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!
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!
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.
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.
The Washington Post reports that Democrats may have a chance in the Mississippi Senate election after all:
JACKSON, Miss. — 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.
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.
During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.
The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:
1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists
2. Calm tensions
3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”
To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.
This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.
But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.
And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.
It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.
But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.
Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.
We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.
It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.
* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.
There is no greater threat to the safety of the American people or to the construction of a free society in the United States than white racism. It has always been this way. White racism fueled the slave society that devoured the bodies of human beings like so much kindling for the fire. White racism threw the country into the abyss of civil war, leaving 750,000 people dead. White racism powered the largest, deadliest, and most enduring terrorist organization in American history.
White racism closed ballot boxes in pursuit of power and split bodies open for sport. White racism built walls of concrete and imagination, bordering minds and communities, closing off opportunity, condemning the Einstein you never heard of to die in a dank prison cell.
White racism gives to Americans the most tangible knowledge we have of the reality of human depravity. It is the purest evil we know. White Americans, especially, live constantly in the intimate paradox of familiarity and denial of this knowledge. The manifestation of this intimate paradox is seen in our defensiveness, in our rote insistence that racism is both awful and, somehow, powerless in the face of our good intentions.
In recent days we’ve seen a Trump-loving man espousing white supremacy mail pipe bombs to Democratic politicians; a white man attempt to break into a predominantly black church before murdering two black people in a grocery store and allegedly declaring, “Whites don’t kill whites”; and now, today, an attack on a Jewish synagogue by a man reportedly enraged at Jewish efforts to welcome refugees.
Next Tuesday Republican voters in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District will vote for Steve King, all the while imagining that they oppose the violent racism we’ve witnessed this week. I wish they did. But that would require aligning their actions with their professed intentions. It is sobering to realize that the vast majority of these people are entirely sincere. Indeed, it is through reckoning with their sincerity that we can glimpse how whiteness works.
White Americans learn from an early age to lie to ourselves. We acquire this skill alongside language and basic motor functions as a necessary part of being able to move through the world at ease with ourselves. Because we’ve learned that racism is Very Bad™ we must insist that it does not stain us. Yet because we are actually quite familiar with its rhythms and logic—learned as we navigated the built environment itself, went to school and home and church, taken in through jokes and side remarks, understood in what was unsaid— we must insist that racism is something like being impolite.
Racism is too bad to attach itself to us; it is too familiar to be that bad. And so white racism in the white American imagination is imagined as rudeness or mean-spiritedness, rather than a deadly evil that destroys lives by the thousands.
So while Steve King talksabouthiswhite supremacist convictions with all the subtlety of a blaring fire alarm, Republican voters will support him. And while Donald Trump spews toxic mixtures of racism, violence, and conspiracy theory, those who share his views take it to heart and are emboldened to murder people. We saw it last year in Charlottesville. We’re seeing it again this week.
Meanwhile, ordinary white people in places like rural Iowa, people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, will go on lying to themselves, imagining that that they don’t bear responsibility for this week’s events. They’ll go on saying they support Trump’s policies but not some of his rhetoric, as if racist incitement to violence is a minor matter of etiquette. They’ll go on playing roulette with other people’s lives, never having to face the lies that let them live in peace. More people must die, they have decided, so that we white Americans can live comfortably in our own skin.
This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).
It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.
But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.
As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.
Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.
I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.
Here’s a fascinating editorial from a black newspaper in Chicago complaining that black people always vote Republican:
It is inconceivable to us how the Negro can work himself up to the point where he is willing to trifle with his soul’s salvation, for he is willing to forfeit his chances of arriving within the pearly gates of heaven (if there is such a place, which we doubt), by affiliating with all the wildcat churches in existence. He will become a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Mormon, Christian Scientist, Dowieite, and freely follow the religious leaders of all other denominations, and hazard his chances of striking the straight and narrow path, which is supposed to lead to paradise, for it is expressly stated that there is only one true church, that all who fail to march under its banner are eternally lost. With this terrible warning or admonition hanging over his head he is perfectly willing to traverse various roads in order to find a resting place with his imaginary gods throughout eternity.
All this is readily changed with the Negro when it comes down to politics, which only deal with the temporal affairs of men and not with their spiritual welfare, and by permitting the wily and demagogic leaders of the Republican party to mix up his religion and his politics together for him; he has naturally arrived at that mental condition which forces him to believe that he must continue to blindly vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln, regardless of the fact that men and political measures have changed within the past forty years…
As it is he can never regain any of his political power or prestige until he refrains from permitting any one to tell how he is going to vote simply on account of the color of his skin. The members of no other race in America claiming to be civilized, would permit themselves to pursue such a ruinous course of policy. The members of all other races and nationalities look upon politics as a cold business proposition, and the vast majority of them cast their ballots for the men who will best serve their interests, regardless of their politics, and enable them to enrich their pockets. While on the other hand the Negro continues to live in the dead past, and is ever ready to continue to vote for dead ideas or sentiments. His mental disease in this regard is his greatest curse. He is tolerant or friendly disposed to any other Negro who may happen to differ with him along religious lines, but he places his Republican politics ahead of his Lord and his religion, for with a few honorable exceptions he is willing to tear to pieces every Negro who assumes an air of political independence, that is one who fails to blindly vote and act like himself.
The ironies. The resonances. The questions. Primary sources have a way of surprising us, provoking new questions, giving us a window into a world that we might have thought we knew, but is actually quite unfamiliar and surprising.
Among the surprises here: the mocking attitude toward religion, and the intensity of anti-Republican feeling at this early date. To specialists this probably isn’t surprising, but it is to me. In any case, someone needed to tell the editorialist that political allegiances are sticky and African Americans didn’t really have better options at the time. Sound familiar?
How did white evangelicals outside the South encounter black people or black culture during the era of Jim Crow? Judging from anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, it seems as though the primary point of contact was through music—the so-called “Negro spirituals.”
I’ve just seen a particularly striking example of how white evangelicals of this era might use an imagined version of black culture as a source of humor, entertainment, and cheap sentiment. A student literary society at a white evangelical college put on a program in 1928, described below:
The first selection is a piano arrangement of Southern songs. Their crooning melody stirs every heart. We seem to visualize a group of darkies around a cabin door beneath a harvest moon, and to hear the soft strumming of a guitar. This vision is then described in reality in an educational talk on Southern life by one who has been a missionary among the mountain folk of Kentucky. A lullaby for pickaninnies, sung by one of our members, delights us next.
Thus far there has been a sentimental tone to our program. Now a humorous note appears in a reading on that subject so near to the negro heart (and stomach): watermelons. Intermittent chuckles are still heard as the secretary announces a negro spiritual by the male quartet. The bass rumbles, the tenor pleads, the baritone calls triumphantly, the plaintive tune delighting yet gripping the audience. Another reading, this time from that friend of white as well as black children, Uncle Remus, is greeted by reminiscent smiles and applause. A negro mammy’s song sung with clarinet obligato closes the program.
What’s striking to me is the utter isolation and indifference exhibited here. In an era of lynching and grinding oppression, they’re able to wring entertainment and sentimentality out of the imagined lives of black people. They appear to know nothing about the actual circumstances of African Americans and they’re so far from caring that they don’t even know it.