Is There a Relationship Between Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy?

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Two reporters contacted me this week to talk about Christian nationalism and the shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  I told both of them that Christian nationalism does not necessarily have to result in white supremacy.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, much of the civil rights movement and the social gospel movement believed that the United States was a Christian nation.  The abolitionists and social reformers of 19th century believed that the United States was a Christian nation.  (Of course their understanding what it means to be a “Christian nation” looked very different from the current manifestation of Christian nationalism espoused by the Christian Right).  It is also true that throughout American history Christian nationalism fueled white supremacist groups such as the KKK and the Confederacy.

The first reporter I engaged was Carol Kuruvilla of HuffPost.  Here is a taste of her piece, “How a Nationalist Strain of Christianity Is Subtly Shaping America’s Gun Debate“:

“For Christian nationalists, human attempts to fix social problems (like gun control legislation) without addressing the underlying ‘moral decline’ of the nation are misguided and an affront to the Christian God,” [Clemson sociologist Andrew] Whitehead said. 

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College who studies Christian nationalism, said that this belief is evident in how some of Trump’s top evangelical advisors responded to the recent mass shootings. 

Pastor Greg Laurie, who leads the evangelical Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and Pastor Jack Graham, of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, taped an Instagram video on Sunday where they talked about how “something bigger” was at play: Rather than blame the availability of guns, the pastors claim that what happened in Dayton and El Paso was the result of a “spiritual battle.”

“The Bible tells us that the final hours of human history, that perilous times will come, difficult, dangerous times will come,” Graham said in the video. “Not to minimize what’s happened, because it’s a tragedy … But we need to remember that ultimately, it’s a spiritual solution. We can’t politicize this.” 

“Many evangelicals, not just Christian nationalists, indeed believe that the *real* problem is a spiritual one. In order to solve the gun problem in America we must evangelize more,” Fea told HuffPost in an email. “By saying that ‘we can’t politicize’ this, [Laurie] and Graham are sending a message to their followers that gun control will not help these problems.”

And my conclusion:

“I cannot think of anything that would make them open to gun control measures,” he wrote. Christian nationalists believe “these are rights that are ENSHRINED in the Constitution by God.”

Read the entire piece here.

And here is a taste of Micah Danney’s piece at Religion Unplugged: “What is Christian Nationalism? Shootings Spark Renewed Debate“:

If the debate about what Christian nationalism is, or whether it exists, inevitably leads to the intent of the country’s founding, history doesn’t uncomplicate things. John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, wrote the book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

“It’s a complicated question, but largely it’s a very hard case to make that the founding fathers of this country wanted to privilege Christianity over all other religions,” Fea said.

Demographically, Christianity certainly was dominant well into the 19th century, and it did shape the culture, he said. It is still the largest religion. Yet legal bulwarks against its codification in public life were part of the nation’s founding. The First Amendment is clear that there is to be no established religion, and Article 5 of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for those serving in government. 

Richard Gamble, a historian at Hillsdale College, said opposing views of Christianity’s role in public life actually share a key characteristic. “Both sides of the debate have understandings of Christianity that are very politicized,” he said.

What used to be a debate about how churches engage in politics has given way to a broad consensus that churches must take an active role in society. Historically, there was a louder argument for staying focused on maintaining religious traditions. 

Read the entire piece here.

Can the Civil Rights Movement Serve as a Model of Evangelical Political Engagement?

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An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian.  While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past.  What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.  Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement.  We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville.  Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement.  In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates.  In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original  Freedom Singers.  In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Lisa McNair.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.  That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.  In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics.  Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.  As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House.  Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.

HOPE

 Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few.  They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day.  For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved.  The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.  When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized  and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.  King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions.  I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anything.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

It was a message of hope.  Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle.  King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward.  Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?  No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good?  Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch  once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip.  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come.  The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far.   Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities.  I saw this kind of hope  in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.  I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary  of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.  As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge  in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the fact of terror on Bloody Sunday.  Such audacity requires hope.

Humility

It is nonsensical  to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power.  Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight.  But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him.  Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods.  Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history.  These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them.   And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:

A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers.  It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church.  This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began.  For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.

The humility on display during the civil  rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now.  This is usually the case with nonviolent protests.  Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.  Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old  music major at  Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959.  Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest.  Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.  Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this.  Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment.  In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love.  Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.”  They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own  .   Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection.   This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world.   The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate.  It wouldn’t  have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me.  Oh, there’s so much hate!  Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

HISTORY

As we saw in chapter  5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for.  The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age.  They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely.  History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”  As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.”  But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals.  It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….

The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project.  They knew there was little to reclaim.  Instead, they used the past as a means of  moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on.  While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past.  They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.

Alan Jacobs: Most Evangelicals “are simply not *formed* by Christian teaching…”

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Alan Jacobs on Jeff Sessions‘s use of Romans 13:

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.” 

And that’s it, that’s the law, that’s the whole of the law

But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.” 

Read the entire piece here.  I like Jacobs’s final line: “Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Cornel West and Robert George Discuss MLK’s Legacy

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From the Wall Street Journal:

In his own time Martin Luther King Jr. was regarded by some as a rabble rouser and even a communist sympathizer, and by others as an Uncle Tom and a “house Negro.” In demanding an immediate end to segregation and Jim Crow, he was too radical for some. In eschewing violence and hatred of anyone—including even the defenders of racial injustice—he was too “tame” and forgiving for others.

Fifty years after his death, he is almost universally revered. Though he did not fit perfectly into any ideological camp during his lifetime, he is claimed today by people across the political spectrum. His words are often invoked to defend causes that he himself did not live to form an opinion about—from opposition to affirmative action to advocacy of same-sex marriage. Everybody, it seems, thinks King would be on their side.

We can and should do our best to think about the implications of his basic principles, but often reasonable people of goodwill disagree about precisely what those implications are. The two of us disagree on some of these issues, though we continue to listen to and engage each other. This has deepened our understanding of King’s principles—especially his focus on the equal dignity and sanctity inherent to every human life.

One of us invokes “the radical King” in criticizing empire, capitalism, and white supremacy. The other recalls King’s principles in defending the unborn, Down syndrome and other disabled people, the frail elderly, and every life.

We both believe King would demand that more be done to fight poverty. But no one can say for sure how he would design and apportion the roles of government, at the national or state levels, and civil-society institutions in the effort. Nor would he claim that whatever policies he happened to favor were infallibly correct. In engaging with each other as fellow citizens, neither should we. At the same time, reasonable difference must never be an excuse for complacency or inaction in the face of evils such as poverty and injustice.

Still, in judging and acting, we must avoid sinning against King’s legacy by facilely claiming him for whatever policies we favor. A more fitting attitude, one consistent with what was truly radical about King, is to imagine him as a critic: “If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”

This self-critical stance honors King by recognizing the centrality of his Christian faith to his work and witness. Today we treat King as a saint, but he recognized himself as a sinner. He struggled to live uprightly but often failed and stood in need of forgiveness. King was taught by the tradition of African-American Christianity, which shaped him in every dimension of his being, that all human beings are fallen. But he was also taught that all are fashioned in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of being loved and treated justly—justice being what love looks like in public.

Read the rest here.

West and George disagree on a lot, but they also have a lot in common.  Over the years they have modeled civil dialogue and friendship. Click here to see West and George discuss the liberal arts.

MLK’s Funeral

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Garment workers at the Abe Schrader Shop in NYC listen to MLK’s funeral (Wikipedia Commons)

James Jeffrey’s piece at Public Radio International has some moving photos from the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.   Check them out here.

The funeral was held on April 8, 1968.

Martin Luther King and the Televangelist

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Elder Michaux (on the far right) at the White House with boxer Jersey Joe Walcott (second from left)

This is a fascinating piece.  Over at Religion & Politics, Washington University professor Lerone Martin shows how the FBI used Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a popular black radio preacher and televangelist, to discredit Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

Here is a taste:

In an FBI memo following the historic March on Washington, the FBI labeled King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” and the nation’s top domestic security risk. The bureau had no evidence that King was a communist; in fact, the FBI concluded King and the civil rights movement he led were too religious to be influenced by communism. Contrary to the evidence, though, Hoover persisted in believing King had fallen under the influence of godless communism. King was leading the nation “in a form of racial revolution,” so he had to be stopped. On the same day the memo was drafted, the FBI sought Michaux’s help. The evangelist immediately launched a coordinated public critique against King and the gospel the civil rights minister preached. Michaux preached a radio sermon from the nation’s capital on CBS Standard and FM radio affiliates. The homily opposed the March on Washington and King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Michaux used the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Luke as his sermon text, proclaiming that King’s dream of racial equality would only materialize when God’s rule was established in the hearts of men. “Yes, righteousness will flow like a mighty stream,” Michaux said, quoting King. However, he qualified, it would only happen “when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—but not until then according to God’s Word.” Advocating for legislative change was futile, according to Michaux; changing hearts was the only way to bring about racial equality. He closed the sermon by telling his listeners to cease marching and simply “seek to do the will of God and be blessed.” It was one thing to hear this from white evangelists like Billy Graham, but it was a weightier matter to hear it from a pioneering black cleric.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is an example of Michaux in action:

“The Drum Major Instinct”

In case you missed it last night, Dodge (the automobile manufacturer) ran a Super Bowl ad using Martin Luther King’s 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” to sell trucks.  (The sermon was preached on February 4, 2018).

Here is the ad:

And here are some of the responses:

I do think that there is a silver-lining in all of this.  More people are listening to this inspiring sermon:

Civil Rights and Health Care

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I am not a scholar of the Civil Rights Movement, but I found Vann Newkirk’s piece on the Civil Rights Movement and health care to be compelling.  (I would appreciate any insights from scholars of the Civil Rights Movement).

Here is a taste of Newkirk’s piece at The Atlantic:

It was a cold March night when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his pulpit towards health care. Speaking to a packed, mixed-race crowd of physicians and health-care workers in Chicago, King gave one of his most influential late-career speeches, blasting the American Medical Association and other organizations for a “conspiracy of inaction” in the maintenance of a medical apartheid that persisted even then in 1966.

There, King spoke words that have since become a maxim: “Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” In the moment, it reflected the work that King and that organization, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), were doing to advance one of the since-forgotten pillars of the civil-rights movement: the idea that health care is a right. To those heroes of the civil-rights movement, it was clear that the demons of inequality that have always haunted America could not be vanquished without the establishment and protection of that right.

Fifty-one years later, those demons have not yet been defeated. King’s quotation has become a rallying cry among defenders of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark 2010 legislation that has come the closest America has ever been to establishing a universal guarantee of health care. Their position is in peril, as the Republican effort to repeal the law and create a replacement that leaves 22 million more people uninsured over the next decade and will slash Medicaid enrollment by 15 million now sits just days away from possible passage.

People of color were the most likely groups to gain coverage and access to care under the ACA, and in the centuries-old struggle over health, they have never been closer both to racial equality of, access and to, the federal protection of health care as a civil right. But if Republicans have their way, that dream will be deferred.

Just as the ACA’s defenders find themselves between a once-in-a-generation victory and a potential equally devastating loss, so the MCHR found themselves in 1966. King delivered his address just months after breakthroughs a century in the making. In the height of the movement in the early 60s that brought sweeping changes in voting rights, integration, and education, civil-rights actors had also won major victories in a push for universal health care. Chief among those victories were two of the defining pieces of 20th-century American policy: the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

Of course, the Civil Rights Act might not seem like much of a health-care bill, and Medicare isn’t usually counted among major civil-rights victories, but as detailed in in health-policy researcher David Barton Smith’s The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare and the Struggle to Transform America’s Health System, they were complementary pieces of a grand civil-rights strategy.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is a piece about the King quote mentioned above.  It is apparently very had to track down and there is no recording or transcript of the speech he delivered on March 25, 1966 to the second convention of the Medical Committee on Human Rights.

“The Drum Major Instinct”

During our history of the Civil Rights Movement bus tour we spent a lot of time watching documentaries and listening to recording of speeches.  On Sunday morning Todd Allen played Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” King delivered this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968.

Listen:

As I listened from my seat I was struck by this part of the sermon:

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)

Here is King, only months away from his death, suggesting that the issue of poverty and low-wages is a justice issue that seems to transcend race.

This point reminds me of this recent Saturday Night Live sketch starring Tom Hanks:

 

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 8

For previous posts in this series click here.

Last night the bus pulled into the Drury Inn in Middletown, Ohio.  We have officially left the South, but it also feels like we have traveled forward in time.  Eight days ago we entered the world of the Civil Rights Movement in the years between 1954 and 1968. Time travel, of course, is impossible, but this week we have come as close as possible to the kind of historical empathy I demand of all of my students.  The world we entered eight days ago was a world of segregation, Jim Crow, and brutal violence against African Americans.  It was also a world of hope, resistance, non-violence, and Christian faith.

Yesterday afternoon our tour leaders popped Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro into the bus DVD player.  As I listened and watched I was keenly aware of the distance between the movement in Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, and Birmingham and the more radical civil rights voices of the latter and post-King years. In some cases nonviolence  gave way to violence; hope gave way to bitterness; and Christian faith gave way to skepticism.  Historians can debate the degree to which these changes took place, but they definitely took place.  Baldwin complicates the narrative in ways that make white people uncomfortable.

On Saturday we spent most of the day in Nashville, Tennessee.  When white Americans think about Nashville they think about country music, but the Civil Rights Movement has a very rich history in the Music City.

We began the day at the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library—the only place in the city where the Civil Rights Movement is interpreted.  When we walked into this amazing room we met Rip Patton, a Nashville resident who participated in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides during the Winter and Spring of 1960.  Patton walked us through the history of the movement as he experienced it.  He was involved in integrating lunch counters throughout the city and was jailed as part of the second wave of freedom riders in May 1960.  Here is Patton on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was split evenly between white and black activists.  The African-American part of the movement was led by a group of students and ministers associated with American Baptist Theological Seminary. As Patton described how James Lawson, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel ended up in Nashville he spoke in terms that could only be described as providential. These men came to Nashville, with a recommendation from Martin Luther King, to train for the Christian ministry.  Patton continued his providential language when he described how Diane Nash left Howard University after her freshman year and came to Fisk University.

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With Rip Patton at the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room

Training in non-violent resistance began in Nashville in 1959. Since the movement was led by clergymen and clergymen-in-training, it took on a spiritual character.  Patton said that the students were trained to ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with difficult choices.  During severe moments of violence and discrimination they were taught to “remove” themselves from the situation through prayer and singing. Patton’s Civil Rights Movement was a spiritual movement, affirming the argument made by historian David Chappell in his excellent Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Since so many ministers were in jail during the Freedom Rides, Patton said, “we always had church.”  He added, “We read the Bible a lot and prayed.” Patton appealed to three Bible verses to explain why he participated in the movement.  They were Romans 12:2 (“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…); Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”); and Psalm 23.

After Patton spoke and answered questions, Kwame Lillard, another Nashville participant in the movement, led us on a walking tour of Civil Rights sites in Nashville. Lillard trained students in non-violent methods of protest and handled much of the administrative tasks for the sit-ins and freedom rides.  In recent years he has served as a Nashville city councilman.

Lillard’s civil rights journey was a little different than the one experienced by his friend Rip Patton.  Lillard was more open about discussing structural racism, telling us several times that “We took down the ‘white only sign,’ but we didn’t take down the ‘white only mind.'”  He was more willing to talk about violence and describe the battle for civil rights as a  “war.”  (At Fisk University, Lillard spoke somewhat approvingly of an incident in which African-American students dragged a member of the white administration down the stairs in order to remove him from power and secure African-American leadership at the university.  I have been trying to find this story online, but have come-up empty so far.  If anyone can point me to a source I would appreciate it).  Lillard was the first person we met on this tour to talk extensively about Black Lives Matter and mention Malcolm X.

At lunch I invited Lillard to sit with my family in a booth at Swetts, one of Nashville’s great soul food restaurants and a place often frequented by those in the movement.  Here I got to learn more about his story.  After playing his pivotal role in the Nashville movement in 1959-1960, Lillard moved to New York City to pursue graduate work at Hunter College.  While in New York he was influenced by the militant teachings of Malcolm X.  He described the shift from the non-violent approach of the Nashville movement to the more militant approach of Malcolm X as “difficult,” but he appreciated Malcolm X’s efforts at connecting his vision to similar fights for racial justice around the world.  “I learned a lot,” Lillard told me, “and realized that there was a lot going on in Africa and other places.”  Lillard even had a chance to meet Malcolm X at his New York apartment.  Though he did not say it, I imagine that Lillard returned to Nashville in the mid-1970s with a different take on how to deal with race issues in the city. It was fascinating to listen to him describe his intellectual journey.

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With Kwame Lillard at Swetts in Nashville.  He held up his fist for the picture and said “Mandela.”

During our tour Lillard took us to the Walgreen’s Drug Store on 5th Avenue North.  It was the site of student sit-ins in 1960 and is the oldest Walgreen’s store still operating in its original location.  (The lunch counter was removed).  We also visited Fisk University and Nashville National Cemetery where we saw the grave markers of the “colored troops” who fought for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Nashville.  On our final stop, Lillard took us to meet Vernon Winfrey at the barber shop he has owned for over fifty years.  Oh yeah, did I mention Vernon is Oprah’s father?

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Kwame Lillard telling us about the Nashville Walgreens sit-in

As the tour winds down I am left wondering again about usable pasts. Using the past to promote present-day agendas is always problematic, but I wonder if the Civil Rights Movement of Juanita Jones Abernathy, Rutha Mae Harris, Carol McKinstry, and Rip Patton provide the best way forward.  Or does a more militant and radical approach, like the one associated with Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Kwame Lillard offer the best way forward as we seek to foster racial reconciliation in our communities. Perhaps a little bit of both.

As I have written before, I am taking this tour with several colleagues from Messiah College.  The Provost’s Office and Office of Diversity Affairs funded our trip as part of the college’s commitment to racial reconciliation.  At various points during the trip we were asked to appear on camera and reflect on “what we were feeling” or “describe our emotions.” The assumption, of course, is that we will be moved to make contributions to race relations on our campus.

I am not a big fan of expressing my feelings or talking about emotions as it relates to the way I approach the past, but I think it is fair to say that I am leaving this trip inspired by the Christian and non-violent approach to Civil Rights promoted by Martin Luther King, James Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, the Greensboro Four, and many, many others.  As some you know, Messiah College is a Christian college with Anabaptist roots.  Like Rip Patton, we try to approach social issues from the perspective of Christian faith.  As an Anabaptist school we privilege non-violence.  Frankly, I can’t think of a more usable past than the one provided for us by these Civil Rights leaders.  So I continue to wonder: is there is a place for a religiously skeptical, militant, and angry approach to race relations at a Christian college?  Something to think about.  I need to keep reading,

Today is our last stop.  It is in Canton, Ohio.  Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

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Another shot of the Nashville Walgreens

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When we got to Fisk University, Phyllis Brown (pictured above) told us all to kneel down and touch the “sacred ground.”  Phyllis traveled with us from Memphis to Nashville.  She is the sister of  Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

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Vernon Winfrey shares some words of wisdom with us from the floor of his barber shop in Nashville.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 7

Memphis

For previous posts in this series click here.

I cannot believe we have been on the road for a week.  We started the day in Memphis and ended it in Nashville.

The major stop of the day was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel, of course, was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  The museum is built around the motel and an additional building–the Young and Morrow Building–located just across the street.  This is the building (a rooming house in 1968) where James Earl Ray fired the shots that killed King.

Here is New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the evening of King’s death. He delivered it while on the presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis.

Kennedy would be assassinated two months later.  As I listen to his speech again, I wonder if it still holds-up today.  I hope it does.

After touring the museum we headed to Beale Street and a visit to the gallery of Civil Rights Movement photographer Ernest Withers.  He took some of the most iconic photos of the era.  You can see some of my favorites here and here.

The last stop in Memphis was lunch at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street where we were treated to some great soul music from recent graduates of Stax Music Academy.

We are touring Nashville today.  Stay tuned.

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 the Civil Rights Tour: Day 2

Read previous posts in this series here.

The Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour rolled into Atlanta yesterday.  We made three major stops.

First, we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on Auburn Avenue, just east of downtown.  We saw King’s birth home, his tomb (where he lays with Coretta Scott King), the original Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was baptized and served as co-pastor with his father), and the various exhibits in the King Center’s Freedom Hall.  (In Freedom Hall we got to see, among other things, King’s doctoral robe, the contents of his closet and dresser following his death, and the contents of the suitcase he carried when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968).

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With my daughter Caroline outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

During our visit to the Ebenezer Baptist Church we sat in the sanctuary and listened to King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.  King preached this sermon in Memphis on the day before he was assassinated.  What makes this sermon so powerful today is the fact that King mentions the possibility of his untimely death:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

When I first read this sermon in graduate school as part of a course on the Civil Rights Movement, I started calling it the “If I Had Sneezed” speech.  On September 20, 1958, a mentally ill women named Izola Curry attempted to kill King at a Harlem book signing. She stabbed him in the chest with a letter-opener.   King referenced the stabbing in this speech. Here is a taste:

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

“Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”

And she said,

“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

The sneezing story and the references to some of the greatest moments of his career take on an additional layer of meaning when we know what happened to King the day after he delivered this speech

After our visit to the MLK Center we jumped on the bus for a short ride to The Varsity, Atlanta’s famous fast-food restaurant.  (I highly recommend two hot dogs, onion rings, and a frosty orange!).  We later learned The Varsity has its own story of segregation and race, but I will have to save that for another post.

We ended the day at Georgia State University where we heard a lecture from historian Glen Eskew, author of the award-winning But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.  Eskew covered a lot of ground, but focused mainly on the role that the New Deal played in bringing a degree of wage equality, consumer choice, and economic security to many Blacks in the South.  These expanding opportunities for Blacks made the American South more “dynamic” and ultimately led them to pursue civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.  Eskew also talked about Coretta Scott King’s efforts to preserve her husband’s legacy through the King Center and the difficulty in sustaining museums related to the Civil Rights Movement.

As Eskew finished his lecture, Juanita Jones Abernathy walked into the lecture hall. This was a real treat.  Juanita and her husband Ralph Abernathy were leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956. (Ralph was the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church).  There is so much to say about Juanita Abernathy’s remarks that I have decided to save them for a post that I will publish later today.  Stay tuned.

 

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Caroline and Juanita Jones Abernathy

Today we are in Albany, Georgia.  More to come.  In the meantime, here are a few more pics:

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The tomb of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King

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The birth home of Martin Luther King

 

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy

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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.

Tweeting the 2017 NEH Jefferson Lecture

This morning I wrote a post on this lecture.

Martha Nussbaum’s Jefferson Lecture offered a stinging critique to those who believe democracy can flourish, or justice can be obtained, through retributive anger.

Here are some my tweets:

The National Endowment for Humanities Funds the Papers of Martin Luther King

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Donald 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:

The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University runs the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project.  Here is a taste of what this project is all about:

The King Papers Project’s principal mission is to publish a definitive fourteen-volume edition of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,a comprehensive collection of King’s most significant correspondence, sermons, speeches, published writings, and unpublished manuscripts. The seven already published volumes have become essential reference works for researchers and have influenced scholarship about King and the movements he inspired. Building upon this research foundation, the Project also engages in other related educational activities. Using internet communications technology to reach a diverse global audience, it has greatly increased popular as well as scholarly awareness of King’s achievements and visionary ideas.

In 2016 the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding for the preparation for publication of volumes VIII and IX of the King Papers, covering the years 1962 -1964.

For other posts in this series click here.