Remembering Billy Graham

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Here’s how historians (and a few smart pundits) are remembering Billy Graham.

Melani Mcalister says Graham helped to take evangelicalism global:

He used his status as the most important American religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world. He was also an institution builder who was deeply invested in Christianity as a global faith.

There were other people who taught more missionaries, and some who reached more people on television; there were even those whose preaching events rivaled Graham’s in size. But no one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership.

Mark Noll and George Marsden think about historical context and Graham’s influence:

Noll: My own sense as a historian trying to look at circumstances is that several things came together to make Graham so effective and influential: his own charisma and his life-long faithfulness to his preaching vocation, but also the fact that he emerged (a) immediately after World War II when audiences were prepared for a fresh gospel message, (b) just as leaders like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were leading a wide portion of northern American fundamentalism toward a broader and more positive evangelical witness, (c) when an audience consisting of the moderates of conservative Protestantism and the conservatives of moderate Protestantism were able to work together, and (d) just as modern means of communication like TV were making possible wide impact by photogenic personalities.

Marsden: During and just after World War II there was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals. Especially in the late 1940s even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western civilization were to recover from its recent debacle. The war and its aftermath also generated popular interest in religion as veterans and others married, moved to the suburbs, and raised families. Youth for Christ already had an effective ministry during the war, and Billy was only one of quite a few effective evangelists of the time. His personal charisma and effective intense preaching style just brought him to the top among these. The combination of a traditional gospel of personal salvation and declarations that the future of civilization was at stake (in the age of anxieties over the bomb and the Cold War and also about the corrupting influence of prosperity and mass culture) helped him speak exactly to the mood of the times for many people.

Matthew Avery Sutton says Graham was a failure:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

The world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world.

John Turner says Graham took evangelicalism mainstream but also politicized it:

Graham played a major role in dragging much of American fundamentalism into the camp of the “new evangelicalism,” meaning among other things a greater openness toward popular culture and a less combative tone toward theological moderates. Certainly, one should also credit Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others, but Graham’s influence dwarfed all others during the internecine fundamentalist battles of the 1950s.

Graham played an important role in the post-WWII politicization of American evangelicalism. His early sermons strongly reflect the anti-communism of the early Cold War, and his relationship with Richard Nixon accelerated the courtship between Republicans and evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Graham himself pulled back from more overt forms of political activism after Watergate and signaled a shift toward political moderation, many evangelicals followed the trail he had blazed during Nixon’s first term.

Jonathan Merritt praises Graham for distancing himself from the Christian Right later in his career:

Today, when Mr. Graham passed from this life into the next, we lost perhaps the last true evangelical statesman. Filling the space he vacated is a new crop of religious leaders who would do well to live as Mr. Graham did — resisting the pull of partisanship, standing courageously in the middle; speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties; clinging to the Gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations.

America’s preacher has left us, and we need him now more than ever.

George Will says Graham was no prophet:

Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

Michael Gerson says Graham was “consumed by grace”:

Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century — a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.

But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?

Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit — the place of his calling from an early age — he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.

In my fundamentalist childhood, I remember Graham being variously an object of suspicion (for his ecumenism) and admiration (for his commitment to preaching the gospel). Encountering him as an adult, a Christian, and a historian is a different and complicated experience. His flaws are apparent, but I can’t judge him harshly. He grew toward goodness. On many days, that’s more than I can say for myself.

Billy Graham Has Died

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Advertising the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that made Graham a national figure

Billy Graham has died. There is much to criticize in Graham’s long career, but much to learn from as well. What stands out to me about Graham’s life is growth. Like other great historical figures, he was not static. As Graham’s influence expanded, so too did his moral vision. We’re all flawed. Only some of us become better as we age. Only rarely do powerful people become more compassionate as their power grows. But that’s what Billy Graham did.

He came from a provincial southern fundamentalism. Graham was so unsophisticated that even Wheaton College was a new world for him. As a young man he had a taste for fancy clothes and finer things, perhaps an early hint of how in his worst moments he would become blinded by his proximity to power. But Graham’s meteoric ascent also revealed a growing maturity.

In 1956 Look Magazine asked Graham if he was a fundamentalist. Graham replied,

If by fundamentalism you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, ‘emotional’, ‘snakehandler’ without social conscience – then I am not a fundamentalist. However, if by fundamentalist you mean a person who accepts the authority of the scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his second coming and personal salvation by grace through faith, then I am a fundamentalist. However, I much prefer being called ‘Christian’.

The cynic’s take is that this was nothing more than rebranding on the part of Graham and a cadre of elite white neo-evangelicals. It certainly was that. But that’s not all it was. Graham’s desire to simply be known as a Christian indicated a broadening of his vision. As he aged, Graham would become increasingly ecumenical and respectful of other traditions. For that he earned the contempt of fundamentalists.

Graham’s failures were many. At times he preached a vague civil religion, a Cold War religious nationalism that had little to do with following Jesus. He struggled to see beyond his investments in American nationalism and American whiteness. He could have struck a major blow for the civil rights movement, but instead his faith in individual conversion made him a useful avatar for colorblind reactionary politics. He conflated Christianity and Republicanism. Indeed, it is fair to ask if Billy Graham was the first court evangelical.

But if he was the first court evangelical, it’s a role he came to regret. Graham’s post-watergate career was not without problems, but the direction of his movement was clear. While a newly visible Christian Right would embrace the politics of fear and hatred, Graham tried to keep his distance. He seemed to stand for something more simple and more winsome: we’re all sinners, Jesus loves us, turn to him.

As we mark Graham’s passing it is easy to dwell on his failures. But I hope we will also appreciate how he grew over time and became a figure of comfort and inspiration to millions. In an age when many Christian voices promote hatred, Graham’s sermons offer a different message: God loves you. Tragically, Graham struggled to instill this message in his own children. Franklin Graham’s current behavior is not just a slander against the name of Jesus, it is a profound repudiation of the arc of his father’s life. Billy Graham was willing to learn and change. We need more people like that in public life.

Politicize the Shootings

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An NRA comic book from the 1950s.

The most profound change in my thinking through years of pursuing a career as a historian starts with this simple truism: everything has a history. It has taken years for the implications of this to dawn on me. It means that there is very little about us and the way we experience the world that is natural. Whatever you think about the raw materials we humans are working with (and what processes or divinity produced those materials), we have put them to use in astonishingly diverse ways.

Everything about my daily life has a history. The way I act in the world and think about myself is bizarre and unusual. I think and act this way not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a particular kind of human living in the United States in the twenty-first century. Look, I can’t even refer to my place and time without using invented concepts that have a history of their own.

De-naturalizing our present doesn’t necessarily lead to a politics of the left or the right. The knowledge that we can change something if we want to might move you toward the right in an effort to preserve the fragile goods that a society has achieved. Or the same knowledge might move you toward the left in an effort to solve problems that have eluded the grasp of earlier generations. Either way, a historical perspective reminds us  that many of our social problems are political more than natural.

Everything about yesterday’s school shooting was unnatural. If violence is characteristically human, shooting schoolkids with guns is not. We had to build the social structures and legal regime to make such an act intelligible and possible. If in and out groups are characteristically human, the ideology of race animating the shooter is not. We had to come up with that particularly venomous idea before he could use it to hate.

If you watched the cell phone video from inside the school yesterday and it didn’t sit well with you, please consider doing everything you can to politicize that shooting. If you want to honor the victims, politicize their deaths. They died unnatural deaths. They died because it was our collective decision—expressed through politics—that they should do so.

Those who believe the costs of preventing their deaths are too high should have the moral and intellectual integrity to say so. Those who believe it is worthwhile to prevent their deaths should grapple with some hard realities: this belief is not commonsense. It is a political program with which many people disagree.

Crusading Christians

For much of the twentieth century, many American Christians used the language of “crusade” in the context of evangelizing activity. I’d like to know more about the origins and uses of this language. I’m sure it has been thoroughly explored. Who should I read about this?

Billy Graham’s meetings were famously called “crusades.” Even in the late 1960s, the black evangelist Tom Skinner’s ministry was called “Tom Skinner Crusades.” It might seem obvious to us that American evangelists and (especially) missionaries overseas might find it counterproductive to speak in the language of “crusade” to describe what they were doing, but it wasn’t at all obvious to them. In fact, in some cases they were quite explicit in drawing on a medieval heritage that we might associate with violence and extremism. Here was the emblem of one Christian college in the mid-1960s:

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On one level, you might suggest this is about as serious as a sports mascot. But I would argue it indicates a deeper perspective conflating Christianity and the heritage of the so-called “West.” There is an interesting gendered dimension to all of this, one that comes through really clearly when you see how the college announced students’ marriages:

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Are College Students Being Brainwashed?

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A typical liberal professor caught in the act of indoctrination.

Conservative activists often claim that college classrooms are places of indoctrination. But a new survey finds that college increases students’ appreciation of views across the political spectrum:

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I hope this is true! The survey seems quite robust but I’ll leave that to the statisticians to sort out. In my classroom, I’m much more interested in provoking new questions and ways of thinking in students than in moving them toward a particular political posture. I hope that the vast majority of my colleagues feel the same.

In the field of history, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, we’re trying to get students to “give a crap” about people who are different from them. That means suspending judgment long enough to try to really understand people who are unfamiliar or even repulsive to you. We’re working on the level of imagination and empathy. These are the habits of mind and character required to engage seriously with the past.

If we’re doing our job well, it would make sense that students would have more nuanced views of the political other. It is not so easy to caricature people after you’ve stepped into their shoes. But before I get carried away with the grand effects of historical teaching, the authors of the study argue that what we’re doing in the classroom probably isn’t driving this phenomenon:

our best guess is this finding might ultimately have little to do with faculty directly and instead relate to the climate that campuses strive to create for the expression of diverse viewpoints, political and otherwise. While students may come to college never having met someone on the political “other side,” it is hard to avoid doing so in college. One central aim of higher education is to encourage contact, debate, discussion and exposure to persuasion from different kinds of people.

After a year of college, in other words, it might be more challenging for students to brand all liberals or conservatives as wrongheaded when they are studying, eating and learning alongside them. These experiences might even help students appreciate others as people with diverse histories and shared interests in working toward common goals.

One takeaway is clear: It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.

It’s worth thinking about this in relation to the widely-publicized (alleged) free speech crisis on American campuses. There is plenty of anecdote in that hysterical genre, but perhaps the data indicate our college environments are healthier than many people suppose.

The Super Bowl Was A Glorious Assault On Our Moral Senses

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I watched the Super Bowl and I was thrilled to see the Eagles win. It was a great game. But it was also a spectacular assault on the moral senses. Perhaps I noticed it more now that I don’t usually watch games. At the Super Bowl the volume is raised to 10 and we are supposed to submit to our overlords of militarism, nationalism, and materialism. A healthy dash of sexism and historical appropriation is also recommended.

This is all so normalized that to talk about it is to immediately render oneself a hand-wringing do-gooder unable to have fun. Oh believe me, I had fun last night. But yeah, I noticed what I was being asked to bow down to.

There were the manipulative pregame displays of patriotism, in which we’re told to bask in militaristic nationalism. Nothing could be more quintessentially patriotic than saluting our troops, our carefully depoliticized troops, who are always only protecting us, defending freedom, always ready to respond to aggression but never to deliver it.

History is carefully excised from the patriotism on offer here. The aggressive and acquisitive militarism that has defined centuries of American expansion is not to be seen. There is only “America the Beautiful” embodied most fully in the humble soldier. After watching last night’s display, it’s no wonder so many people have the impression that the point of singing the national anthem is to honor soldiers in particular.

It is to be expected that nations would recognize and honor the important role that soldiers play in a fallen world. And whatever we think of the big questions of war and peace, it is unjust for us to be dismissive of the sacrifices soldiers make while we happily enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

The problem here is that patriotism has become militarized, so that the highest and fullest expression of American nationalism is the depoliticized and dehistoricized American soldier. This is an anti-republican ethos more suited to empire than a democratic state. But perhaps that’s fitting. Though our national self-image speaks of freedom and democracy, our celebrations tell a different story. We honor America not through self-government and civic-mindedness but by paying lip service to the sacrifices of soldiers.

And so protesting racism and police brutality on the NFL’s stage was unpatriotic. Somehow kneeling during the National Anthem had something to do with the troops. If you have a republican conception of citizenship and patriotism, this never would have occurred to you. But if deep down you believe in a militarized American empire, the logic works.

The debate over the player protests has not been about whether NFL games would become politicized. It has always been about whose politics would be displayed. And this is all quite cynical. In militarism there is money to be made. Concern for human life doesn’t sell. It offends too many Americans.

And then there were the commercials. Advertising in general is something not to be taken for granted. Basically, there was a time when it did not exist. Now it does. We are molded by it and we like it. I’m trying to raise kids and form some good things in them. But I constantly find myself asking, “how can I compete with that?” They are little materialists before they know what hit them. And I don’t know how to stop it.

There was the infamous ad this year, the MLK ad. Some folks thought it would be a good idea to use some words from one of Dr. King’s sermons to try to sell some trucks. Nevermind King’s increasingly radical anti-capitalist rhetoric. Nevermind that the sermon in question literally warned against buying cars and being duped by advertisers. Nevermind that the values King spoke of rebuke the foundations of our economy. That the King estate had to sign off on this garbage is yet another sad episode in a long and sordid tale of King’s descendants fighting for the crumbs from the table.

And how about that halftime show? It was a remarkably insipid performance, but you can’t really blame the NFL, right? It’s not as though there are a bunch of other talented performers around who could do a Super Bowl halftime show. So someone said, “Hey, what if we invite back the cause of the most notorious moment in halftime show history?” Sounds good! But what about Janet Jackson? “No, America has seen her boob. She must never perform again.”

If things weren’t so rigged against white men, Justin Timberlake would do the halftime show every year.

I had lots of fun watching the Super Bowl. I invited my sons to watch with me, and I just tried to close my eyes to all that it was demanding of us.

Does Black History Belong In Your Church?

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I’m thankful for 8th Street Community Church, where we are reading portions of the Letter from Birmingham Jail every Sunday morning during the month of February. We will not be skipping the inconvenient parts.

Is there space in your church to think about and be influenced by prophetic black Christianity? Would it be too controversial?

It is normal for Christians to admire Dr. King from afar as a vaguely Christian figure who preached love and tolerance. It is harder and more necessary to grapple with King as a serious Christian thinker who speaks to our time and critiques our theology.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail is far from a complete record of King’s thought, but it’s a great introduction to it, especially for Christian audiences. One of my dreams is for more white evangelical churches to make space for these ideas. If your church would like to have an event in the Philadelphia area, I am available to facilitate reading and discussion of the letter. I’ve got lots of practice!

Historians: What Is This Supposed to Mean?

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National Review, September 11, 1962

While researching a (hopefully forthcoming) article about National Review’s treatment of African decolonization and the civil rights movement, I came across the cartoon above. I didn’t mention it in the article because I can’t really make sense of it.

It seems offensive, but what exactly is the message supposed to be? The immediate context around it is an article entitled, “Angola: Terrorists on the Run,” by Ronald Waring, in which he praises the Portuguese Army for its effective counterinsurgency campaign against Angolan rebels.

Waring was especially annoyed by what he saw as biased western press reports that played up Portuguese atrocities while downplaying African ones. Is that why the white figure in the cartoon is blindfolded? There’s a whole lot of weird stuff going on in this image.

The best interpretation I can come up with for this cartoon comes from the broader context of National Review’s view of African decolonization. It saw decolonization as the retreat of western civilization, a retreat enabled by naive American and European liberals who had silly notions of egalitarianism and human equality in their heads. While they prattled on about human freedom, “primitive” black Africans launched crude grasps for power that threatened to return the continent to “barbarism.” White liberals, blinded by their delusions about humanity, refused to see what was happening right in front of their eyes.

Perhaps that sensibility is what this cartoon is trying to depict. But I’d like to know what other people make of it.

History Matters

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French anti-Semite Charles Maurras (AP)

The traditional double meaning applies to today’s title: these are matters of history, and history is important. Here is a quartet of recent stories from around the world illustrating the point that human beings are blessed—or doomed—to remember the past. That makes the ongoing project to remember well, with empathy and critical thinking, a crucial part of responsible citizenship in every society.

The New York Times reports on a remarkable recent discovery in Alabama:

Lorna Gail Woods had heard stories of the Clotilda since before she could speak. In the evenings, her grandmother would hold her on the porch and tell her the tale of how her great-great-grandfather came to Alabama on the last known slave ship to come to the United States.

They were brought by force, her grandmother would tell her, by an American businessman who just wanted to win a bet. Her great-great-grandfather Charlie Lewis was the oldest of 110 slaves bought in West Africa, chained in the hull of the Clotilda and sailed across the Atlantic to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta in Alabama in 1860. But after the slaves were unloaded, the crew burned the ship, and its wreckage was never found, so many people doubted the story.

“My grandmother would tell us the story so we wouldn’t forget and so that we could continue to tell the story,” Ms. Woods, 69, said over the phone in a warm, Southern cadence.

On Monday, the story that Ms. Woods’s family — and many like hers in Africatown, the historic neighborhood of about 2,000 on the shores of the delta just north of Mobile — had passed down for more than 150 years became much more real.

On that day, Ben Raines, a reporter for AL.com, published an article in which he told of discovering the charred wooden remains of a boat believed to be the Clotilda. A team of archaeologists who visited the site said that based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents — including charred timber, iron drifts — the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship.

In Poland, new legislation has raised old questions about the Holocaust:

JERUSALEM — Legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust has prompted swift and furious condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The measure, which passed in the lower house of the Polish Parliament on Friday, would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil by Nazi Germany during the occupation in World War II.

“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had instructed the Israeli ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish prime minister and express his disapproval.

The bill, which would need approval from Poland’s Senate and the president to become law, sets prison penalties for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.

This is controversial in part because the Nazis found willing collaborators across Europe, including in Poland. The French ought to know this too:

The name Charles Maurras evokes the darkest currents of the French past: strident nationalism and obsessive anti-Semitism. This, after all, was a man who advocated denying Jews citizenship because — to him — they could never be anything but traitors.

Despite this legacy, the French government included his name in the 2018 edition of the National Commemorations, an annual project to mark the anniversaries of notable figures and events. Maurras, for instance, was born in 1868, 150 years ago. In the text, he is described as an “emblematic and controversial figure.”

Following swift, sharp fallout over the weekend, Françoise Nyssen, France’s minister of culture, announced Sunday that the entire press run of the 2018 commemorative books will be recalled and reprinted without mention of Maurras. Her decision, she said in a statement, was meant to “remove the ambiguity” that was “likely to divide French society.”

For many, however, there was no ambiguity in the first place.

“Maurras was until the end of World War II the most prominent anti-Semite in France and the Number One enemy of liberal democracy,” said Zeev Sternhell, an expert in the history of French fascism and an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an emailed statement.

“He was the intellectual leader of French hard nationalism until the end of Vichy. It was no accident that he had been sentenced to life in prison,” Sternhell said, referring to the French regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Meanwhile in East Asia, tensions between Japan and South Korea continue over Japan’s atrocities during the Second World War:

The presidency of Donald Trump has triggered an unprecedented collapse of Brand America and sets the bar exceedingly low for global leaders. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s closest if not only friend among them, deserves special scrutiny for his recent refusal to apologize to South Korea over the horrors endured by tens of thousands of women treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.

There is a “been there, done that” aspect of South Korean-Japanese relations. These frenemies have never reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their shared past. Today true reconciliation has become even more elusive due to democratization in South Korea. Until the 1990s, South Korean authoritarian governments kept history caged, avoiding historical controversies in order to maintain good relations with Tokyo, which supplied them with significant economic assistance in tacit compensation for the indignities and abuses suffered under Japanese colonial rule (from 1910 to 1945). But the advent of freely elected governments unleashed smoldering popular resentments, and Koreans demanded recognition of what they endured. Politicians responded by tapping into these unresolved grievances for political gain.

Japan has changed, too. The rise of revisionists such as Abe, who embrace an evasive and exculpatory view of history, complicates Tokyo’s relations with Seoul. Japanese conservatives also play the history card to whip up their base, and Abe has been at the forefront of this movement to restore pride in the nation by whitewashing Japan’s Asian rampage (1931 to 1945) and trying to recast it as a war to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. At least 15 million Asian ghosts haunt that outlandishly rosy reinterpretation.

At the end of 2015, under pressure from Washington to get over history so that the three allies could upgrade ties, Tokyo and Seoul concluded an agreement aimed at resolving the festering “comfort women” issue. Although touted as “final and irreversible,” this diplomatic deceit was doomed not only because the public overwhelmingly rejected it but also because it lacks empathy toward the victims.

We look to the past for identity and meaning. But too often we forge our sense of belonging at the expense of others. Nationalist parties around the world, including the GOP here in the U.S., are forever worrying that hand-wringing about past misdeeds will tear at the national fabric and weaken our resolve. On the contrary, refusing to seek reconciliation and restitution makes future conflict more likely. Power fused to narratives of national righteousness does not make societies good; it makes them cruel and stupid.

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

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North Carolina Congressman George H. White, elected during the Republican-populist alliance of the 1890s.

Historians are almost allergic to the word inevitable. We talk about contingency, about the what ifs, about the choices people make and how they matter. As we look at the past and see how complex and interconnected everything is, we ponder how history-making events might have turned out very differently but for seeming coincidences, unpredicted variables and—the greatest variable of all—human behavior that defies expectations.

Last week students in my U.S. survey class read an astonishing document from Frederick Douglass. In 1869, Douglass bluntly defended a vision of American society built on diversity and universal equality. At a time when most Americans saw diversity as a problem to be solved, Douglass declared there was nothing wrong with diversity that equal rights wouldn’t solve. In many ways, the document feels incredibly contemporary. Students were naturally sympathetic to it, in contrast to the other materials we read promoting human inequality.

But their sympathy only got them so far. When asked if Douglass’s vision was actually possible to implement in the 1860s and 1870s, the students said it was not possible. The implication—though they didn’t say it in so many words—is that the revival of white supremacy after the civil war and reconstruction was inevitable.

Today, I presented a lecture designed to challenge the assumption of inevitability. Though the end of reconstruction is traditionally dated to 1877, we talked about key moments in the struggle for interracial democracy in the twenty years after the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

I emphasized that much of what we imagine would be required to implement Douglass’s vision was actually put in place during his lifetime. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 did much of what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would later do, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Lodge Force Bill of 1890 would have established federal oversight of elections not so different from the system later created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After passing the House it fell to a Senate filibuster.

For decades after the withdrawal of federal occupation, black southerners continued to vote in large numbers and wield political power. In fact, they forged interracial coalitions with white populists and, in the case of North Carolina, took over the entire state government. After winning big in the election of 1894, the fusion party promptly enacted a reform agenda to relieve poor farmers, invest in public education, and expand access to the voting booth. So popular was this agenda that in the election of 1896 the interracial alliance actually extended its gains. Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the state house and senate.

White supremacists won the election of 1898 not with better or more popular ideas but with more violence. Amid a campaign of relentless demagoguery encouraging poor whites to think about their racial status rather than their class interests, Democrats used violence and intimidation to keep people from the voting booth. In Wilmington, having failed to win the local elections even with such tactics, white militias simply attacked and overthrew the government by force.

Faced with interracial political alliances between poor whites and poor blacks, white elites in the South made the writing of new constitutions a major priority. These constitutions drastically restricted the right to vote using poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Provisions that were colorblind on their face, they were designed to completely eliminate black voting. They also disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

It took white southern elites the better part of four decades to establish a new system of white supremacy on the ashes of the old. In that time of flux, the forces of democracy might have won. What if the federal government had ensured free elections? What if the Lodge Bill had passed? In the end, after much struggle and violence, the terrorists won. But they almost didn’t.

Having placed the new system of segregation on solid legal and electoral ground, white supremacists in the South promptly began to spin myths about it. Suddenly this new system was not new at all, but a natural state of relations between white and black, a tradition, an inevitability. Tell that to the 1,000 black government officials in 1890s North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow south, inevitability was the ideology of the oppressor and the complacent. Contingency was the resistor’s hope.

This was why it was important for Martin Luther King to write from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 that progress was not inevitable, that time would not heal wounds. Civil rights for all was not an idea whose time had finally come. It was an old idea—known and tried and fought for generations before—and now the civil rights movement was trying to rebuild what had been so tragically lost.

Maybe if enough people were willing to make themselves, in King’s words, “coworkers with God,” the passage of time would indeed bring progress. But maybe, had the dice landed slightly differently a century before, had a few more people been willing to act, Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Birmingham at all.