It was about three years ago, while attending a conference at Green Acre Bahá‘í School in Eliot, Maine, that I had the bounty of making a sunrise pilgrimage to the burial site of Louis Gregory, Hand of the Cause of Bahá‘u’lláh. At the time I knew little about him — that he was an early African-American adherent of the Bahá‘í Faith, a fantastic and tireless teacher, well-loved by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and thanks to the Master’s encouragement, one-half of perhaps the first black/white Bahá‘í marriage in the U.S.
I paid my respects as the sun rose on a chilly November morning, illuminating the lovely gravestone even as the Bahá‘í teachings illuminated Gregory’s visage. The skeptic in me knows not whether my prayers and reflections that morning had any effect beyond providing a reference point for a lasting sense of serenity — and yet my spirit cares not. Moved as I was, it makes no difference whether the invocation of divine grace dissipated in synapses or radiated into the Eternal.
Soon after returning I knew that I must learn more about this lion of racial reconciliation. At last, this past Autumn I began reading To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America. Though interrupted by my first true Pilgrimage, I returned from time to time to finish. Being both a biography and a history, this book presents remarkable insights on the man and the mission, shedding light on the racial challenges, the many crises faced, and victories won by the American Bahá‘ís between the period of around 1909 to 1951. The author’s research was meticulous, with copious citations to published works and to letters housed in private collections.
While ferrying other youth from the Kingdom Conference in Milwaukee to a teaching project in Austin (2001), we stayed for a night in northwestern Arkansas. The late night venture from southern Missouri into the Ozarks was extremely taxing and, on the twisting two-lane highways, rather harrowing. Despite the road weariness, a morning conversation with a local has stuck with me ever since. He, who is white, remarked how the American Bahá‘ís in the 20s and 30s had blown it with respect to racial reconciliation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi both had challenged the American believers to overcome their prejudices, welcoming and inviting all. But, in this man’s opinion, the Bahá‘ís had failed, and the whole world was facing the consequences.
To Move the World does not take such a harsh tone and dim outlook — but it does make plain the real struggles to embrace the concept of “oneness of humanity” and realize its deep implications. Although some steps were taken in the Bahá‘í communities, nationally and locally, the setbacks and slow progress are so evident that it would be easy, and perhaps appropriate, to interpret this as a history of failure. Nevertheless, the book makes clear that Gregory persevered, and that the Advent of Divine Justice, among other letters from the Guardian, did prompt real changes. The guidance from Haifa provided the impetus and sustenance for the work of Gregory, and others on the various “race unity” and teaching committees, to operate on those around them, driving feedback cycles that led to more and more integrated communities and real love and respect between black and white Bahá‘ís.
Nearly sixty years have passed since Gregory’s death. The anecdotal evidence suggests that substantial work remains to be done in the quest for spiritual and material equality. I have been in gatherings dominated by whites and a few dominated by blacks, but beyond large-scale meetings, I can think of none in my own experience that were representative of a diverse and well-integrated community. Indeed, the Universal House of Justice in its recent guidance to the Bahá‘ís of the World reminds us of the imperative of moving beyond good intentions, actively striving to create true unity in our midst. We would do well to study from the history of race unity efforts in America, learning from the mistakes but also standing on the shoulder of its giants — of whom none can raise us higher than Louis G. Gregory.