Race and the American Church 6: Lynching, Violence & White Supremacy

Otis W. Pickett
The first half of this piece can be found here ~ Mark McDowell, Editor

...Americans also supported a physical degradation of African Americans largely through the practice of illegal lynching, which was a heinous and unspeakably violent activity that also violated the rights to due process, guaranteed under the constitution, of African American citizens. Historian Ed Blum has written recently about the degradation of African American bodies over time in U.S. history over at the Journal of Southern Religion, where he reflected on Don Mathews' piece on southern religion and the spectacle of lynching. Dr. Don Mathews is one of the finest historians of southern religion in America and his Religion in the Old South is required reading for anyone in the field. Fifteen years ago, he wrote a piece called "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice", which was both brilliant and brave. It connected the religion of the South (Christianity), something meant to be transcendent, with something incredibly violent: human sacrifice through lynching. According to Mathews, not only were Christians in the South complicit in this practice, but the way they practiced their religion (in segregation and proclaiming that "whiteness" was good and Godly while "blackness" was evil) might have sparked and even buttressed the practice of lynching in the South. As Mathews noted "Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness." Further, "Blood sacrifice is the connection between the purposes of white supremacists, the purity signified in segregation, the magnificence of God's wrath, and the permission granted the culture through the wrath of 'justified' Christians to sacrifice black men on the cross of white solidarity."[1]  His research and writing are both haunting and horrifying in facing the stark reality that white Christians may have used perceived principles from Christianity to murder our African Americans brothers and sisters in order to maintain a white-controlled social order in the early twentieth century. 

Lynching was both a local and a national spectacle. It was something that happened across the country, in multiple states (although more frequently in the South) and locally on town squares. Most Americans during this time period (1874-1947) had either participated in or knew of a lynching. Lynching was something communities often gathered around and American newspapers reported on. In his book Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society 1874-1947, Michael J. Pfeifer traces the roots of lynching from collective mob violence to government sanctioned death penalties during this time period. Pfeifer found that not only was lynching a national phenomenon, but that the victims were overwhelmingly African American males and the supposed crimes for which they were guilty were largely imagined based on racialized fears of African American males.[2]  The prevalence of lynching in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century displays a deep seated racism in America (rooted in a continual belief that African people were inferior). Of the roughly 4,800 documented (documented is an important word because historians have reasons to believe that white mobs lynched perhaps 700 more African Americans, which are being made public through new studies. Also, we have reasons to believe there were a number of lynchings that were never recorded). Further, conservative estimates display that from 1882 to 1968, about 73% of the victims of lynching in America were African Americans. Lynching also displayed, among the American population, a national resistance to law, order, due process and a fascination and compulsion with violence as a legitimate means to address crime (or the supposed crimes) of African American citizens. We are, and always have been, an incredibly violent society and African Americans have largely been, and continue to be, victims of a society captivated with racism and violence. 

The lack of dignity given to enslaved Africans and African Americans in the first chapter of our nation's history would continue in a myriad of ways as the country moved into its second chapter. African Americans experienced freedom, but freedom unto what? A new sort of slavery for African Americans would develop. This was a slavery where the United States granted African Americans freedom in theory only. No longer protected by their value as property, whites in the South would have free reign to use state laws, violence and intimidation to keep African Americans in a perpetual state of subservience. The slightest resistance to this order created violence, which was often visited upon African Americans and their families who "got out of line." African American lives became expendable. Not valued. The nation turned its head away from violence visited upon African Americans. I personally believe this is mostly because the majority of Americans during this time period, including white Christians, did not care or have empathy for the plight of African Americans in this country. 

Rita Schwerner, the widow of the slain Michael "Mickey" Schwerner (a Freedom Summer volunteer from New York who was murdered by Mississippi Klansmen in 1964 along with two others, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, for attempting to register African Americans to vote) said it best when she said "I personally suspect that if it was Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippi negro, had been alone at the time of the disappearance then this case, like so many others that have come before, would have gone completely unnoticed." Indeed, it was only in the deaths of white northerners that this country woke up to the violence being perpetrated on African Americans for decades.[3] Indeed, after the Civil War, the country addressed the issue of whether or not our country would continue to condone racialized human enslavement, but it did not fully address the issue of freedom, what it would mean for an African American to be truly free (to be a citizen of the United States with all the rights and privileges of a white citizen) and it had not begun to scratch the surface on issues of racial superiority and white supremacy. 

For those of you that might bristle at the use of the term white supremacy please understand what I mean by it. We, as whites in America, often connect the ideas of white supremacy with Neo-Nazis and the KKK and I would like to think that most whites in America would disagree with the principles and actions of those groups. However, a white supremacist group acting with hateful intent is somewhat different from a society built on the principles of white supremacy. Therefore we have to be careful, especially when we discuss race, what we mean by the terms we use. When white people hear the term "white supremacy" they largely tune out of the conversation because they do not connect it to themselves or our society, but to radical fringe hate groups. Therefore whites tend to get offended and defensive when they hear that term and when people tell them that they (we) are part of a white supremacist society. However what we as whites need to realize is that we live in a society that has valued whites and their authority over all other minority groups and has done so culturally, economically, legally and spiritually throughout our history. When we understand this historically, and how that history impacts us today, it helps us get on the same page so that whites and African Americans can move forward together in addressing systemic issues that affect continued human flourishing. Understanding terms and how each ethnicity views those terms is also incredibly important as we move forward in a continued dialogue on race. I believe this is often why conversing about race is so difficult. We have to appreciate each other's understanding of history, terminology, perspective and this all has to be done in the context of trusting, grace-centered relationships, which occur in inviting and comfortable spaces. There are not many places where this can happen. We have to create them.

In short, white supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to all other ethnicities and should therefore dominate all structures of a society. When I describe the U.S. as a white supremacist society, what I mean is that the white people in power during this time period (1865-1945) largely believed that whites were superior to other ethnicities and, driven by that philosophy, used power and the political, economic and cultural structures in place to buttress and maintain white control. I have attempted to just break of the surface of this in the last two articles. One example of this, culturally speaking, was the most popular movie in America in 1915, which was about white power, the virtues of the KKK and "redeeming" the South by removing African Americans from positions of authority. This film was called Birth of a Nation and it was the major blockbuster that everyone in America had either seen or was talking about (You can watch this film in its entirety here). This film was shown at the White House at the invitation of Woodrow Wilson. It reflected the cultural values of the time period when it was acceptable to publicly cheer on the hooded clansman as he threatened and violently intimidated African Americans in order to regain white power and control.  

Another reason why some bristle at this terminology (white supremacy) is how history has been interpreted and taught over time. Historians refer to this interpretation over time as historiography. From 1900 to about 1954, historians taught that white "Redeemer" control and regaining power from African Americans through violence was a proper and necessary thing to do. It taught that laws targeting African Americans citizens were meant to protect white citizens. School books taught about the evil Carpetbaggers, Scallywags and freed slaves who took advantage of whites and that "redemption" had to be accomplished by whites who were brave enough to fight against African Americans, unscrupulous northerners and the Federal Government to secure their rights. These "myths of Reconstruction" largely perpetuated by William Archibald Dunning and his graduate students (many of whom went on to teach at major universities and write histories of Reconstruction in each southern state. See my book review of The Dunning School in the March 2015 edition of the Journal of Civil War History here) at Columbia University in New York City, crippled a United States population who were taught these myths throughout the twentieth century. While there were certainly abuses that happened to southern whites during Reconstruction, it is not accurate to paint a picture of southern whites as the only ones who were victimized. They were dealing with the reality of a changed world due to military defeat and did not want to adopt a new "way of life." They resisted and fought against this new way of life and would continue to do so into the modern Civil Rights movement. Fighting this new "way of life" meant re-denigrating African Americans to an antebellum social order. This is why history and how it is interpreted is so important. This view of Reconstruction is still being taught in many places. It reinforces white supremacy and has severely damaged the dialogue and work of racial reconciliation in this country.[4]

In the last piece in this series, I will bring us up from the end of World War II to the modern Civil Rights movement and into contemporary issues with Race and the American Church. I would encourage you, in the midst of reading this difficult history, to be encouraged that the Holy Spirit is remaking and renewing our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Christ is still the great shepherd of His Church and will not forsake us nor leave us no matter how much we bring our sin into it. Our Heavenly father is familiar with sin, racism and hatred. He has seen it for millennia and there is nothing new under the sun that will surprise Him or that Christ's atoning work has not covered or will not compensate for. May this history cause us to look ever more at Christ to be our great hope and may the Holy Spirit open our eyes, hearts and minds to see ways today in which we are still perpetuating racism and hatred of our fellow man. Finally, may this history move and work in us to have more empathy for the struggles of our African American brothers and sisters.  
Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett 


[1]  http://jsr.fsu.edu/mathews.htm and http://jsr.fsu.edu/mathews2.htm. "See William Fitzbugh Brundage, Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Womens Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), for more on lynching in the U.S. South. 
[2] Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society 1874-1947 (Chicago, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 2006). 

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2ssdtB-sAI start watching at the 1:45 mark. 

[4]  I would encourage you to, instead of reading Dunning School works, which are dated from the nineteen teens to the nineteen forties, to read the works of W.E.B. DuBois and recent historians such as Eric Foner's Forever Free, Thomas Holt's Black Over White