The Bible Told Them So: A Conversation with J. Russell Hawkins

J. Russell Hawkins is Professor in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University and author of the new book, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought To Preserve White Supremacy.

What question(s) led you to write this book?

Honestly, answering this could easily turn into a book itself, so I’ll try to keep it brief.  I wrote this book, in part, to answer questions about my own history.  I grew up very much a part of the white evangelical subculture in the 1980s and 90s. I was in church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night.  I sang along with Psalty and listened to the Music Machine on vinyl. I wore witness wear, subscribed to Focus on the Family’s Breakaway magazine and saw my fellow Christian high school students at the pole each September.  But this evangelical world was only part of my formation.  I also grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, attended racially diverse public schools from K-12, and grew up playing on racially diverse sports teams.  The racial diversity of a good part of the rest of my lived experiences stood in stark contrast to the homogeneity of my church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  And as I grew older, I began to be struck by how attitudes and conversations about race in my church were much different than in other areas of my upbringing.  Conversations about race with white Christians were often met with defensiveness, or hostility, or hushed tones.  They were usually short, with the implied message that it was better not to talk about such things. Occasionally, I even heard explicitly racist comments or jokes at church.  Now, to clarify, these things didn’t register with me as they were happening.  It wasn’t until later while I was in the midst of my graduate studies and started wrestling more seriously with questions about race and religion in American history that I found myself wanting to make sense of why so many white evangelicals seemed so weird about race compared to people I knew who weren’t part of that evangelical world.  I decided that if I was going to figure this out I would need to find a period of history when white evangelicals were talking about race and figured the civil rights era held promise for southern white evangelicals going on the record about their racial beliefs.  And it turns out, it did.  So while I’m not a direct descendant of the southern white evangelicals I cover in my book, I do believe a lot of the tendencies I have experienced in evangelicalism around race have roots in the civil rights period.

What is the argument of The Bible Told Them So?

I’m essentially putting forward two big arguments in the book. The first is that a critical mass of southern evangelicals were motivated to resist the civil rights movement because of their religious beliefs. These Christians read the Bible to say that God had designed the segregation of the races and doing away with Jim Crow violated God’s plan. I show in the book how such ideas were derived through a particular reading of the Bible and how the subsequent segregationist theology that arose from this hermeneutic was articulated, defended, and deployed throughout the classical period of the civil rights movement (1954-1965). The second argument is that this theological system wasn’t abandoned after 1965, rather in morphed into new forms to maintain segregation. As southern society was forced to change around them, these southern evangelicals who adhered to a theology of segregation had to change the way they articulated such commitments. I argue that they began using rhetoric of colorblindness and a defense of the family as tools to maintain segregation by the 1970s.

I especially want to zero in on that colorblindness angle. The idea that colorblindness follows hard on the heels of the civil rights movement is not new. But you draw a direct link between the rhetoric of segregation and the rhetoric of colorblindness in a way that seemed fresh and new to me. Can you explain the significance of that?

Yes, usually we think of colorblindness as emerging after Jim Crow’s defeat, or as you say, colorblindness follows hard on the heels of segregation as white folks are trying to make sense of their new post-segregation reality.  But what I found in my research were Christians who adopted the language and tools of colorblindness as a strategy of maintaining segregation rather than a response to integration.  Colorblindness for these white Christians wasn’t so much about making sense of a new reality.  Instead, it was using a particular kind of rhetorical device to maintain the segregation they had been practicing in their institutions all along (or since emancipation in the case of churches).  So as some Christian institutions and denominations started to make halting moves toward integration in the mid to late 1960s, there were white Christians who started saying that all this attention to race was problematic and the church and religious institutions would be better off if they just ignored the issue of race altogether.  But, these were the same people who had said a decade earlier that God made the races distinct and declared in Scripture that they should be segregated.  So it was almost as if these folks could see the writing on the wall and colorblindness for them became the final defense of a segregated system they believed God desired.   

In chapter 4 you detail the rise of colorblindness during the integration battle in the Methodist Church. I’m wondering how you think about the relationship between colorblindness in American politics at that time (with all the energy around affirmative action and busing) and colorblindness in the church. Were white Christians simply seizing on this concept that was out there in politics? Or were they developing a distinctive brand of colorblindness? In other words, do you think there was something Methodist about this colorblindness?

I do think the colorblind defense I highlight in chapter 4 was a parroting of some of the rhetoric found increasingly in American politics at that time.  But, again, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the white Methodists I cover were using this colorblind argument for the explicit purpose of avoiding the integration of their denomination, which had been segregated since 1939.  The reason I think it’s so important to emphasize the linkage between early uses of colorblindness and the defense of segregation in the church is because of how ubiquitous the language of colorblindness would become among evangelicals within a generation after 1970. (Can’t wait for your book to tell this story.)  As you know, white evangelicals today are especially fond of the language of colorblindness when it comes to matters of race.  And while there are ample critiques of colorblindness, I think one of the most powerful indictments we can make against colorblind rhetoric is to show that in its earliest iteration it was wielded by white Christians who wished to maintain Jim Crow-style segregation in their churches and religious institutions.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that a white evangelical subculture who embraced the language of colorblindness remains hyper-segregated along racial lines.  Colorblindness has helped in part maintain the very segregation it’s early adopters had hoped and prayed for.    

Why does this history matter now?

I don’t think there have been very many days that have gone by in the past six months (Past year? Past four years?) when the importance of this history hasn’t been abundantly clear. I think especially with the unrelenting focus on CRT in American society in general and the backlash to “wokeness” among many white evangelicals in particular, the issue of race continues to hold immense salience. I’m hopeful my book can provide some additional light on how we got here.

Southern Baptist Elites Are Dusting Off A Very Old Racist Rhetorical Strategy

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Brooks Hays, Arkansas Congressman and President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This week Southern Baptist seminaries announced:

we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.

Read Jemar Tisby to understand the racial message this is sending in 2020. I want to focus here on the rhetorical tradition in which this statement operates.

Many Southern Baptists are likely to imagine that this statement is a good case of level-headed moderation. They may not realize that it bears striking resemblance to a very old pattern of racist rhetoric within and without the convention.

The basic rhetorical move is over a century old, and elites who desired respectability and mainstream support for their racist goals came to rely upon it. It combines a vague condemnation of racism in abstract terms with a reactionary posture to the specific racial matter at hand. We condemn racism in general, and we also unequivocally condemn the tools anti-racists have developed to confront racism.

During Jim Crow: of course we don’t want to go back to the bad old days of slavery. I’m glad it’s gone. But let me tell you why social equality won’t work.

During battles over anti-lynching bills: of course I’m against vigilantism in any form, but let me tell you why a federal anti-lynching bill will do more harm than good.

During debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Rights…belong to all of us regardless of color…” and let me tell you why this bill would actually make racism worse.

Today: of course black lives matter, but let me tell you why police reform hurts the people it purports to help.

But you really want to see this pattern within the SBC, right? Ok, let me show you with one suggestive example.

After the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board decision in 1954, Southern white elites came under intense pressure from the grassroots to resist school integration. The same dynamic played out within the SBC as numerous regional associations in the South passed resolutions declaring their unalterable commitment to segregation and criticizing convention bodies such as the Christian Life Commission and the Sunday School Board for their moderate racial statements.

What were SBC elites to do? On the one hand was the Christian principle of love without regard to color. On the other was the inflammatory political question of school integration. The general and the specific were colliding. Probably no one in the SBC faced these issues more directly than Brooks Hays.

Hays found himself playing key roles in both the politics of the South and the Southern Baptist Convention. A Congressman from Arkansas, Hays was known as a relative moderate on racial questions, but what moderation meant in that moment needs clarification. Hays signed the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” declaring opposition to Brown v Board and encouraging states to “resist forced integration by any lawful means.” Yet during the Little Rock Crisis, Hays advocated compromise and became a target for segregationist criticism.

The Southern Manifesto, widely seen as reactionary outside the South, was the bare minimum politicians within the South had to support to maintain credibility. Hays was rewarded for his painful balancing act. Southern Baptists elected him to the presidency of the convention in 1957. From that position Hays continued to remind his constituents that he had gone on the record against “forced integration.” At the same time, he declared that he was “trying to follow New Testament principles, particularly the injunction of Paul to ‘speak the truth in love.'”1

Hays and other SBC elites tended to see themselves as standing between the “extremes” of the White Citizens’ Councils on the one hand and the NAACP on the other. While advocating Christian love and deploring “hatred” of all kinds, they accused the people who were actually resisting racism of promoting “anarchy.” At every turn, the non-negotiable element of their racial rhetoric was not black freedom, but the unity of the SBC. As Hays put it,

Our principle interest right now is to hold our scattered congregations together. Our people entertain differences on the race question, but I am trying to steer a course that will put no strains upon us and enable us to differ in love.2

This remains the principle interest of SBC elites in 2020. Instead of standing for racial justice come what may, they offer the same sorts of platitudes their ancestors did, while once again condemning anti-racism as it actually exists. It is a curious set of commitments. The convention, for all its flaws, must be held together at nearly any cost. But anti-racist movements and organizations must be examined with a fine-tooth comb and rejected if they fall short in any way.

The narrative within the SBC is that there have been drastic changes since the deplorable days of Southern Baptists’ support for segregation. But their own rhetoric shows how empty these claims are. Opposing racism in theory while accommodating it in fact is a very old strategy, and today’s SBC elites are giving it new life.


1 Brooks Hays to Mrs. R.C. McLeod Nov 6 1957, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

2 Brooks Hays to Mr. D.K. Martin, January 15, 1958, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

*For a much more sympathetic account of Hays’ actions see David Roach.

Jim Crow as Family Values

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Gordon Parks, 1956.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Another White Evangelical Self-Critique, And Its Limits

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The crushed body of Reverend Bruce Klunder lies in the mud, April 1964

It is common to make distinctions between northern and southern white evangelicals during the civil rights era. Northerners are cast as more moderate, while southerners are assumed to be more reactionary. Even if this interpretation captures a truth about the overall posture of these regional groupings, it definitely undersells the extent to which segregationist theology had made inroads among white evangelicals nationwide.

In June, 1964, an editorial in Eternity critiqued white evangelicals as a group with little regional distinctiveness:

Let’s face it. Most evangelicals, whether they are from the North, South, East or West, are supporters of the status quo, and consequently tend to be segregationists. They would rather not discuss the matter at all, but if you press them, they will spout almost the same defensive arguments as the most reactionary Southerner, whose white-dominated world really is threatened. They speak bitterly against the liberals who, they say, substitute social action for the gospel of redemption.”

This is another remarkable critique of white evangelicals from white evangelicals. I find these sorts of documents fascinating in part because it helps us to see how the intra-evangelical debates of today are very old. We’ve seen this movie before. In the age of black lives matter and Donald Trump, the claims and counterclaims and misunderstanding among fellow evangelicals feels very, very familiar.

In that same 1964 editorial, the authors described themselves as “editors of an evangelical magazine that has suffered for taking a position on the racial issue.” Perhaps a dig at the wishy-washy cowardice of Christianity Today is implied there.

Yet even Eternity placed sharp limits on its support for black aspirations. The moment protestors turned to violence the editors were prepared to condemn their behavior with particular venom. After a civil rights protest in Cleveland left a white pastor dead and black protestors attacked the driver of the bulldozer who had inadvertently crushed the man, Eternity described the “animal-like fury” of their assault and condemned “demonic” efforts to “whip up the passions of the crowd.” These descriptions betray a visceral horror lacking in their criticisms of white violence of the same period.

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.