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.