Race and the American Church - Part IV

Article by   June 2015
If you haven't already, please read the first three pieces to this series on my personal journey towards understanding Race and the American church (the first can be found here, the second here, and third here). It is my hope that when you read the latter part of this series (Parts V-VII on the historical overview of race and the American church) it will make more sense after having read something of the context in which it was written. 

I began graduate study in history in the summer of 2006. I was ecstatic to be home and I was also excited because I obtained a graduate assistantship working at the Avery Center for African American History and Culture. Not only would I learn more about my own research, but I would learn, or re-learn, the history of Charleston, SC through the lens of the African American experience. As part of my assistantship I helped process archival collections and I gave tours to visitors who came to Charleston from all across the United States. You must understand, many of these groups were reunion groups, church tours and families (most of whom were African American). The director of the center placed me at the front desk so the first thing these folks saw when they walked in "THE" Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston was a bow-tie clad white man named Otis. It usually took people the better part of an hour to process this. 

The Avery Center does an amazing job of examining slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights movement as well as African American culture and education in the low country of South Carolina. As I was learning this history in graduate classes my eyes began to open about the town I called home. For instance, I had never been taught extensively about the millions of Africans who came through the port of Charleston and sold as human property. I had no idea that my home town (Sullivan's Island) was the "Ellis Island of the South" and served as a quarantining station for enslaved Africans. While I had heard a great deal about Charleston's role in the American Revolution, the Civil War and as an important trade center in the antebellum South, there were very  few educational experiences relating to enslaved African Americans on rice plantations, on sea island communities, of the culture, language and art of the Gullah people, of freed people of color as prominent business owners, of freedmen as educators during Reconstruction and of prominent African American Charlestonians, such as Septima Clark, serving as Civil Rights Activists activists in the 1950s and 60s. I may be completely off base here, but I believe this experience is normative for many whites in America. We are largely not taught about the beauty, significance and impact of African Americans in U.S. History. Therefore, without a solid educational grounding in African American history and culture, it is easy for stereotypes to drive one's understanding of a people and a culture. 

What I learned the most in that experience was that truth telling and walking through the difficult and disturbing parts of our history openly and honestly is necessary, cathartic and can be an incredible way to break down racial barriers. As white Americans, we can no longer sweep our difficult history with race under the proverbial rug. We have to open it up to the light of day, deal with it, process it, let it sink in and be changed by it. If we remove this history from textbooks and seek to limit these discussions in public discourse we are only doing ourselves and successive generations a tremendous disservice. We also need to speak historical truth along with our African American brothers and sisters so that they are not the only ones saying it. We need to support African American history and the learning of the histories of all people groups in America, not just our white founding fathers (this has been well documented). By the end of the tours, most folks saw that I was speaking truth, no matter how difficult it was to say, and together, as whites and African Americans, we processed, lamented, struggled, sometimes cried and experienced the pain of this history together. For instance, I found it very hard to display wrist shackles intended for fourteen year old enslaved girls to a fourteen year old girl and her family, but it must be done. I cannot hide the truth that people once though it was ok to shackle a fourteen year old girl's wrists. By the end of the tours, we were usually hugging and sharing phone numbers between teary eyed goodbyes. 

The crowning achievement of my time at the College of Charleston was, of course, the birth of our first child and finishing an M.A. thesis on Zion Presbyterian Church, but the Lord was also training me and teaching me more and more about the African American experience and how to reconcile whites and African Americans in the South. However, I had no idea that I was merely a neophyte when it came to the study and practice of race relations. The Lord was about to bring me to Mississippi. I was coming to work on my Ph.D. in history at the University of Mississippi and it was in Mississippi that I would have the education of a lifetime. Not only would I continue my graduate studies and research on these topics, but I would meet people who had been working on race relations and racial reconciliation for over fifty years. 

The Lord is doing a powerful work in Mississippi that I cannot quite explain. There are centers for racial reconciliation, several multiethnic churches and there is a mounting recognition of the need for collective repentance and lament over past racial sins. The Lord has done much work here and I believe the Holy Spirit is actively changing hearts in Mississippi in ways that is not happening around other areas of the country. You see, most places like to act like they have race figured out. They are "post racial," they don't "see color," they have figured out all the PC terminology and they possess wealth and supposedly great knowledge. However, looming beneath the surface is an incredible pot of boiling water that's about to "boil over." We have seen this in Florida, St. Louis (Ferguson), New York, Charleston and in Baltimore. These are all places that are supposed to be the pinnacle of our culture's achievement in art, education, food, tourism and technology. 

In stark contrast, Mississippians know they don't have it figured out. We (I consider myself an adopted Mississippian. I am one in a long line of South Carolinians who have migrated to Mississippi since the late 1790s) recognize our need to change and our need and dependence upon the work of the Lord to help us change. Mississippians are humble on the issue of race because they are daily confronted with characteristics of it. They are confronted with slavery, the convict lease system, Jim Crow segregation, massive lynching, and the murders of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evars, Herbert Lee and James Chaney among many others. They are confronted with Freedom Summer and MLK's words about Mississippi crumbling under a "sweltering heat of injustice." Mississippians are confronted daily with poverty, an educational system ranked perpetually at the bottom, rising rates of incarceration and limited economic opportunities. Still, the oldest center for Racial Reconciliation in the country is here in Jackson, MS (www.missionmississippi.net), one of the most prominent institutes for Racial Reconciliation (http://winterinstitute.org) is at the University of Mississippi, the founder of the Reformed African American Network, Jemar Tisby (http://www.raanetwork.org/), who will write a companion piece to this series, lives in Mississippi and the African American Leadership Initiative at RTS Jackson, which is one of the biggest organizations working to change church leadership demographics within reformed circles in this country is here in Mississippi. 

Furthermore, there are thousands upon thousands of citizens across the state working hard in their communities to forge solid bonds along racial lines in churches and civic organizations. Things are looking even better in the future. In 2017, the state of Mississippi will become the first state in the U.S. to have a state funded Civil Rights museum. Our leaders of tomorrow are learning. Just the other day Dr. John Perkins came to deliver a lecture on the Civil Rights movement to my history students. One young white girl from Mississippi came to my office the next day saying "that speech gave me chills." I informed her that sixty years ago I might have been thrown in prison for inviting Dr. Perkins to speak to a white audience about racial injustice. Yes, indeed. Much has changed here in Mississippi. 

However, upon reflection, it makes sense that the Lord would use a place like Mississippi to be a national leader on racial understanding. He often uses the humble to shame those who think themselves too intelligent, sophisticated and are too "puffed up" by their own knowledge to allow Him to do His work. Perhaps he will continue to use people, like He always has, who are humble and are the least likely people that you would expect to do great things. What good can come from Nazareth right? Many Americans might say the same about Mississippi. Little do we know that the Lord is doing something here that the mayors of New York and Baltimore would love to see happening in their communities right about now. The Lord is forging loving relationships across racial lines through the gospel. At Redeemer Church (PCA) here in Jackson, MS we marvel at this on a weekly basis. Redeemer is a multi-ethnic congregation and one of the largest multi-ethnic churches in the PCA. It is simply a work of the Lord and there is no way else to describe it.  

I have learned a great deal about race and reconciliation in my time here in Mississippi from those who have been working on it and thinking through it for over half a century. I am thankful and humbled the Lord has brought me here and all he has shown me. However, I have also had the benefit of studying some history in my few years. Over the next few articles I am going to present to you some difficult history to see, think about and to read. I would encourage you to think through it in light of these last four articles and realize that when we speak the truth and do so in love then real reconciliation between people can happen because of the love, grace and mercy of our Savior who was the one who reconciled us, in our unworthy estates, to our great father in Heaven. 

Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett

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