The Birmingham Bible-Reading Crusade of 1946

Bible Cause CoverAs our Civil Rights history tour leaves Birmingham and heads to Memphis today, I recalled the story of Birmingham’s Bible Reading Crusade of 1946.  I wrote about this crusade in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyHere is the pertinent passage:

As the ABS experimented with different ways to bring the Bible to the world and raise the necessary funds to do so, they continued more traditional means of extending the Bible Cause at home.  In several American cities, the Society held “Bible Reading Crusades.” The largest and most influential of these crusades was conducted in 1946 by the Atlanta Division of the Agency Among the Colored People of the United States (at this point it was called The Haven Agency). The crusade was focused on the African American coal miners and plant workers of Birmingham, Alabama. Daniel Stanton, the senior secretary of the Haven Agency, inspired the crusade. He wanted to meet the spiritual needs of the more than 100,000 African Americans living in the city.  Stanton had spent most of his time in Birmingham gathering informally with these laborers, mostly on weekend afternoons on 4th Avenue North between 16th and 18th streets, to share the Gospel and teach them the Bible. “These milling throngs,” he wrote, “were ‘making a living’; but the pace of the wheels of industry gave them little time to think about ‘making a life’.”

African American businessmen in the city drafted A.C. Gaston to lead the crusade and serve as its primary organizer. Gaston was the grandson of a former slave, a World War I veteran, a layman in African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a Birmingham businessman who made his money in insurance, banking, and the funeral services industry.  He was the wealthiest African American in Birmingham and was known city-wide for providing jobs for out-of-work blacks.  He also built the A.G. Gaston Hotel in 1954, an important civil rights landmark where Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders stayed free of charge.  As racial tensions broke out in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, Gaston became an advocate of working peacefully with the city’s white businessmen, even at times disagreeing with the approach of King.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that the significant role that Gaston played in Birmingham’s civil rights movement had roots in his leadership of the city’s Bible crusade in 1946.  Gaston was well known, but this was one of his first efforts to organize a citywide event of this scale.

One of Gaston’s first moves was to get the support of Birmingham’s Negro Business League and African American ministers.  He then set a goal of getting 50,000 people, roughly half of the African American population, to read the Bible together on May 12, 1946, the first day of the weeklong crusade.  The black community of Birmingham responded in a way that far exceeded expectations.  Stanton arranged for 40,000 copies of the Gospel of John to be distributed before the crusade so the city would be ready for the mass meeting.  The success of the first day reading prompted Gaston’s committee to change its distribution goal to 75,000.  Gaston purchased 15,000 more copies of the Gospel of John from Stanton and created a subcommittee to provide one for every high school in the city.   Local businessmen turned their stores and officers into what the ABS described as “centers for stimulating an interest in the reading of the Book.”  Volunteer workers distributed Bibles in every industrial plant in Birmingham that employed African Americans.  Others brought scripture portions into the “dark mines and into the lives made darker still by sin.”  In the end, over 101,800 copies were distributed in the city during the week.  The ABS ugranted 62,000 of those Bibles, its largest donation to an organization or denomination in the two decades following the end of World War II.

Last night I asked Carolyn Maull McKinstry if she remembered this Bible reading crusade.  She did not, but she also wasn’t born yet. When I wrote The Bible Cause I did not explore this event from the perspective of local records or from the Birmingham African Americans involved.  But this civil rights bus tour has challenged me to think about this story in new ways.  I wonder if there might be some connections between the Bible Reading Crusade and the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.

Perhaps I will return to this story one day.

More on the Civil Rights Movement and America as a “Christian Nation”

Christian NAtionLast night I got a chance to listen to Carolyn Maull McKinstry talk about what it was like to live through the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church.

During the course of her presentation she referred to the United States as a “Christian nation.”  If you have been following my posts about the Civil Rights bus tour on which I am currently engaged, you may recall that Juanita Jones Abernathy also described the United States a “Christian nation.”

It seems like many participants in the Civil Rights Movement accepted the idea that the United States was a Christian nation or at the very least believed that the nation needed to work harder at becoming a Christian nation.

Today most African-American preachers are not very fond of calling the United States a Christian nation.  White conservative evangelicals have hijacked the term.  I saw this first hand when I spoke at a racial reconciliation conference at Wheaton College in October 2013.   Here is what I wrote following that conference:

This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the “Inhabit” conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian‘s organization Race to Unity.  I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton’s History Department) on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics….

I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer.  I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question.  But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind….The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America’s founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Read the entire post here.

The use of “Christian nation” rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement might make for a nice little project that could take us beyond what I wrote on the subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 5

For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent half of Day 5 in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham.  The tour is now more than half over.

Yesterday morning we spent some time at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center.  The museum interprets a memorial commemorating those who died of hate crimes during the Civil Rights Movement.  Here is a description of the monument:

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Caroline at the Civil Rights Memorial

We then headed over to the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University.  This museum tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and contains one of two original city buses.

After lunch we drove to Birmingham and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Kelly Ingram Park.

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Entrance to Kelly Ingram Park: King, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth

In the evening we had a pizza party with two women associated with the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was inside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four little girls.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when the bombing occurred.

Lisa McNair is the younger sister of Denise McNair, one of the girls killed during the bombing. (Lisa never met Denise. She was born sixteen months after her death).  Both McKinstry and McNair talked about the events surrounding the bombing, the aftermath, of the bombing, and what we can learn from this tragic moment as we reflect on how to be people who practice reconciliation.  (Check out McKinstry’s book While the World Watched.  She graciously signed our copy).

McKinstry remembers attending the first planning meeting of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  She recalls sitting with her friends as they listened to Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King teach them how to behave on the march and prepare them for what they might expect from the Birmingham police under the direction of Bull Connor.   On May 2, 1963, McKinstry and the children of Birmingham left school and marched directly toward Connor’s water hoses, white tank, and attack dogs.  (She said that the leaders of the movement had not prepared them for the hoses.  This was a complete surprise).  5000 of McKinstry’s fellow child marchers went to jail.

Birmingham 3The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred about four months after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  The bombing took place on “Youth Day” at the church, a special Sunday in which the young people ran the service.  McKinstry helped to organize the 1963 Youth Day.  The sermon (which no one got to hear that morning )came from Luke 23:34 and was titled “A Love That Forgives.”  The bomb exploded at 10:22 (they know this because the clock stopped).  There were 75 students in Sunday School that morning. Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were killed.

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16th Avenue Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

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Monument to the 4 girls killed during the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church (Kelly Ingram Park)

Lisa McNair talked openly about what it was like to grow up as the sister of Denise McNair. Lisa described her first memory: “my sister was killed by white people because they hated Black people.”  As she grew up in Birmingham she always worried that the man who killed her sister was out there somewhere.  McNair said that few of those who experienced the bombing talked much about it until the 25th anniversary in 1988 and then again at the release of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls in 1997.  These events helped the families and the larger community begin to share their emotions.

What struck me the most about McKinstry and McNair was how their Christian faith has enabled them to deal with this tragedy.  McKinstry has spent most of her life trying to make sense of what happened when she was fourteen years old.  Today she travels the country speaking about forgiveness and reconciliation.  McNair is a photographer and speaker who attends a 6000-member white Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Both women refuse to let hate and anger control their lives.  It would be natural for these men and women to respond with hate and anger, and I am sure they have had moments when they have been tempted to act and think in this way.   But they ultimately choose not to dwell in anger.  Instead they make every effort to practice what Reinhold Niebuhr once called the “spiritual discipline against resentment.” McKinstry and McNair made it clear that they have drawn heavily from the spiritual resources of their faith to provide them with the strength to move forward.

Today we are traveling to Memphis.  Stay tuned.

Historical Thinking at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama

EJI 1Yesterday I was in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.  We spent a couple of hours at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.  Some of you may be familiar with his best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionEJI’s offices are located in the heart of Montgomery’s 19th-century slave trading market. This is a fitting location for an organization committed to fighting the narrative of racial difference in America.

During our visit we heard a presentation from two EJI “Law Fellows,” Luke Fredericks and Evan Milligan.  Fredericks started the presentation by describing four eras in the history of race in the United States.

  1. Slavery.  This was the period when the “narrative of racial difference” was born. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not erase this narrative. We are still dealing with the legacy of this narrative.
  2. Racial Terror:  This was the period between Reconstruction and the World War II when whites employed violence to keep the races separate.  EJI is particularly interested in the history of lynching in America.  It has uncovered 360 race-based lynchings in Alabama history.  In order to remember these lynchings, EJI has created an exhibit of glass jars filled with dirt and clay gathered from the sites where the lynchings took place (see picture below).  It is a powerful exhibit–perhaps one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen.  EJI is interested in lynching because it believes this practice was the historical antecedent to the death penalty.  Fredericks argued that sometime in the 1930s southern politicians realized that the practice of lynching was giving the South a bad name in the world.  In response, they used the death penalty as a means of dealing with the race problem in a more official and sanctioned way.  This, according to Fredericks, just might explain why a disproportionate number African Americans have been executed over the last 75 years. Since EJI lawyers are in the business of helping death row prisoners, the history of lynching in American is a usable one.
  3. Segregation
  4. Mass Incarceration.  Today 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison. Most of them are people of color.  EJI wants to address some of the systemic issues behind these statistics.

Fredericks, who was a history major at the University of Maryland, kept reminding us that the pursuit of justice does not happen in a vacuum. In the process, he put his history degree to good use by challenging us to understand the problems of race and mass incarceration in America through context, change over time, and continuity.

In order to provide such context, EJI is getting into the museum and monuments business.  It just released a new website on the history of lynching in America and will soon open a permanent exhibit on the subject.  EJI also plans to create a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery.

Everything about the work of EJI draws heavily on the skills and practices of historians. EJI’s legal activism relies on the connections between the past and the present.  Granted, history can only take us so far when it comes to changing the world (or advocating for death-row inmates), but activism is often superficial without understanding the historical context out of which social ills arise.  EJI uses archival research, oral history, and storytelling (“we use individual narratives to change the way people think and feel”) to provide the necessary context for its advocacy work on behalf of death-row inmates.

So if you want to change the world, start by reading history.




Lynching exhibit at EJI

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 4

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 4 in Montgomery, Alabama.  (Montgomery is the only city where we are spending two nights.  This means that we didn’t have to pack our suitcases this yesterday!).

In the morning we made quick stops at some of Montgomery’s most iconic historical sites. As we entered the area around the Alabama State Capitol I was struck by the juxtaposition between Confederate States of America sites and Civil Rights Movement sites.  I am sure historians and scholars have written about these juxtapositions, but when you see them for the first time they are quite striking.  (If you know of any good books or articles that deal with these commemorative juxtapositions in Montgomery please let me know in the comments section).

As our bus entered this part of the city we passed the First White House of the Confederacy, the home of Jefferson Davis during the brief period when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy. (The Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia in August 1861).

As a series of massive Alabama government buildings (including the capitol building) came into sight I was immediately struck by their whiteness.  Seriously, these buildings are painted in a very bright white.  I don’t know if they were that white during the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, but as I surveyed the landscape I tried to imagine what it was like on Sunday, March 25, 1965 to see the color of these buildings in the background as 25,000 people–many of them African Americans– arrived at the capitol to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

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Office building in Alabama capitol area


I was also struck by the location of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Martin Luther King Jr. served from 1954-1960.  It is only a few hundred yards from the Alabama State Capitol Building where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America and where the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was written.  Every Sunday morning King and his congregation would step out of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and into the whiteness of the built environment.  It was a material manifestation of Alabama’s historical commitment to white supremacy.

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View of the Alabama State Capitol from the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church


As you leave Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and walk up Dexter Avenue toward the Capitol Building, you will see, on the right side of the road, a monument commemorating the path of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration parade.  It was placed at this site in 1942. Directly across the street on Dexter Avenue is a monument commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.  It looks very new.  I did my best to capture this contrast here:

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Selma to Montgomery march monument is in foreground.  Jefferson Davis inaugural parade monument is in upper right of the picture (monument with water marks behind gray car)

After our visit to the capitol area, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, and the homes of some of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, we headed over to the Montgomery headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  If you are familiar with Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercyyou are familiar with the work of EJI.  I have a lot to say about EJI, so I think I will save those thoughts for another post that I hope to get up later today.

We spent the afternoon in Selma.  Our guide was Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who, as an eleven-year-old girl, marched in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  She took us to the Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march.  In the back of the church is an outdoor concrete slab that served as the launching point of the march.  Bland asked us to pick up a stone from the crumbling slab (she is trying to get the slab refurbished) and hold it up as a reminder of the Selma marchers.  She challenged us to show this kind of courage in our lives whenever we encounter injustice.

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Joanne  Bland tells her story

Bland showed us some historical sites in Selma, took us to a local fruit stand so she could buy some peaches, and then told us her experience during the 1965 voting rights marches.  We then made our own march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  (Our tour guide Todd Allen asked my daughter Caroline to lead us across the bridge.  It will be an experience she will never forget.  Later in the day Todd asked Caroline what she thought about playing the role of John Lewis in our march).  It was a moving end to a very moving day.

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Caroline is about to lead us across the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Tomorrow we will spend half the day in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham. Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:



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Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 3

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began the day in Albany, GA and ended the day eating fried catfish in Montgomery, Alabama.  (More on that in the next post).

We spent most of the morning at the Albany Civil Rights Institute learning about how the Civil Rights Movement played out in this Georgia city.   African Americans in the city led the so-called “Albany Movement”–an attempt to desegregate public spaces in the city through nonviolent protests.  The Albany Movement was lead by William G. Anderson, a local medical doctor. Anderson had support from three outside activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also got involved.  King arrived for his first of several of visits to Albany on December 14, 1961.  During one visit, evangelist Billy Graham came to Albany and bailed King out of jail.  (This was not mentioned in the exhibits at the Institute.  I learned about it here).

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Albany Civil Rights Institute, Albany, GA

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Freedom Riders bus inside the Albany Civil Rights Institute

The highlight of the day was our visit to the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church.  Old Mount Zion was one of two Baptist churches where King preached during his first visit to Albany (the other one was Shiloh Baptist Church, located directly across the street). Here we met Rutha Mae Harris, an Albany native and one of the original Freedom Singers.  In 1963 the Freedom Singers traveled over 50,000 miles to over forty states under the auspices of SNCC.  They performed at the March on Washington in August and appeared on stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez.  Here are a couple of videos:

At 76-years old, Rutha’s voice seemed to be just as strong as it was in the videos posted above.  She taught us several songs, including “Which Side Are You On?, “Fighting for My Rights,” “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” and “Dogs.”  When we finished singing she dubbed us all “official Freedom Singers!”

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Rutha Mae Harris greets us at the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church

Harris firmly believes that “without the songs of the Civil Rights movement, there would have been no Civil Rights movement.”  Harris was a lot less political than Juanita Jones Abernathy the day before, but she did suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement would have been more successful if it had music.

We stayed in Albany for a soul food lunch at Carter’s Grill and Restaurant and then boarded the bus for Montgomery.

The rain put a damper on some of our plans in Montgomery, but we did make quick stops at Holt Street Baptist Church (site of the first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association) and First Baptist Church (Ralph Abernathy‘s church during the Montgomery Bus Boycott).

We head to Selma tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy


Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour

The highlight of Day 2 of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour was meeting Juanita Jones Abernathy, one of the participants in, and organizers of, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Juanita was marred to Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church and a famous civil rights activist in his own right. Ralph died in 1990 at the age of 64.

Juanita talked about the important role played by pastors (and pastor’s wives) during the bus boycott. Because pastors like her husband Ralph were not paid by the state, and thus were not “part of the system,” they were free to organize on behalf of Rosa Parks without the threat of losing their jobs.

She also talked about how the Abernathy children and the King children integrated an Atlanta elementary school sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  (Her son Kwame was with her at the lecture).  I found it interesting that she always referred to the kids as “my kids” or “Coretta’s kids.”When it came to the education of the children, the mothers were in charge.

I tried to write down some of the best lines of the talk.  They are as close to verbatim as possible:

  • “My husband Ralph used to say ‘there was no color on the bullets we were dodging in Germany during World War II…We were citizens fighting to defend democracy. Why couldn’t we enjoy it at home.'”
  • Donald Trump wants to “roll back the clock. But we aren’t going back.”
  • “My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was not violent. I didn’t learn non-violence from Ghandi, I learned it from Jesus.”
  • “Aren’t you glad you’re in America?  Lord I thank you for the United States of America and that we are not victims of the destruction going on around the world today.  I am blessed to live in the United States of America.”
  • “[The Civil Rights Movement in] Alabama saved America from itself.”
  • “The right to vote is a blood ballot. People died for that right.”
  • “We are a Christian nation. That’s what America is built on.”
  • “If there’s any such thing as going through hell while still alive, we went through it.”
  • When [the Abernathy’s and the King’s] lived on the west side of Chicago in the slums, we came from ‘down South’ to ‘up South.’ But both Souths had the same problems.”
  • “I hear all this stuff about King.  I saw a documentary on Georgia Public Television called ‘America since King.’ No, it was the Civil Rights MOVEMENT. It was not associated with just one man.”
  • “Today, all you have to do is write down your name and address and you can vote.  It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, native American, or Indian.  Voting applies to everyone, but there was a price to be paid to get it.”
  • “Young people will burn America down before they let Donald Trump take us back [in time]. They don’t understand non-violence, no one is teaching the young people “non-violence.”
  • “‘Make America Great Again’ is when blacks had no rights.”
  • “We weren’t trying to get above, we were just trying to get equal.”
  • “I love America with all of the mess.  We still are the greatest nation in the free world.  When I see that flag I salute it.”

What fascinated me the most about Juanita Jones Abernathy’s talk was how much it was grounded in appeals to common and universal values.  She talked about her love of country (or at least the ideals set forth at the founding).  She drew heavily upon a shared Christian faith as a source for non-violence.

She even described the United States as a “Christian nation.”  This was not unusual during the Civil Rights movement.  As I argued in chapter three of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?the Civil Rights movement made constant appeals to the Judeo-Christian values that they believed the nation was founded upon.  The best example of this is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he says:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo 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.

Abernathy also described the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 in universal terms. Poverty affected all races–it was a universal problem and needed to be addressed this way.  She talked the same way about voting rights.

The appeal to ideals that brought together all human beings seems to be quite different from the identity politics we see today in most discussions of race in America. This morning on the bus we listened to a King sermon that referenced Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the Founding Fathers.  Elsewhere King referenced Augustine, Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name a few.  King assumed that his audience–both black and white–were familiar with some of these authors.  Would such appeals be effective today? I don’t think so.  King lived before what historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “Age of Fracture.”

The more I listen to folks like Abernathy and King the more I realize that the “past is a foreign country.”  But as we think about race relations in America today I wonder if the past of Abernathy and King is a usable one.

What Was the Nation’s First Civil Rights Monument?


From the Desmond Herzfelder’s piece at The Washington Post:

The first civil rights monument in the United States is having its diamond jubilee. The monument isn’t a temple, obelisk or sculpture. It’s a mural installed in the spring of 1942 at the entrance to the Interior Department’s basement cafeteria. The artwork, “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” portrays the racially integrated audience at the Lincoln Memorial concert by the great African American singer Marian Anderson. In part, the mural reflects the racial attitudes of the era; it also conveys a radical message about civil rights that deserves a gala celebration to mark this, its 75th anniversary.

Read more here.

The Author’s Corner with Richard Brown

Self Evident TruthsRichard Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on his new book, Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Self-Evident Truths?

RB: I wrote Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War because I wanted to understand how men who declared “all men are created equal” could launch a nation that maintained slavery and other forms of privilege: religious, gender, and class especially.  Was the Declaration simply a fraud, or was the founders’ statement of equality intended seriously–and if it was serious, to what extent was that goal realized?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Self-Evident Truths?

RB: SelfEvident Truths argues that providing equal rights was a goal for some in the founding generation; but existing customs and institutions blocked realization of equal rights. Moreover the commitment to individual rights included a commitment to heritable private property, which was and remains a barrier to the actual possession of equal rights.

JF: Why do we need to read Self-Evident Truths?

RB: People need to read Self-Evident Truths so as to understand the founding of the United States, its history, and our own times. People need to comprehend how the ideal of equal rights was created and the extent to which Americans have, or have not, made equal rights a reality.

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

RB: I became committed to the study of American history as a college sophomore because I believed it would help me understand American society, its trajectory, and my place in it.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: During my career I have moved back and forth between close, microhistorical studies and broad interpretive works, sometimes–as in Self-Evident Truths–combining the two.  In my next work I plan to narrate and analyze the great fire that in 1811 destroyed most of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the separate trials ten years apart wherein two teen-aged brothers were convicted and sentenced for arson, one to five years in prison, the other to death.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

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.

What Qualifies as “Handling a Civil Rights Case” in the #AgeofTrump?


Donald Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has some explaining to do.  Three civil rights lawyers claim that he had almost nothing to do with cases he claims that he “handled.”

Here is a taste from an op-ed written by those civil rights lawyers in today’s Washington Post:

Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions is trying to mislead his Senate colleagues, and the country, into believing he is a champion for civil rights. We are former Justice Department civil rights lawyers who worked on the civil rights cases that Sessions cites as evidence for this claim, so we know: The record isn’t Sessions’s to burnish. We won’t let the nominee misstate his civil rights history to get the job of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

In the questionnaire he filed recently with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions (R-Ala.) listed four civil rights cases among the 10 most significant that he litigated “personally” as the U.S. attorney for Alabama during the 1980s. Three involved voting rights, while the fourth was a school desegregation case. Following criticism for exaggerating his role, he then claimed that he provided “assistance and guidance” on these cases.

We worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which brought those lawsuits; we handled three of the four ourselves. We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them. He did what any U.S. attorney would have had to do: He signed his name on the complaint, and we added his name on any motions or briefs. That’s it.

Read the entire op-ed here.

Evangelical Voters and Nostalgia

Trump hatRobert P. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The End of White Christian America. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, he argues that evangelicals in America are not “values voters” any more.  Instead, it is more accurate to describe them as “nostalgia” voters.  As Jones puts it, these voters make up a  “culturally and economically disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.”

Here is a taste of Jones’s article:

The American Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, where I’m the CEO, found that heightened anxieties about cultural change and economic worries are strikingly prevalent among white evangelicals today. Two-thirds of white evangelicals say that immigrants are a burden to the country because they take American jobs, housing, and health care; and nearly six in 10 say it bothers them when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. Nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals say that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values and way of life. More than six in 10 believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. On the economic front, eight in 10 white evangelicals believe the country is still in an economic recession today. And most notably—in a question that demonstrates the importance of the last word in Trump’s campaign slogan—more than seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say that American society and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s.

Jones’s conclusions fit well with what I argued recently about Trump’s appeal to evangelicals on “cultural issues” such as the threat of Islam and immigration.

The last sentence of the snippet I posted above is striking.  I remember a few years ago sitting with a bunch of thoughtful evangelical Christians trying to solve all the problems of the world over a one-hour lunch.  Someone in the group was complaining about how American culture has become more coarse.  I seem to remember this person making a reference to the increase in sex and violence on television.  I think his remarks were made in the larger context of the way our kids are exposed to these things at a much earlier age. We all nodded in agreement.

A few others then gave examples of how the moral fabric of America was eroding. They were all good points.

Finally, an African-American woman seated at the table offered a different perspective about moral progress or the lack thereof.  Because she was a serious Christian, she acknowledged the concerns of the other white people in the group.  But she rejected the idea that American society had “changed for the worse” in the past century.  Instead, she talked about the moral progress that had been made in the last hundred years, particularly in relationship to the role of African Americans and women in society.  How could anyone think that the 1950s were better than today?

A few weeks later I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation at a Christian college in the Midwest.  One of the speakers was a very popular African-American pastor from the South.  He made it clear that the best time to be an African American in the United States was “right now.”  Granted, I am sure that this pastor was outraged about what has happened in Ferguson or Baltimore.  There is a lot more work to be done in the area of race-relations in the United States.  But he ultimately took a long view–the view of moral progress.  Things are better in America today.

Every now and then someone asks me a question that goes something like this: “If you could travel back in time and live in any historical era, which one would it be?”  People are usually surprised when I say that I would live in the present.  Sure, I often get nostalgic for lost moral worlds where some things may have been done better than in the present.  (For example, the music of the 1970s is much better than what passes for popular music today!). But would I really want to go back? I don’t think so.  As a historian I have a pretty good sense of what happened back there.

By the way, you may be wondering why I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation.  The African American pastors who organized the conference were sick and tired of listening to Christian nationalists like David Barton trying to tell their fellow evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation.  These Christian nationalists, the pastors argued, were nostalgic for a golden era of the American founding that did not exist. They pointed out over and over again during our weekend together that the founders owned slaves and believed that blacks were inferior to whites.. How dare Barton and others say that we need to return to the moral and “Christian” values that apparently founded this country!

If Robert Jones’s survey is correct, then it makes perfect sense that white evangelicals would flock to a candidate who wants to “Make America Great Again.”

John Lewis: “But I met Hillary Clinton…”

Today Civil Rights hero John Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton.

In the process he also questioned Bernie Sanders’s involvement in the fight for African American civil rights.  Watch for yourself:

I am not sure what Lewis means here.  Bernie’s participation in the fight against segregation in Chicago is well known and well-documented.  Does the fact that Lewis never met him suggest that his work on behalf of this cause  is invalid?

And what about his claim to have “met Hillary Clinton?”  Certainly he was not referring to the high school student who was a “Goldwater Girl” in 1964?

If Lewis wants to endorse Clinton he should simply come out and endorse her.  She has a good record on civil rights.

We don’t need to know who John Lewis has met and who he hasn’t met or which Democratic candidate has the best and most legitimate connection to the civil rights movement.

Lewis and Sanders

David Blight on the 14th Amendment

The is running a digital symposium on the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction with particular focus on the history and legacy of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.  

Here is a taste of Yale historian David’s Blight’s contribution on the 14th:

Among all the enactments of Reconstruction, none embody the lasting significance, or the heart of the conflict in this revolution and counter-revolution better than section one of the Fourteenth Amendment. It ought to be embraced as a holy writ that binds our national community, that fortifies even the very idea of America born of this second founding. Based, in part, on language proposed by John Bingham of Ohio, an evangelical Christian and former abolitionist, it reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

No more important language exists to this day in the Constitution than Bingham’s two sentences. His goal, as he said many times in the floor debates of 1866 in Congress, was to “federalize the Bill of Rights,” and make the federal government responsible for enforcing the basic human rights of Americans, now meaning blacks and whites, “within the states.” An endless array of complex, heroic, bloody, confused and scurrilous legal history has flowed from this clause.  And at this very moment, a concerted, extremely well-funded crusade is underway among elements of the modern Republican Party, who now gleefully desecrate the ideas of its founders by effectively eroding and destroying the essence of Reconstruction’s greatest achievement—birthright citizenship and equality before the law.

When the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment arrives next June, it is my modest proposal that willing organizations provide every American who will accept it with a simple small-pocket item (the size of a business card, perhaps laminated for durability), inscribed with section one. Willing Americans, with a sense of history, can whip these cards out of their pockets when necessary and debate their fellow citizens about Reconstruction’s two great lasting legacies—the enduring struggles over racism and federalism—which are likely to be with the U.S. forever. But as Americans keep the excerpts in their vest pockets or handbags, they would do well to remember a piece of Frederick Douglass’s wisdom from the Reconstruction years.

Read the entire piece here.

Defenders of the Unborn

I saw a mention of this book on Paul Putz’s twitter feed.  Daniel K. Williams, the author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, is going to get a lot of attention when this book appears in December 2015.

A description from the Oxford University Press website:

On April 16, 1972, ten thousand people gathered in Central Park to protest New York’s liberal abortion law. Emotions ran high, reflecting the nation’s extreme polarization over abortion. Yet the divisions did not fall neatly along partisan or religious lines-the assembled protesters were far from a bunch of fire-breathing culture warriors. In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams reveals the hidden history of the pro-life movement in America, showing that a cause that many see as reactionary and anti-feminist began as a liberal crusade for human rights. 

For decades, the media portrayed the pro-life movement as a Catholic cause, but by the time of the Central Park rally, that stereotype was already hopelessly outdated. The kinds of people in attendance at pro-life rallies ranged from white Protestant physicians, to young mothers, to African American Democratic legislators-even the occasional member of Planned Parenthood. One of New York City’s most vocal pro-life advocates was a liberal Lutheran minister who was best known for his civil rights activism and his protests against the Vietnam War. The language with which pro-lifers championed their cause was not that of conservative Catholic theology, infused with attacks on contraception and women’s sexual freedom. Rather, they saw themselves as civil rights crusaders, defending the inalienable right to life of a defenseless minority: the unborn fetus. It was because of this grounding in human rights, Williams argues, that the right-to-life movement gained such momentum in the early 1960s. Indeed, pro-lifers were winning the battle before Roe v. Wade changed the course of history.

Through a deep investigation of previously untapped archives, Williams presents the untold story of New Deal-era liberals who forged alliances with a diverse array of activists, Republican and Democrat alike, to fight for what they saw as a human rights cause. Provocative and insightful, Defenders of the Unborn is a must-read for anyone who craves a deeper understanding of a highly-charged issue.

Lynching in the South: 1877-1950

Today’s New York Times is running an article on a report chronicling the history of lynching in the American South.  The report was recently published by Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Alabama.  The report has found almost 4000 victims of lynching in the South between 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) and 1950.

According to the accompanying map, the most lynchings in this period, by far, occurred in Phillips County, Arkansas the site of the 1919 Elaine Race Riot.  Four Louisiana parishes rounded out the top five.

Here is a taste of the Times article:

On Tuesday, the organization he founded and runs, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., released a report on the history of lynchings in the United States, the result of five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the South. The authors of the report compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.

Next comes the process of selecting lynching sites where the organization plans to erect markers and memorials, which will involve significant fund-raising, negotiations with distrustful landowners and, almost undoubtedly, intense controversy.

The process is intended, Mr. Stevenson said, to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.

“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Mr. Stevenson said, arguing that many participants in the great migration from the South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism rather than people simply seeking work.

The lynching report is part of a longer project Mr. Stevenson began several years ago. One phase involved the erection of historical markers about the extensive slave markets in Montgomery. The city and state governments were not welcoming of the markers, despite the abundance of Civil War and civil rights movement memorials in Montgomery, but Mr. Stevenson is planning to do the same thing elsewhere.

Happy 145 Birthday To The 14th Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868.  Here it is:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State. 

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability. 

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void. 

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Here is Eric Foner on the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment.