White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement: There’s Still More to Know

White evangelicalism’s failure to support the civil rights movement during the 1960s is well-known. It’s an old story that has grown stale with the telling. As scholars and white evangelicals themselves have repeated it, the story has become encrusted in myth. Because finding examples of racism among white evangelicals in the 1960s is like shooting fish in a barrel, we might think that:

–There was no significant diversity of thought about the civil rights movement within white evangelicalism.

–Most white evangelicals weren’t exposed to evangelical alternatives and so, in a sense, didn’t know better.

–At some point after the fact, white evangelicals realized they had failed to act justly during the civil rights movement.

While there is a measure of truth to these ideas, added together they amount to a very misleading picture of white evangelicalism in this period. In fact, I would argue the inverse of these propositions is closer to the truth. If you’ve read David Swartz’s work on the evangelical left, you already have some sense of this.

What’s more striking to me is that you didn’t have to be a member of the evangelical left to be exposed to, or even espouse, pro-civil rights movement ideas. When I look at white evangelical publications of the 1960s, what jumps out at me is the pervasiveness of the white evangelical self-critique on questions of race and civil rights. In other words, rather than realizing after the fact that they had done wrong, white evangelicals were warning each other as events unfolded that they were losing credibility and failing to live out their beliefs.

Any white evangelical who was moderately engaged with evangelical debates of the time as expressed through evangelical publications would have been exposed to this critique. Even if they only read Christianity Today, they would have at least seen letters to the editor calling white evangelicals to repentance. And CT is not an adequate stand-in for the entirety of white evangelicalism. At the local level, students newspapers at white evangelical colleges often took much more aggressive pro-civil rights stances. At many white evangelical colleges, the predominant tone of their civil rights coverage was self-flagellation, lamenting the sins of white Christians.

And then there are national publications like Eternity magazine. It’s true that its circulation was smaller than Christianity Today’s, but it was no less evangelical, and it was more willing to call white evangelicals to task for the sin of racial injustice. What probably set Eternity apart from CT more than anything was the relative frequency with which it published black authors. The readers of Eternity were not of the left. They were conservative evangelicals. And they were hearing white evangelical self-criticism and black evangelical perspectives.

race and the church

Eternity Magazine, November, 1961.

Let’s look at one example of white evangelical self-criticism. After Eternity published an article in the spring of 1964 about a Philadelphia church that had integrated (“The Case of the Color-Blind Church”), a reader wrote:

Here we are in Christian America in the year 1964 and because a white Christian Church has twenty Negro members it rates a story in one of our leading religious journals.

Why should there be anything so unusual about a church opening its doors to everybody? Well, it is unusual and this is our sin. If our churches were truly Christian all of them would welcome minorities.

Who is to blame that most of our evangelical churches are not interracial? We all are. Our Christian colleges, seminaries, and Bible schools have fallen down miserably. Our leaders are timid and silent. Some are uninformed moderates and some are actually segregationist in spirit if not in deed.

Take a long look at the Negro. He is a human being, he has an immortal soul, he is subject to the joys and sorrows of all mankind. In God’s sight he is as valued as every other human being.

But in so-called Christian America with its vast program of evangelism, missions, and institutionalism only a handful of churches welcome members of another race and color. And even less than handful actively participate in the Negro struggle for equality and justice.

What does our  Lord think of our blindness and neglect? At the Judgment Seat we shall surely get the answer. We will find that much of our vaunted spirituality and activity is “hay, wood, and stubble” and that in racial discrimination we revealed how shallow and fickle is our devotion to Jesus Christ and his plain commandments.

It is almost certainly too late to gain the Negro’s respect and confidence. But it is never too late to repent, to seek God’s forgiveness, and then to do His will even if this leads to many strange and painful paths of duty.

This is a good example of the white evangelical self-critique because the writer is insisting that racial justice was not only a complicated political question—as the moderates would have it—but actually cut so close to the heart of the Gospel that it affected one’s final and eternal judgment (in which any good evangelical believed). This was hard-hitting.

Ok, so there was diversity of thought. The harder question to begin to answer is this: if this self-critique was so widespread, why was it so impotent? (Or was it?) The white evangelical mainstream in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump does not exactly look like a religious movement that learned its lesson. On the other hand, much has changed. I’m still puzzling this out.

Northern Evangelicalism’s Long Alliance with the GOP

wheaton record 1964

The Wheaton College student newspaper reports on the results of the campus’s mock presidential election, November 5, 1964.

The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.

Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).

Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).

Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.

wheaton record 1964 protest

Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:

Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…

Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference.  The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people.  That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:

The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…

A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:

Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…

Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.

Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.

In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.

He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological  goals.

White Evangelicalism’s Politics of Nostalgia

Assuming enrollment holds up, next semester I’ll be teaching a GenEd history class called “The Making of American Society.” It’s vague enough for me to turn it into almost whatever I want. I’m going to organize the class around three or four thematic units. One of them will be evangelicalism.

One lecture I already have on the calendar is, “Make America Christian Again: The Evangelical Politics of Nostalgia.” I know exactly how I want to start this class: with the music video to Carman’s 1993 song, “America Again” (embedded below).

In my last post I mentioned the prevalence of national declension narratives in white evangelicalism. This song captures that sensibility with eerie precision. Some of you are going to be gobsmacked by this video, so let me insist at the outset: I didn’t go out and find an obscure example of evangelical nostalgia. This is mainstream. Carman was one of the most popular Christian artists of the 1990s, and this song was a chart-topper (I can’t seem to find the exact numbers anywhere).

Though the video contains no explicit reference to partisanship, an evangelical who imbibed its message would have no trouble knowing for whom to vote come election time. The overlap between the song’s title and Trump’s campaign slogan a generation later is more than just a suggestive coincidence.

The Politics of Evangelical Identity

bean

A useful book to read alongside FitzGerald.

I finally finished my leisurely read through Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals. First, let’s hear from a couple more substantial voices than my own. At the “Year of the Evangelicals” conference at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics last month, Randall Balmer had nothing good to say about Fitzgerald’s book. Here he is in the Christian Century:

One would think that the decision on the part of a distinguished author such as Frances FitzGerald to take on the sweep of evangelicalism in America would be cause for celebration. Fitz­Gerald wrote an acclaimed history of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, and a lively book about American visions of community, Cities on a Hill. But this hefty book’s coverage of a broad and internally diverse movement is curiously pinched and narrow—and not merely because the author elects to omit the rich tradition of African-American evangelicalism.

The Evangelicals suffers from the common disease of presentism: the author takes the current political manifestations of evangelicalism as the essential clue to its historical identity. Fitz­Gerald dispatches with two centuries of evangelical history—everything up to the time of the Scopes Trial of 1925—by page 142. Her approach also betrays a bias for the Reformed or Calvinist strain of evangelicalism, with its emphasis on theological orthodoxy, as opposed to the Wesleyan-holiness strain and its focus on personal and social reform. (Donald Dayton’s indispensable account of the latter tradition, Discovering an Evangeli­cal Heritage, which would have provided some balance, appears nowhere in her extensive bibliography.) The effect is somewhat akin to viewing a landscape with one eye closed. Yes, the other eye makes adjustments, but the depth and texture of the panorama is lost.

Next, here’s Barry Hankins, Professor of History at Baylor:

It seems to be part of FitzGerald’s subtle thesis that the Christian Right transformed evangelicalism from a religious to a political movement—and that this was not a good thing. There is something to this, but we need to keep in mind, as she acknowledges, that even at its height only about 20 percent of evangelicals identified with the Christian Right. When evangelicals think and talk about politics, and especially when they vote, the vast majority sound and act like the Christian Right, from which they take their political cues.

But I’ve always maintained that the typical evangelical isn’t all that political. Rather, the important things for most evangelicals are: (1) living godly lives; (2) raising their children to be committed, evangelical Christians; (3) being active in their local churches; and (4) evangelizing their neighbors. They talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage in Sunday school, and on Election Day about 75 percent to 80 percent of them dutifully vote Republican, even if a pagan like Donald Trump is at the head of the ticket. They may even put a sign in their yard for the Republican congressman in their district. But the vast majority of evangelicals don’t march in the street, write letters to their congressmen and senators, run for the local school board, or attend Christian Right rallies. They’re too busy being Christians, so they leave that to the Falwells, Roberstons, and Dobsons of the world.

This is where FitzGerald’s book falls down a bit. In covering the Christian Right so thoroughly, The Evangelicals perpetuates the myth that evangelicalism and the Christian Right became synonymous. In part, FitzGerald seems to want to show that this was the case and that it was an unfortunate aberration, given the nearly three centuries of rich and robust evangelicalism that predated the Christian Right. On the other hand, however, part of the reason we need good history is to show that perceptions, especially those perpetuated by the media, need correction—that there’s more to a movement than its most visible, loud, and sometimes outrageous public figures.

I have similar concerns. I think it’s hard for those outside the evangelical orbit to imagine just how unimportant the “Christian” Right is to most ordinary evangelicals. If you read FitzGerald exceptionally closely, you might get some hint of this, but it’s overwhelmed by the fact that she spends 300 pages dwelling on the schemes and misadventures of a small group of evangelical political elites.

As I read the second half of the book, my thoughts kept returning to Lydia Bean’s 2014 book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity. More so than FitzGerald, Bean is attuned to the basic contradiction at the heart of evangelical political engagement: how does a movement that from the outside seems to be a political juggernaut marching in lockstep, seem from the inside so fractious and apolitical?

In the introduction to her comparative study of American and Canadian evangelical churches, Bean writes:

Evangelical congregations rarely engage in collective demonstrations and marches like Catholic parishes, sponsor discussions on political issues like mainline churches, or open their doors to candidates like Black Protestant churches. In reality, the worlds of local evangelical congregations are far less overtly political than the worlds of Christian Right elites.

Yet the Christian Right is still winning the framing game. How do evangelical churches reinforce such a high level of political homogeneity? I find that evangelical churches have become politicized in more subtle ways that reflect the influence of the Christian Right. Even though evangelicalism is not defined by a shared, coherent worldview, evangelical congregations still foster thin coherence between religious identity and partisanship. Political influence does not work through explicit persuasion or deliberation about political subjects, but by defining evangelical identity in ways that are implicitly linked to partisanship. Ironically, these partisan cues have greater moral power because they are distanced from the dirty business of “politics.” Political conservatism takes on a sacred quality because it is woven into the fabric of everyday religious life.

Bean’s comparative approach allows her to explore what is distinctive about American congregations. She finds that Canadian evangelical churches do not foster the same implicit link between partisanship and religious identity. In the United States, narratives of Christian nationalism forge connections between evangelical identity and political conservatism. In Canada, such narratives are absent.

The implicit messages of words like “us” and “we” and “they” and “them” conflate political and theological liberals as outsiders to the evangelical community. These implicitly political environments are usually established by lay leaders more than the ordained clergy. Narratives of national decline—“they took God out of the schools”—don’t have to mention any names or political parties for people to know who to vote for in the next election.

To me, this is all much more interesting—and more complicated—than the elite-driven picture FitzGerald has given us.

Thoughts for Sunday

baldwin

A young James Baldwin

In the following excerpt from James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, Florence, suffering from a terminal illness, has entered her brother Gabriel’s storefront black Pentecostal church in Harlem. As Florence tries to pray, she vividly recalls her mother’s faith:

‘Dear Father’—it was her mother praying—‘we come before You on our knees this evening to ask You to watch over us and hold back the hand of the destroying angel. Lord, sprinkle the doorpost of this house with the blood of the Lamb to keep all the wicked men away, Lord, we praying for every mother’s son and daughter everywhere in the world but we want You to take special care of this girl here to-night, Lord, and don’t let no evil come nigh her. We know you’s able to do it, Lord, in Jesus’ name, Amen.’

This was the first prayer Florence heard, the only prayer she was ever to hear in which her mother demanded the protection of God more passionately for her daughter than she demanded it for her son. It was night, the windows were shut tightly with the shades drawn, and the great table was pushed against the door. The kerosene lamps burned low and made great shadows on the newspaper-covered wall. Her mother, dressed in the long, shapeless, colorless dress that she bore every day but Sunday, when she wore white, and with her head tied up in a scarlet cloth, knelt in the center of the room, her hands hanging loosely folded before her, her black face lifted, her eyes shut. The weak, unsteady light placed shadows under her mouth and in the sockets of her eyes, making the face impersonal with majesty, like the face of a prophetess, or like a mask. Silence filled the room after her ‘Amen,’ and in the silence they heard, far up the road, the sound of a horse’s hoofs. No one moved. Gabriel, from his corner near the stove, looked up and watched his mother.

‘I ain’t afraid,’ said Gabriel.

His mother turned, one hand raised. ‘You hush, now!’

Trouble had taken place in town today. Their neighbor Deborah, who was sixteen, three years older than Florence, had been taken away into the fields the night before by many white men, where they did things to her to make her cry and bleed. Today, Deborah’s father had gone to one of the white men’s house, and said that he would kill him and all the other white men he could find. They had beaten him and left him for dead. Now, everyone had shut their doors, praying and waiting, for it was said that the white folks would come tonight and set fire to all the houses, as they had done before.

In the night that pressed outside they heard only the horse’s hoofs, which did not stop; there was not the laughter they would have heard had there been many coming on this road, and no calling out of curses, and no one crying for mercy to white men, or to God. The hoofbeats came to the door and passed, and rang, while they listened, ever more faintly away. Then Florence realized how frightened she had been. She watched her mother rise and walk to the window. She peered out through a corner of the blanket that covered it.

‘They’s gone,’ she said, ‘whoever they was.’ Then: ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord,’ she said.

Thus had her mother lived and died; and she had often been brought lo, but she had never been forsaken. She had always seemed to Florence the oldest woman in the world, for she often spoke of Florence and Gabriel as the children of her old age, and she had been born, innumerable years ago, during slavery, on a plantation in another state. On this plantation she had grown up as one of the field-workers, for she was very tall and strong; and by and by she had married and raised children, all of whom had been taken from her, one by sickness and two by auction; and one, whom she had not been allowed to call her own, had been raised in the master’s house. When she was a woman grown, well past thirty as she reckoned it, with one husband buried—but the master had given her another—armies, plundering and burning, had come from the North to set them free. This was in answer to the prayers of the faithful, who had never ceased, both day and night, to cry out for deliverance.

For it had been the will of God that they should hear, and pass thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance. Florence’s mother had known this story, so it seemed, from the day she was born. And while she lived—rising in the morning before the sun came up, standing and bending in the fields when the sun was high, crossing the fields homeward when the sun went down at the gates of Heaven far away, hearing the whistle of the foreman and his eerie cry across the fields; in the whiteness of winter when hogs and turkeys and geese were slaughtered, and lights burned bright in the big house, and Bathsheba, the cook, sent over in a napkin bits of ham and chicken and cakes left over by the white folks—in all that befell: in her joys, her pipe in the evening, her man at night, the children she suckled, and guided on their first short steps; and in her tribulations, death, and parting, and the lash, she did not forget that deliverance was promised and would surely come. She had only to endure and trust in God. She knew that the big house, the house of pride where the white folks lived, would come down; it was written in the Word of God. They, who walked so proudly now, had not fashioned for themselves or their children so sure a foundation as was hers. They walked on the edge of a steep place and their eyes were sightless—God would cause them to rush down, as the herd of swine had once rushed down, into the sea. For all that they were so beautiful, and took their ease, she knew them, and she pitied them, who would have no covering in the great day of His wrath.

Black Lives Matter

jordan edwards

Jordan Edwards, child of God.

“And then they killed Tamir Rice
And they just go on with they life…
I’m glad that Jesus ain’t American
And that’s the reason why I care again…
And even though we get killed
I know that God got a greater plan
For the death and blood that we spill…”

“I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.”

howard thurman

“By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight, the slave undertook the redemption of the religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Howard Thurman

cone

“How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?”  James Cone

Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag
Is wrapped and dragged with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!

–Kendrick Lamar

When Ignorance Is Irrevocable

jackson

Andrew Jackson: White supremacist, ethnic cleanser, time-traveler.

When people who lack knowledge consider a question they’ve never thought of before, they ask, “I wonder how other people have answered this question?”

When fools consider a question they’ve never thought of before, they ask, “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

Our President is in the latter group. He generalizes his own ignorance, attributing it to humanity. So because the President hadn’t bothered to do a google search or read a book, “nobody” knew how complicated health care was. Same for North Korea. And because the President has never thought much about the Civil War, no one else has either:

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

This aggressively ignorant posture is funny. Unfortunately, it’s also deadly serious. It has become a defining feature of this presidency. The problem is not that Trump lacks knowledge. We all do. People who are wise can gain knowledge. But Trump possesses that special brand of foolishness that makes it difficult or impossible to know things.

Trump’s narcissistic ignorance is so encompassing that he appears unable to imagine what he doesn’t know, and unable to get up to speed even when it would obviously be in his interest to do so. For instance, yesterday, in an interview with John Dickerson, we learned that Trump still doesn’t know what’s in his health care bill. That is…astonishing.

Most Presidents try to situate their actions in a broader context of historic presidential behavior. If they can claim the mantle of one of the great presidents, all the better. President Obama’s repeated allusions to Lincoln were along this line. Self-serving, sure, but done with full self-awareness and purpose. Trump has obviously received the message that he is supposed to be a Jacksonian figure, but his ham-handed efforts to invoke Jackson’s legacy could not be more different from Obama’s thoughtful appeals to history.

Interviewers, ask Trump what he thinks about the Indian Removal Act, or Jackson’s banking policy, or really anything about Jackson at all. The answers are likely to entertain. We can all laugh and forget for a moment the extraordinary dangers of having a biblical fool as president.

Is “The Evangelicals” Already Outdated?

the evangelicals

I’m still not finished with Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals (it’s slow going at the end of a semester) but the book is becoming more perplexing the more I read. It is an author’s prerogative to write an eclectic synthesis, and Fitzgerald tells us the parameters of her story in the introduction. The problem is that, even within those parameters, Fitzgerald is often not engaging with the latest scholarship.

Parts of the book read like a project that has been sitting around for a couple decades. Its scholarly core seems to rely on the past generation of scholarship, with only a partial veneer of more recent work.

Here is my own idiosyncratic list of scholars whose work Fitzgerald does not engage. Some of these names are bigger than others, and the list reflects my own eclectic interests. Still, while ignoring any one or two of these scholars may not draw red flags, the exclusion of all of them is rather shocking:

Matthew Avery Sutton

Grant Wacker

Edward Blum

Paul Harvey

Molly Worthen

Randall Stephens

B.M. Pietsch

Carolyn Renee Dupont

Mark Newman

Timothy Gloege

The point is not that Fitzgerald should have written a different book. Rather, the problem is that all of these authors speak to issues about which Fitzgerald is writing. Her discussion of the fundamentalist-modernist conflict would have been enriched by Pietsch and Gloege. Newman, Dupont, and Harvey would have strengthened her brief treatments of Southern Baptists and race. Blum would have saved her from an embarrassing error in her treatment of Dwight Moody. Wacker and Stephens would have given depth to her discussion of Pentecostalism. And as for Sutton, well, why would you ignore the most recent major reinterpretation of your subject?

I’m not sure how to raise these issues without sounding curmudgeonly.  I’m happy Fitzgerald wrote the book. I find it helpful and interesting. But I fear the failure to take much of the new scholarship into account makes for a misleading portrait of evangelicalism.

The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

levittown

Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.