During the 1950s and 1960s, Rev. Marvin C. Griffin strove to bring the Christian gospel to bear upon the civil rights struggle in Waco. As minister of New Hope Baptist Church from 1951 to 1969, Reverend Griffin preached a message of spiritual vitality and social action, advocating for racial equality during a period of heightened tensions among Waco’s white, black, and Hispanic communities. Griffin’s unswerving emphasis on racial justice and reconciliation established him as a respected leader throughout Central Texas.
The future minister was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1923 and, after several years in Oklahoma, spent his later childhood and adolescence in Dallas, Texas. Like many African American families in their community, the Griffin family suffered the effects of race-based inequality. The scarcity of Depression-era jobs for black men meant that Griffin’s mother supported the family on wages from her job as housekeeper in a white home. The young Griffin, however, felt called to become a preacher and exhibited academic promise at an early age.
After high school, Griffin entered Bishop College—at that time the only Texas institution offering a degree in religion to African American students. There he met Lois King, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he would serve churches and communities throughout Texas for over six decades. After graduating from Bishop in 1943, Griffin earned a bachelor of divinity in theology from the famed Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin’s emphasis on the social implications of the Christian message shaped Griffin’s approach to civil rights in the years to come. Griffin graduated from Oberlin in 1947 and soon took a position as director of city missions for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board in Dallas, Texas. There, the young graduate worked with people in need from white and black neighborhoods alike. In this way, Griffin’s diverse childhood, educational, and professional experiences allowed him to cultivate relationships across racial and economic lines.
In 1951, Waco’s New Hope Baptist Church invited Griffin to fill in as interim pastor when its own minister, Dr. Joseph Newton Jenkins, fell ill. This temporary position became permanent when Jenkins passed away, and the twenty-seven-year-old seminary graduate found himself the pastor of one of Waco’s oldest and most prominent African American churches. The young minister took to the position quickly, however, pioneering a radio ministry and citywide transportation system to the church on Sunday. All the while, Griffin devoted himself to theological study; in 1955 he became the first African American to receive a master of religious education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Griffin also brought a renewed emphasis on the social resonances of the Christian gospel, preaching the importance of advocating for justice in the wake of pervasive racial discrimination. In Waco, the new pastor entered an environment in which white hostility was prevalent and in which local blacks were hesitant to confront racial divides for fear that their jobs, social standing, and physical safety might be jeopardized.
Their fears were not unfounded. When initial efforts to integrate Waco schools following the Brown v. Board of Education decision were stymied by public backlash, it appeared that the desegregation project had reached a standstill. White leaders took no initiative toward implementing the federal ruling, and area blacks balked at taking any serious form of action. For the remainder of the decade, little progress was made in the dismantling of legalized segregation.
Thanks to leaders such as Marvin Griffin, the tide began to turn during the 1960s, bringing about an integration that proved far more peaceful—albeit far more gradual—than many cities in the South. As the nationwide struggle for civil rights grew more visible and more tumultuous, Waco minorities became increasingly vocal in their calls for desegregation and equal access to employment. Leading white Chamber of Commerce members—dubbed “The Committee of Fifty”—were anxious to avoid the protests, sit-ins, and violence plaguing much of the South. When the committee expressed the desire to cooperate with Waco’s black community leaders in desegregating the city at long last, Marvin Griffin set to work forming a council comprised of seven prominent African American men and women. With Griffin as its chairman, the council sought input from all corners of Waco’s black population to formulate a list of the most pressing racial issues to be remedied. These included public accommodations, the use of recreational facilities, access to jobs, and representation on boards and commissions.
The Committee of Fifty proved open to cooperation. It and Griffin’s council were careful, however, to keep their deliberations secret, lest they arouse anger from the white community. Thus, in 1961, they privately crafted a plan for the gradual and quiet desegregation of Waco businesses, cooperating with journalists to ensure that the press would refrain from reporting on the committee’s existence and the instances of desegregation that followed. Facility by facility, the group worked with business owners and the designated African American citizens—often Griffin and the members of his council—who would patronize each establishment. By means of enforcement, several members of the committee threatened to fire employees who did not carry out the new policy of desegregation. By 1963, popular Waco eating establishments, hospitals, and department stores had desegregated in this manner. Additionally, Baylor president Abner McCall—a member of the Committee of Fifty—began to take steps in the desegregation of Baylor University, which was finally desegregated in 1964.
Public desegregation, however, was only the first step in a long and arduous road toward a more racially equitable society. Accordingly, Griffin remained unwavering in his advocacy for Waco’s black community even after this initial wave of desegregation. The pastor worked to secure job opportunities for Waco’s African American citizens, and he also continued to fight for the desegregation of the Waco Independent School District, which would ultimately desegregate by federal court order in the early 1970s. Griffin also continued to facilitate racial reconciliation in local churches as well, exchanging pulpits with white preachers such as Rhea Gray and holding interracial book clubs in homes to facilitate productive dialogue on issues of race. In the political sphere, Griffin worked to expand black voter registration and galvanized his congregation and others into a politically active community.
In 1969, Griffin accepted an offer to become pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Austin, Texas—a position in which he served until his retirement on July 31, 2011. Here the twin goals of Christian faithfulness and social action remained paramount in Griffin’s ministry. In 1998, the pastor spearheaded the creation of the East Austin Economic Development Corporation, which offered crucial services to underprivileged populations. The spiritual and social leader continued to advance in learning and education even in latter decades of his career; in 1990, Griffin received his doctor of ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Throughout his long and storied life, Griffin never wavered in his insistence that the Christian message was inseparable from the issue of racial justice and community involvement, and he continued to encourage Christian faithfulness and social activism among his congregants at Ebenezer.