The Church, Society and Race: Part 6 (Introducing Racism)

This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 part 5, part 7, and parts 8a and 8b.

In this post, we continue our woefully brief historical survey, covering several high-level movements to help unpack why we are where we are today. We focus our attention on the period spanning from emancipation to the Civil Rights movement.

 Slavery, Emancipation and Reconstruction

We left off with the institution of slavery in full swing. We don’t have time to unpack the horrific sin of slavery, the corrupt justifications for the institution, or the innumerable injustices committed by white slaveholders, but I will commend you to the history books. If you’ve never seriously studied this part of our family history, now is the time. Read through Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for a frank and brief overview of one man’s experience. It is right and good for us to stand face to face with the sins of our fathers – for we cannot and will not understand the racial landscape of our present-day society if we do not take into account where we came from.

 Divisions

American society was not monolithic in its support for slavery as a practice, or an institution. There were some who, in reckoning the ideals of the American revolution with the reality of enslavement, found themselves caught in an uncomfortable tension. But into the early 1800s, these voices tended to die out.1 However, into the 1830s, a new breed of antislavery voices emerged, including abolitionists in favor of immediate emancipation such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

These abolitionist voices fought a bitter fight of words, and attempted to influence to abolish slavery and grant freedom for the entire enslaved population. But of course, they were not successful through words alone.

Enslavement continued to be supported and ratified as law, as a matter of states rights and property rights.2 And the argument persisted with no less ferocity in the American churches: with sides using the Scriptures to defend arguments both for and against slavery.

Denominational structures began to crack before the Union did. Methodists divided in 1844; Baptists in 1845 (leading to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention), the Presbyterians in 1857 and 1861.3

The national crisis emerged as southern states began to secede from the Union in 1860-61, leading to the formation of the Confederate States of America in the south. While many continue to debate the central causes for the Civil War, at least Alexander Stevens, the Confederacy’s vice-president, made his heart clear when he declared in 1861 that the Confederate government rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”4

We know what happened next: our country descended into four years of bloody civil war, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of American citizens – and countless others who were given no right to be called citizens.

 Emancipation

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. It was, however, ineffective with regards to the border states and, of course, areas under Confederate control.5 It was not until the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution that slavery was explicitly prohibited with these words: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted [this will become important for later discussions], shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”6

 Reconstruction

It should be said here that the abolition of slavery – and the efforts of those who fought for it – were not necessarily driven by antiracist convictions. Indeed, there is evidence that many antislavery advocates did not argue with equal vigor for antiracist ideals. In fact, along the spectrum of perspectives, there were many who would have happily shipped the African American population back to Africa, if that were possible.

I make this point because we cannot understand what happens next if we do not see this clearly. Slaveholders were not the only ones who argued for the inferiority of African Americans (in particular – of course, racism was not limited to African Americans). If they were the only advocates of racist ideas, then it is conceivable that, perhaps the years following the Civil War would revealed greater progress. Furthermore, despite the formal abolition of slavery through the ratification of the 13th amendment, and the equality of all people strengthened through the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, much of white American culture yet sought to find new means of subjugation.

In the period known as Reconstruction (1863-77), immediately following the Civil War, the African American population saw profound reversals. Communities experienced some integration and African Americans began to vote, and become elected to political positions. Michelle Alexander notes that “In 1867, at the dawn of the Reconstruction Era, no black man held political office in the South, yet three years later, at least 15 percent of all Southern elected officials were black.”7

This newfound involvement, of course, was not well-received. Eventually, states began to impose hindrances to voting such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Additionally, resentful whites inflicted violence upon the African American population, seeking to degrade confidence and influence.

 Jim Crow

 The End of Reconstruction

Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to pull troops out of the South and effectively end Reconstruction in 1877, leaving the South to handle race relations on its own. And like a spring, the culture quickly snapped back to its memorized position. With slavery as an institution taken from its toolbag, racist southerners looked to other means to give form to racist ideas. Jim Crow laws became the tool of choice.

Jim Crow is the name of a character employed by minstrels in the pre-Civil War days which played on ridiculous stereotypes of black people as backward, lazy and stupid. After Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were designed to justify this belief. Vagrancy laws were instituted, requiring that all adults must be employed or risk arrest. Other crimes such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were created, enabling African Americans to be arrested at high rates. Michelle Alexander documents the use of convict leasing to effectively create a new slavery, as prisons leased their convicts to plantation owners, lumber camps, railroads, etc. for low pay and under atrocious conditions.8

 “Separate But Equal”

Additionally, Jim Crow laws created segregated spaces – “separate but equal.” This trajectory was confirmed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.9 From this trajectory, different housing was created for black and white Americans; different seats in public transportation; entrances in restaurants and government buildings; etc. The logic of these laws was that, while one’s skin may not create an ontological superiority/inferiority, the law itself could not eradicate social tensions between black and white. As such, the law should therefore should seek to preserve the peace – or better, the status quo. Of course, it is difficult to justify separate but equal doctrine without requiring some subterranean justification of inequality.

 White Terror

While Jim Crow laws cloaked this racism in law, the practice of many white Americans made it violently explicit. The case of lynchings in the south is a case in point. In response to African American independence, white terror groups such as the Klu Klux Klan emerged, instilling fear in black communities. Not only this, but lynchings abounded throughout the years between 1890 and the early to mid 1900s. Lynchings were a form of public torture and execution, a sentence passed for supposedly insulting a white person, or allegedly assaulting a white woman. They were barbaric spectacles, drawing huge crowds, with the indictment, trial and verdict issued by a racist mob.10

 The Great Migration

Now, we must be careful here. It may be easy to dismiss what has been argued above as a purely southern phenomenon. Yet it it was not. After the Civil War, nearly 90% of the African American population lived in the southern states.11 This concentration, coupled with the South’s history with enslavement and their subsequent reaction against loss of wealth due to free labor led to its violent response to the African American population. However, it would be a mistake to assume that racist ideas, laws, systems and attitudes were absent in the northern states.

Northern racism became particularly clear through the mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North in what is known as the Great Migration, spanning from the WWI era, to the 1970s. By the 70’s, about 47% of the African American population of the United States lived outside of the South, whereas only 10% did so prior to the beginning of this movement. Indeed, in our very own Chicago, the black population increased from around 44,000 in the early 1900s, to more than a million by the 70’s.12 This influx pressurized latent racist attitudes, resulting in the transformation of our cities in racialized ways.

Indeed, as Richard Rothstein has shown in his book The Color of Law, zoning laws, white flight out of communities with incoming black residents, and the process of redlining (the refusal of banks to grant loans African American families) all contributed to legalized(ish) forms of discrimination which not only isolated black communities, but often restricted resources to those communities.13 Indeed, the imprint of these segregated communities are still visible. A researcher engaged in a fascinating project, plotting a single colored point for every person represented in the 2010 census. If you look at Chicago, for example, you can still see the colored bands representing African American communities, Latino communities, etc. The important thing for us to understand is that many of these communities were forcibly formed – not out of a desire to “stick together,” but out of a desire by white communities to keep people of color out.

 The Civil Rights Movement

It wasn’t until the early-mid 1900s that resistance to these racist structures began to gain ground. This past Wednesday, I was down in Memphis and got to join a crowd observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of perhaps the most prominent Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But there were many, many voices from the African American evangelical community calling for justice and the end to Jim Crow segregation and its attendant injustices.

Several key legal victories were won during the Civil Rights era, including the Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education in 1954 which ruled against Plessy v Ferguson, declaring that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal…”14 While it would be more than a decade before many southern schools were integrated, this ruling laid the groundwork for the process to begin.

In addition to these, several Civil Rights acts were put into place in the mid to late 1960s, structurally dismantling the restrictions on voting, employment and housing discrimination. The legislative movement of the 1950s and 60s finally brought about legal justice for racial minorities in the United States – at least at one level.

In this, however, it is important for us to see a consistent trend. The laws may change, but culture is left imprinted by the values, beliefs and systems put in place in previous generations. Slavery as institution was formally abolished in 1865, but it is clear that the following century sought to preserve the racist ideas by refashioning systems to accommodate those ideas. It is essential that we take careful note of this trajectory. If the law of the land did not change the heart of the people in 1865, we must not assume that it did in 1954, or 1968.

In fact, as I will seek to show in the coming weeks, the imprint of racism still exists in our nation. Things have improved structurally, to be sure – but the racist impulse woven so deeply within our narrative has caused some structures to go underground, making it more and more difficult to discern.

 Where Was the White Evangelical Church?

Before we leave this post, we must ask one further question: was the white evangelical church in all of this?

 The Absence of Evangelical Voices

While there was some engagement by Christian churches throughout the early years of the Civil Rights movement, they tended to come from progressive, or liberal branches of Christianity. Indeed, during the 1930s-40s, most theologically conservative Christians and denominations were waging a war against theological liberalism within their midst. As a result, they tended to identify social engagement and conversations about race relations as liberal work. Therefore, they generally remained silent – viewing the race problem as a problem between individuals, rather than a systemic one.15

I found this to be true in my own study of the GARBC, a fundamentalist baptist association. In 1959, Robert Hunter, an African American pastor sought to have his church recognized by the Illinois association. After waiting a year for a response, he was asked to withdraw his application, lest “someone get hurt.” Apparently there was strong enough resistance among association churches, that the leadership believed a graceful retreat was the best option.

In reading through articles from the association’s publication from the 1930s to the present, I came face to face with precisely what Emerson and Smith describe. In article after article, I discovered a tension: some support of the broader goals of the Civil Rights movement, some outright support for segregation and blatant racism – but a good deal of that uncomfortable “wait and see” mentality. The authors were united, however, in the methods of the Civil Rights movement, seeing it as lawless and liberal.

The state association did apologize for its refusal to accept Robert Hunter in the 1980s, and the national association did so in 1996, where it explicitly acknowledge the “sin of racism.” But let us keep perspective: this was a mere 20 years ago.

 Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

The deep concern for me in this survey is that the white evangelical church (or fundamentalist churches, etc.) has been largely silent or passive on matters of racial justice throughout our history. To be sure, many abolitionists were driven by Christian convictions, and no doubt there were some churches who joined the struggle throughout the past centuries. But by and large, evangelicals have either remained sidelined, or even labored to preserve racist structures. It was this transparent inaction that led Dr. King to write from his Birmingham jail,

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevance and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern’, and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular. So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice. I have travelled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: ‘what kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred?”16

You see, as a pastor, I am terribly concerned with this question: what about our theology could permit us to see injustice and do nothing about it? Recall what I argued back in lesson 3: we not only have the opportunity to shape and influence society, we have an obligation to. If we take seriously Jesus’ instruction that we are salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16), then we are indeed obligated to pursue these avenues. If we have the opportunity to influence society, to call for justice, to correct oppression, to confront corruption, and on, then we must do so. To fail to use this opportunity is to pass by the man on the side of the road, rather than to be the Good Samaritan.

And so we must ask, what about the theological frameworks and church practices of white evangelical American churches has permitted them to identify more with the priest and the Levite, rather than the Samaritan who Jesus us calls them to emulate? And then we must ask, what about our theological frameworks and church practices lead us to do the same?

If our theological framework allows us to rest comfortably with sexual sin, we must adjust our convictions to be more biblical. If our convictions allow us to rest comfortably with abortion, we need to adjust our convictions to be more biblical. If our convictions allow us to rest comfortably with blatant racism, without loudly confronting and objecting to it, there is something wrong with our theological framework.

Of course, we may not see – and that is quite possible. But the point of this conversation is that we might see. And now, we must live in light of this knowledge.


  1. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 30. 

  2. Ibram X Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, 2017, 204ff. 

  3. Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 34. 

  4. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 215. 

  5. ibid, 220-21 

  6. https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-xiii, accessed April 6, 2018. 

  7. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Revised edition (New York: New Press, 2012), 29. 

  8. Alexander, 31. 

  9. See the arguments at https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/163/537

  10. See the interactive map documenting lynchings in the United States at http://www.monroeworktoday.org/explore

  11. Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017), 68. 

  12. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, 1st ed (New York: Random House, 2010), 10–11. 

  13. See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, First edition (New York ; London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2017). Also see Beryl Satter, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). 

  14. http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/history-brown-v-board-education-re-enactment, accessed April 7, 2018. 

  15. See Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 43. 

  16. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  

 
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