“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”?