Why Isn’t Clarence Thomas in the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

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Today someone sent me a short article about a pro-life African American group that is critical of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. because it has excluded “notable figures such as Clarence Thomas, Mia Love, [and] also the title or anything referenced to eugenics….”

There have only been two African American Supreme Court justices and Clarence Thomas is one of them.  I do not know much about Mia Love, but she is the first black female Republican to be elected to Congress.  She is also a Mormon.  And yes, eugenics (as it relates to abortion) is a part of the African American story.

When I first received this article by the Life Education and Resource Network I initially treated it as a piece of political propaganda, but as I read it it peaked my attention enough to see if the organization’s assessment of the new Smithsonian museum was accurate.

Here is what I found:

Yes, Clarence Thomas is largely absent.  I am not sure why.  It would seem he deserves to be there.

It does not look like Mia Love is in the museum.  Having said that, she has only been in Congress since 2015.

I haven’t been able to find anything about how the museum treats eugenics. Can anyone help me out here?  I have yet to visit the museum.

What do you think?  Does the Life Education and Resource Network have a legitimate complaint?

An African American Minister Renounces His Ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention

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Lawrence Ware

Earlier today in a piece at The Washington Post, I suggested that Donald Trump’s presidency is threatening to change the course of American Christianity.

At the same time my piece appeared, The New York Times published a piece from an African American clergyman who is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention because he believes it is “complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right.”

Here is a taste of Rev. Lawrence Ware‘s piece:

To be sure, many prominent convention leaders have opposed Mr. Trump and the alt-right. Indeed, one of them, Russell Moore, went so far as to voice his criticism before the election.

But not enough has been done to address the institutional nature of white supremacy in the convention. Many churches are still hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement, and even more were silent during the rise of Mr. Trump and the so-called alt-right. For all of its talk about the love of Jesus Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention’s inaction on the issues of racism and homophobia has drowned out its words.

I’ve discussed my concerns with many other black ministers my age, and virtually all of us have questioned our membership. At least five of them have quietly left the convention over the past year. (To be sure, I will still remain a minister in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a liberal black Baptist organization, founded in 1961 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Read the entire piece here.  Indeed, as I wrote this morning,

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”

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Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

WedlockTera Hunter is Professor of History and African American Studies. This interview is based on her new book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

TH:  I started thinking a lot about marriage during slavery as I was researching my book: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Harvard Press, 1997).  I was especially drawn to documents that I found during the period of Reconstruction, which demonstrated the depth and feelings and the challenges that former slaves faced in reconstituting their family ties after slavery ended. These records are tremendously rich and I felt like felt like I could not go deep enough to fully capture the complexity and range of intimate relationships that I saw. They raised a lot of interesting questions that could not be easily answered by focusing on the period following emancipation alone. To fully understand post-slavery marriage and family, I needed to trace them over the entire nineteenth century.

I was also very interested in closely examining the internal lives of African Americans. The literature on family was preoccupied with whether or not they conformed to dominant ideas about nuclear structure and gender norms of male-headed households. This led to a very limited view of both the internal values and meaning of marriage to African Americans and also the external constraints that they faced in creating and sustaining these relationships.

More recent debates about the status of black families in the twenty-first century have often invoked the legacy of slavery, often in very ahistorical and problematic ways. I wanted to scrutinize the misinformed assumptions often articulated by both liberal and conservative scholars, commentators, and political pundits. There is a long history of black families being stigmatized.  These perceptions are used as a barometer to discern the capacities of black humanity and fitness for citizenship, with insufficient appreciation of the historical forces they were up against.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bound in Wedlock?

TH: The history of African-American marriage in the nineteenth century teaches us about a pattern that has been continually replicated with each iteration of the seemingly forward movement toward greater freedom and justice. African-American marriage under slavery and quasi-freedom is a story of twists and turns, of intimate bonds being formed, sustained, broken, and repeatedly reconstituted under the duress of oppressive conditions and yet vilified for not conforming to dominant standards.

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

TH: To fully understand the history of slavery in the U. S., we need to know the role that the denial of marriage and family rights played in preserving the system. Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, although they were allowed to marry informally, at the discretion of slaveholders. The main reason why those relationships were denied legal standing was to preserve enslavers’ preeminent rights to control their chattel property and to profit from the literal reproduction of slaves as capital. Legal marriages granted couples control over women’s sexuality and labor, and parental rights over their children. All of those privileges were associated with freedom and conflicted with the very definition of slavery as an inheritable, permanent system of exploitation.

To fully grapple with the devastation that slavery caused black families, we need to know how they fought against the degradation, how they managed to create meaningful relationships despite the enormous constraints that they were up against. They established their own standards for conjugal relationships, which involved accepting, revising, and even rejecting conventional ideas about marriage. They were always creative, resourceful, and practical in responding to conditions of cruelty and uncertainty of slavery and post-emancipation life.

We now live in a time in which the U. S. Supreme Court has sanctioned marriage equality for all, making marriage rights available to lesbians, gays, and transsexuals. Many people assume that the history of heterosexual marriage has always been a privilege accessible and enjoyed by all straights, but that has not been the case. It took centuries of struggle for African American heterosexuals to achieve marriage equality in the law.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TH: I became fascinated with history my first year of college. I entered thinking I would become a lawyer, but I became increasingly interested in doing historical research and writing. I had very good teachers in college who opened new ways of thinking about the past, and offered an introduction to primary research, which I had not encountered in high school and fell in love with.

I wrote an honors thesis in my senior year, which confirmed that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. Ultimately. I saw doing historical research as an alternative, and a more compelling way, to achieve some of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I could address some of the travesties of injustice by unearthing stories of common people to paint a more comprehensive and complex portrait of our collective past.

JF: What is your next project?

TH: My next project grows out the epilogue in the book. I’m interested in exploring twentieth century African-American marriage. By the turn of the century, marriage was nearly universal, with blacks marrying slightly more than whites. But that began to change most dramatically starting in the post-World War II era. A racial gap in marriage has widened every decade since. The marriage rates for African Americans declined significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Scholars in other fields, like Sociology, have researched aspects of this trend. I think we need a longer historical perspective to understand the various economic, social, and political factors that have encouraged this decline including growing permanent unemployment, pre-mature mortality rates, and mass incarceration.

JF: Thanks Tera!

Ed Sullivan and Civil Rights

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The Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1966

Hey Todd Allen, I think you should include something about Ed Sullivan in your Return to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.

Here is a taste of an article about a forthcoming documentary titled “Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights tells the story of the man who single-handedly changed the face of popular culture and impacted the minds and lives of both his performers and his viewers. This long-awaited, 70-minute documentary takes a surprising look at the man who was once television’s most influential personality. Visit www.mpslegacyproductions.com to learn more.

Suzanne Kay, daughter of the iconic actress and singer Diahann Carroll, and Margo Precht Speciale, granddaughter of Ed Sullivan, are Producers. They will participate in the film festival panel along with Diahann Carroll, Dwandalyn R. Reece, Ph.D., Curator of Music and Performing Arts, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ed Sullivan is best known for creating television’s longest running variety show and for introducing The Beatles to America. But he was also a risk-taker who consistently booked African-American artists despite threats from southern sponsors and letters from irate white viewers. He showcased unknown artists who are household names today, and he treated them with grace and dignity at a time when racism was the norm, challenging America to do the same.

Based on interviews with celebrities, Sullivan’s family members, and media analysts, this documentary shines a light on a little known chapter in America’s struggle for racial justice.  Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Berry Gordy of Motown, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg are just some of those interviewed as they talk about how the show was a launching pad for their careers and changed their vision of America and America’s vision of African-Americans.

Read the entire article here

The Noose That Brought History To Life

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Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has turned to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to address the noose found recently at the museum.

Here is a taste of his piece:

The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

Read the entire piece here.

I also recommend this conversation between Bunch and American Historical Association director Jim Grossman.

Historians and the Nooses at The National Museum of African American Life and Culture

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Over at the Reformed African American Network, University of Mississippi graduate student Jemar Tisby writes that historians of race in America “have to possess a special kind of fearlessness.”  He writes in the wake of the news that nooses were found in the National Museum of African American Life and Culture in Washington D.C.

Here is a taste:

A noose represents the instrument of death often used in the thousands of lynchings of African Americans that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leaving a noose at the only national museum dedicated to unveiling and proclaiming the history of the African diaspora in America is an assault on the dignity of black people everywhere. Unfortunately, this act is just an extreme version of the risk historians take when they rightly remember the past.

America is a nation that prides itself on…itself. Academic historians dedicate themselves to recovering the past and retelling it in a way that reveals both the virtues and the flaws in the events and the people they study. While there is much to admire about the men and women who shaped this nation’s history, a country that only knows how to celebrate its successes lacks the ability to lament, and recoils at counter-narratives that speak of its failures.

The risk of doing rigorous history is especially high for those who study race in America. Nothing demolishes the idea of American exceptionalism more thoroughly than an honest account of how people of color have been treated in this country. Racism reveals the hypocrisy of a land founded on the “inalienable” rights of humankind, yet for centuries, denied those rights to an entire group of people. This is not the past many Americans want to remember.

Read the entire piece here.  I will remember this piece as I head off on a Civil Rights bus tour on Saturday morning.

How Do Historians Measure Racial Progress in America?

LaskiGreg Laski has a great piece on this issue a Black Perspectives.  He raises several good questions in the process of plugging his new book Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.

You can read the entire piece here, but I was especially taken with the way Laski frames his discussion:

If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.

Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?

My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.

African Muslims in Early America

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The National Museum of African American History & Culture website has a very informative feature on African Muslims in early America.  Online exhibits of this nature will go a long way toward debunking the myth, popular among many conservative evangelicals today, that the arrival of Muslims in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon.

Here is a taste:

While we do not know exactly how many African Muslims were enslaved and transported to the New World, there are clues in legal doctrines, slaveholders’ documents, and existing cultural and religious traditions. African Muslims were caught in the middle of complicated social and legal attitudes from the very moment they landed on our Eastern shores, and collections at the Museum help provide insight into their lives.

African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers was a man named Mustafa Zemmouri, also known as Estevanico, who was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.

African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The founding fathers were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America. Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an, included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this language was amended before ratification to remove references to non-Christian groups. Jefferson was not the only statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, their knowledge of and theoretical openness to Islam did not stop them from enslaving African Muslims.

Read the piece and see the artifacts here.

Tips for Planning Your Class Trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

MuseumOver at Black Perspectives, Joshua Clark Davis offers some good advice for teachers and others planning trips to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here is a taste:

Taking students to the museum is a rewarding experience. Yet, it also comes with some challenges. It is more crowded and harder to get into than almost any other museum in the country. The line just to enter the historical galleries seems more like something one would encounter at Disney World rather than at a history museum. Also, the museum is massive—too large for guests to absorb fully in even a three-hour visit.

That said, any instructor will find that visiting the NMAAHC is a deeply meaningful experience for students that can elevate a good class into one that’s unforgettable. A bit of strategic logistical and pedagogical planning are necessary to pull off a student trip to this marvelous museum.

To start, if you are even considering taking students to the museum in the next year, keep a very close eye on the timed passes page, which offers directions for group passes to the museum. Unfortunately, group reservations are currently suspended due to a severe backlog of requests. But at some point in the near future, group tickets will be re-issued. If you’re even considering taking a group to the museum, determine your dates in advance and once the group ticketing re-opens, make your reservation even if you haven’t secured funding yet. You can always cancel tickets if the funding falls through. If the museum resumes the group reservation process it had until recently, you’ll need to call a number at E-Tix and possibly spend an hour or more waiting to speak with a representative to request your dates.

Another important consideration is how to prepare your students for this visit. Think about making this trip not only a museum visit, but also a larger exploration on the question of how to make our public history institutions more accessible and racially equitable. Learning about the decades of work staffers put into opening the NMAAHC gives students an important lesson on how museums—especially African-American history museums—do not appear magically, but are the product of years of struggle by public historians, activists, community members, elected officials, and scholars. Students may also benefit to learn about the long history of the Black museum movement, which predated the NMAAHC by decades, or concerted efforts by conservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina to block the establishment of a Smithsonian museum devoted to African American history.

Read the entire post here.

 

Friday at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans

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Friday appears to have been a busy day for American historians in New Orleans.  The OAH offers some highlights at Process blog.

The highlight of the day was the afternoon plenary session “African American History, Art, and the Public Museumfeaturing Lonnie Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Here is a taste:

“This plenary session was a unanimous ‘no brainer’ for the program committee and OAH president Nancy Cott to organize,” said program co-chair Robert Self of Brown University. “We wanted to recognize and honor one of the most important developments in public history in the last decade or more.”

“The audience was not disappointed,” Self continued. “Lonnie Bunch explained the political strategy (make congressional allies before you need them), the economic strategy (tap corporations and the wealthy black donor class), the collecting strategy (encourage ordinary people to donate materials to local museums, which would feed the national museum), and the rhetorical strategy (African American history is American history). He and Richard Powell reflected on the decade-long process of collecting and curating more than four centuries of black history in North America. Bunch also revealed that an astonishing 70 percent of the museum’s permanent collection came from the attics, basements, and storage closets of ordinary people. The plenary offered a fascinating look at how Bunch guided the museum from an idea to an architecturally powerful new building on the National Mall, curating an intellectually honest and unflinching portrait of black American history and culture. Thank you, Lonnie, Richard, and the excellent moderator, Darlene Clark Hine.”

Read the entire post here.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funds the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

mapDonald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

If you teach or write about slavery you need to be aware of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.  The database has information about nearly 36,000 slave voyages to the Americas.

Here is a description:

From the late 1960s, Herbert S. Klein and other scholars began to collect archival data on slave-trading voyages from unpublished sources and to code them into a machine-readable format. In the 1970s and 1980s, scholars created a number of slave ship datasets, several of which the current authors chose to recode from the primary sources rather than integrate the datasets of those scholars into the present set. By the late 1980s, there were records of approximately 11,000 individual trans-Atlantic voyages in sixteen separate datasets, not all of which were trans-Atlantic, nor, as it turned out, slave voyages. And of course, some sets overlapped others. Several listings of voyages extracted from more than one source had appeared in hard copy form, notably three volumes of voyages from French ports published by Jean Mettas and Serge and Michelle Daget and two volumes of Bristol voyages (expanded to four by 1996) authored by David Richardson. The basis for each dataset was usually the records of a specific European nation or the particular port where slaving voyages originated, with the information available reflecting the nature of the records that had survived rather than the structure of the voyage itself. Scholars of the slave trade spent the first quarter century of the computer era working largely in isolation, each using one source only as well as a separate format, though the Curtin, Mettas, and Richardson collections were early exceptions to this pattern.

The idea of creating a single multisource dataset of trans-Atlantic slave voyages emerged from a chance meeting of David Eltis and Stephen Behrendt in the British Public Record Office in 1990 while they were working independently on the early and late British slave trades. At about the same time, David Richardson was taking over detailed multisource work on the large mid-eighteenth-century Liverpool shipping business begun years earlier by Maurice Schofield. All this work, together with the Bristol volumes that Richardson had already published, made it seem feasible to integrate the records for the very large British slave trade for the first time, and beyond that, given the available Dutch, French, and Portuguese data, to collect a single dataset for the trade as a whole. Meetings in January, 1991 at the American Historical Association and, in 1992, at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University, headed by Professor Henry L. Gates, Jr resulted in grant proposals to major funding agencies. In July 1993 the project received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities with supplementary support coming from the Mellon Foundation.

Read more about this website here.

In 2016 the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding to improve the database and add new records.

For other posts in this series click here.

 

#DouglassforTrump

Here is what Donald Trump said yesterday, the first day of Black History Month, about Frederick Douglass:

Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this about Trump’s comments on Douglass:

So it looks like the POTUS is a big fan of Frederick Douglass.  If this is the case, perhaps Trump might appreciate learning more about Douglass’s views.

So I went on Twitter and started the #DouglassforTrump hashtag.  Feel free to head over there and add your favorite Douglass quote.  I know the hashtag is a bit long, but please try to tack it on to your tweet so that others can easily find your quote.

We at The Way of Improvement Leads Home are encouraged that Trump wants to give Douglass the publicity he deserves.  So let’s help his speechwriters get up to speed with some of Douglass’s actual words.

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

21712-mlk-in-birmingham-jailThis post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like David Barton or Ted Cruz.

Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.

Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.

A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.

When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.

King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.

King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.

He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

The Author’s Corner with Chandra Manning

Troubled RefugeChandra Manning is Special Advisor to the Dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This interview is based on her new book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (Knopf, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War?

CM: The conclusion of my first book, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War pointed to a more fluid racial climate in the spring of 1865 than I expected, or than existed by the turn of the twentieth century, which made me want to understand how a reconstructed Union that passed constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, establishing black citizenship, and extending suffrage to African Americans—revolutions, all!—developed into the land of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and epidemic lynching. Books addressing similar questions (like David Blight’s Race and Reunion) focus on the 1880s and 1890s, but I wondered what happened earlier, in the 1860s. So I began my second book intending to write about race relations generally and citizenship rights specifically in the decade following the Civil War. At first, I planned to use contraband camps as interesting “scene-setters” in a brief introductory section, before delving into the real matter at hand.

Contraband camps were large encampments of former slaves who fled their owners during the Civil War to take refuge with the Union Army, and they were the first places in which Union soldiers typically encountered former bondpeople. As I began researching them, the United States prepared to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009, and shortly thereafter, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In conjunction with those milestones, I received many invitations to give talks on emancipation and citizenship. On the face of it, those invitations fit perfectly into the book I set out to write, but I quickly discovered that emancipation and citizenship were two different things, and neither of them looked much like I expected. I realized that historians (including me) understood very little about the actual experience of emancipation, and even less about what immediately followed it, when the threat of re-enslavement remained very real, and the transition to freedom and citizenship was anything but certain. So I shifted my focus to understanding the passage out of slavery and into the unknown.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Troubled Refuge?

CM: In Civil War contraband camps, men, women, and children fleeing slavery allied with unlikely collaborators—the army and the U.S. government—and their alliance wrested freedom from the hands of people committed to using violence to deny it, helped to destroy slavery, warded off the persistent danger of re-enslavement, redefined what citizenship meant, and extended eligibility for citizenship to African Americans on the basis of freedpeople’s contributions to Union victory not just as soldiers, but also as nurses, laundresses, spies, and laborers of all sorts in contraband camps. At the same time, the alliance raised humanitarian questions about refugees in wartime and unsettling conflicts between civil and military authority with which we still wrestle, and it reshaped hard structures of power in ways that mattered not just for slaves-turned-citizens, but for all Americans, to the benefit as well as the lasting cost of African-Americans.

JF: Why do we need to read Troubled Refuge?

CM: One reason is to come closer to an understanding and appreciation of the experience of leaving slavery and making a bid for freedom. The first section of the book focuses on what it was like to exit slavery, and how emancipation actually happened. It also (I hope) restores the fragility and contingency of emancipation: far from being doomed as soon as slaves decided to depart masters, the institution of slavery and its supporters fought back violently, and the threat of re-enslavement remained acute for a very long time. What finally made the difference in the daily war between former slaves and the property owners who claimed to own them was that the United States government, which had sided with slaveholders in that daily conflict before 1861, switched sides.

Another reason was not in my mind at all when I started, but became inescapable as refugee crises proliferated around the world during the writing of the book, and especially once I finished it and awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis made it to daily newspapers. Troubled Refuge understands contraband camps as refugee camps, and in so doing, excavates 19th-century stirrings of humanitarian notions of the rights of the dispossessed, notions that most of the literature treats as originating later in World War I. The parallels between today’s refugee camps and contraband camps are so striking that they should emphatically prevent us from feeling superior to people in the past, since our world does not address the needs of the fleeing all that much better than 150 years ago.

The book also has quite a bit to say about the definition of citizenship. It highlights a continuing, though imperfect, federal commitment to former slaves at the end of 1865, underscores the importance of the 14th Amendment in securing the 13th Amendment, and reveals key roles played by formerly enslaved women and children (as well as men) in redefining citizenship in the United States.  But it also reveals that the new definition of citizenship hammered out in contraband camps had already evolved into something a bit different by the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. That evolution underscores the crucial point that defining citizenship is not a “once and for all” kind of task, but rather an ongoing process in which all of us bear some responsibility. Once again, news headlines from places like Ferguson, Missouri, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and many others make the urgency of that responsibility all the more plain.

Finally, the book is (among other things) an extended meditation on the tension between structure—forces too large for individual people or even groups to control—and agency, or how individuals act on and within those forces, often redirecting them in crucial ways, but never able to shape them entirely to human will. Troubled Refuge offers readers an invitation to reflect upon the meaning of freedom and the hard limits that power and violence impose on it, as well as the necessity of holding success and failure in one hand at the same time.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CM: The first draw was Little House on the Prairie. I began to read the book series between kindergarten and first grade, which drew me into the 19th century. Meanwhile, I was exceptionally close to my grandmother, who first of all taught me to read when I was two, and second of all had a fascination with the Civil War, so anything she was interested in, I was interested in, too. As a result, I read anything I could find about the Civil War. As a Navy kid, I grew up and went to school in several different parts of the country; it so happened that I attended first grade in Jacksonville, Florida, where we sang Dixie after the pledge to the flag in the morning. Pictures of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were on the wall. Later I became fascinated with Harriet Tubman, and that interest stayed with me. But it was not until much, much later that it occurred to me that serious study of the Civil War as an adult was a possibility, and once it did what drew me in was the wealth of sources from ordinary people, since the war separated so many family members from each other and left letter-writing as the way for them to share their thoughts, experiences, ideas, and hopes. Those letters allow us to enter the world of people in the past, which appealed to me. Once in that world, many other types of sources started beckoning, and offered other ways in, all of which is to say, at first sources drew me. Why I stayed in the field has to do with not just the 19th century, but what I think is important about teaching and learning history generally, namely that studying history inculcates empathy and humbleness. It fosters empathy because to study history well requires a willingness to set oneself aside and see the world from perspectives of people entirely different from oneself. It cultivates humbleness because study of the past demonstrates that we are neither the first people to face problems, nor necessarily the most skillful at resolving them.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.

JF: Thanks, Chandra!

“An Outrage”: A Forthcoming Documentary Film on Lynching in America

Some of you may recall that in the Fall 2015 I taught an online graduate course on Colonial North America through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  I was invited to teach the course by Lance Warren and had the privilege of working closely during the filming of the course with Lance and his spouse Hannah Ayers.

Since then Lance and Hannah have left Gilder Lehrman to pursue their passion for documentary film work. They are in the final stages of a project on lynching in America. Lance and Hannah spent most of the summer traveling thousands of miles conducting interviews with historians and activists and talking with descendants of people who had been lynched in the Deep South.

The title of the film is “An Outrage.”  You can read more about it here or follow the film’s Twitter account @AnOutrageFilm

A few hours ago Lance and Hannah released the first minute of the film.  Here it is:

“An Outrage” will premiere in early 2017.  Stay tuned.