Race and the American Church-Part VI-Sin, Slavery, Silence and 'Separate but Equal'

Otis W. Pickett
Before reading this article, please consider reading through the first five pieces as this article is best understood in the context of the others and reading the first five articles will enhance your reading of this one as each article builds on the previous one. Article five focused on the institution of slavery and how race as a social construct affected American Christians from 1620-1860 as they justified the institution of slavery and the mistreatment of African people whom they viewed largely as a sub-human species. My friend and colleague Dr. Miles Smith has expounded on this idea in the minds of antebellum southern Christians through a recent post here. Further, a social construct of race created a cultural captivity of the church, which viewed the institution of slavery with a particular cultural lens that biased that generation's reading and interpreting of scripture as to whether or not African based, for-profit, man stealing was acceptable. This same kind of captivity would continue after the Civil War, throughout Reconstruction and up to the end of World War II. Indeed, the experiences that the white population in this country had with African Americans through the institution of slavery would frame how white Americans perceived the worth, value and dignity of African Americans from 1877 up to 1945. 

Indeed, many Americans over the next eighty years would work very hard to remove opportunities for African Americans to participate as first class citizens (removing the right to vote, to hold office, to be prosecuted under due process and to sit on juries), to segregate public spaces in society along racial lines (this is commonly known as Jim Crow segregation, which the Federal Government and the Supreme Court largely upheld until about 1954) and to continue to degrade the lives of African Americans through violent mob rule, lynching and a eugenics movement driven by a racially oriented social Darwinism. One might argue that this period (1877-1945) was one where many Southern whites attempted to regain political, social and economic power from a brief period during Reconstruction where African Americans voted, held political office and were beginning to realize the profits of true freedom. However, as I argued in the last post, the racism that marked this and previous periods was not limited to the population living below the Mason-Dixon Line. All Americans contributed to the re-denigration of African Americans from the end of Reconstruction up to World War II and beyond. As I (and many others) have said before, this is America's national sin.     

Indeed, most Americans felt that people of African ancestry were inferior and should have only a limited place as integrated members of a largely white society, even though the United States guaranteed African Americans freedom from slavery and equal rights to due process and the right to vote (13th, 14th and 15th Amendments). At the beginning of Reconstruction, white southerners attempted to control newly freed African Americans through restrictive black codes and violent murder through several massacres of African American Republicans, who were only attempting to practice their political rights, across the southern landscape. (Some of these were in Vicksburg, MS, Clinton, MS, Hamburg, SC, Colfax, LA, Coushatta, LA). No whites were charged or prosecuted for the murder of African Americans in these massacres. Instead, the American population turned their heads and focused on how to right the economic ship in a post-Civil War America. Indeed, it was America, as a beleaguered nation in the midst of economic crisis beginning in 1873, which gave up on Reconstruction and chose to feed newly freed African Americans to the proverbial "wolves." 

In order to secure the Presidential election of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, the Compromise of 1877, a back room deal struck between Republicans and Democrats essentially ended Reconstruction by removing the Federal Government's presence throughout the South. This presence was largely in the form of Federal Soldiers and the Freedmen's Bureau, which were both meant to protect African Americans and their newly won rights in the wake of KKK and (the aforementioned) white Redeemer mob violence in the form of massacres beginning in the early 1870s. In the midst of this attack on African American lives and, rather than continuing to push for justice and the Civil Rights of African Americans, the country simply shrugged its shoulders as if to say (forgive my colloquial manner here)... 
 Well....at least you are free now. By the way, you're welcome. 
This means we are even, right? Sorry, but we just have bigger fish to fry with our economy right now. Hope it works out living in a region that doesn't want you to vote, sees you as inferior and will segregate every aspect of society in order to keep you separate from white people. Oh, and don't worry, if the states try to segregate society along racial lines, we will make sure that the Supreme Court interprets that both segregation and limited voting rights for you are perfectly in line with the constitution. Good luck with all that. (This is strictly Otis Pickett's paraphrased perception of the national mindset!).
To make matters worse, pig laws, debtors and lease laws ushered thousands of African Americans into an unjust convict lease system in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This "new slavery" put men and children to work in cotton fields, on levees and in other private, for-profit business ventures for petty crimes that were often trumped up or fraudulently manufactured by those in power in order to produce a much needed labor force. The men who owned these systems like Jones S. Hamilton and Edmund Richardson, made tremendous profits on the backs of thousands of African American "convicts." These "convicts" might spend five to seven years working in a lease system doing back-breaking labor (basically as a slave with no rights and treated worse than they were as slaves because their bodies no longer had economic value) for as little as pilfering $10 worth of fresh pork because they were starving.[1] The death rate of those in the convict lease system was very high and African American boys as young as thirteen fell victim to this system. These laws were almost uniformly administered to African Americans and served as the genesis of the long history in America of mass incarceration of African American males, which is still happening today.[2]

In 1890, the state of Mississippi would dedicate much of the constitutional convention to discussions on preventing African Americans from gaining any further power, position or advancement. Many know about Plessy vs. Ferguson as the "separate but equal" court case in 1896 that created social segregation in public spaces (by the way, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in favor of segregation in that case). However, very few people ever discuss the court case of Williams vs. Mississippi, which provided an interpretation of the Fifteenth Amendment that would not change for the next seventy years. The Fifteenth Amendment reads that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." 

Well, rather than using racial language in the new constitution in Mississippi to limit African American voter participation, the state legislature came up with a variety of deceptive clauses and taxes that they knew would limit African Americans from voting and from participating politically. These included poll taxes, literacy clauses and grandfather clauses, which targeted poor and undereducated African Americans, but allowed illiterate whites to vote if their grandfathers were able to vote prior to 1865. However, even educated African Americans who read and interpreted the Mississippi Constitution in order to vote, could not do so to the satisfaction of many white poll workers. With Williams vs. Mississippi in 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that these kinds of clauses were both acceptable and constitutional (the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Mississippi). Individuals working in the Federal Government and much of our national populace largely agreed with this ruling. This opened the door for other states to create similar constitutions and they did so swiftly. In less than four years, the voting populations of African Americans in southern states (and some Midwestern states) would drop by massive percentages (over 99% in some states). This "Mississippi Plan" became the blueprint across the nation for removing African Americans from the political process.[3]

All of this happened while the Federal Government, the citizens of this nation, and white Christians turned their heads in silence. After several panics and minor recessions, economic security became the national rallying cry of the 1880s onward and, once again, God's people would be party to a pursuit of mammon over the pursuit of equality for their fellow human beings. Many churches adopted a position that the church was only a spiritual entity and should only work for its spirituality and holiness, therefore not engaging in activity toward justice or civil rights issues. While many still recognize that the church, in its systems and courts, should not engage in political or social matters, the larger doctrine had the effect of causing individual Christians (mostly in white denominations) not to speak or act with regard to injustice or Civil Rights. Indeed, if the church, in its leadership, governance and courts, was not interested in speaking into human suffering and injustice, then why would they spend time teaching the individual Christian to do such works? There was a disconnect somewhere that happened. Perhaps there was very little teaching on the Christian individual's responsibility to work against injustice and unjust laws and a lot of teaching on individual holiness and one's spiritual development. I would argue that one of the effects of the "spirituality of the church" doctrine was to divorce a Christian individual's spiritual reflections and meditations (or personal holiness) from one's call to acting in response to one's growth in holiness. For what good is it to tell someone to go in peace and be warmed without also giving him the things he needs for his body (James 2)? However, the injustices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not just political, but economic, physical and spiritual. 

Southern landholders (largely ex-slaveholders) worked to prevent African Americans from achieving advantageous economic opportunities and maintained a deceptive sharecropping and tenant farming system, which perpetuated cycles of debt and largely kept African Americans in successions of poverty by paying unfair dividends from crop profits and charging high interest rates at plantation commissaries for the goods needed for farming (plows, seed, etc.). Therefore African American farmers were not able to gain much of an economic toehold over the next century. Further, the "separate but equal" educational institutions in the South were indeed separate, but far from equal. African Americans typically attended underfunded schools using outdated textbooks and in substandard buildings. Take a few minutes to examine the John E. Phay photograph collection at the University of Mississippi Archives and Special Collections and see if you can note some of the differences between white and African American schools during the time period of "separate but equal". Receiving a poor and sub-standard education, for only a few months out of the year compared to whites who attended school longer, limited African Americans from entering top universities and thus receiving salaried jobs and careers in the new burgeoning Southern economy. This was all carefully crafted by southerners in power, which included Christians living in the South, who were both a part of sharecropping and making sure that whites received a better education than African Americans. 

Northern cities were not much better for African Americans fleeing the South in a series of "Great Migrations" northward from 1877 to the 1940s. African Americans from the South largely met and came up against hostile white residents in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, New York (Harlem), Philadelphia, Detroit and other cities that were aggressive to the growing African American presence in their cities. Riots would break out in these cities during the early twentieth century largely due to white violence toward African Americans, the new competition with whites for low paying jobs and attempting to integrate white neighborhoods. While the southern cultural landscape would be somewhat integrated (southerners lived with and "knew" African Americans or had relationships with them, which were largely driven through a paternalistic power dynamic. However, at least there were relationships), northern society would drift toward complete segregation via redlining (denying banking and insurance services to African Americans and African American neighborhoods) and blockbusting (white real estate agents using fear of African Americans moving into neighborhoods in order to get white residents to sell their homes at low prices and therefore making profits off of the fears of white residents). Northern white and African American populations were largely separate from one another and thus largely ignorant of one another. The old saying from an African American perspective was that "in the South, you could live among whites, but they wouldn't let you vote. In the North, you could vote, but you couldn't live among whites." Both have had tremendous consequences with regard to racial separation in our country since this time period.[4] Indeed, all of America was implicated in an unjust treatment of African Americans. 

One recent article by Hugh Howard in the Washington Post has pointed out how educational institutions in northern portions of the United States have tended to minimize this history and often present a biased view of the Civil War, offering an enlightened Northern populace concerning race, which has tended to exonerate the northern conscience from the sin of racism and connections to slavery and racial injustice. While there is some truth to the fact that the Federal Government (led at the time by Abraham Lincoln), through the Emancipation Proclamation, did ultimately see slavery as something to be eradicated (and I am not claiming that the North has a monopoly on regions who tend to misinterpret the Civil War), the northern part of the United States was just as racist and segregationist, in sentiment and in practice, towards African Americans as anywhere in the country. 

In order to preserve white control whites had to limit access to power. This meant that whites created racially biased laws; a racially stratified social structure and limited educational, political and economic opportunities for African Americans in order to make sure whites maintained positions of power for themselves and their offspring. Massive segregation of society along racial lines ensured that only the most limited opportunities would be available to African Americans. Indeed, Jim Crow laws would severely limit the possibility of an African American taking control of structures that, in any way, could potentially govern white lives. This limitation of African Americans from attaining civil rights and equal economic opportunity happened in the United States from the early 1870s up to at least 1965 and many would argue that it goes far beyond that. Some even maintain there are vestiges of that structure still in our society today. 

One of the saddest things about this structure is that it was allowed to invade and take hold of Christ's bride: the church. However, some historians have also argued that the cultural captivity thesis is not always valid or accurate. Indeed, they would argue that the white Christians in the church took the lead in many ways and influenced the culture on these issues. Many in the church believed that people of African descent were inferior persons who did not belong in positions of authority in white spaces. Indeed, many churches toward the late 1880s would segregate along racial lines essentially mirroring, and in some cases leading, the culture's racial views. The Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney laid out this position in a paper entitled "The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes" and in a book called A Defense of Virginia. In a paper delivered at Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, MS, in 2013 the Rev. Bobby Griffith (PCA pastor and Ph.D. in History Candidate at the University of Oklahoma) mentioned that 
Dabney also stood before his denomination's General Assembly in 1868 and argued that blacks should not be allowed to be ordained as ministers within the Presbyterian Church because it violated the God-ordained separate spheres of operation for races. He also stated that it would make it possible for blacks to hold authority over whites, that blacks were intellectually incapable of becoming ministers over whites, and that race (African American) is not trustworthy for such a position. Instead, he wanted a separate black church that was not equal.[5]
Indeed, Southern Presbyterians (PCUS) would lead the culture and set the tone for racial segregation as they determined at the 1874 (a full twenty years before Plessy vs. Ferguson) General Assembly in Columbus, Mississippi to "organically separate" along racial lines so that African American Presbyterians would not have ecclesiastical relationships with, worship with, potentially rule over or intermarry with white Presbyterians. The lone dissenting vote against segregation at this general assembly was the Rev. John Lafayette Girardeau. Girardeau served as pastor of an African American mission church in antebellum Charleston and went back to Charleston after the Civil War to pastor a church of freed African Americans until he no longer could do so in 1874 due to the General Assembly's ill-considered decision. Girardeau had something (actually....a lot of things) that many white southerners during his time period lacked. He had empathy. His proximity to African Americans and seeing their suffering created an empathy in Girardeau that pushed him to be the leading advocate among southern Presbyterian theologians for the ecclesiastical equality of freedmen during this time period (you can read more about Girardeau in an article I have written here and in an article by the Rev. Dr. C. N. Willborn here or you can listen to me talk about Girardeau here). This should be a lesson for us. Proximity to suffering breeds empathy and love for people. If we are in a homogenous situation where the only people with whom we interact share the same race and the same socio-economic class as us than I guarantee you that people in this demographic struggle with a lack of empathy. Thus, this period had not only a social, economic and political effect on African Americans, but also a spiritual effect. This spiritual effect has hindered both whites and African Americans from coming together in fellowship over the last century, which has severely limited our understanding, as I have expressed in the past, of theology, doctrine, interpretation of God's word as well as an expanded appreciation for the gospel and what it looks like as lived out in different ethnic communities. 

Some historians have looked to the church as a leader in segregation and in buttressing a "Lost Cause" ideology that had a deep impact among southern Christians. Charles Reagan Wilson's important work Baptized in Blood points out the significant role that churches, southern theologians and ex-Confederate Chaplains had in fomenting a mindset of continued resistance among the southern populace. This mindset and ideology would eventually lead to violent action in order to maintain antebellum principles especially with regard to interactions between whites and African Americans and where they both stood in the social order. Essentially, the Lost Cause was about how a defeated people dealt with God's judgment. Some interpreted the Civil War to mean that God had judged His people in the South through Union victory and this was similar to how God judged the southern tribes in Israel via the Assyrians and Babylonians. However, southerners saw themselves as His people (in contrast, they saw northerners as a Godless horde consumed with greed), a people that would be refined through this process and would one day rise again. Wilson argued that a distinctly southern theology developed in the midst of this Lost Cause ideology, which created a southern civil religion, with its own mythology, symbolism and rituals. This religion would be interwoven with orthodox Christianity in the South and passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes the distinctions between Christianity and the Lost Cause were hard to define or delineate. An outside observer might not be able to tell when one started and another began. Here, one might even draw a connection to the punishment of the Israelites for how they combined their worship of God with religions of the surrounding nations. A similar syncretism existed among Christianity in the South that I am not sure has fully gone away. 

For instance, the names of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson would take on an almost holy veneration as southern Christians would revere them for decades and think of them as akin to martyrs for the faith and for "the cause." I would argue that much of the concern that we have seen recently in South Carolina and in Mississippi over taking down Confederate symbols from public spaces is rooted in this Lost Cause ideology and the southern zeal for a civil religion driven by the Lost Cause over orthodox Christianity. We in the South have erected our own Asherah Poles, have dangerously combined historic Christianity with the cause of the Confederacy, have revered man far too much and have grown too accustomed to venerating and holding onto these symbols as representative of all people and of representing Christianity appropriately. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the same denomination obsessed with a "spirituality of the church" would essentially sully and deface her (the church) by removing brothers and sisters from fellowship because they looked different. This robbed both whites and African Americans of the blessing of dwelling with one another in unity and of the incredible graces that come to the life of the Christian through multiethnic worship. I would encourage you to read Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith's book Divided by Faith on the effects of this in the American church over time. 

The second part of this article will be published later this week ~ Mark McDowell, editor

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


[1]  One should know that the practice of pilfering from the larder of white slave owners was a common practice and a largely accepted form of slave resistance in the complex, paternalistic relationship between whites and African Americans in antebellum South. Enslaved Africans, in an attempt to display agency and show disapproval of white slave owner practices would sometimes engage in truancy (running away), work slowdowns, tool breaking and even stealing from the larder. Often, white slave owners allowed this to happen or would "look the other way" in an unspoken compromise made between slave and owner through a relationship known as paternalism. Enslaved Africans had grown accustomed to this practice under two hundred plus years of enslavement and continued these practices after the war. However, new "pig" laws, insidiously created by white property owners targeted this behavior as criminal after the war. What was once accepted was now criminal and whites in need of a labor force no longer "looked the other way."   

[2] David Oshinky addresses this issue at length in the chapter entitled: Mississippi Plan. This is in his important work Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, pp. 31-54

[3] Please read the works of C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Frankllin and W.E.B. Dubois. Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow is a classic, DuBois's Black Reconstruction was about fifty years ahead of it's time and John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom, The Militant South and his book Reconstruction After the Civil War are all foundational texts in the field of history

[4] You should read James N. Gregory's The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America

[5] Bobby Griffith delivered an incredible paper, which covered the entire history of race and the church in America at the Bradley Rhodes Conversation in Jackson in February of 2013. His work at that conference and his continued encouragement has been a source of inspiration to me and many others in the Jackson area. Much of this section is borrowing from his thoughts and ideas.