Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
The week began with the shortest, the darkest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. It will end with the Christ Light. Advent, a time of waiting and expectation on the Christian calendar, draws to an end. The pandemic of 2020 has been one long Winter Solstice for so many people. My small life of retirement has grown even quieter. I have turned inward to explore unmet dreams, regrets of lost years, and the realization of life’s impermanence. The injustice that permeates the lives of the poor, the displaced, and the oppressed has become for me emblematic of the dark streets of Bethlehem. I have been wandering these streets for many months in search of light.
On the four Sundays of Advent, we light a candle. Each candle represents what humans search for all their lives: hope, faith, joy, and peace. These desires are universal and are not changed by anyone’s religiosity or lack of it. Those in poverty or living in affluence want lives full of these attributes. The masters and the slaves want these things. The lost and the found want these things. It is with great expectation that we light these candles, but they will not come alive without the Light. On Christmas Day we light our final candle. It is the white Christ candle and suddenly our Advent wreaths are blazing and alive and real.
We need that Light going forward in 2021. There are stark needs on these dark streets. We must come together in groups, large and small, most especially in our churches, and build the trust to turn the Light on these needs. We can use the Light’s power to be honest, to own our own part in the darkness, and the way forward will emerge. The dark streets will be ablaze so that faith, hope, joy, and peace will be a possibility for all!
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…….they are before the throne of God”. Revelation 7:9
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” Revelation 7:15-17
“How could whites confess and live the Christian faith and also impose three-and-a-half centuries of slavery and segregation upon black people? Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel.” James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree
In these quotations we see the horror that can occur when we don’t live the theology we proclaim. I see race as the crucible of the white church and I am seeking a path to begin again. That path must be a redemptive one.
I live in a Mississippi college town well known for its authors, musicians, beautiful old homes, quaint square, and its food. The mainline Protestant churches are represented about 2 blocks from the iconic Square Books. You can take a walking tour from the bookstore and easily find the first stop at the historic building of the First Presbyterian Church. The Episcopal Church is cozily ensconced across the street and is in the middle of an expansion. The United Methodist Church is located behind First Presbyterian and sports a beautiful family life center. First Baptist Church is located a block further down the street and likely has the biggest congregation. All of these churches are predominately white in congregation and style.
I was baptized in the Catholic Church, confirmed and married the first time in the Episcopal Church, baptized again in the Baptist Church, taught Sunday School and youth groups as a member of the United Methodist Church, and am currently an elder in the Presbyterian Church. This kind of eclecticism has its roots in my family.
My mother had a fairly rebellious attitude toward religion. She frequently got in trouble by reading books off the Pope’s banned list and loved to tell the story of draping a cloth over her cleavage while taking communion before the Prom. She was pretty, popular, had a beautiful voice so she was often in performances. In high school she was starring in something and her twin sister got in trouble with the nuns and was sent somewhere for detention. Mother went on strike until her sister was released. I have inherited from her much of my questioning nature and reluctance to take orders from anyone.
My father was active in the Baptist Church from infancy. When they were married my parents continued to attend their separate churches until I was seven and they joined the Episcopal church where they were active members until their deaths. My father taught Sunday School for youth and adults all his life. He loved history and theology and the church. I inherited those passions from him.
I tell this story because I want to confirm my own love and understanding of organized religion and the role it plays, especially in the South. I will be a member of my church for all of my life, too. I feel that gives me the right and the responsibility to chastise it at this point in our history. In previous posts I have acknowledged all that I have had to learn about the history of Black people in our country, and the story of racism in my own family in order to arrive at the deep disappointment I feel in the church and in myself today. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he described this feeling. “For godly grief is a natural response to the suffering of others.”
The white church has a long history of being complicit in racism. (Tisby, 2019) There should be no doubt that white Christians have failed to walk their talk. The opening quotes from Revelation and James Cone show dramatic imagery that portrays the vast chasm between faith and actions.
The book of Revelation is a complex, controversial book in the Bible. It is full of powerful imagery consistent with the Christian theme of the time: Jesus will come again and soon! My purpose here is not to debate anyone’s interpretation of Revelation, but to use the imagery to explain its power to catch the theological imagination of people. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of Biblical authority, it is clear in the scriptures that Christians believe deeply in a God of justice, love and mercy. At least we say we do.
The second quotation comes from James Cone in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone is well known for his understanding of Black theology and its relationship to Black Power and liberation. The image created by the Cross juxtaposed to the Lynching Tree is a condemnation of white supremacy. If we say we believe the words in the scripture but we perform the acts described by the Lynching Tree, it takes a lot of mental and emotional gymnastics to reconcile that with our faith. White supremacy on the surface today seems to be associated with Nazi symbols, Klu Klux Klan, and particular people who tout their superiority on the internet. But white supremacy goes much deeper than those symbols which are easy to reject or dismiss. It describes a belief that white people are superior and because of that they deserve the power they have in any situation. That belief has infused the church since colony days just as it has our country. And it is still alive today.
The recent election proved once again that we are a very divided country across a wide variety of social and political issues. That said, race was a major factor in this election. Black Americans can rightfully claim they made the most significant difference in these results. The election took place with racism permeating events. COVID infection and police malpractice impacted Blacks at disproportionate levels. Once again historical events have collided and revealed the continual struggle for Black Americans to gain their full citizenship rights in our country.
I heard a Black woman interviewed on television explain why, for forty years, she has never voted. Until this week. She said something like this: “I have always thought that this country did not accept me. But after the social protests of the last year, I have started to believe that this IS my country. I should start participating, learning the system, and voting.” For the first time in forty years, this woman has some hope about America. Does that sound familiar? Dramatic displays of violence against Blacks, shock throughout the nations, mobilization of protests, and hope “springs eternal”. I imagine that her hopes are even deeper and wider today. There have been other moments like this in the history of our country. The Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s were all times of great hope for Blacks in this country. None of these moments led to the kind of acceptance or the legal rights they promised. Another moment has arrived when Black Americans are hopeful and anxious for promises to be realized.
Perhaps that is how Martin Luther King felt in 1963, standing at the Lincoln Memorial and looking out on 250,000 people during the March on Washington. He described his dreams for his children on “the red hills of Georgia.” This was a prophetic speech from a well of deep faith by a gifted Baptist preacher. This moment was the high point of the movement and King’s influence on nonviolent protest. The speech and the movement itself were fueled by King’s deep belief in the beloved community, a community not unlike what is described in the scriptures above.
Perhaps it was how Clarence Jordan felt as he journeyed back to his home state of Georgia after earning a PHD in Greek New Testament from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. It was 1942 and instead of entering church leadership as King would do in 1954, Jordan and his wife bought property with Martin and Mabel England, near Americus, Georgia and started Koinonia Farm. The farm was to be a “lived theology” where Blacks and whites would abide in community, interdependent and sharing their resources. Jordan did not march or protest, he created a place where the beloved community could live.
King and Jordan fit the definition of prophets who represent marginalized people and call for their inclusion in the larger community. King chose nonviolent protests and community organizing. Jordan chose to build an alternative community as a powerful example of that inclusion. Both felt called by God to walk their path in the face of sometimes violent opposition.
King believed, at least at the beginning of the nonviolent protests, that the end would be redemption, reconciliation, and the creation of the “beloved community.” But by the late 60’s “the vision of the beloved community lies in ruins”. (Marsh, 2005) Although there had been legal progress for sure, the barriers now seemed more related to the values, attitudes, and beliefs of whites which proved much harder to change. (Marsh, 2005)
Jordan ran into those same white values, attitudes, and beliefs in the community around Koinonia Farm in Sumter County, Georgia. From 1942-1949 Jordan and England built the Koinonia Farm from the hard scrabble of South Georgia and developed an interracial enterprise buying and selling farm products in the area. The farm was organized by a covenant that required sharing in everything. Blacks and whites ate together and worked together equally. The reaction to this simple parable straight from Jesus’s example was hate and violence.
Perhaps a way forward for the white church may be found in the story of these two ministries. I will continue to search in that direction and share what I learn in future posts.
“in the early decades of the century, white southerners had stolen reconstruction from the Negro and given him Jesus instead” Charles Marsh
From 1877 until 1965 Blacks and whites in the South lived in a segregated society kept in place by Jim Crow laws, cultural norms, and fear. Blacks and Whites read the same Bible and ministers preached sermons supposedly based on the same scriptures. Yet, culture of racism and white supremacy was obviously too strong for white Christians to resist.
Reconstruction began with the Emancipation Proclamation and was over by the end of 1877. (Foner, 2014). During those fourteen years public schools were established and Blacks had access to education for the first time. Equally as important to the creation of community was the Black church. During slavery Blacks were allowed entrance to churches but relegated to the balconies or back seats with no role in governance. But they heard the message and it appealed to a people locked in bondage. I imagine that it was comforting to identify with the Old Testament story of a people brought out of oppression and lead into a promised land. The New Testament Jesus who brought a message of hope, faith, mercy and justice were surely a balm to a tormented soul. Reconstruction brought the opportunity for Blacks to form their own churches and those churches became the center of a stable Black community.
By 1877 white supremacy was reestablished, black codes in place, and whatever hopes and dreams the Black community had after 1863 were gone. The white Northerners were tired of the drain on their pocketbooks and their political will and the white Southerners were back in power. The Blacks were left with the solace of an afterlife that promised something better, a convenient way for whites to “keep them happy”. Meanwhile the whites had sold their own souls.
The word that seems best to describe this post Reconstruction time in the white church is “silence”. White church men and women accepted the culture as it was. They bought into what Eddie Glaude calls, the “lie” of Black inferiority and benefited once again from Black labor. It is difficult to see one’s family, one’s ancestors, as oppressors, but we were and still are in many ways. What was happening in the Black church? The church folks were talking.
In our homes, in our churches,
wherever two or three are gathered,
there is a discussion of what is best to do.
Must we remain in the South
Or go elsewhere? Where can we go
to feel that security which other people feel?
Is it best to go in great numbers or only in several families?
These and many other things are discussed over and over.
A colored woman in Alabama, 1902
The Warmth of other Suns:the epic story of America’s great migration
In her beautifully written, almost lyrical book, Isabel Wilkerson tells the stories of the Great Migration. Between 1915 and 1970 six million Black southerners let their homes to resettle in places all over this country, anywhere but the South. “By the turn of the 21st century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.” (Wilkerson, 1990) They decided to “begin again” elsewhere (to borrow another term from Eddie Glaude, Jr.). But there were also Black people who chose another strategy. They stayed and began to make some noise with the encouragement of people like Martin Luther King, John Perkins, and Ella Baker. Baker’s biographer, Barbara Ransby (2003), calls the period from “the nadir of segregation at the turn of the twentieth century to the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and beyond” as the Black Freedom Movement. We need to analyze the reaction of white people to this cry for justice and to search for where faith was a part of that freedom movement. The Church needs to lead a movement of its own.
When I ride by the downtown churches of my small southern town these days, I wonder how we reconcile what we say in our worship services with what we do in response to the inequities in our society. These mainline churches represent the major Protestant churches in America and all of them have national organizations that do have prayers, confessions, policies, that address these concerns. But at the local level where we all are visible to our neighbors, we are very quiet.
A quick look at the Sunday bulletins from these churches reveals that they include offering collections. A look at the budgets will show donations to the homeless, the hungry, and other such causes. But more of the funds will go for staffing the churches with various ministers to lead programs, primarily for the members themselves. They have nice facilities, some being expanded, that must be maintained. In some programs the people of these churches actually touch the hungry, the homeless and the oppressed, but more often they touch each other.
At some point in the programming of these churches, including my own, white Christians have studied the Old and New Testaments in small and large groups. The Old Testament tells of the creation of the world, the deliverance of God’s chosen people in Israel from the hands of their oppressors, and the many times God sent prophets to tell the chosen they needed to “act right”. The New Testament tell the story of Jesus, the living presence of God, and the creation of the church as the vehicle to spread the message, the “good news” of transformation, to everyone. The denominations represented in my town’s enclave of downtown churches may take different attitudes toward these scriptures. Some interpret all of it literally and others take in as authoritative in its message, but still a product of human beings who are not infallible. Regardless of the perspective, all should agree that anyone claiming to be a Christian would see that oppression should be overcome. This message cannot be in doubt when we read these samples of scriptures:
“After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God” Exod. 2:23
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
Blacks groaned under slavery, they groaned post-Reconstruction, they protested and mobilized during the Civil Rights movement and here we are again in 2020. How can we white Christians “begin again”?
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth?
I have lifted up my eyes unto the hills every morning of my retreat in the North Georgia mountains. The natural world has always been my place of contemplation and the mountains set the perfect scene. Julius Bloch was a German-born immigrant whose family came to the United States in 1893. They experienced great hardship when they settled in Philadelphia. He always identified with the working class and others who suffered. This propensity led him to paint sensitive portraits of Blacks in the Philadelphia community. This particular painting awakened my desire to explore where faith and racial justice intersect.
My faith has been nurtured within the traditional church. My mother grew up in a Catholic household and my father in a Baptist one. Neither of their mothers was happy with the union. This “mixed marriage” exposed me to very different faith cultures in my early years. While I went to Mass with my mother, my father stayed home with my sister and later took his turn at church on Sunday nights. Eventually we all joined the Episcopal church so we could worship as a family. In high school I would attend church with my family in the morning and go to the Baptist church youth program Sunday evenings. In college I was attracted to an evangelical group, but two marriages later I am solidly mainstream in the Presbyterian Church USA.
I love the Church, with a capital C. It is the only institution in our modern society that still focuses on the spiritual development of people. But I am also very disappointed in the Church today and its reluctance to part ways with the American culture of individualism, competitiveness, and even racism. I keep waiting for a new Amos, a new prophet, to appear and call us to task. Where is a new Jeremiah who will call us out for our refusal to acknowledge our privilege and use it to better the world for all people?
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been the prophet we needed in the 1950’s. He came back to the South to become a Baptist minister at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He said once he always thought of himself as a Baptist preacher like his father and grandfather before him. Like all of the Old Testament prophets he was reluctant and did not have activism as his personal agenda. The times came to him, the people came to him, I believe God came to him, and he responded.
Another Baptist preacher, a white one this time, came back South, too. Clarence Jordan took another approach. He did not lead a church, but formed a community, Koinonia , in South Georgia. He heard God’s call to show how faith can change the world from the inside out.
These two men, one white and one Black, reveal two paths to racial justice, redemption, and reconciliation. These paths often seem in conflict in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s. The essential energy in both movements was faith in a God of righteousness and focused on the cross, the sacrifice, the suffering of a man who came to show us “the way”. There are other valuable kinds of movements and energies, I am sure, but the Church should stand for ours and respond to the pain and suffering so prevalent around it.
This is the first installment and introduction to a series on the topic of Faith and Justice.
References for this series will include:
The Beloved Community: How faith shapes social justices, from the civil rights from the civil rights movement to today. Charles Marsh
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a radical democratic vision Barbara Ransby
Reading Romans Backwards: a gospel of peace in the midst of empire Scott McNight
Interrupting Silence: God’s command to speak out Walter Bruggeman
Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? 2 No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
3 Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. 4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, 5 that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be.
A Black man once told me that I lived, not in real life, but vicariously through books. That was said over 30 years ago, but it still stings. This tendency of mine, though, has been in full expression since the isolation began. Books of all genres have compelled me to understand our country’s past and my own. Reading Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, left me undone.
Oftentimes good literature disturbs us. It transports us beneath the surface of another’s life and we experience their reality. Heavy thrust me into the life of a Black man the age of my son. Laymon was born in Jackson, Mississippi, six weeks before my son in Starkville, Mississippi. Both were bright young men with futures so different it broke my heart to absorb Kiese’s reality and know it to be true.
Laymon wrote his memoir as a message to his mother. His relationship to her was the foundation of his life. A tall, full-throated Black man, a playwright and professor, told me years ago that “boys have no choice but to love their mothers.” The plays he wrote depicted a Black life similar to Laymon’s: full of pathos, joy, rich language, and abuse.
The best way I can understand Heavy is to see it as the lament of a Black man reflecting on his life. It is common these days to hear the media talk about Black people dying of COVID due to “underlying conditions.” Those “conditions” are heavy, Laymon was saying. The most powerful condition is being Black in America. His lament cried out as the psalmist does, “Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice and your hands mete out violence on the earth.”
Laymon was physically abused by his mother. He understood in his 40’s the frustration and rage, the loneliness, that tormented her. Her brilliance, what Kiese might call her Black abundance, was never appreciated by the white world of academia. This never-named woman loved her son and wanted to discipline his mind and body for what it would take for him to succeed in the same white world she found so cruel. But the child’s body only felt pain at the hand of the one he “had no choice but to love.” Kiese’s memories were steeped in a pain, a Mississippi Blackness, that set it apart from other stories of childhood abuse. The pain was inescapable, it was thick in the atmosphere of his life and his mother’s. And it was oh, so heavy.
The year my son matriculated at Davidson College in North Carolina, Kiese did the same at Millsaps College in Jackson. Both were drawn to liberal arts colleges with vibrant intellectual cultures. My father had gone to Davidson and his grandson was able to finish college with no debts. Kiese had to work, often did not have food, and was surrounded by White people. He rarely went to class but read all the assigned books, took Latin, and Women’s Studies. After months of study and the opening of his mind, he felt he knew enough to write about something he probably had felt most of his life. Now he thought he had words for it. He wrote an essay for a class about “Institutional Racism at Millsaps.”. When the student newspaper published it, a series of frightening events and reactions made it very clear to Kiese that he had lit a fire he didn’t completely understand. His mother had warned him, “They will try to shoot you out of the sky.” His other Black friends wanted him to shut up and get his degree, organize and make changes that way. A friend of his mother said, “ You wasting your time fighting rich Mississippi white folk for free. You can’t fight these folk with no essay. You ain’t organized. You aint got no land. You ain’t feeding no one with that sh_____ you writing. What is it you want White people to do, and how is whatever they do after reading that essay going to help poor niggas in Mississippi. That’s the only question that matters.”
He became a pariah to the White student body and the paper was shut down for ten weeks while new guidelines were developed. Ultimately, Kiese was expelled because he took “The Red Badge of Courage” from the college library without checking it out.
Laymon transferred and graduated from Oberlin College, received an MFA from Indiana University Bloomington, and landed a professorship in Poughkeepsie, New York, at Vassar College. The power and shame of addiction permeated Kiese’s life. He had been obsessed with his weight since he was twelve years old and weighed 213 pounds. He would gorge himself with food to manage his anxiety and continue until he punished himself. When he weighed in the 300 pound range, he would use intense exercise and starvation to lose the weight. Throughout these cycles, he wrote, taught classes, mentored students, and dealt with the white culture of Vassar College.
The white professors in his department repeatedly told him how lucky he was to be on the faculty. Laymon wondered if the Black faculty members at Jackson State told his mother how lucky she was to teach there.
Black students at Vassar gravitated to Laymon and he treated them like his family. Maizie was one of those students. He helped her appeal a suspension she received for threatening a roommate who “disrespected” her mother. With his assistance the suspension was reduced to banning her from the dorm and library after dark.
A white boy was brought before the judicial council, when Laymon was the only Black member, because security had found “felonious” amounts of cocaine, a scale, and baggies in his room. He was charged with possession and intent to distribute the drugs. He defended himself by describing a “big, dark man” who had made him use cocaine in a nightclub. Despite the dissension of Laymon, the council decided to practice what they called “transformative justice.” One of the white members declared that “we don’t know what he went through”. The result was no action taken against the boy.
“I thought about how even when we weren’t involved in selling drugs, big, dark folks like us could be used to shield white folk from responsibility….I’d look like a big, dark, black man since I was an eleven year old black boy. I’d been surrounded by big, dark, black men since I was born. I never met one big, dark, black man who could make a white boy buy cocaine. Apparently, there was one such big, dark, black man in Poughkeepsie, New York.”
At some point Kiese began to see himself as another Black man doing hard work in order for white people to prosper. “And some of us if we were extra lucky, would get to teach these small, smart, addicted white boys and girls today so we could pay for our ailing grandmother’s dental care tomorrow”.
Laymon’s memories should make it possible to see the protests in our country, sparked by the killings of Black men at the hands of policemen, as the outpouring of anguish, rage, sorrow, and exhaustion pent up over generations. Heavy ends with ambivalent prose and poetry. “We may remember, imagine, and help create what we cannot find.” Or we will not.
Kiese Laymon is now back in Mississippi and is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi.
Laymon, K. (2018). Heavy: an American memoir. New York, NY: Scribner.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou
“They are going to kill me……….I can’t breathe……please.” George Floyd
“How long can Black people love this country when it doesn’t love us back”. Doc Rivers, Buck’s coach
The historical inquiry about my country and my family has created a new lens I hope I can use to better understand what is happening around me. But I don’t want to stop at understanding. I want to “do better”. The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, happened in the middle of a global pandemic and crippled economy. The disproportionate effects of these conditions on people of color has created great suffering and few of us have been spared from the sorrow. We must continue to do the hard work of exploring the nation’s past and our own pasts, if we want to create a new future that is more equitable and inclusive.
I am a recovering school superintendent. I retired four years ago after a 34 year career in education that culminated in a nine year stint as a superintendent. Thus, began the second half of my life and I am convinced this can be a period of transformation. But I must be willing to work hard at understanding the deep patterns in the first half. Richard Rohr, a Catholic mystic, writer, and philosopher calls this process, “falling upward”. We go down, we may even suffer in doing that, but we are able to go upward again. We can explore new ways of being in relationship with the world as well as new solutions, and new dreams.
Eddie Glaude, Jr described this time in our country as an “after time”. We are experiencing great upheaval, a great fall. As a nation we have an opportunity to “fall upward”, to take this opportunity for transformation. I am not a historian, a medical professional, or a politician. I am an educator. How might a second half of life transformation happen within the context of the world I know best- public schools?
Earlier in my blog posts, I introduced the framework of a ladder to represent systemic racism. This ladder exists within all the institutions that hold up our nation.
Most every school district I know has a vision statement. I have led many groups in creating these descriptions of an ideal state. I imagine that these words could describe the ideal conditions on the ladder, and how those experiences impact the lives of the teachers and students on it. Here is part of one vision:
“Students will be highly engaged in the learning process and see the relevance of their educational experience to the rest of their lives. Educators will have a deep understanding of what students should know and be able to do. They will be designers of differentiated, relevant and rigorous work and active members of thriving professional learning communities. The culture of the organization will not allow failure to be an option for students, and the school system will be the strongest equalizer in the county. Regardless of economic status, ethnicity, or cultural background, all students will receive the opportunities necessary for their success in life.”
I would suggest that all schools and school systems would want this to be a result of their hard work. Teachers and leaders want school experiences to open doors to “good lives” for all their kids. They do not lie awake at night and dream up racist behaviors that they can unleash the next day. The problem is that all those good intentions do not result in open doors for a disproportionate number of Black and Brown boys and girls. We see that clearly in all kinds of health and wealth statistics. We see it clearly in our school data. We see it, we see it, we see it.
Maya Angelou tells us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Seeing the results in data and statistics is not the same as knowing what it means. Knowing comes from being involved in the stories and with the people behind the data. Seeing is a clinical exercise, but knowing creates discomfort and disturbance. We cannot do better until we know better. Then doing better will take courageous leadership, courageous followership and effective strategies.
In the days ahead, I will try to connect historical inquiry, my personal journey, the literature of Black writers, and what I know about public schools. In my second half of life, I want to give whatever hope I can to students, families, and the educators who care about them. We can know better and we must do better.
The lives of Frederick Douglass and Andrew Johnson tell the story of Reconstruction.Two conflicting visions of America confront us, then and now. Our ancestors planted the seeds of those conflicts when the first slave ships docked, but they bloomed in Reconstruction,
How does one person become a Black abolitionist and one person become a white supremacist politician in the context of the early 1800s? How did each of these men influence the Reconstruction of America? Might this kind of historical inquiry help us make sense of the present?
Frederick Douglass, former slave and passionate abolitionist, described the moment Andrew Johnson saw him in the crowd at Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865. Lincoln had pointed out Douglass in the crowd. “A frown…of bitter contempt and aversion” came over Johnson’s face, said Douglass. “..it then changed to the bland, sickly smile of a demagogue”. Douglass turned to his companion and said, “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is no friend of our race.” Only 41 days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and Andrew Johnson was president of the United States. Frederick Douglass’s words were prescient.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 29, 1808 to Jacob and Polly Johnson. His parent were illiterate and on the fringes of white society. Jacob Johnson died before Andrew was ten years old and his mother was unable to support them on the money she made as a washerwoman for a local lawyer. He was apprenticed to a tailor by the time he was ten years old. His mother had no other choice but to sell her son’s labor in order for the family to survive. Apprenticeships at that time were only a step above indentured servants, but at least Johnson learned a trade. More importantly he learned to read and was exposed to the ideas of tradesmen and townspeople who congregated in the tailor’s shop. Johnson began his own program of self-improvement here, and studied closely a copy of The American Speaker he was given by a visitor to the shop. Eventually Johnson escaped this life and wound up in Greenville, Tennessee at the age of 19.
Frederick Douglass did not know his exact birthdate but thought it to be in February, 1818. He was born on the banks of the Tuckahoe River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. We share a last name but, Douglass once pointed out that “genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves.” He lived with his grandmother and grandfather, Betsy and Isaac Bailey, on the plantation where his mother was enslaved. He rarely saw her.
When he was nine years old, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to serve as a slave to the Auld family where he was to be a companion to “Little Tommy”. Sophia Auld, the mistress of the house, treated Douglass more like a half-brother to Tommy, and gave him the greatest gift of his life. She taught him to read. At some point the master of the house became aware of this and sternly put a stop to it. Douglass reports that the white man’s lecture was an epiphany for Frederick, and described it as the first “antislavery lecture” he ever heard. Auld told Sophia that it was against the law to teach a slave to read and write. Throughout his life, dedicated to abolishing slavery, Douglass would repeat the words of his owner. “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world”. Literacy became Douglass’ ticket to a new life. As a teenager in Auld’s household, Douglass would spend time in his kitchen loft reworking Tommy’s copybooks, copying worlds from the Webster spelling book, the Bible, and the Methodist hymnal. “Words had become his reason to live.” (Blight) Eventually he escaped in 1838 and arrived, after a long and harrowing journey, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was 20 years old,
Douglass and Johnson launched their adult lives at 19 and 20. One had escaped slavery and the other escaped extreme poverty and servitude. Douglass had the courage to board a ship in disguise and risk the imprisonment and beatings he would receive if discovered. Johnson braved the frontier of East Tennessee and Western Carolina to travel through the Blue Ride mountains for his new life. Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey changed his name to Douglass to avoid captivity in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Andrew Johnson settled in Greeneville, Tennessee and set about to become respectable.
New Bedford, Massachusetts was a whaling center and Douglass went to work as a laborer to take care of his wife who he married as soon as they arrived in New Bedford. They quickly had two children he had to support but he was also discovering newspapers and other publications that expanded his mind and his understanding of the abolitionist movement. During these first years he also found the AME Zion church where he rapidly became a leader and teacher. By 1841 he was discovered by white abolitionists who were amazed at the words of this self-made man and former slave. This began a 50 year career as a reader, thinker, writer and orator for the cause of Black people in America. Douglass’s influence culminated in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had his flaws, but Douglass knew Lincoln was the man of the hour for Black people. When he was assassinated, Douglass described his murder as a “great convulsion”. Later he would say that it was slavery itself, “in a last spasm of madness, that had murdered the president.”
A decade earlier Andrew Johnson had arrived in Greenville, Tennessee. He set up a tailor shop in the southwest corner of East Tennessee, married, and began to integrate himself into the community as a respectable tradesman. His attraction to the world of ideas continued and he enjoyed listening to political debates. He became a good debater himself and was described as “aggressive” and a “bully” as his political beliefs crystallized. Always restless and desiring to climb up the ladder of success, he read voraciously and tried to compensate for his lack of education. Within two years of his residence in Greenville he launched a long political career. He was elected an alderman, then the mayor and eventually a state legislator. Later he was elected to the US House of Representatives. It was here he showed his debating and speaking skills around a “defining set of political beliefs. He continued to style himself as a champion of the workingman in opposition to society’s elites, and saw himself as the guardian of the public purse”. (Gordon-Reed). Johnson would continue his ascent that a contemporary would describe as “one intense, unceasing, desperate” uphill struggle. It would culminate in assuming the presidency at a crucial moment of American history.
Two Visions for a “New America”
They both were leaders, one’s power came as spokesperson for the abolitionist movement and the Black man, and the other’s power came from his election to government positions. They both were self-educated, voracious readers, and riveting speakers. They both had escaped lives that seem ordained for them to live. But they came to very different conclusions on the kind of society America should be. Only one of them could pass laws, use political power, and “make things happen” on the ground.
Douglass and Johnson’s deep differences have roots in their early experiences, just as ours do. Douglass expressed throughout his life the deep anguish of his years in slavery, His spirit and intellect were obvious by his teenage years and invoked the hostility and physical abuse of his masters. He was finally sent to spend a year with a farmer, Edward Covey, who made a living “breaking” slaves. “In this brutal environment, Douglass became a student of human nature, of the slaveholder’s mind, and the fullest meanings of human rights.” (Blight) Armed with this understanding, he fought back. After repeatedly defying Covey, the struggle erupted into what Douglass described as a two hour fight. It ended with Douglass on top of Covey with his hands on his throat, squeezing and drawing blood with his fingernails. Covey gave up and never touched Douglass again. Throughout his life, Douglass would describe this fight as the moment he became a man.
White writers and publishers, like William Garrison, now had a spokesperson who could go beyond abstractions to reveal the evils of slavery. Douglass claimed his right and the right of all Black people to be treated as human beings, not beasts of burden. He believed in the ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Douglass only had power through his voice and ideas, but he used it to the fullest extent possible. His ideas and moral suasion would influence northern abolitionists, but Southern politicians also began to see the inevitable loss of slavery and their economic power.
Johnson had been humiliated, too, as a poor, white, boy, indentured (apprenticed) to a tailor in town. Townspeople felt free to speculate on his mother’s relationship with the man she worked for, so Johnson’s parentage was an object of speculation. This treatment likely bred deep resentments toward people with more money and status, and convinced Johnson to claim allegiance to the common man. As he entered politics, Johnson’s allegiance became loyalty to the common white man. The strength and perseverance that brought him over the Blue Ridge mountains, also made him stubborn and unwilling to compromise even with his own supporters. He did not advocate for abolition of slavery and argued that states had the right to decide their own such laws. Johnson refused to accept enfranchisement for Black people. In fact, when he was president, he was visited by Frederick Douglass and others, who encouraged him to grant voting rights to Blacks. Johnson refused and painted a picture of a country, if Blacks had power, where poor whites and Blacks would war with each other.. He resented the white planter class, but only on behalf of the white working man. He thought it essential for Black people to know their rank in the pecking order of society.
These deep, enduring differences around slavery and class were so intense that the United States exploded. The most modern estimate of the death toll in the Civil War was 750,000 Americans. After Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, VA, the re-election of Lincoln with Johnson by his side, the reconstruction of the country could begin. Douglass and Johnson both listened to the words of Lincoln at his second inauguration.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”
John Wilkes Booth also was present at the inauguration. His response to these words was the assassination of Lincoln 42 days later. Johnson assumed the presidency and began to restore, not reconstruct, the South.
This took all the abolitionists and Radical Republicans in the Congress by surprise. Johnson moved rapidly while Congress was on recess to bring back the Confederate states as soon as possible. He pardoned all the southerners who fought in the war except for the highest ranking. He took pleasure requiring the wealthy whites to to come to him and request his pardon. He restored lands captured by the Union during the war to their previous white owners. Some of those lands had been given to black families who were farming them. His actions denied Black people any opportunity to take care of themselves. All these steps resulted in the Confederate sympathizers to be reelected to governments. New constitutions were passed that essentially locked Black people out of a voting, land ownership, even moving around freely.
Douglass continued his advocacy of Black people’s right to be fully human with the same rights as white people. He convinced abolitionist to be vigilant and be sure another form of slavery was not instituted. Garrison’s abolitionist society actually thought the battle for equality was over after the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass set the convention of abolitionist straight,
“They would not call it slavery, but some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called “the peculiar institution,” “the social system,” and the “impediment,” as it was called by the General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.”
Douglass’s warnings came true. When Congress returned, it was able to pass legislation and Constitutional amendments that countered much of Johnson’s political moves. But there had been enough time for the white supremacy thinking to gain a hold again. Even after Blacks began to vote and elect Blacks in government positions, the resentments of white people festered. Northern allies who came south to help Blacks were characterized as carpetbaggers and scalawags who were supporting incompetent and ignorant Blacks. Efforts to fund and expand the Freedman’s Bureau to provide assistance and advocacy for Blacks in the south, were met with violence at times. The caricatures and propaganda used to undermine respect for Black people were successful for generations in creating the illusion of Blacks as ignorant and not ready for citizenship and leadership. In actuality popular laws were passed when Blacks briefly participated in government. The most influential legislation was free public schools for all children.
Despite Douglass’ efforts, eventually the northern Republicans got weary of the effort and the cost. Many decided that it would be best to allow the South to handle the problems, so Blacks would stay in the South. Whites in the South were provided the space they needed, and they began to use other tools to keep Blacks in their place. The KKK was born and by 1877 Blacks were forcefully locked out of common life once again.
I started this historical inquiry as part of a journey to better understand why race is still such a divisive issue in our country today. Why do we continue to see this pattern of progress, backlash, and anguish? A few things have become very clear to me:
Racial prejudice is deep in the bones of America
Racism is a disease that starts its contagion at birth
White people must own their part in the spread of this disease
Overcoming the disease has to be done with intention, on purpose
Moral suasion, although important, will not get the job done
Power to change laws and policies is crucial
Governmental power is important, but not sufficient
Every institution in America is affected by the disease
Change Leadership across all social institutions is essential
The back porch has become my spiritual and intellectual home during these days of isolation. On the intellectual side I am writing a comparison of two figures of the Civil War/Reconstruction era that I believe represent the conflicting images of what America is and what it should be. I want to understand fully the lives of these two men so it have taken more time than usual. It seemed appropriate to pause and reflect why I have created this project for myself. Where does that desire originate? With that question in mind, I wrote the following devotion.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
I am named after both my grandmothers. Ruth is my middle name and belonged to my paternal grandmother. She was a business woman, selling Spencer corsets door-to-door , during the 50’s and 60’s in Memphis, Tennessee. Ruth Gregory Bailey always wore her product, and her hard middle and straight back were signs of her character. A lasting image for me is coming into the kitchen in the morning and finding her reading her Bible at the kitchen table. A devout Baptist, she was an active member of Calvary Baptist Church for the almost 70 years it was located at Euclid and Lamar, a block from her house. Walking to church with her, sitting at her side in her Sunday School class , and witnessing the regard her fellow members had for her, planted seeds of faith in her oldest granddaughter. Many years later, I would dedicate my dissertation to the woman who taught me to “hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
I fall way short of righteousness, but I still hunger for it. I take hope from Maya Angelou’s words. “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better!” COVID times have highlighted several areas of our common life where we should “do better”.
The disproportionate impact of the COVID virus on Black people, the murder of George Floyd and many other examples of mistreatment, the persistent academic achievement gaps and the wealth gaps for Black Americans, have all come to a dramatic climax. During this time of isolation with less distractions, we have an opportunity to know better so we can do better.
I have turned to Micah once again to provide some guidance. He defines the righteousness my grandmother exemplified for me. Justice, mercy, love, and kindness should be our goals right now and the substance of our contemplation. I pray for the courage to develop these qualities in my own life and to encourage others to do the same.
We hear Your call to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with You. Please show us where the seeds of justice need to be planted. Help us to show mercy and love to everyone, not just people who look like us. Forgive us for all the times we haven’t followed your call. Remind us of your awesome Presence in our lives, humble us, and stay close to us. There is work to do and you have called us.
“Every revolution has its counterrevolution – that is a sign the revolution is for real.” C. Wright Mills
The issues “central to Reconstruction are as old as the American republic and as contemporary as the inequalities that still afflict our society”.
Eric Foner Reconstruction:America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Recently I spoke with a Black friend about the Confederate statue that stands in the center of our square. “When you drive through town, what do you think when you see that statue?” “I feel limited. It says to me that there are limits to what I can ever accomplish.”
Those words would be very familiar to W.E.B. Du Bois. Dubois was born in 1868 in Massachusetts and was educated at Fisk University and a PHD from Harvard. One of the founders of the NAACP, he was a scholar in languages, economics and history. His book, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 , published in 1935, countered the historical analysis of the day and created a storm amongst white historians. His voice was ultimately dismissed. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that his description of Reconstruction began to overthrow the conventional wisdom.
Du Bois, as Eric Foner would do in 1988, put Blacks in the center of the story of Reconstruction. He argued that it was black laborers in the South and abolitionists in the North who ultimately brought about the Civil War. The Northern abolitionists and the underground railroads of Harriet Tubman and Josiah Hensen were a “safety valve” for slaves who began to escape to the border states. This was a huge economic loss to the Southern planters and they could see the end of slavery if they did not take action. They chose secession and war to keep their valuable property. In the years of Reconstruction after the war, the struggle continued as Blacks persisted in moving forward and upward with the initial help of allies in the North. If their efforts had not been so violently hindered, perhaps the statue would not be there today.
In order to see the connections between the tumultuous events of Reconstruction and the racial justice issues of today, a timeline may be helpful. Kendi, Guelzo, Foner, and Du Bois helped me create this one.
1863. Emancipation Proclamation (Foner dates Reconstruction from Lincoln’s action)
1865. April 9. Lee’ surrender at Appomattox was the beginning of the end
1865. April 15. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination
1865. May 29. Andrew Johnson, newly inaugurated, issued his Reconstruction Proclamation which pardoned all but the highest levels of Confederate officials. The Confederates immediately elected their sympathizers to the constitutional conventions and passed Black codes that essentially created a South very similar to the one before the war. Even though the 13th Amendment had been passed and barred slavery, Kendi quotes a Black veteran who said,”If you call this freedom, what is slavery?”
1865. December 18. The 13th Amendment officially added to the Constitution. Slavery was outlawed.
1866. A coalition of Radical Republicans and moderate Republicans (Kendi labels this group as “Anti-Black” for reasons of their self interest in keeping Blacks from fleeing North) were able to push back on Johnson’s actions and move Reconstruction in another direction. They overrode vetoes and passed two key pieces of legislation.
Extension of The Freedman’s Bureau
Civil Rights Act of 1866
1866. The coalition group passed 14th Amendment (ratified in 1869)
Major change to how the Constitution would be applied in our country
Citizenship clause (gender appeared for the first time)
Due process clause
Equal protection clause
1866. May: Memphis white mobs killed 48 Blacks and gang raped at least five Black women (Kendi, Foner, Guelzo all confirmed this information)
1866. May: The Louisiana governor endorsed the Radical Republican plan to reconvene the Constitutional convention to give Blacks the right to vote and to keep those who fought in the Civil War(the “rebels” from voting. At the convention attended by many Black soldiers, fighting in the street broke out. New Orleans police killed 34 Blacks and 3 radicals in what General Phillip Sheridan called “a massacre”.
1867. Klu Klux Klan began their reign of terror
1867. New state constitutions were required for readmission to the United States
1867-1869. State constitutional conventions were held
1869. The 15th Amendment was passed
Race could not be used to deny a man the right to vote
The ramifications of Reconstruction are dramatically displayed In this abbreviated timeline and the images. The leniency of the President and the radical actions of the Congress set up another war, one of moral, economic, and political issues. The Reconstruction period would not end until 1877 (Foner). There were more events to be noted as well as characters, Black and white, who played important roles. The world turned upside down for everyone in the South, and the nation itself would also never be the same.
“Over a century ago, prodded by demands of four million men and women just emerging from slavery, Americans made their first attempt to live up to the noble professions of their political creed—something few societies have ever done. The effort produced a sweeping redefinition of the nation’s public life and a violent reaction that ultimately destroyed much, but by no means all, of what had been accomplished. From the enforcement of the rights of citizens to the stubborn problems of economic and racial justice, the issues central to Reconstruction are as old as the American republic, and as contemporary as the inequalities that still afflict our society.” Eric Foner, Reconstruction:America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
Musings from the Porch will continue to explore Reconstruction and its issues, personalities, and themes in the days ahead.
In 1907 a statue was erected on the courthouse lawn of a college town in North Mississippi. A Confederate solder gazes south across the town square, down South Lamar Avenue toward the countryside of Lafayette County, Mississippi. It stands less than a mile from William Faulkner’s home.
In the middle of a pandemic that has caused disproportionate harm to Black people, we saw the killing of more Black people by white policemen. This has sparked renewed scrutiny of the statue in the center of our town. The picture above was taken Saturday, August 8. The protestors are a fairly good representation of how White people feel about the statue. Indignation is there on the one side and resistance to its removal on the other.
The front panel reads: “In memory of the patriotism of the Confederate soldiers of Lafayette County, Mississippi. They gave their lives for a just and holy cause.”
The back panel reads: “..the sons of veterans unite in this justification of their fathers’ faith.”
The statue is a cultural symbol. Anthropology teaches us that symbols are forms through which people express meaning. Symbols of all types (art, language, stories, etc.) are ways that the culture transmits the acceptable forms of behavior and attitudes within a community. Symbols are not accidental. They are meant to convey a message.
Were I protesting last Saturday I would have been standing with the young man on the left. But while musing on the back porch, I keep returning to a key issue for me, “what meaning do Black people attach to that statue”. I am a white Southerner with roots in the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachian yoemanry, and the upcountry of South Carolina and Mississippi. I am indignant that a Confederate statue is in the center of town, but right now Black Lives and Black feelings are what matter to me.
Kendi’s StampedFrom the Beginning reveals that the statue’s meaning might not have as much to do with slavery as I thought. The events of Reconstruction may have a stronger connection to it today. Reconstruction ended around 1877 only 25 years before the statue began its vigil on the square in 1907. After the humiliation and defeat of the Civil War, Whites were back in power and were determined to stay there. How they managed to regain their power is the story of Reconstruction. It has much to say about this statue and life in this community today.
I needed sources to tell the story. I found them at another symbol of our college town, Square Books. Ironically this depository has its main store directly across from the statue, but the books on the shelves provide another picture of the “just and holy cause”. All summer my library has grown to include the history, psychology, sociology, and literary foundations of race in America. To fully understand the statue and Reconstruction, we must put Black people at the center of the story.
Around the time the statue was constructed, William Archibald Dunning began to publish his historical analysis of Reconstruction. His ideas and those of his students became the prevailing interpretation until the 1960’s. This story was the one I learned in the fifth and sixth grade in Orlando, Florida. By that time, the story had sunk into the consciousness of White southerners and has stayed there for many,. White people were in the center of that story.
The story I learned went something like this. The Civil War ended and the South accepted the reality of defeat. They were ready to provide justice to their former slaves and desired to become, once again, part of the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction were generous and, after his assassination, Andrew Johnson began implementing those plans. A group of Republicans set out to undo all these altruistic plans because they hated the Southern rebels and wanted to consolidate their own power. They passed laws that dismissed the white governments of Johnson and allowed black suffrage to give those roles to Black people. Carpet baggers and scalawags flooded to the south to spread all kinds of corruption and turmoil. Blacks were unprepared, were ignorant, and unable to govern. The South descended into chaos. Finally the white community had no choice but to band together and take over once again.
“ The former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkey’s or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild—either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.” Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936 and 1964. Quoted in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen, 1995
Although it was difficult to even type those words, I am struck that I loved Gone With the Wind when I was 13 and living in Starkville, Mississippi. My mother allowed me to read the book that others considered scandalous. Scandalous due to the drama and the love scenes, not the racism! I swooned over Rhett Butler, was shocked at the “Frankly dear, I don’t give a damn”, and was totally unaware that this depiction of Black people was racist and not even accurate.
Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, narrates a different story. His work is actually a continuation of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 published and ignored in 1935. They both put Black people in the center of the story and depicted them as far more than victims or problems.
Reconstruction holds the same moral, emotional, and cultural themes that we see in play today. Perhaps it can also hold some answers. More musings tomorrow.
Eric Foner. Reconstruction:America’s Unfinished Revolution
Ibram Kendi. Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
W.E.B Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me:Everything Your American Textbook Got Wrong