God with Us: A Conversation with Ansley Quiros

Ansley L. Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama. Her new book, God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976, is available now.

Curtis: What is the main argument of God with Us?

Quiros: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

Curtis: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

Quiros: For me, the most challenging aspect of actually writing the book was balancing the narrative and the historical argument. I found myself, at moments, getting swept up in the story and momentarily abandoning the analysis, and then at others interrupting the sweep of events with more abstract historical musings. Balancing those impulses– presenting a swift narrative while also making a real argument—proved difficult but I’m thankful to great editors and readers who helped smooth the whole thing out. One thing that was delightful to realize was how even one careful word can hold the thread of analysis, one name drop can keep a story in mind.

Curtis: Your book is very theological and it wears that on its sleeve. Did you get pushback from other historians? It seems to me that historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars are often talking past each other even if we’re writing about similar things. Was it difficult for you to situate your book disciplinarily?

Quiros: It was, but just a bit. After an initial explainer of my choice to foreground theology, I found most historians to be quite supportive. Most know instinctively that historical research has tended to diminish the role of faith in people’s lives, not the institutions so much, but the content and effects of belief in the past. This is partly because these things are obviously difficult to get at, but also because the academy can skew secular. The religious studies/theology folks I spoke to occasionally wanted more theologizing, but most understood this was primarily a history book and appreciated the effort to bring lived theology into the conversation.

Curtis: You make a point of showing that white southern Protestants had theologies of segregation that were robust, sincerely held, and internally consistent. In doing so, I think you make a convincing argument against the cultural captivity thesis. Was that something you knew early on in the project you wanted to do, or did it take shape as your research developed?

Quiros: This actually developed as I read David Chappell’s work and the responses from Charles Marsh and Jane Dailey in particular. Truly, this question of theology and culture/politics —the chicken and the egg in some senses—is a perplexing one. On different days, especially in our current political moment, I find myself wondering about it. (I did so here, in fact!)

Curtis: Where do you see the field going from here? What is next for you?

Quiros: I don’t know where the field will go from here, but I think broad evangelical support for the Trump Administration and what I see as consistently racist policies will provide a lot of fodder! As for me, I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!

Slavery Might Influence Your Political Opinions

9780691176741Nearly 70 years ago, in his classic study of southern politics, V.O. Key wrote, “Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.” Key’s explanation for the uniqueness of southern politics was the line of black-belt counties (so named for their soil) stretching through the Deep South and along the Mississippi River. These rich agricultural counties had high black populations because of their central role in the antebellum slave economy.

According to Key, the dominance of these counties in their respective states created a sectional bloc in national affairs, while factionalizing politics within the states themselves. Exerting an influence out of all proportion to their population, white elites in these counties built a uniquely southern brand of politics concerned with their very particular circumstances. As Key wrote, “In these areas a real problem of politics, broadly considered, is the maintenance of control by a white minority.”

Contemporary scholars have built on many of Key’s findings. These counties are definitely unique, and the white voters in them are among the most conservative and racially reactionary in the country. Why is this so?

A new book argues that what we are seeing in this region is the direct legacy of slavery on contemporary political attitudes. I plan to read the whole thing, but for now I am settling for the introduction, which the publisher has made available online. The authors write:

We argue in this book that political attitudes persist over time, making history a key mechanism in determining contemporary political attitudes…We argue that Southern slavery has had a lasting local effect on Southern political attitudes and therefore on regional and national politics. Whites who live in parts of the South that were heavily reliant on slavery and the inexpensive labor that the institution provided…are more conservative today, more cool toward African Americans, and less amenable to policies that many believe could promote black progress. By contrast, whites who live in places without an economic and political tradition rooted in the prevalence of slavery…are, by comparison, more progressive politically and on racial issues. These regional patterns have persisted historically, with attitudes being passed down over time and through generations.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if you oppose reparations for slavery because it was “too long ago” but the influence of slavery on your own political views is actually the reason you oppose reparations? Ha.

The correlation the authors describe has been understood for a long time. It is a powerful clue, but it doesn’t establish cause.  How can they demonstrate that slavery and contemporary political attitudes really are linked in a causal way?

I’ll be curious to see how these authors, as political scientists, build a theoretical framework for making this argument. In brief, they contend that the link between slavery and contemporary attitudes has been transmitted by a mixture of institutions (Jim Crow laws for example) and “family socialization and community norms.” Knowing what we do about how sticky political affiliations can be across generations, it would be hard to believe that the political influence of a centuries-long society-defining institution like slavery could dry up in just a century and half. The trick is to try to measure and show that influence in a tangible way.

A lot of people don’t realize that there is an influential white southern political tradition based on opposition to the post-civil war constitution, democracy, and human rights. This is one of the most influential political traditions in American history. We don’t like to think or talk about it as much as the tradition of equality and freedom, but these visions have been running alongside each other throughout our history. It’s still active now. For voters influenced by that white southern political tradition, Trump’s racism and hostility to the rule of law likely make him more appealing, not less.

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

George_Henry_White
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.

The Lee Myth That Won’t Die

lee
Good riddance!

Robert E. Lee has been back in the news because his statue was one of those removed recently in New Orleans, and self-described white supremacists have been speaking up on his behalf. As Adam Serwer writes today in the Atlantic, some mainstream conservatives took umbrage at white supremacists’ efforts to claim an all-American hero for their hateful cause:

In the Richmond Times Dispatch, R. David Cox wrote that “For white supremacist protesters to invoke his name violates Lee’s most fundamental convictions.” In the conservative publication Townhall,  Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalist, opposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.” Praise for Lee of this sort has flowed forth from past historians and presidents alike.

Serwer goes on to demolish this ignorant drivel and place Lee in a more appropriate context:

White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions…

In Reading The Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.” …

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly lead to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” …

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As historian Richard Plotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

This information is still new to many Americans because of the enduring and successful effort to mythologize Lee as the emblem of a noble white South. It’s past time to discard these romantic stories.

In the debate surrounding Lee and the removal of Confederate statues we repeatedly hear two fallacious arguments. First, that Lee was a man of his time. This obvious truism doesn’t have the absolving power people seem to think it does. All the southern military officers who decided to fight for the Union were also men of their time. So too were the abolitionists who knew slavery was evil. And Lee’s decision to prioritize his material interests and the interests of white people was a decision made in rejection of other possibilities of which Lee was well aware.

Choosing wealth and honor over humanity is quite common! We shouldn’t be so sure that we aren’t making the same choice with our lives right now. But that’s the advantage hindsight gives us: we can learn from the banal evil of people like Lee, and we can perhaps learn to see it in ourselves. But venerating it or excusing it is unacceptable.

The second fallacy is the conflation of remembrance and honor. It’s not hard to understand the difference between learning about the past and celebrating it. A lot of people seem to be deliberately obscuring this difference. The South is littered with public spaces that honor horrendous evil while telling a false story about the past. The irony of those who say removing these statues “erases history” is that the monuments are there precisely for the purpose of erasure. Lost Causers built them as creative acts of historical fiction. They honor a past of their own making.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for new forms of contextualization around the monuments rather than removal. A solution appropriate in one space might not work in another. But wherever you come down on the issue, don’t pretend there isn’t a difference between remembering the past and honoring its worst actors. Serwer concludes with a revealing point about the meaning of these statues:

There are former Confederates who sought redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’ integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans; there are no statues of Longstreet anywhere in the American South. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6’2” Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.

The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.