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Reverend J. Josiah Walters

“The Binghamton audience may not be ready to accept the doctrine Senator Tillman will advance,” according to the Binghamton Press on February 10, 1908. The newspaper did not need to name or identify the “doctrine”—virulent racism- because it preceded and followed the Senator wherever he traveled. Later that evening, his values of hatred and disdain would be presented in such detail that it spurred one resident to take a public stance and refute Tillman’s Jim Crow values. That person was the community’s new A. M. E. Pastor, and his response was a pastoral protest. He was ordained in 1905, and his name was J. Josiah Walters. He was the young pastor of a nearly 80-year-old church in a small city in the Southern Tier of New York on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

Senator Benjamin Tillman was a guest orator for the city’s annual Winter Chautauqua held in the Centenary Church, and he was the most polarizing guest speaker ever to be invited. In fact, his usual two-hour oration, entitled “The Race Problem from a Southern Point of View,” hints at the divisiveness he promoted. As he spoke, he emphasized his epitaphs and crude insults which had earned him the nickname “Pitchfork Ben.” For example, The Press on February 11 reported that he incorporated one of the most infamous and common assertions in his speech—that the Negro is but “slightly removed from the baboon.” At another point, he discussed the alleged problem of “nigger children” in integrated schools, according to Binghamton’s Broome Republican on February 11. While many in the audience cheered, anger compelled some members to walk out, giving Tillman a dose of silent contempt. In the aftermath, the need for truth prompted Reverend Walters to carry out a personal response usually called faith in action.

Walter’s powerful letter-to-the-editor of almost 5000 words appeared in The Press a few days later in the February 15th issue. Although he was not in attendance to hear the Senator’s “Tillmanic Tirade,” as he called it in the letter, he had read the coverage carefully in both local papers, thereby gaining more than the gist of the address, which was vituperative and profane. His decisive two-part analysis proved to be successful. First, he would critique the speech’s falsehoods to pinpoint inconsistencies and faulty conclusions, and second, he would review the address based on Scripture. This dual approach proved to be masterful.

Walters’ opening set the tone of the letter….” it is high time that the Tillmanic hitherto barren crusade against the American negro end….it manifests failures at every stage.” Just as cogent, he alluded to the role of the Divine in silencing perpetrators like the Senator who “pursue and persevere until militant circumstances, divine and otherwise, compel a sad and irreparable collapse” of hatred and prejudice. Tillman was bound to meet failure in his attempts to “alter the unalterable purposes of God relative to the race at issue.” As the letter reaches its closure, the author incorporates Biblical references to deflate “Pitchfork Ben’s” erroneous view “of the race problem.” He specifically drew attention to Gamaliel, and Balaam, to censure Tillman. In the end, he invited the Senator to study “something very important” in Proverbs, xxxvi, 4-5. Research has not determined if Tillman did this.

In 1908, Pastor J. Josiah Walters was a special beacon of light in Binghamton. A United States Senator presented an address based on racism that Walters repudiated with Christian thought and theology.

This article was originally published on 6/27/22 on

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