A New Study Suggests the Christian Right Is Souring Americans On Religion

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One of the most important changes in the American religious landscape in recent decades is the dramatic rise in the numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation (now around a quarter of the population). Everyone agrees that this is happening, but why is it happening? A new article in Political Research Quarterly says the Christian Right has a lot to do with it. The authors argue that the rise of the “nones” is not consistent across the country, but is instead correlated with the clout and visibility of Christian Right politics in various places:

We argue that the rate of change is uneven across the states, driven by the salient policy controversy linked to Christian Right activism. Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.

If they’re correct, we may see this trend intensify in the Trump era. Whatever you think of the Christian Right, in decades past there was at least a case to be made that the movement had some sincerely held convictions. Now, it is impossible for anyone not in that bubble to take their claims about anything seriously.

We’ll have to wait and see the data that emerges on religious affiliation in the coming years. The authors note that this wouldn’t be the first time political engagement appeared to reduce religious affiliation:

American religion has faced similar trade-offs before. The turbulent 1960s witnessed a new breed of religious leaders from more liberal, mainline Protestant denominations taking positions on the pressing issues of the day, often (from the perspective of organizational maintenance, at least) to disastrous effect. Clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in lay membership. For instance, one survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of church leaders who participated in acts of antiwar civil disobedience reported that their churches had subsequently lost members (Quinley 1974). Another study found that Protestant ministers who were involved in efforts at desegregation faced increasingly empty pews as their flocks bolted in favor of other congregations whose leaders espoused more pro-segregationist views or stayed out of the matter altogether (Campbell and Pettigrew 1959). These “storms in the churches” (Hadden 1969) are often credited with leading to membership declines among more liberal mainline Protestant churches (e.g., Wuthnow 1999).

In light of this history, there is a certain irony to the present situation in which elements of the Christian Right find themselves, as the early movement modeled many of its tactics after those employed by mainline churches during the civil rights movement (Findlay 1990). And just as involvement in the controversies of the day ushered in a period of organizational decline in which parishioners deserted mainline Protestantism in droves, it appears as though the Christian Right is following a strikingly similar path.

It may be that large numbers of Americans across the political spectrum want to believe that there are somehow discrete domains separate from one another—one that we call “religion” and another that we call “politics”—and that these Americans are inclined to withdraw from affiliation with those who dare to transgress those imagined borders.

As we imagine religion as something private and symbolic and of the mind, we look askance at those who take their religion as the basis of their public and political acts. I think that’s a mistake. We need the public activism that comes from the wellsprings of faith. You can’t applaud the civil rights movement and then lament the influence of religion in public life.

The problem with the Christian Right is not that it’s political religion but that it’s political religion based in fear and hatred. In response to this destructive movement, there is an understandable desire to cut religion out of politics, or vice versa, but these are pipe dreams. You can choose the politics of your religion, but apolitical religion is not one of your choices. A so-called apolitical religion is merely one whose politics its adherents have made to seem natural or sacred.

Hopefully evangelicals beyond the Christian Right can see the rise of the “nones” as a good thing. Insofar as people are discarding religion in response to the Christian Right, they are demonstrating more openness to the claims of Jesus, not less. The challenge for Christians moving forward is to practice politics rooted in love for the other and the good of the community. Whether we like it or not, that’s not Christian common sense; it’s a political agenda.

Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

In Social Movements, Shame Is A Powerful Weapon

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The March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

How does social change happen? In idealized stories of earlier reform movements—abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—we like to tell ourselves that in certain critical moments the public can experience a moral awakening. In the civil rights era, police brutality mediated through the new technology of television supposedly shocked the conscience of the nation and led to reform. Is this really true?

The question matters because the answer shapes the strategies we believe contemporary social movements ought to pursue. Does a movement win when it has persuaded a majority of people of the righteousness of its cause? Do appeals to a shared moral sense drive change? Or do more aggressive tactics work better? Should a movement try very hard not to offend opponents? Or should it heighten the contrast between two sides?

Without discounting the grain of truth in narratives of moral awakening, I think we need to be more clear-eyed about how change often occurs. It is true that becoming a society that no longer countenanced slavery was a massive moral shift. But that shift in imagination was measured in generations, not months or years. It is true that the civil rights movement moved the moral conscience, but in the short term it looked less like an awakening and more like a grudging acceptance of change.

As much as we’d like to believe in moral awakenings, Americans didn’t suddenly repent of the horror of racism when they saw John Lewis getting his head bashed in. Instead, politicians, celebrities, employers and pastors began to tell people that it was no longer socially acceptable to be racist. Wanting to be considered good people, and wanting to see themselves as good people, white Americans decided racism was bad. The Trump era shows how paper-thin that judgment remains even half a century after the height of the civil rights movement.

But that doesn’t mean the movement’s gains weren’t significant. Moving the boundaries of social acceptability and implementing concrete policy changes are huge victories. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has receded from the headlines, it has shifted boundaries and is driving policy changes in local police departments and DA offices. Such shifts don’t just follow moral change; they often precede it.

We may now be seeing the standards of social acceptability moving on the related issue of guns. To win, social movements need to have more than a compelling moral case. They need to be able and willing to raise the costs of inaction. (This doesn’t mean resorting to violence. There’s good political science evidence showing that violence in the civil rights era was counterproductive.) You raise costs by making politicians fear for their jobs, businesses for their profits, and people for their reputations.

We’re seeing movement on all three of those fronts. Republican politicians in suburban districts are making noises about the need for action. The Trump Administration at least wants to appear to be doing something. Many major businesses are not even trying to straddle the issue anymore and are instead taking actions that align them squarely on the side of the gun control activists. And the NRA is becoming more unpopular as its spokespeople and supporters reveal themselves as heartless extremists. A new poll out this morning shows that more Americans strongly disapprove of the NRA than strongly approve.

That strong disapproval number is important. In my ideal world, activists could simply present their righteous cause, lay out the evidence, and lovingly appeal to the moral intuition we all share. In the real world, while we should try to do all those things, we must also rely on the power of shame. The gun control activists will win, in part, by making people feel that it is disreputable and shameful to be associated with the NRA. They will win by making people feel that this is something that “good people” simply don’t do.

Activists can win by shifting the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. Sometimes one generation’s embarrassment can become the seeds of a future generation’s convictions. Yet recognizing the power of shame does not mean we must be cynics about the power of love. People on the opposing side need to have a way to back down without feeling like they’re losing everything. This need not be zero sum. Without love, activists can become nothing more than would-be oppressors, lacking only the power to crush their opposition. With love, activists can gladly welcome every convert, however late to the game they may be. We cannot afford to be complacent about our own condition. We are flawed people seeking positive change. The problem of evil is the problem of me. I do not have the vision, the wisdom, the love, to see clearly all that can or should be done. That’s always important to remember.

Event: The Letter from Birmingham Jail at Eastern State Penitentiary

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This Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, a defining document of the civil rights movement.

Readings will take place throughout the day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. See the Eastern State site for details.

The great Dax Richardson will be voicing Dr. King. Temple’s Minju Bae and I will facilitate the discussions and provide historical context. Monday’s sessions will also feature readers from the community.

In past years, these readings and discussions have been powerful times of reflection and dialogue. I’ve been privileged to participate in this event during a whirlwind of change over the past few years. In 2015 and 2016, the black lives matter movement made the discussion of the letter feel extremely urgent. In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump and the palpable turn in the national mood away from attention to racial injustice, the letter took on a different hue. Who knows what this year will bring!

Whether you’re able to come to a reading or not, if you’ve never been to Eastern State, you should go! It is an astonishing historic site. In recent years Eastern State has won major national awards for its top-notch exhibits and programming. Their exhibit on mass incarceration is sobering and deeply relevant.

Notes from the Classroom: Oops, I asked A Bad Question

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Huh?

On the final exam I gave students several essay question options. Here is one of them:

“Why did the civil rights movement succeed in some ways and fail in others?”

A couple dozen students responded to this prompt, and it turned out to be a bad question. There was a huge gap between what I thought I was asking and what I actually asked. I know this because not a single student out of dozens gave me an answer I was looking for.

I thought I was asking a why question about the key variables that played into success and failure during the civil rights movement. Students could argue that the movement succeeded when it managed to combine powerful symbolic action with a clearly defined end goal (as in the Montgomery Bus Boycott). They could argue that media publicity was the decisive factor, as in Birmingham. Or that divisions within black communities in places like Albany, Georgia were crucial causes of failure. They might argue that whichever side was perceived as the initiator of violence lost, leading to sympathy for the movement in the early 60s and backlash in the later 60s.

After talking about all these factors in lectures, these are the kinds of arguments I was imagining in response to my question. Instead, students treated it as an opportunity to list a series of successes and failures: Brown v Board, success! Lack of enforcement, failure! Voting Rights Act, success! Police brutality, failure!

The consistency of this form of response across dozens of essays clearly shows that my question was hazy. Yes, I did have the word why in it, but as I read it now, I’m all but inviting students to list successes and failures, and that’s what they did.

Put another way, I wanted students to make an historical argument in response to this question, and none of them did. That’s not a sign of lazy students. That’s a sign of a professor who failed to to provide clear instructions and the tools to implement them. So, how could I have asked the question more clearly?

More broadly, what kinds of questions have you found do a good job provoking historical thinking and argument? Are students conditioned to use exams to regurgitate information rather than making arguments?

The Civil Rights Movement Doesn’t Automatically Belong To You

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John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being beaten, 1961

A new civil rights museum is about to open in Mississippi, and President Trump is planning to attend. That this would be taken as an affront and would cause veterans of the movement to boycott the event ought to have been obvious. Trump is an opponent of what the civil rights movement stood for. When John Lewis duly announced today that he will not attend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.

Does Sanders know Lewis led SNCC? Does she know about Bloody Sunday? Does she care? Does she know that Lewis has taken criticism over the years for his willingness to sit down with white segregationists who claimed to be repentant? John Lewis, of all people, has shown himself willing to give second chances to people who don’t deserve them. He would probably do the same for Trump. But repentance has to come first.

It is impossible for Trump to honor the movement without first repenting of his open and flagrant racism. Unless he does so, he’s making a mockery of the movement.

If the absurdity of the administration’s position isn’t immediately obvious, it’s only because of the general ignorance the American public has about the civil rights movement.

This is a good occasion to return to my article on white memories of the civil rights movement, published this year in History & Memory. In that piece, I show how white Americans came to mythologize white resistance to the civil rights movement as inherently violent, extremist, and ultimately vanquished. Instead of grappling with the way opponents of the civil rights movement helped create “colorblind” America, white Americans began to believe there was a vast distance between the contemporary United States and the bad old days of the 1960s. This mythology has proven so strong that even when President Trump actively promotes racism many Americans are unable to accept the plain historical meaning of what he is doing.

But others know better, as the Washington Post reported today:

JACKSON, Miss. — The president is coming to America’s poorest, blackest state to open a civil rights museum on Saturday, and people in the neighborhoods surrounding that gleaming tribute to the past would rather have Donald Trump visit their present.

“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that has been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House, and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ ”

Three miles from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, over rutted roads, past littered lots, abandoned houses, and shuttered plants and warehouses, McElroy, 69, and other black residents of this struggling capital city say that after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, they have a definitive answer to the question candidate Trump posed when he spoke at a rally in Jackson in August last year.

“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked, making a quixotic and ultimately failed bid for black votes to a nearly all-white crowd.

“We’re losing a lot,” McElroy said here this week. “Losing Obamacare. Where are people going to go? Losing money. He’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Mostly, we’re losing respect. No way you can evade that. The way he speaks, the racists feel like they can say anything they want to us.”

Trump supporters: the civil rights movement doesn’t belong to you! Have the courage of your convictions. The rest of us already see where you’re coming from. Time to be honest with yourself.

Northern Evangelicalism’s Long Alliance with the GOP

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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.

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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.

Remembering Racial Progress, Forgetting White Resistance

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A young Senator Stennis. John C. Stennis Collection. Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

My article on John Stennis, colorblindness, and American memory of the civil rights movement is out in the latest edition of History & Memory.* A taste:

On October 19, 1987, Stennis announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The Wall Street Journal summed up his career as a feel-good story of racial progress. “He succeeded white supremacist Theodore Bilbo,” the Journal declared, “and lived to vote for a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.” As a narrative arc to make sense of the nation’s progress and the career of one of its longest-serving senators, this was extremely compelling. It was also flatly false. In fact, Stennis announced his retirement four years to the day after being one of only four democratic senators to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on October 19, 1983. Had they wished, journalists and pundits might have noted this irony and constructed a rather different narrative arc for Stennis’s career. Instead, the legislative record itself became a casualty of the need to rehabilitate a figure who did not fit within the familiar media frames of American civil rights memory.


*If you don’t have access through your library or school I’d be happy to send you a pdf.

Writing History that Matters

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In her keynote address at this weekend’s Barnes Conference at Temple University, Danielle McGuire spoke to us about writing history that matters; history that does work in the present; history that people actually want to read. If you’ve read At the Dark End of the Street, you know McGuire knows what she’s talking about. The book is easy to read and extremely powerful. And it’s something that nearly anyone can pick up and read because it’s a story that revolves around real people doing extraordinary things. Who doesn’t like a good story?

(A teaser: you know how Rosa Parks, that docile seamstress, got the civil rights movement started because she was tired one day and refused to give up her seat on the bus? Yeah, that story? It’s all wrong. Read McGuire’s book!)

The first real lecture I ever gave was about the civil rights movement. First lectures are often famous disasters, but mine was not. Whatever mistakes I may have made, they were covered by one good move: I relentlessly relied on a few good books, McGuire’s first among them. Because of that, one of the students came up to me after the lecture and said she had never heard the story of the civil rights movement told like that before. She was moved. Thanks to McGuire.

McGuire’s keynote address was funny and inspiring. Here are a few of my idiosyncratic takeaways:

–When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t have to write a dissertation. I just have to write a page. (This is extremely important!)

–Consider putting all the historiography in the footnotes, even in the dissertation. I want to do this.

–Who are the main characters in my story? (I don’t know?….)

–Learn to love editing. Throw stuff down on the page no matter how bad it is. Six dozen edits later, it won’t be bad.

–Read fiction! (What if it’s bad fiction?) Think about the kinds of things that authors of fiction think about: pacing, narrative arc, character development. As historians, we impose some kind of order on the chaos and fragmentation of the archives. We tell stories that are very much our own, that do not exist independently of us. We might as well make them good stories while we’re at it. They don’t have to be bloodless.

–Read James Baldwin. This needs no reason or justification.

–Reckon with the emotional toll of the dissertation. The hardest obstacles are not technical. They’re not even cognitive. They’re matters of spirit. Do I have something worth saying? Am I writing something that matters? Do I have the guts to see it through? To write that bad draft and revise it, to show it to others, is to face over and over again your fallibility.

–Trust your learning; trust your students. After years of marinating in the past, we historians have ways of thinking that are useful to undergraduates. Don’t push too hard. Trust the process. They will not become historical thinkers in a semester, but if you let them see how and why the past has moved you, they will not be unmoved.

Take Action: Join the NAACP

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NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers

In the fall of 1954, tensions were rising in Mississippi. The Supreme Court had decided Brown v Board in May, and NAACP chapters around the state were preparing to bring school desegregation suits. Meanwhile, the first White Citizens’ Councils–determined to uphold segregation–had already formed and were on their way to spreading throughout the South.

In October, Byron De La Beckwith of Greenwood, Mississippi, wrote to Senator John Stennis urging him to stand strong against the forces of integration:

This is to let you know that I insist that you openly, clearly, and definitely fight and destroy all those persons in any way connected with integration. Segregation must be maintained at all cost & with any means we find most expedient. I pledge my life to maintain segregation. We must…destroy all those associated with integration.¹

Stennis lamely replied, “Dear Friend Beckwith, I certainly appreciate your letter in which you so forcefully expressed your views on segregation.” It was Stennis’s custom to indulge the violent fantasies of his white constituents with formulaic friendly replies, as he did on this occasion. In contrast, when the NAACP wrote to him, he studiously ignored their queries. In February of 1960 the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP asked Stennis to do something about the Citizens’ Councils:

We want to be free. We want the truth to be known about the Negro in Mississippi. All Negroes are entitled to equal justice, many of whom are afraid to voice their sentiments because of economic reprisals sinfully heaped upon them by their white employers. They are afraid to speak the convictions of their souls because of the hate virus spread by the White Citizens Council and similar organizations. May we impress upon you, Mr. Stennis that America cannot maintain its great heritage with its citizens half free and half slaves?²

As usual, Stennis did not respond to his black constituents. After all, he was busy supporting the Citizens’ Councils behind the scenes. He understood, correctly, that the NAACP was a mortal threat to the white supremacy he held dear.

Though the NAACP by the 1950s and 1960s already had a reputation as the cautious and stodgy old guard of the civil rights movement, it played a crucial role in the struggle. Everyone from white terrorists to U.S. senators correctly perceived that the NAACP was one of their most dangerous opponents.

And so, in the summer of 1963, Byron De La Beckwith would finally make good on his violent intentions. He assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the driveway of his own home.

Today, long after other civil rights organizations have faded, the NAACP is still around. And it’s still doing vital work, especially through the legal defense fund. The NAACP is at the forefront of efforts to protect voting rights and resist the resegregation of schools. Joining the NAACP adds your money (a small amount!) and name to the national clout of the organization, but it’s also a way to organize locally, as you can connect with the chapter in your area.

On this shameful day, as a barbarous administration comes to power, let’s take action. Do something positive. Join the NAACP. It–and you–will be needed in the years ahead.


¹Byron De La Beckwith to John C. Stennis, October 25, 1954. Series 29 Box 1 Folder 38. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

²Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP to John C. Stennis, February 18, 1960, Series 29 Box 7 Folder 16. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.