Tom Skinner and Evangelical Conversion Narratives

Tom Skinner’s story is a classic evangelical conversion narrative. A boy coming up in Harlem becomes the hardened leader of a notorious street gang. With his mixture of toughness and strategic thinking, the gang never loses a fight while he’s in charge, and all 129 members, are, as Skinner put it, “eating out of my hand.” Skinner claimed he enforced discipline in the gang with brutal efficiency. He “had personally broken the arms and legs” of two would-be quitters, and claimed to have 22 notches on his knife, one for each of the people his blade had cut. Then, the night before the biggest “rumble” of them all, he hears a radio broadcast and is miraculously converted to Christianity, becoming a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Tom Skinner’s story is compelling. But is it true? Or is that the wrong question?

Exaggerated or not, white evangelicals ate Skinner’s tale of redemption up. It fit a pattern of evangelical conversion narratives in which the more gratuitously sinful one’s former life could be shown to be, the more glory abounded to the grace of God. Skinner used his experiences in Harlem, real or imagined, to connect with black audiences and claim understanding of their struggles. For white evangelicals, Skinner’s evil escapades testified to the power of the gospel and signaled that when they supported Skinner they were supporting someone who really understood the ghetto and could speak its language.

I have read many authors, from white evangelicals to professional historians, uncritically repeat the claim that Skinner was a former gang leader. I never questioned the claim until just this week when I finally got around to reading Skinner’s first book, Black and Free. The tone of the book and the extraordinary nature of some of the details strained my credulity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Skinner was not a former gang leader. But it’s also not clear to me that anyone has ever independently confirmed this. The only hint I could find of someone questioning Skinner’s claims is this obscure interview with a man who claims to be a former Harlem Lord’s member and says Skinner was lying. There is no particular reason to take his word over Skinner’s, however.

Skinner’s first book does not date his conversion, but a 1964 New York Times article quotes him saying, “I myself belonged to the Harlem Lords before I was converted, and I was mugging people in back alleys. But in 1956 I invited Jesus Christ into my life, when I heard a man tell about Him on the radio, and I became a new person.” It may be suggestive that he says he “belonged” and does not say, as he did in his book four years later, that he was the leader for 2 years. It’s also worth noting that a conversion date of 1956 would make Skinner all of 13 or 14 years old at the time he left the gang. It is possible for a 13 or 14 year old to break both the arms and legs of two other youths, but I find it hard to believe. The comic book story of Skinner’s life (which is a wild document by the way!) later produced by Tom Skinner Associates claims he joined the Harlem Lords when he was 14. This seems to be a discrepancy. Perhaps the Times misquoted him and his conversion was in 1958, at the age of 16?

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who may have looked into sources I have not. Unfortunately, I haven’t looked at Skinner’s papers at Wheaton. But my point is a larger one: For those of us in the historical profession, we can’t take autobiographical claims at face value, even when we admire the person we’re writing about. For the historian, what really happened in Tom Skinner’s Harlem childhood is less consequential than the fact that what was said to have happened to him became so important for his ministry.

God with Us: A Conversation with Ansley Quiros

Ansley L. Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama. Her new book, God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976, is available now.

Curtis: What is the main argument of God with Us?

Quiros: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

Curtis: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

Quiros: For me, the most challenging aspect of actually writing the book was balancing the narrative and the historical argument. I found myself, at moments, getting swept up in the story and momentarily abandoning the analysis, and then at others interrupting the sweep of events with more abstract historical musings. Balancing those impulses– presenting a swift narrative while also making a real argument—proved difficult but I’m thankful to great editors and readers who helped smooth the whole thing out. One thing that was delightful to realize was how even one careful word can hold the thread of analysis, one name drop can keep a story in mind.

Curtis: Your book is very theological and it wears that on its sleeve. Did you get pushback from other historians? It seems to me that historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars are often talking past each other even if we’re writing about similar things. Was it difficult for you to situate your book disciplinarily?

Quiros: It was, but just a bit. After an initial explainer of my choice to foreground theology, I found most historians to be quite supportive. Most know instinctively that historical research has tended to diminish the role of faith in people’s lives, not the institutions so much, but the content and effects of belief in the past. This is partly because these things are obviously difficult to get at, but also because the academy can skew secular. The religious studies/theology folks I spoke to occasionally wanted more theologizing, but most understood this was primarily a history book and appreciated the effort to bring lived theology into the conversation.

Curtis: You make a point of showing that white southern Protestants had theologies of segregation that were robust, sincerely held, and internally consistent. In doing so, I think you make a convincing argument against the cultural captivity thesis. Was that something you knew early on in the project you wanted to do, or did it take shape as your research developed?

Quiros: This actually developed as I read David Chappell’s work and the responses from Charles Marsh and Jane Dailey in particular. Truly, this question of theology and culture/politics —the chicken and the egg in some senses—is a perplexing one. On different days, especially in our current political moment, I find myself wondering about it. (I did so here, in fact!)

Curtis: Where do you see the field going from here? What is next for you?

Quiros: I don’t know where the field will go from here, but I think broad evangelical support for the Trump Administration and what I see as consistently racist policies will provide a lot of fodder! As for me, I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!

A Review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise

In a note to the reader at the beginning of his monumental study of Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois announced, “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.” Du Bois frankly announced that he was “not trying to convince” the white supremacist majority. He understood that he had to assume certain truths so he could get on with the business of useful scholarship. Americans who didn’t already know the self-evident truth of black equality needed more help than Du Bois could give them.

There is an echo of this sensibility in the beginning of Jemar Tisby’s new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. As a prominent black voice in the small world of evangelical racial justice discussions, Tisby has become well-acquainted with a committed cadre of racist evangelicals who loudly attack Christians who dare to oppose racism. So in his introduction he anticipates the critics who will dismiss him as “liberal” or “Marxist,” or accuse him of “abandoning the Gospel.” After naming these criticisms, Tisby turns to his real audience, the people who are willing to be persuaded, and says, “After reading just a few chapters, these arguments will sound familiar. These arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism.”

Tisby is not DuBois, and it’s not 1935, but it still takes a certain fortitude to put this book out with the knowledge that it will be systematically misrepresented, its author slandered and maligned. So Tisby knows his audience. And he wants to try to reach people who are open to learning. Those acting in bad faith, he implies, are just another sad example of the centuries-long history he’s tracing.

Now, what of the book itself? It is a 400-year survey of American Christianity’s complicity in racism. Along the way, Tisby tries to keep several key themes in view: the worst abuses of American racial systems have been enabled by Christian complicity; it didn’t have to be this way (history is contingent); and racism adapts over time.

Tisby understands something that many academic scholars struggle to practice: the public is actually eager to engage history, but people want to learn from the past more than they want to learn about the past. This can make us uncomfortable because it is a presentist and morally-charged posture toward history. Still, we need to try to engage the public on precisely this level.

That’s what Tisby does. In the chapter on “Making Race in Colonial America,” Tisby writes, “Through a series of immoral choices, the foundations were laid for race-based stratification. Yet if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality.” As historical analysis, historians might shrug at this (or even wince!). But as popular history told with moral urgency, this is pitch perfect.

A 400-year survey in a slim volume like this is an ambitious task—probably too ambitious. Tisby seems most at home in the civil rights era, where the argument is clear, the anecdotes well-chosen, and the complicity of the church horrifyingly apparent.

At other points, the link between the historical events being traced and the complicity of the church in racism becomes tenuous. At times, such complicity is asserted more than it is shown. In some cases, Tisby makes powerful use of the testimony of black Christians to drive home his points (Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is quoted to good effect), but other anecdotes feel like a lost opportunity. We learn, for example, what Ida B. Wells thought of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but not of her scorching criticisms of D.L. Moody’s compromises with white supremacy.

In parts of the narrative I wished for less historical survey and more complicity. It is doubtful that any reader approached the book expecting to learn that dysentery was the leading disease killer of civil war soldiers, or that the New Deal created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These digressions did not shed light on Christian complicity.

None of these critiques should overshadow the broader achievement: the ordinary Christians to whom Tisby is writing are likely to find much in this book that they’ve never heard before. More importantly, they are likely to be disturbed and inspired.

Tisby concludes the book with a series of recommendations to take action against racism now. It’s a helpful set of suggestions running the spectrum from mundane actions that ordinary people can take to mass movements that, right now, seem impossible. But the urgency of the moment and the scale of the problem require us to imagine beyond what seems possible.

I was most struck by Tisby’s call for “ecclesiastical reparations.” This is not a reprise of the 1969 Black Manifesto. He intends to enlighten rather than shame, and he comes across as an activist-thinker with earnest suggestions rather than all-or-nothing demands. He writes, “Churches could lead society by independently declaring a literal or figurative ‘year of Jubilee’ for black people. They could pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families. Or they could invest large amounts into trust funds for black youth…”

The simple logic and justice of proposals like these can at once inspire action and serve as an indictment of the church. Why indictment? Because most white Christians would probably leave their churches before they give their money to such a productive and just cause. And so the work of undoing the church’s complicity in racism continues.

It took many decades for Du Bois’s achievements to be truly recognized. Let’s hope evangelicals don’t wait so long to admit that Tisby was right.

The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of An 8-Year-Old

A good boy supporting the war like his mama told him.

Last night my son John (he’s 8) was reading a biography of Coretta Scott King. The book included a section on her views of the Vietnam War. This left John confused. He asked me why the United States attacked Vietnam in the first place.

I tried to explain it but it turned out he didn’t know what communism or the Cold War were, so I had a lot of background information I needed to fill in. After I tried to define those terms, I concluded with something like this:

“So American leaders thought that if Vietnam became a fully communist country, other countries in that part of the world would become communist too, and that would make it harder to win the Cold War.”

John sat up (he had been laying in bed getting ready to go to sleep) and an incredulous smile flashed across his face. “So…” he said, “they were afraid they were going to lose the Cold War so they started a real war?” Then he burst out laughing.

I love this boy.

Martin Luther King Day at Eastern State Penitentiary

I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: if you’re in the Philadelphia area this Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for a reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

This year we’ve got an all-star lineup of four historians from Temple University who each bring a unique perspective to the letter. Unfortunately, for each reading/discussion session you’ll only hear from one of us, but that’s part of the excitement of it, right? You don’t know who you’ll get!

See here for more info.

Eastern State is an astonishing historic site, and the team there is doing great work (winning lots of awards!) in interpreting it for the public and raising questions that are directly relevant to today.

And that’s what the Letter from Birmingham Jail program is all about. It is participatory and relevant. Come prepared to offer your thoughts about how this letter matters now. If Dr. King was writing a letter from jail today, what would he say? If you wrote a letter, what would you say?

This isn’t an academic discussion about the past. It’s a morally charged exploration about what we can do now. Many people who have attended the event in the past have said they left feeling energized and inspired. And, the historian in me feels compelled to say, you’ll also learn something about the past!

Are Southern Baptists Ready To Face Their Past?

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Some Southern Baptists are trying to reckon with their tradition’s shameful past. The Washington Post reports:

More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.

The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.

The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”

The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.

Many of the founding faculty members’ “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.

The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”

The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.

“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.

I have not read the report, but the outline presented here is a positive step. White evangelicals desperately need to retell our histories. We should praise institutions that begin to do so, however imperfectly. In the Southern Baptist archives one finds historical surveys defending the SBC’s racial record from its inception. Some articles describe how concerned Southern Baptists have always been for the spiritual welfare of black people. These are post-civil rights era rationalizations, offered at a time when people should have known better. Explaining how Southern Baptists really did want the people they were torturing to go to heaven is not a good look, especially when written in the 1980s.

This report seems to be a step beyond those earlier rationalizations. That’s a good thing. It is vital for the SBC’s future, as for evangelicalism’s, to be able to understand the past in a more humble way. Rather than seeing the evangelical tradition as the protector of orthodoxy, white evangelicals must come to see that they are inheritors of a tradition that was often hateful and heretical. Without this self-understanding, white evangelicals can’t possibly engage responsibly with those the movement has harmed.

It will be interesting to see:

a) how Southern Baptists on the ground react to this report.

b) whether it will be paired with any meaningful action.

c) whether other Southern Baptist and white evangelical institutions will follow the lead of SBTS and examine their own racial histories.

Jim Crow as Family Values

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Gordon Parks, 1956.

White Americans have absorbed the superficial lesson that Jim Crow segregation was bad, but we have worked very hard to not understand our ancestors who practiced it. If we understood them, we would find too many similarities between them and us.

What was it like to be an ordinary white person in a society organized to harm black people? For a short answer, just change this question to present tense and meditate on it. For a longer answer, read on.

Because we don’t actually know the answer to this question, we tend to think white people of that time must have been very different from now. We ask, how could they mistreat people simply because of the color of their skin? Couldn’t they see that it was wrong? The premise of the question is wrong. For ordinary white Americans during Jim Crow, it was as plain as day that segregation was not based merely on skin color. It was a system that promoted good family values and high moral standards while protecting children from degraded people who lacked both.

For our purposes, one example provides a glimpse into this misunderstood world.

After the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board school desegregation ruling in May, 1954, the young married men’s Sunday school class of a Winchester, Tennessee Southern Baptist Church became “deeply interested in the racial issue.” Their teacher wrote to a Southern Baptist leader for advice.* They had “seriously & prayerfully” discussed the issue, he reported, and “we want to say & do the right thing concerning it.”

The question had urgency because all the men in the Sunday school class were fathers of young children “in their formative & most important age.” Their prayer and study of the issue led them to “stand firmly but humbly against intergration [sic] of the races. We love the negro, in his place, & think he should have equal rights but separate. They are God’s creatures same as we but God made them different & set them apart.”

What was the nature of this divinely ordained difference? He went on:

We are associated in work and business with the negro sufficiently to know their lives pretty well. They are very diseased physically & their school age children use the most obscene language & think of sex above every thing else. We really shudder at the idea of our children being placed side by side with them in school & [Sunday School] with them.

Shall we do this to help the colored children & pull our children down to their level & maybe make outcasts of ours? Will God hold us, as parents, responsible for this?”

The Sunday School teacher concluded that he was eager to hear the Southern Baptist leader’s advice. “We want to acknowledge God in all our ways that he will direct our paths.”

We may look at this Sunday School teacher’s assumptions of innate difference and physical contagion and comfort ourselves with how remote and backward his views appear. But in his desire to protect his children and give them a wholesome social and educational environment, his priorities are as contemporary as average white middle class parents today who use race as a shorthand for school quality and deliberately keep their children in majority-white environments.

White parents during Jim Crow who wanted to give their children the best became oppressors by default. To have done anything other, they would have had to reject what seemed to be common sense, reject white society’s definition of success and good parenting. “Will God hold us, as parents, responsible for this?” he asked. To act morally was to wrestle with whether they were hurting their children.  To love justice was to give up dreams of a respectable and comfortable existence.

You ask, “how could people harm others simply because of the color of their skin?” Wrong question. That’s not what they were doing. They were promoting family values. They were giving their kids the best. They were surrounding their children with good influences.

Jim Crow was as monstrous as you’ve heard. The people who made it work were like us.


*This letter is found in Clifton J. Allen’s papers at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, Tennessee.

White Mississippians Will Vote for Hyde-Smith To Defend The State’s Honor

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Mike Espy (Courtland Wells/AP)

The Washington Post reports that Democrats may have a chance in the Mississippi Senate election after all:

A U.S. Senate runoff that was supposed to provide an easy Republican win has turned into an unexpectedly competitive contest, driving Republicans and Democrats to pour in resources and prompting a planned visit by President Trump to boost his party’s faltering candidate.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith stumbled recently when, in praise of a supporter, she spoke of her willingness to sit in the front row of a public hanging if he invited her — words that, in the South, evoked images of lynchings. She has struggled to grapple with the fallout, baffling members of her party and causing even faithful Republicans to consider voting for her opponent, former congressman Mike Espy.

That Espy is attempting to become the state’s first black senator since shortly after the Civil War made her remarks all the more glaring. It has positioned him to take advantage not only of a substantial black turnout but of a potential swell of crossover support from those put off by Hyde-Smith’s campaign.”

Count me skeptical, and not just because Trump voters seem unlikely to have moral qualms about becoming Hyde-Smith voters. Espy’s best chance to win was an improbable threading of the needle in which he somehow energized black voters while nobody else noticed. But Hyde-Smith’s comments have people paying attention, and that’s probably bad news for Espy.

To understand why it’s bad news, we have to understand how a jealous regard for Mississippi’s image is a potent political force in the state. For generations, white Mississippians have resented the way their state is portrayed in national media. They have sought to defend Mississippi’s reputation against what they see as a spurious caricature: racist, backward, ignorant.

In the American imagination, it seems that it’s always the summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Corrupt sherrifs with their thick southern drawl, hot sticky air, fields of cotton, the shacks of the poor, the threat of violence just under the surface. For their part, many white Mississippians insist the state has changed and that the past should be left alone.

There is something to be said for the idea that America writ large, in seeking to claim innocence that it does not in fact possess, needs Mississippi, its supposed antecedent. Maybe we do look down at Mississippi so we don’t have to look at ourselves. But whether or not Mississippi gets a raw deal in the national imagination, white Mississippians’ perception that outsiders do not understand the state (at best) or hypocritically slander it (at worst) is politically potent.

The recent developments in the Senate campaign are likely to awaken that powerful political force. A black man and a white woman are running for Senate in Mississippi, and suddenly the national media is talking about lynching. The President of the NAACP is denouncing the Republican candidate. Prominent black Democrats are coming to the state to campaign. All of these factors will probably fuel white Mississippians concerns that Mississippi is again being treated unfairly. They won’t vote for the black candidate who is allied with those critical outsiders. They’ll vote for the white candidate who embodies a state unfairly maligned.

There is also an absence of historical context in the way some media reports are describing the Democrats’ underdog status in Mississippi. The Post notes, for example, that Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator since 1982. It fails to inform its readers that that Senator was a white supremacist! This additional context tells us something about the dramatic partisan realignment of the South and of the transformation of the Democratic Party. It also underscores the scale of the Democrats’ task. A modern Democrat has never represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. That’s unlikely to change any time soon.

More Adventures in Bad Children’s History Books

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I’ve written before about bad history books for kids. The latest entry on our shelf is the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Civil War, picked up at our local library. The Eyewitness series is very kid-friendly because it is full of colorful photographs and lots of interesting information about weapons and technology and the way things work. Its historical narratives, however, may leave something to be desired.

In this particular book, the problem starts on the cover. Children are invited to “Discover the war that turned brother against brother—from the birth of the Confederacy to Reconstruction.”

This is a romantic, white-centered reconciliationist framing of the war as a tragic event. It takes a highly atypical scenario–brothers fighting on opposing sides–and turns it into the quintessential experience of the war. In the decades after the war, many white Americans made sense of the bloodletting by trying to forget what the war had been about. Slavery, a social revolution, emancipation—these were glossed over in favor of a struggle between two noble sides, figurative American brothers caught in a tragic conflict.

I’m sure there is a whole historiography on the origins and uses of this “brother against brother” narrative which civil war specialists can fill us in on. I don’t remember what Blight says about it in his Race and Reunion. But suffice it to say for now, in a war that mobilized some three million combatants from sectionalized societies, the brother against brother experience was not the norm. But it was highly symbolic of how the white supremacist mainstream wanted to remember the war.

A far more typical experience of the civil war was the transition of four million Americans from slavery to freedom. It was there that family dramas really played out, as formerly enslaved people sought to reconstitute family ties slavery had broken. But you won’t find this on the cover because the publisher unwittingly assumes that atypical experiences should be privileged because they align with a long tradition of white memory.

Within the text itself, here are the first sentences of the book:

What rights does a state enjoy? Can it ignore a federal law with which it does not agree? Americans had been arguing about the powers of the national government versus the rights of the states longer than they had been arguing about slavery.”

The basic problem here is that the factual claim is incorrect. Obviously, arguments over slavery predated the existence of the national government! The broader problem is that though the book will go on to talk about slavery in some detail, here at the outset it is framing the civil war at the widest angle as a states’ rights struggle. This is a lie. It’s a lie that former confederates started telling immediately after the war to try to rehabilitate their cause. 150 years later, it’s still finding its way into our kids’ history books.