What Can We Learn from Pauli Murray?

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in Pauli Murray, the black civil rights and women’s rights activist. Patricia Bell-Scott’s portrait of Murray’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was published in 2016. Rosalind Rosenberg’s exquisitely detailed biography came out in 2017. A new edition of her memoir was republished in 2018. Last year yet another scholarly biography came out. A major documentary of Murray’s life premiered this year.

Murray appeals to us now for many of the same reasons she faced marginalization during her life. A black woman who recognized early on how race and sex were interlocking forms of oppression–Jane Crow, she called it–Murray was an unsung influence in both the civil rights and women’s movements. Not only that, her long struggle with her own gender identity and sexuality strikes a chord with us now.

“I will resist every attempt to categorize me,” she wrote in 1945. Readers must have thought she was just talking about race. Her private struggle to come to terms with her sense of herself as a man in a female body make her words more poignant than readers could have known at the time. Had she been born a century later, perhaps Murray would have identified as a transgender man. (What pronouns we ought to use when referring to Murray is a matter of some controversy). In her own time, such categories didn’t exist. Even if they had, perhaps Murray would still have said, “I will resist every attempt to categorize me.”

If the reactions of the students in my Black Politics and Black Power course are any indication, Murray’s ethos speaks powerfully to young people today. We read her 1945 piece, “An American Credo” in class.

Many of the students were enthralled. What can activists today learn from Murray’s “American Credo”? It’s one snapshot in time and doesn’t do justice to the totality of Murray’s thought and the way she changed over time, but here are three takeaways.

Claim America for yourself

It is fashionable today to point out America’s hypocrisy and injustice. Drawing on the black nationalist tradition and other radical movements, some activists describe the United States as a place that never has been and probably never will be a home for black people. These activists draw on a venerable tradition stretching back to Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey, and many others. Activists in this tradition have often been prophets in the wilderness speaking the hard truths the powerful do not want to hear.

But for those who want to change this country rather than make a new one, there are costs to ceding home field advantage to the racists. (In some cases, this cession has been shamefully explicit: witness Marcus Garvey’s attempted rapprochement with the Ku Klux Klan). Most Americans consider themselves patriotic and have deeply felt attachments to the land of their birth. This patriotism might be even more deeply felt among many black Americans, who have long had a love-hate relationship with the country they have done so much to build. Not for nothing have black writers often described themselves as scorned lovers.

Those bonds of attachment ought to be leveraged for racial justice, not surrendered to the meanness of narrow nationalism. It is telling that a speech like Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852) is a touchstone in our moment while other Douglass speeches like “Our Composite Nationality” (1869) are little remembered. Historical context compels us to admit that the political economy of 1869–with slavery abolished and citizenship enshrined in the constitution–has more in common with our time than the slave society Douglass scorned in 1852. Yet Douglass’s audacious patriotism of 1869 is not in vogue today.

In “Our Composite Nationality” Douglass refused to cede America’s founding and its future to the forces of racism and reaction. Instead, he demanded and prophesied that America’s destiny was to be a home for all the peoples of the world where people of all races and creeds could live together in complete equality. Which Douglass was more radical? The outsider of 1844 exposing the nation’s empty promises and shallow pretensions? Or the insider of 1869 with the audacity to claim ownership of the nation’s meaning and bend its trajectory to his will?

Murray operated more in the mold of Douglass circa 1869 than 1852. “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind,” Murray wrote. “And though my country has not always loved me, yet in the words of the poet, Claude McKay, ‘I love this cultured hell which tests my strength.'”

Murray was not naive. She was not blind to the country’s failures. Instead, what we see here is a dogged insistence that America belongs to me. Its symbols and legends, its emotional resonance and power to inspire–they all are mine. I insist on defining America’s trajectory. “And so,” Murray declared, “with my feet rooted firmly in the moral precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and all the preachments of humanitarian tradition through the history of man, I take my stand against the institution of segregation and all of its incidents.”

Hold the moral high ground

The pull to get even, to give to your enemy what they deserve, is a basic human impulse. We all know it. In the humdrum of our daily lives, we’ve probably acted on this impulse more times than we’d care to remember. And in the history of societies and nations, this drive for revenge, the thirst to meet violence with violence, is part of the sad story of many cycles of war and hatred.

People who transcended this impulse are remembered as some of the great saints and sages of human history. And, in the 20th century, we remember political figures who combined this spiritual insight with a practical program of action that delivered tangible results for their people–Gandhi, King, Mandela. We can add Pauli Murray to their number.

Murray wrote that her struggle against segregation required “an individual revolution” in her thinking. “I cannot be rent asunder by harboring personal prejudices or racial resentments. I want to spend my time finding the common denominator of mankind, and prejudice or hatred is an emotional waste.” Murray understood that systems of oppression are always working to bring us down to their level. If I give free reign to my hatred and desire for revenge, if I look around me for scapegoats on which to vent my rage, I become spiritually and psychologically lost. Murray tried to remember that her oppressors were people, like her. “I seek to destroy an institution,” she wrote, “a disease–not a people.”

Oppression seeks to break human spirits. Resistance to it must always be spiritual (though, of course, not only spiritual). Murray took this spiritual imperative so far that it included “inviting the violence [of segregation] upon my own body. For what is life itself,” she asked, “without the freedom to walk proudly before God and man and to glorify creation through the genius of self-expression?”

Make your methods as noble as your goals

A common conceit of ideologues is that peace and justice will reign once they have gained power, but in the meantime some harsher methods are required. This isn’t how human beings or human societies work. We can’t turn off the hatreds we’ve unleashed like turning off water from the faucet. Those who desire a future of peace and justice must act in alignment with that vision now. The methods we use now are the methods we will continue to use if we gain power.

I’m reminded of one of Murray’s contemporaries, the civil rights activist Ella Baker. She was one of the best recruiters the NAACP ever had, but she resigned her post rather than submit to the top-down leadership style of the organization. She insisted that an organization struggling for a democratic society must itself be democratic. In a similar way, Murray did not agree with radicals who sought to overthrow segregation by any means necessary. For Murray, means and ends were organically connected.

“I do not intend to destroy segregation by physical force,” Murray wrote. Not only would that be wasteful of human life, it wouldn’t work. Instead, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”

In our era it sometimes seems that we’re drawing ever smaller circles. Murray shows us a better way.

A meditation from the Psalms

Katie Wright, the mother of Daunte Wright. Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune.

The Lord watches over black people,

his ears listen to their cries for help.

But it doesn’t feel like it! How long, oh Lord?

How long must my neighbors, students, and friends have sorrow in their hearts every day?

Look at them! Answer them!

Now!

The Lord’s face is set against white supremacy,

to eliminate even the memory of it from the earth.

When black people cry out, the Lord listens;

he delivers them from all their troubles.

My heart is broken in 1,000 pieces, a black mother said.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;

he saves those whose spirits are crushed.

I just need everyone to know that he is much more than this, a black mother said.

The righteous know this, but the wicked do not understand.

Only a little while longer, and the wicked will be cut off!

White people plot against the righteous,

But my Lord just laughs at them

because he knows that their day is coming.

Black people will inherit the land,

not one of their bones will be broken.

For Those Who Have Ears to Hear: Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism

Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

My dear white evangelical reader, this isn’t the winsome, Billy Graham-style evangelicalism you’ve heard so much about. This is Graham the nationalist, the fear-mongerer, the coward who cared more for respectability than justice.

Graham’s status in the white evangelical firmament is such that if you take him down, you’ve pretty much put out the lights entirely. Anthea Butler writes that Graham popularized a religion based on “fear of the other.” Sound unfair to you? Watch as Graham browbeats his audiences with the specter of nuclear holocaust, which would inevitably come within 5 years unless Jesus intervened. Watch as Graham harshly criticizes civil rights activists while ludicrously proclaiming, “you will never find a true born-again Christian who is a communist…” Read an article from a Black communist about the Jim Crow South and then do tell me who the Christians were.

It might seem fanciful to imagine Graham going down to Mississippi during Freedom Summer and getting his hands dirty, putting himself at Bob Moses’ direction, registering black voters, inviting his followers to help. Ok, yes, it definitely does seem fanciful, but take a moment to ponder that. Imagining a really productive white evangelical anti-racism is not a matter of slight reinterpretation. It’s like spinning the most wildly speculative fan fiction.

It is time, Butler suggests, for white evangelicals and the scholars who study them to stop making excuses for a movement that is obviously racist. Not incidentally or peripherally so, but at its core.

Butler, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has a personal history with white evangelicalism that gives this book a welcome edge. Nearly thirty years ago she thought she was an integral member of a major white evangelical church. Then one day the pastor’s own mother turned to her and welcomed her as if she hadn’t seen her before. Hi Generic Black Person, in our spaces you will always be an Evangelical In Name Only.

Butler has an ability to deliver insights in plain language that cuts through the excuses and obfuscations of scholars and laypeople alike. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” she writes. “On the other hand, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”

Is it pedantic to quibble with such flaying prose? I’ll risk it. Butler would be even closer to the mark if she put these two propositions in direct symbiosis rather than in tension. Souls being saved was the means by which people would be kept in their places. Later, in a scorching and necessary conclusion, Butler does suggest precisely this kind of dark synergy.

Butler is especially strong in her analysis of how people of color became key validators of white evangelicalism’s supposedly colorblind credentials in the decades after the civil rights movement. At the same time, they often faced an inexorable pull toward the whitewashing of their identities. Bend the knee to white evangelicalism’s racial and cultural codes, or else.

But wait a minute! It can’t be all bad, right? What about all the good stuff? Butler is up front about her decision to ignore the abolitionist evangelical tradition (which, as she notes, was not guiltless anyway) and focus on its more racist and southern-dominated version. This is any historian’s prerogative. After all, deliberately including some stories while excluding others is one definition of writing a book. But in this case there’s even more justification for her decision.

I think Butler understands that evangelicals may wield the abolitionist evangelical tradition as a shield (“look at the good our ancestors did!”) or forlornly appeal to it (here we find a few iconoclasts like Michael Gerson and Randall Balmer), but it is an inheritance that doesn’t actually belong to the vast majority of today’s evangelicals. Today’s evangelicalism descends from darker currents of the evangelical past. Why focus on a more progressive tradition that evangelicals cut themselves off from a long, long time ago?

Wait another minute. Are we getting caught up in the moment, telling one-note stories about how all evangelical roads lead to Trump? Is it so simple? Whether the Trump era was an unveiling of what was there all along or a story of the decline and fall of white evangelicalism is, to me, a difficult question. The headlines in White Evangelical Racism declare that this was an unveiling, but the fine print tells a more complex story. In the final chapter Butler does trace the causes and symptoms of a declension. Things may have always been bad, but then they got even worse.

Butler has given us a polemical synthesis. I suppose that for every page there is a specialist somewhere grinding her teeth. I had a few such moments myself. But the value of the book is in its clear-eyed call to stop making excuses for this destructive political religion we call evangelicalism. In a searing conclusion that you really must read, Butler speaks to any evangelical who still has ears to hear. It’s time to do something that evangelicals used to talk a lot about, but seem to have forgotten. It’s time to repent.

Three Highlights from How to Fight Racism

I’m reading Jemar Tisby’s new book, How to Fight Racism. I recommend it. It’s silly to write about the book before I’m quite done with it but I am getting excited and want to share some quick highlights. Here are three things I think Tisby does especially well.

–Moving past the racist/not racist dichotomy. Tisby reminds us we’re all on a journey. I like to tell people I think I’m a little less racist than I used to be. But it is absurd to suppose that I am not at all racist or that my actions are never racially harmful. How could I possibly grow up where and when I did, become socialized into whiteness, and not be racist? Tisby’s framing encourages us neither to despair nor feel self-righteous, but to move forward from whatever point we find ourselves.

Upon meeting me for the first time, a Black teenager once moved up close to me, looked me over, and asked, “Are you racist?” On one level, she was merely a rambunctious kid engaging in some deliberately provocative play. But on a deeper level she was very efficiently finding out crucial information about me. If I responded defensively or with anger, she would know I was not a safe adult and she should stay away. I don’t remember if I gave her “my less racist than I used to be” answer, but I do remember consciously letting go of any impulse to defend myself.

–Rejecting the personal/systemic false choice. A generation ago, there was a whole genre of Christian racial reconciliation books that said relationships were the key to racial progress. All too often, these books and their readers used this relationship focus as a weapon against structural critique. The liberals missed the point, they said. Systemic solutions didn’t deal with the human heart. Only relationships among Christians could create real racial progress.

Tisby rejects this simplistic prioritizing of the personal without losing sight of how important relationships are. He writes, “People need a personal motivation to disrupt the regular patterns of racism in their own lives and in society…It is difficult to pursue effective structural remedies to racism if you have little understanding of the personal experiences of marginalized people.” Instead of the personal and systemic being at odds, Tisby sees personal relationships as a way to galvanize system-level action while keeping that action rooted in the real experiences of ordinary people.

Tisby’s insistence that fighting racism is a both/and matter also carries a challenge for white liberals and leftists. If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the rote language of racial enlightenment, throwing around academic jargon with ideological inflexibility, then you know how important real relationships are. If you’ve seen white liberals imagining their own cities as a white archipelago surrounded by black and brown no-go zones, then you know how important personal action is. (On more than one occasion, people have “misheard” Alicia and I when we tell them where we live. It just doesn’t fit their mental map).

If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the language of pity, then you know how important real connections to black leaders are. Tisby insists that we shouldn’t just vote for people who might change systems. We can reject the narrow range of personal choices our segregated society tries to funnel us into. We can rethink where we send our kids to school, for example.

–Rejecting the politics of church primacy. You’ve heard this one before too: “The church is the only hope for racial progress. Only the gospel can change hearts.” This might be a plausible point of view coming from a radical Anabaptist envisioning an Acts 2 kind of primitive Christianity. But it reeks of excuses when it comes from mainstream American Christians who envision a role for the state in all sorts of important moral matters only to conspicuously assert the singular primacy of the church when it comes to race.

Tisby does not downplay the importance of the church at all. In fact, his chapter on doing reconciliation right is excellent on specific ways churches should take action to pursue racial justice. But he recognizes the rhetorical role defenses of the church can play in justifying inaction at the social and political level. If you think racial progress comes only through the church, you ought to explain how the church will level the racial wealth gap. While you’re at it, do tell how the church will abolish racist policing and end school segregation. Of course, no one actually has such a plan, because these problems extend so far beyond the church’s capacity. Too often, the rhetoric of church primacy is really just another way of saying that racial oppression isn’t a serious problem demanding a systemic response.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is so invested in the personal and ecclesial battle against racism, yet completely refuses to play the either/or game and give short shrift to systemic change. There is no contradiction between praying for a spiritual awakening for your hard-hearted friend to finally see the reality of racism, and at the same time pressuring institutions to pay reparations. They go hand in hand.

Tisby has a talent, I think, for meeting us where we are–wherever that may be–and challenging us to go a little further. This is a very good book.

What Did I Get Right and Wrong About The Trump Presidency?

What did I get right and wrong about the Trump Presidency? The answer cannot be left only to the vagaries of memory, so I recently looked over some of my old blog posts and social media from 2016.

The short answer: I’m pretty sure I thought it was going to be even worse than it was. I’m convinced this was the right way to be wrong. Details below.

On March 2, 2016, while Trump was battling for the Republican nomination, I wrote this:

In my judgment, all of this more or less came to pass. I offered no hard benchmarks here but my impression is that I envisioned an even more extreme degradation of our civic fabric than the one we’ve seen. I thought there would be more violence. The day before the election, I wrote this:

I feel very comfortable standing by these words. From Charlottesville to El Paso, we saw the consequences of the hateful climate Trump stirred up. Immediately after the 2016 election, I wrote a post on “What To Expect From A Trump Presidency.” Here’s a key bit:

In contrast to every other modern American president, Trump’s basic instincts are authoritarian. He does not believe in liberal democracy. He is a demagogue willing to stoke the most dangerous fault lines in our society in order to gain power for himself. We now must hope that his foolishness creates a presidency marked more by simple bungling than by a coherent plan of oppression….

So what should we expect from a Trump presidency? Start by assuming that Trump has generally been sincere and will try to govern roughly as he campaigned. He will continue to lie with impunity, and will seek to silence and bully the press to make his lies seem normal. He will continue to create a climate of hostility against nearly everyone who isn’t Christian, White, heterosexual, and male. Muslims and immigrants are likely to be targeted with special harshness.

Expect some moments of calm. Expect the media to tell us about Trump’s surprising moderation. But four years is a long time. If Trump doesn’t launch a proactive campaign of oppression beginning January 20, it is likely to be only a matter of time. It’s not that Trump will have a coherent plan to subdue the Republic. Indeed, probably his only clear plan so far is to arrange his affairs to allow maximum corruption and profiteering. This he has already begun to do. If nothing else, he and and his children intend to become very rich. But recall, again, that Trump’s instincts are authoritarian and demagogic. There are going to be crises, both foreign and domestic, during the next four years. Trump will not respond well to any of them. Trump’s mercurial and vindictive character will come through. And the thought of men like Bannon and Sessions whispering in Trump’s ear is not comforting.

It is possible things will somehow turn out more or less alright. But the more likely scenario is that we are entering a very dangerous time….

After all we’ve seen, it now seems quaint that I was so worried about Bannon and Sessions, but I think much of this has stood the test of time. I remember sitting at the dinner table before the inauguration shaking my head and saying, “People are going to die. People are going to die.” It felt surreal to know it was coming and to have so little power to alter events. If Trump never in four years found his way to a coherent plan to end American democracy, he did in the end try to do just that.

Combining my faulty memory with facebook posts from the time and these blog entries, it seems I imagined a presidency even more disastrous than the one we got. Specifically, I thought crackdowns on Muslims, immigrants, and BLM protests would be more deadly than they turned out to be. I thought that at some point Trump would start a war abroad to boost his standing at home. I also thought there was a high possibility of economic disaster. In short, I was an alarmist.

I’m glad I was. This was a much better way to be wrong than those who were constantly caught flatfooted throughout these crazy years, surprised by the latest thing Trump had done, or naive about how racist and anti-democratic his movement truly was. I’m glad I wrote posts like this one throughout these past four years, refusing to mince words about Trump’s violence and the threat of white racism. As powerful political forces attempted to destroy our ability to imagine a common morality and a common connectedness as beloved children of God, many of us looked evil in the eye and kept our integrity. I am grateful.

To be sure, alarmism can go too far. It must remain flexible, and above all tethered to reality. We can probably all think of people whose opposition to Trump seems to have become an unwitting instrument of self-degradation.

My alarmism is why I woke the morning of January 6th wondering how many people were going to die in Washington D.C. that day. I didn’t have any special insight. I just wasn’t trying to deny what’s been right in front of us all along.

Being somewhat wrong as an alarmist is preferable to the alternative not just because it gave me a better read on events. I argue we alarmists constrained this presidency. We knew how bad it could be, so we acted to stop it. Our activism was one of the factors that prevented the worst from coming true.

From the first week of the Trump presidency we were on the streets. We showed up at airports in massive numbers to protest the Muslim ban. That set a tone. The Women’s March set a tone too. Then we were on the streets in 2017 and 2018 to defend health care for the sick and to protect immigrants at the border. We voted in huge numbers in 2018 and gained the House. In 2020 we marched for BLM and overwhelmed the racist forces with the highest voter turnout in over a century.

The Trump administration tried to create a culture of impunity. We didn’t allow it. Words and character matter. The Constitution is worth preserving. These fundamentally conservative intuitions became the stuff of liberal resistance in the Trump era.

The most important thing I got more wrong than right is captured in my 2016 preview of the Trump presidency:

We must engage Trump supporters with undiminished love and decency. Love is resistance. We must be open-hearted, lacking bitterness or animosity. We cannot rely on the usual norms of respectability that help us be kind to each other. We must love not because Trumpism is reasonable, but because the people who have put their faith in it are human beings made by God, and are infinitely valuable. And so, too, are all the people Trumpism will hurt. In the dark era we are entering, affirming the sacred worth of every person we encounter is an act of resistance.

I was right to try to live up to this code; wrong in how often I failed. All too often, I was more invested in my self-righteousness than in practical efforts to help people Trump was hurting. Christians are called to love our enemies, not obsess over them! Too often, I was obsessed over my posture toward Trump supporters rather than focusing on being in solidarity with oppressed people. I was often closed-hearted and bitter, preoccupied with being right, leaving very little room left for love or practical action.

Awareness is wasted without action. Indeed, “It is a sin when someone knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it.” Too often, as I sat in self-absorption, this biblical rebuke could be leveled right at me.

But we can also be gentle with ourselves. My fellow alarmists, don’t be sheepish. Don’t doubt what you experienced and the pain it caused you. To live through moments of crisis is to be more fully aware of the frailty of the individual in the sweep of history. So often the public action I took was the leftovers—after the papers were written, the classes taught, the dinners made, the children put to bed. The biggest challenges of the era were not, after all, public. They were inside my own head and home.

I return again to one of my favorite apocryphal anecdotes. The little boy is learning about the civil rights struggle and asks, “Grandpa, were you in the Klan or the FBI?” (The boy didn’t have a clear grasp of who the good guys were but we’ll leave that to the side).

“Son,” his grandpa drawls, “I was just in Georgia.”

There is a welcome humility in recognizing that during this era of crisis, “I was just in Georgia.” And there’s a more positive spin we might put on this anecdote. The point of liberal democracy is precisely so that more of us can be “just in Georgia,” living simple lives at peace with ourselves and our neighbors, unburdened by the fear that our actions may be of great historical consequence.

When I think back on this era I will be glad for the times I was on the street marching with others, doing what little I could to link my fate with my neighbors. I will be glad for the small practical things I tried to do here and there. I won’t miss, and I regret, the time I wasted doomscrolling on twitter.

We’ve come through a dark time, and none of us can know with certainty whether the dawn or still greater darkness lies just ahead.

Lord, have mercy, and teach us to love with action.

African American Missionaries To Africa in the Age of Jim Crow: A Conversation with Kimberly D. Hill

I recently asked Kimberly D. Hill a few questions about her new book, A Higher Mission: The Careers of Alonzo and Althea Brown Edmiston in Central Africa.

What’s the argument of A Higher Mission?

My book argues that alumni of historically black colleges and universities transformed their academic preparation into innovative ministry strategies in central Africa. I trace several of these strategies to these American ministers’ interactions with local African villagers, church members, and students. These neighbors motivated missionaries to adjust their own plans to fit local interests and conditions.  The book focuses on a Fisk University graduate named Althea Brown and a Stillman seminary graduate named Alonzo Edmiston. They met in 1904 and married while serving with the American Presbyterian Congo Mission.

Most of the Edmistons’ three decades of joint ministry involved cooperation with a rare team of fellow African American Presbyterian missionaries. Only one of those missionaries has been the main subject of previous scholarly books: the Reverend William Henry Sheppard. The strategies of African American ministers were often overlooked or cut short due to overlapping pressures during colonization, the Jim Crow era, and the Great Depression. But those pressures did not extinguish these ministers’ goals, and evidence of their work remained apparent even after their lifetimes.

Could you talk more about those “overlapping pressures” you mentioned? To what extent do you see the Edmiston’s explicitly grappling with the in-betweenness of being African American missionaries in Africa in an age of white supremacy? Did they feel like they were walking a tightrope? Did they engage with the ideological currents of the time, such as Garveyism and pan-Africanism, or were these things far outside their orbit?

The specific history of the American Presbyterian Congo Mission inspired church members and observers to pay special attention to race relations among this group of Southern Presbyterians. After its 1891 founding by Sheppard and his white colleague, Samuel Lapsley, the Congo Mission staff included eleven African Americans by 1908. Robert Benedetto’s introduction to Presbyterian Reformers in Central Africa includes a section about the use of honorary titles and other signs of perceived racial integration among the missionaries, but Benedetto also details some of the lingering issues. Because Althea Brown and Alonzo Edmiston served the Congo Mission through the late 1930s, they observed major shifts in the ways that African American leaders were addressed by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and by European colonial governments. The Edmistons navigated shifting race-based travel restrictions that threatened to bar them from the trains and British ships that were part of typical travel between the US and the Congo. The Edmistons watched as most of their black colleagues were dismissed from missions service based on complaints about their actions, their demeanor, or their abilities. The Edmistons adjusted their own professional duties in order to avoid further accusations that their degrees from historically black academic institutions were insufficient.

Beyond their ministry tasks, the couple also felt compelled to suspend personal interests like their subscription to the Chicago Defender and their habit of following civil rights news updates. The Belgian government flagged the black press as a source of potential radicalism and occasional support for Marcus Garvey. This potential for surveillance was one reason that Alonzo Edmiston felt that it had become difficult by the mid-1930s to fulfill his ministerial purpose while maintaining his social and cultural connections within the United States.

What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?

Travel logistics posed the first hurdle for my research. Due to political complications abroad, I opted out of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo before completing A Higher Mission. That decision motivated me to visit additional archives in the U.S. South and investigate how historical developments in that region influenced African American missionaries living abroad. That shift in direction enriched my work for this book as well as my next project. 

Other significant questions were posed by the format of my archival sources. I wanted to represent the perspectives of the Edmistons’ African neighbors without relying exclusively on journals, letters, and articles written by Americans. I addressed this question by incorporating some of the significant texts in African theology. For my introduction to these texts, I must thank my colleagues in the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.  The book is dedicated to one of the group’s co-founders, Dr. Lamin Sanneh.

Why does this history matter now?

I’ll answer this question by referencing an article by my former Southern Oral History Program supervisor, Dr. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (UNC-Chapel Hill). In her March 2005 article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Hall argues that we must expand the perceived boundaries of when, where, and how the movement flourished. This expansion holds the key to recognition that reform remains possible in our lifetimes.

I see the potential for an expanded understanding of community responsibility through the study of early twentieth century African American missionaries, their academic institutions, and their domestic and international neighbors. Many of the people featured in my book helped each other survive famine, dire poverty, racial violence, political oppression, and the 1918 pandemic. I benefited from learning how they supported one another through difficult circumstances and why they taught younger generations to do likewise. Seeing how the benefits of that community support are still flourishing for some of the communities featured in A Higher Mission was especially inspiring.

Settling In For A Political Crisis With No End In Sight

The good ol’ days when opponents of the American experiment announced themselves as such. Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens.

The actions of the Republican Party since Trump’s loss two months ago have clarified the present crisis more than a Trump victory could have. Not only has President Trump tried to overturn the will of American voters, growing numbers of congressional Republicans have backed his efforts.

Take it from a historian: this has never happened before. We face the real possibility of profound democratic backsliding, and there’s no end in sight.

Let’s define the parameters of this crisis in its most basic terms. Nothing is more fundamental to democracy than these two linked principles: elections are free and fair, and the losers of those elections duly concede power to the winners. President Trump and many of the leading contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination reject both principles. Republicans are turning from the American experiment, and we don’t know when or how this will end.

Today’s crisis recalls the civil war not because we’re on the verge of anything like that era’s violence, but because once again the most basic principles of democracy are in dispute. If you don’t accept the results of a free and fair election you are rejecting democracy itself. It’s pretty simple.

Secessionists could not abide the results of an election that brought an anti-slavery party to power. So they tried to leave the union. They did not pretend they won the election. If secessionists saw breaking the democratic compact as their path to power outside the union, today’s fire-eaters see hollowing out that compact as the means to power within a diminished union.

In the crisis of 1860, there was a satisfying clarity to secession. The immediate end of the union beckoned. The crisis was clear, the battle quickly joined. Today’s crisis is frustratingly diffuse. It is not announced with articles of secession or seizure of federal forts. It slowly grinds away at the very machinery of self-government and democratic procedure by which we have pledged to work out our differences.

If the Republicans succeed, we will be left with a country having the form of democracy but denying its power. (Yes, I’m going for the biblical allusions). There will still be elections but they won’t take place on a level playing field. Well-timed prosecutions of political opponents will become routine. Deployment of power across a range of institutions and life experiences will become increasingly partisan and personal rather than bureaucratic and rule-bound.

The rights and privileges of citizenship will still be enshrined in the constitution, but will become increasingly theoretical and detached from the day to day existence of ordinary citizens. Courts, media, universities, to name just a few key institutions, will lose some of their independence and become increasingly beholden to the ruling party.

These are not abstractions. We’re talking about a world where ordinary citizens have even less recourse to the law than they do now, where corruption, bribery, violence, and arbitrary power of all kinds is more routinely felt in peoples’ lives.

This is about the time in our theorizing when we stop short, confounded by the opaque nature of democratic backsliding. Are we overreacting? Is this a resistance fever dream? Or is it really plausible that the United States is in danger of joining the ranks of Hungary and Turkey, Russia and India, and so many others? For what it’s worth, the people who’ve spent their lives studying democracy tend to be concerned.

And there’s a broader historical reason to see our fate as tied with these other young democracies (or erstwhile democracies). We are a young democracy ourselves. In the robust form that we think of it, our democratic government was established when my parents were kids, as the civil rights movement transformed both the legal and cultural foundations of American democracy. In large swaths of the country some of the most basic provisions of the constitution, such as the 14th and 15th amendments, only began to be seriously enforced just two decades before I was born. And I’m still a young guy!

The United States is in danger of democratic backsliding not simply because we have a bumper crop of unprincipled Republican senators (though we do!). More basically we are a fledgling democracy trying to do something that has no real precedent: establish a truly equal liberal democracy with a diverse population made up of all the peoples of the earth. This is an exciting and inspiring project. It has real enemies.

What, then, should we do?

Are you kidding? I’m just a historian writing up a stream of consciousness rant on a Sunday evening. I want to read more from people who have really thought about and studied these issues. But I do have a couple general ideas.

–Make the abstract concrete. Look, I get warm fuzzies from talking about “the rule of law” and “democratic norms” and my stomach does little somersaults of anger when the President abuses the pardon power. But I have to face the fact that many ordinary people don’t really care. They want to know what policy and politics means for their paycheck, their family’s future, their neighborhood. We need to bring the abstractions of democracy down to the block where people live. The best defense of democracy is an invigorated democracy, where people are truly empowered not just to vote, but to shape their workplaces and communities.

–Make unlikely alliances. For instance, unless you truly in your heart of hearts hate democracy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is your friend. So is Mitt Romney. So are millions of Americans with whom you have profound political disagreements. We might not agree on how best to promote human flourishing. But we do know that a democratic future is the only one in which we will get to constructively contest our differences and build shared prosperity.

–Settle in for the long haul. This doesn’t mean being in a perpetual state of alarm. If nothing else, such a posture is unsustainable. Instead, it might mean relatively simple changes in the way you engage politics and voting in your social circles. Make “Does this candidate support democracy?” a litmus test. This crisis is so slow-moving and bizarre that lots of people don’t realize we’re in one, especially since it’s likely to last for many years. But you, dear reader, do see the crisis! So spread the sobering but hopeful news. This American experiment is really worth preserving.

Beware the Age of Symbolic Anti-Racism

All are welcome here! (Terms and conditions apply. Please don’t change the restrictive zoning that keeps poor people out of our neighborhoods).

Earlier this year the city council of the picturesque town of Golden, Colorado, passed resolutions committing to “listening, learning, and acting to advance racial equity and improve the quality of life and health for all,” as well as the erection of a prominent banner in town declaring, “Golden Stands with Black Lives.” Notably absent from the agenda of this middle class Denver suburb was any practical plan to expand housing access so that more poor people (disproportionally people of color) might enjoy the benefits of this progressive city. But by golly Golden sure did “stand with” the 1.8% of its residents who are black. What a wonderful display of good intentions.

I picked Golden at random. One might tell a similar story of dozens of other towns and cities. Or take corporations for example. Amazon is the giant of the moment. Many of us rely upon it in the midst of the pandemic. And look how anti-racist it is! Don’t take my word for it: “We foster diversity and inclusion globally and look for ways to amplify underrepresented voices and empower diverse communities.” And they donated 10 million dollars! And they said this: “Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with our Black employees, customers, and partners, and are committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear.”

All of this solidarity and inclusion helps to explain why Amazon is at the forefront of promoting worker unionization. Just kidding. Amazon relentlessly crushes efforts to empower ordinary people and change the material circumstances of our lives.

Or take Coke and Nike. Black Lives Matter but structural genocide and settler colonialism have to be tolerated because we don’t want to mess with our global supply chains.

Welcome to the world of symbolic anti-racism. It’s not just towns and corporations playing this symbolic game. We as individuals risk playing it too. We need to recognize the game for what it is and insist on something more.

We’re living in an age of renewed anti-racist activism. We must press this activism with all the vigor we can. Yet we’re also living in an era of symbolic anti-racism. Symbolic anti-racism focuses on thoughts, intentions, words, and representation, while de-emphasizing practical steps that would improve the material circumstances of ordinary peoples’ lives. White people especially must resist the pull to make anti-racism a statement of who we are rather than a program of practical action to liberate others.

My thoughts turned in this direction after reading Adolph Reed’s recent piece this morning. For decades, Reed has been critiquing, from the left, the black political establishment. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, African Americans got elite representation, taking mayor’s offices in major cities and ultimately the presidency itself, but too often they seemed to be merely new faces doing the bidding of the same old power structures. Reed stands for a kind of politics that is more focused on the material needs of the working class.

The limits of representation were on vivid display just this week as we found out Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had tried to keep a video of police abuse from reaching the public. It unmistakably recalled Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attempts to cover up Laquan McDonald’s murder. Chicago now has a black mayor, but how much difference will it make for ordinary black Chicagoans? (To be fair to Lightfoot, she says she was not aware city lawyers tried to suppress the video. We’ll see if another shoe drops in this story).

Representation matters, but the point of getting on the field is to play and win the game. Our relentless enthusiasm for black “firsts” in positions of power is a little too much like celebrating before the kickoff.

Symbolic anti-racists have learned the lingo. They know that they should invoke systemic racism and gentrification and mass incarceration. But the moralizing and posturing that is so evident in our time actually takes us back to the same old pathologies of white racial blindness. We look inward for unconscious bias, we put up outward displays of allyship, we say all the right things, and somehow this ends up being little different from the old saw that racial progress is a matter of changing our hearts and cleansing ourselves of personal prejudice.

In this respect it is telling that gentrification, a localized symptom of much more widespread and systemic housing exclusion, seems to take up as much “anti-racist” oxygen as the systemic exclusion itself.

You really can put a BLM sign on your lawn and oppose the low-income housing development down the street. You really can march for black lives and dismiss out of hand the possibility of sending your kids to a low-income public school. You really can post a lot on social media and never get around to donating a substantial portion of your income to black-led organizations. You really can mistake your anger at white racists for practical concern for black lives. You really can go on an ego trip and call it social justice activism. Believe me, I ought to know.

Look, I’m not saying symbols and words and representation don’t matter. They do matter, a lot. But the fact that the most powerful institutions in our society would rather hold an anti-racism seminar than a workers’ rights information meeting ought to give us a clue! Symbolic anti-racism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We must not only be passionate, but analytical; not only well-intentioned, but practical. We must demand concrete results for ordinary people. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Black Southern Baptists Respond to the Critical Race Theory Hysteria

The fallout continues after Southern Baptist seminaries turned opposition to critical race theory into a matter of Southern Baptist orthodoxy. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, these white SBC elites are deploying an old racist playbook.

Dwight McKissic, Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, puts recent events in personal and historical context:

The seminary presidents’ statement represents a broken promise to the SBC, and especially to the African Americans in the SBC. In 1995, the SBC approved the following in a resolution:

Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake

The centerpiece of CRT is the existence of systemic racism and injustice, or the lingering repercussion and effects of the Jim Crow era. By denouncing CRT in totality, the seminary presidents have contradicted and taken back the words of the SBC in 1995. This is painful to watch. It is understandable why hundreds of African American Southern Baptists are reassessing their relationship to the SBC….

When I planted the church I currently pastor at age 27 through a partnership with Tate Springs Church, Tarrant Baptist Association, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, they provided our congregation over $200,000 during the first three-four years of our existence. That included pastoral funding, building payments and general budget expenditures. This was from 1983-1986. I was told at the time that our funding exceeded most White church plants. They wanted to use me as a test case to determine the potential of an adequately funded Black church plant. By God’s grace, we passed the test! I am grateful!

I have really been blessed with wonderful experiences being a Southern Baptist. I have had an opportunity to preach on many platforms all over Texas and America. In some instances, this was directly connected to my SBC affiliation. I am grateful!….

For many years, I looked at the SBC through the eyes of a boy; and I really saw a very beautiful picture. But as Paul said, when I was a child, I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child. [But] when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (I Corinthians 13:11).

As a man, I have sat at SBC tables and watched White churches pay 0% interest on small church loans, while Hispanic and Black churches had to pay 6%.
As a man, while touring the SBC Nashville headquarters and requesting information concerning the highest-ranking person in the seven-story facility, I was introduced to the head custodian….

I know what it is like to participate and benefit from the SBC as a boy. I also know what it is like, as a man, to have contributed financially to the SBC far, far more than they gave our church in those early years.

I have been a boy in the SBC, and like most Blacks, I have sat at the kid’s table. Blacks have systemically been excluded from entity head positions in SBC life. In 70 years, the SBC has never seen it fit to appoint a qualified Asian, Hispanic or African American to serve as an entity head.

But on this issue and Resolution 9, we will not take this like a boy. We are going to fight back, like a man.

The reason I have not and will not leave the SBC is because I would rather fight than switch. This is my Convention too!

Marshall Ausberry, President of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, released a careful statement:

We affirm that systemic racism exists, and like all Southern Baptists we oppose racism in all its forms. We do realize that there are theories and constructs that help us to see and discover otherwise undetected, systemic racism in institutions and in ourselves.

I have been in conversations with SBC leadership and with the leadership of the Council of Seminary Presidents of the SBC. We will be meeting in the near future to further discuss our concerns that affect all ethnic groups in the SBC about the breadth and depth of their recent statement and published comments. As brothers in Christ, we of all people should be able to dialogue and resolve all of our concerns.

Ausberry asks Southern Baptists to avoid condemning each other on social media and commit to dialogue instead. But Ralph West, Pastor of the Church Without Walls in Houston, is more direct:

My dear brothers’ bias is apparent to all of us. Instead of reaching out to fellow brothers and sisters who have lived with the reality of racism in formulating their view, these six men took it upon themselves to dictate how we should think about racism.

Saying they condemn all racism makes them, in effect, no different than the Supreme Court that ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that all are equal while still being separate. You cannot claim to uphold equality without attacking the very systems undermining it. The Supreme Court also thought they believed in fairness and justice.

A general condemnation of racism is insufficient in a time when there are specific instances of it that go unaddressed. These men have covered their eyes and ears from seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those who know the truth of it. And thus, these men have given away their authority to speak on these matters.

I am their colleague and a member of the Southern Baptist family. While spending many years in affiliation with and in service of Baylor University, I still have maintained a strong connection to the SBC. I even recently returned to Southwestern to pursue a Ph.D. because of my desire to see Southwestern expand and return to its former state.

When I came back “home” to Southwestern, I even encouraged other ministers to do the same. I took President Adam Greenway’s invitation to return as a statement of good faith, that the seminary wanted to welcome me and many other Black ministers to contribute to its legacy.

The statement on critical race theory and intersectionality has soiled that good faith. I cannot maintain my affiliation any longer and therefore am withdrawing from Southwestern Seminary. Nor will I associate with the SBC any longer.

In the future, my primary seminary affiliation will be with Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There, I have been an affiliated faculty member since 2008.

Truett Seminary courageously continues to diversify. Truett boldly engages with the crucial issues concerning students and faculty of color in their community. This is what the body of Christ needs right now.

What the SBC seminary presidents have done has brought division and confusion to the body of Christ. They must repent and seek reconciliation with those who can properly inform them of the wrong they have done. They must ask the Lord to open their hearts to hear the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how Jesus’ reign truly should impact our society.

These seem like significant repercussions. As an outsider to the SBC, my questions are not rhetorical; I do not claim to understand the ins and outs of this.

Did the seminary presidents anticipate this blowback? If not, how not? If so, did they deem the cost acceptable?

Is the SBC really willing to see decades of church planting and work with Black Baptists undone to shore up the loyalty of a shrinking population of conservative whites?

What has changed between 1995 and 2020? The 1995 apology, complete with the phrase systemic racism, generated effectively zero organized opposition. In contrast, today’s push from the right is organized, vocal, and militant. It is easy to say the political climate is different in the age of Trump, but this is more of a truism than an explanation. Why did the medicine of racial moderation go down so easily in 1995? Radicalized Republicans had swept into congress in 1994, Rush Limbaugh was all the rage, racialized controversies over welfare reform and affirmative action were intense, and I haven’t even mentioned OJ Simpson. It is not obvious that the mid-1990s were an auspicious moment for the SBC to appeal to African Americans without generating white backlash. But they did.

Has the SBC regressed since the 1990s? Sometimes we like to suggest that the Trump era has revealed what was always there. This might be so. But thinking historically requires us to reject inevitable stasis or progress. We must deal instead with the complexities of jagged ups and downs, including the possibility of regression. I sometimes wonder if the state of white evangelicalism circa 2020 is less a revelation than a devolution.

Let’s zoom out some more: can the center hold in evangelicalism? Or is this a high-profile example of a splintering movement?

Questions about Teaching the History of Race to White Students

At Temple University, one of the standard questions on student feedback forms is how the professor handled diversity in the classroom. In all my years at Temple, as far as I can recall, I’ve received one negative comment on this question. A student wrote that I did not challenge anti-white statements in the classroom. That was news to me! But it did cause me to reflect on my teaching.

On another occasion, during a discussion of US atrocities in the Philippines and American attitudes toward Filipinos a white student raised his hand and said, “But they didn’t do these horrible things because they were white.” This statement managed to be true, false, and missing the point all at the same time. How could I explain that in the moment, especially given the manifestly personal place from which the statement came?

On still another occasion, a white student wrote that systemic racism doesn’t exist and though the US had a problem with racism a long time ago, the problem has been resolved and is no longer an issue.

Another time a white student said it seems like it’s seen as acceptable to make fun of white people but you can’t say similar things about any other group, especially on social media.

If there is a problem here, it might be easy to locate it in the students themselves. Look at those reactionary white kids! This would be a grave mistake. To do so absolves me of needing to reflect on my teaching practices. It also forecloses the opportunity these exchanges give me to dialogue about how race might be changing now and how young white people are experiencing it.

The youngest generation is in some ways the most diverse in American history. More young white people are growing up feeling like they’re just one group among many rather than the dominant norm. I think most young white people experience this as a positive, but some struggle with it. In any case, it would be foolish to suppose that this context won’t affect how our white students experience the history of race in the classroom.

For those of us who are steeped in the history of racism and are constantly seeing connections between past and present (gee the appeal of the white Christian nationalism of the 1920s Klan seems awfully similar to the appeal of Trumpism a hundred years later) it can take a leap of imagination to remember that some of our white students may see the history of white racism as deeply disconnected from their own experience. Superficial narratives of innocence and progress may seem naive to us, but they make sense of the world as many white students understand it.

What are white students supposed to do? It doesn’t make sense to take pride in whiteness, because it was literally created as a technology of domination. Yet if a student disassociates from whiteness (I’m Italian; my ancestors didn’t own slaves; and so on) it is widely understood as a dodge. I think we ought to understand that our students may find it genuinely confusing to be identified as white in 2020. What does it mean? Does it really matter? What responsibilities does it entail? Am I allowed to be proud of it? Should I feel guilty? I think our students are wrestling with these questions.

I need to ask myself if my teaching is unwittingly abetting the white racism and racial grievance so evident in the politics of Trumpism today. This point requires some careful elaboration. My goal should never be the comfort, as such, of white students. Nor should I hesitate to explain why statements like “There’s no systemic racism” are false. But I am responsible if my own teaching failures, my own lack of clarity and precision, contribute to white students’ defensiveness, confusion, or anger.

Yet it would be profoundly unethical (racist actually!) for me to elevate the unique confusions of white students above the learning needs of other students in the classroom. (Yes I see the meta-irony here as this is a post about white students). The good news is that there is a win-win.

Showing students that race is constructed inside history, that it is contingent and arbitrary, is not just good history. Analytical clarity on this point, delivered through clear and specific historical examples, is vital if I am to have any hope of creating an anti-racist classroom. And it comes as a relief to students of all backgrounds. It is the foundation for understanding why whiteness and blackness are different, why we can critique race as a system of power without condemning the individuals in that system, why students can have confidence in their ability to shape the future, why identity is not destiny, and so on.

Truly understanding the history of race frees white students to divest from whiteness as core identity, while accepting their social location and the responsibilities it brings. It frees them to celebrate their Italianness, or whatever, in ways that do not protect investments in whiteness. If I just catalogue a long history of racial oppression and resistance without carefully denaturalizing race, students of all backgrounds can find it deeply uncomfortable. Careful teaching drives home that we are learning history. It shapes our present but it need not be our future.