prejudiced go farthest to the other extreme when they discover the Spirit of Baha’u’llah. – quoted by Gayle Morrison in To Move the World.

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