Saturday, August 29, 2015

How Did Northern White Evangelicals Respond to the Civil Rights Movement?

I'm working on a new project on White evangelicals during the civil rights movement. What follows are some provisional thoughts. Historical knowledge is, by its very nature, provisional, so we ought to expose the process more often than we do. 

Here's my entry point: we know a lot about White evangelicals in the South during the civil rights movement. Interpretations of their role differ (Chappell sees their relative neutrality fatally undercutting segregation, while Dupont argues that their theology provided a much stronger bulwark for Jim Crow than Chappell allows).  Still, that southern White evangelicals' posture toward the movement was predominantly hostile is not in question. Yet when the religious narrative of the 1960s shifts to the North, the story we know is of liberal clergy assisting the movement. We know much less about conservative White Protestants in the North. 

How did their response to the civil rights movement differ from their conservative brethren in the South and their liberal counterparts in the North? My simple answer, which remains too vague to be worth much, is that the views of White evangelicals beyond the South were characterized by a greater sense of ambivalence. They were more likely to support the goals of the movement than were southern White evangelicals, but less likely to support its methods than were liberal Protestants. I'm already quite sure this is correct as far as it goes, but it remains too simple to be particularly useful.

Carl F.H. Henry, Founding Editor, Christianity Today
As I search for people or an event or institution on which to build my analysis, I've been exploring the archives of the premier magazine of White evangelicalism addressing public affairs, Christianity Today. There is much here to surprise and enlighten. For now I'll just note some questions I have about two documents. Before doing that, though, I'll note a persistent disservice we do to our students. We speak of a "civil rights movement" over and over, and wonder when it began--in 1954? 1945? 1960? The 1930s? But it's important to understand that any of those answers impose a coherence on the past that people did not have at the time. For Christianity Today in the 1960s, there was no "civil rights movement." There was a "crisis." There was "trouble." There was "the race problem." There was a "Negro revolution." As the movement(s) developed, there was no immediately agreed upon way to interpret what was happening, much less what it ought to be called. Even the recognition of this simple issue of nomenclature helps us to recapture a bit of the confusion and complexity White evangelicals were experiencing. 

Throughout this era Christianity Today ran a carefully cultivated letters-to-the-editor section in each issue. These letters are revealing, I think, not because we can necessarily assume they are representative of White evangelical opinion, but because they at least reflect what the premier magazine of White evangelicalism considered to be acceptable discourse. In contrast to the sewers that are today's web comment sections, Christianity Today chose to publish only those dissenting opinions that it considered to be within reasonable bounds (presumably, right?). A surprising number of those letters hit CT and White evangelicals from the left, castigating them for their failure to unequivocally support Black liberation. More interesting, perhaps, are the sizable number of letters (not only from the South) that are, by our contemporary lights, explicit in their racism. Like this one, for instance: 
Those who today desire to live separate from Negroes are not, I submit, justly chargeable with hate, prejudice, or discrimination. Integration all too often has resulted in intermarriage and the undermining of race integrity, with unhappiness and tragedy for those concerned, and, therefore, is undesirable for both blacks and whites.
                --Walter W. Strong, Long Beach California 

Indeed,  Christianity Today, under the direction of evangelical legend Carl F.H. Henry, had only recently editorialized that interracial marriage, while not strictly immoral, was probably inadvisable. Of particular interest here is the assumption of racial difference and the appropriateness of racial separation. It is considered good and proper that "race integrity" ought to be maintained. And this opinion was considered mainstream enough to publish. Yet in the ensuing decades, White evangelicals (with the notable exclusion of fundamentalist outposts such as Bob Jones that continued to uphold segregationist theology) would move decisively toward precisely the opposite assumptions: that racial difference was a mirage not to be remarked upon, that integration was not only politically expedient but theologically obvious. There are, to be sure, numerous blind spots and inconsistencies in this contemporary vision. Yet those tensions do not take away from the basic question: how did White evangelicals travel from point A (racial difference assumed) to point B (racial difference dissolved)? I think we still don't have an adequate answer to that question.

Now, here's the second document I've been thinking about. It's Christianity Today's reporting on the 1963 March on Washington. Recall that this march has entered into our collective memory as a moment that every American is proud of, the occasion of Dr. King's famous "Dream" speech, and a touchstone of our exceptionalist narrative of American history. Yet when we go back to the reporting at the time, we see a much murkier picture:

Demonstrators swarmed through the streets…Were these the convulsions of a new age in which all Americans would freely recognize one another’s rights irrespective of color? Were they rather a portent of revolutionary mob pressures that presage the decline of a republic, and possibly a time of bloody violence? Any sure answer to those questions seemed exasperatingly elusive...
Note here the nod toward colorblindness sitting in tension with their commentary on interracial marriage. The precise boundaries and nature of these "rights" were precisely what was at issue. And note, too, the fear on display here. They've just witnessed a peaceful march of hundreds of thousands people, Black and White. And they understand themselves to be desirous of Black freedom. Yet they wonder if the March on Washington prefigurs the terminal decline of the United States! This is a sense of threat out of all proportion to events, revealing a deep racial fear. Or does it? Is the fear, at bottom, racial? Is it something else? Does it have more to do with the method, with the sight of thousands of bodies in the streets rather than calm conversation in congress? Surely it is both, and more.

The editorial continued:
What does the Negro want? What racial aspirations are legitimate and illegitimate? He wants only ‘what the white man has’ –so the word goes. An easy reply is that nobody has the right to demand automatically what another qualifies to achieve. But there are larger considerations: has not the white American also set the Negro American an example of seeking economic equality and social status above all else?...Is he now perhaps paying part of the penalty for setting an example of putting first things second? If the Negro mimics the white man, is the Negro alone to blame?..
While the Negro spokesmen have sought effectively to stir white conscience, the rising momentum of pressures and demands has also adversely affected some who normally would be sympathetic…The groundswell of sympathy for Negro rights has a furrow of anxiety over what seems also to be a demand for preferential treatment…
Look at the assumptions buried here. There is no acknowledgment of the structures of racial exclusion built into the American economy, only the ostrich-like belief that what the "white man" has is what he (and it is, of course, a he) has achieved by his merits. And then, the breezy expectation that Whites set "an example" which Blacks were bound to "mimic." Notice the slight of hand. Equality of rights is subtly reframed as a grasping materialism, but the blow is softened because, after all, one cannot blame "the Negro" for only following the White example. Racial paternalism is assumed from the start. Finally, the authors warn against the increasingly militant methods of the movement, claiming that it turned off otherwise sympathetic observers. And, at a time when (for example) Philadelphia's building trades unions featured 1 African American among their 7,300 members, Christianity Today fretted about Black demands for special treatment. These concerns were so unmoored from any facts on the ground, existing with no apparent relationship to reality, that I'm not sure how to grapple with them. How do you explain it? My initial stab at it is to say that, like most White northerners (if those old Gallup polls are to be believed), these White evangelicals sincerely failed to realize that Blacks were systematically excluded from opportunity. Segregation was something that happened down South, they thought. It didn't reflect the true state of their heart, nor of their welcoming community and church. How then could they make sense of people on the streets demanding what they ostensibly already possessed? Such demands were reinterpreted as excessive calls for special rights. This closely mirrors the rhetoric of segregationist elites in the South, so that is certainly an angle worth exploring.

The editorial continued with a sudden shift:
“[One tragedy] was the failure of evangelical Christians at the grass roots to anticipate and help to resolve a crisis in the life of the nation along spiritual lines…Evangelical churches across the nation must look into the future and ask themselves what they can and must do to create a helpful and constructive interracial climate.
The massive demonstration was void of official evangelical representation. ‘Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, one top evangelical leader observed, ‘but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.' But what is the way? Have evangelicals offered any constructive, creative guidelines to curtail oppression of Negroes? Does it not bother the evangelical conscience that there are parts of the country where a traveling Negro cannot even find water?”
On that note, the editorial ends. Remarkable. It's enough to give you whiplash. The very same editorial features racist assumptions, obvious paternalism, dismissive tone, and heartfelt calls for the church to take constructive action to stop the oppression of African Americans.

How do you make sense of it?

One thing comes through clearly: however sympathetic they were to civil rights movement's goals in the abstract, the movement as it actually existed was deeply unsettling. One of the questions I'm grappling with is how sincerely held was the methodological objection. Did the unnamed leader in that final paragraph throw up his objection to the methods employed as an excuse? Or was there something about street protest itself that genuinely upset White evangelicals on a theological or ideological level?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this article. Right now I am in a rather heavy discussion with some White Evangelical pastors regarding the present-day failure of the American White Evangelical church to address injustice here in the USA. The information you provided is very helpful.