J. Phillips Noble, a civil rights activist who helped guide the Board of Pensions after reunion, dies at age 100

Like Moses, his life was ‘taken up in a struggle for the things of God’

by Board of Pensions | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. James Phillips “Phil” Noble

PHILADELPHIA — The Rev. James Phillips Noble, a distinguished Presbyterian minister and civil rights activist who helped guide The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through the Presbyterian reunion, died March 12, 2022, in Decatur, Georgia. He was 100 years old.

In 1982, Noble moved to Decatur to serve as Executive Secretary of the Board of Annuities and Relief of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). After the reunion of the PCUS and United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), the annuities and relief board and the UPCUSA pensions board became The Board of Pensions of the PC(USA).

Noble served as Co-President of the Board of Pensions from 1986-1989. With humbleness and grace, he helped bridge cultural differences that lingered when the Church reunited more than 100 years after a bitter breakup over slavery. A child of rural Mississippi, the minister knew well the hold of Southern culture.

“Southern culture and society was what I breathed and lived,” Noble wrote in his book “Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town.” “It was not that I accepted or rejected it.” He recognized the effects of “having lived as long as I had in the segregated culture, breathing in its attitudes,” during the early 1960s when he joined the Board of Directors of Stillman College, a historically Black college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, affiliated with the PC(USA).

Noble was transformed by the violence against Black people he witnessed in the 1960s, becoming one of the first white leaders in Anniston, Alabama, to actively support desegregation. “The Christian faith required that we deal with these issues in the name of Christ, for the sake of a people who had suffered unjustly for too long,” he wrote in “Beyond the Burning Bus.”

It was nearly a half-century before Noble was able to sit down to chronicle the Ku Klux Klan firebombing of a Freedom Riders bus in 1961 and the effect it had on Anniston, and on him. After serving Anniston’s First Presbyterian Church (1956-1971), Noble studied for a year at Cambridge University, England, and then became minister at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, in Charleston, South Carolina (1972-1982).

Dr. Walter Brueggemann, the prominent Old Testament scholar, likened Noble to “Moses and his ilk” — people whose lives were suddenly “taken up in a struggle for the things of God.” Noble was “front and center in the struggle for racial justice, a struggle he pursued with grace, wisdom, and passion,” Brueggemann wrote in praising “Beyond the Burning Bus.”

Noble was born the eighth of nine children on a farm outside the small town of Learned, Mississippi. His mother, Ida Pecquet Phillips, died when he was 2½ and his father, William Alexander Noble, who had already been widowed twice, raised the children. At 14, Noble said “yes” to God, according to his family, who reported that he had shown them the pew at Lebanon Presbyterian Church where it took place.

After graduating from King College (now King University) in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1942 with a Bachelor of Arts, Noble earned a Master of Divinity in 1945 from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, where he later served 26 years on the Board of Trustees. He married Betty Pope “Popesy” Scott, whose great-great-grandmother was the namesake of Agnes Scott College, a PC(USA)-affiliated women’s college in Decatur.

The couple served first at two churches in McDonough, Georgia — McDonough Presbyterian Church and Timberridge Presbyterian Church (1945-47) — and then at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina (1947-1956). They arrived in Anniston about five years before the KKK firebombed the Freedom Riders bus on Mother’s Day 1961.

A year or two after the firebombing, two Black ministers were searching Anniston for what one would later describe as “some brave white soul” they could talk to about the barriers facing Black people in the town. One white minister after another refused to sit down with them — until Noble invited them to his office at First Presbyterian.

The three men prayed together. They cried together. And the Rev. Nimrod Q. Reynolds of Seventeenth Street Baptist Church and the Rev. William McClain of Haven Chapel Methodist Church believed they had found the “one white Christian in Anniston.”

Revs. Noble, Reynolds and McClain are credited with launching desegregation in Anniston. They helped bring about a merger of the white and Black ministerial associations, eventually wielding enough influence to persuade the city in May 1963 to create the biracial Human Relations Council. President John F. Kennedy praised the action in a letter to city commissioners, saying the Anniston council should serve as a model for other cities.

When Noble left Anniston in 1971, the city passed a resolution honoring him. It was drafted by Dr. Gordon Rodgers Jr., the first Black person to serve on the city’s governing board, who wrote that the minister had “the great faculty for bringing out the best in all of us.” The same year, Noble received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College.

During his ministry in Anniston, Noble and his wife lost their 13-year-old son, Milton Scott Noble, to leukemia. A prolific writer, the minister penned his second book, “Getting Beyond Tragedy,” about the loss. He later published a third, “Words and Images that Seep into the Soul,” about finding a new perspective or renewed hope after times of great stress, and a book of quotations, “Words the Stretch the Mind and Lift the Spirit.”

A service for Noble will be held at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, April 11, at Decatur Presbyterian Church, 205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, Georgia.

The Board of Pensions supports wholeness in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) community and care for Benefits Plan members. For information, contact info@pensions.org.

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