Jan 22, 2019
“...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God... the Brotherhood of Man... the Leadership of Jesus... Salvation by Character... [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are... well... we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
-- declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation--deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers -- or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo... So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery--which we call the Civil War--brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws.... A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation--Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown--struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Apr 12, 2016
[Note: This is the text of a lecture that I gave in John Stauffer's course The Civil War: From Nat Turner to Birth of a Nation at Harvard College. Several people asked me if they could read the text so I am posting it here for general interest. I make no pretense to presenting original research in this text. Much of it is derived from the standard treatment of Reconstruction, Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. A few of the summary paragraphs on elections and economics probably border on plagarism. In the interest of transparancy I have uploaded a .pdf version of the talk with footnotes here. Also, Professor Stauffer starts each lecture with a song that connects to the course material. I picked "Black Betty" as performed by the 1970s one-hit wonder Ram Jam.]
That was “Black Betty,” as performed by the 1970s rock band Ram Jam. The song originated as an African American work-song in the early twentieth-century. Like the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” or “Miss You” it might be taken as a cipher representing white male desire for brown and black women’s bodies. The desire to control the bodies of people of color for economic gain and sexual pleasure is at the core of white supremacy. Caught within it is the myth that brown and black female bodies are always available for white male gratification: “Whoa Black Betty, bam-ba-lam / Go Black Betty, bam-ba-lam / Yo really get me high, bam-ba-lam / Yeah that’s no lie, bam-ba-lam / She’s always ready, bam-ba-lam.”
The defeat of the Confederacy brought the legal end of the control of black and brown bodies by Southern whites. No longer could children, women, and men be sold as chattel slaves on auction blocks. No longer could white masters rape black women with complete impunity. No longer were blacks excluded from the local, state, or federal polities. What came to be called Redemption was an effort by whites to reassert economic, political, and sexual control over black bodies.
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” We have taken this phrase from W. E. B. Du Bois as something of a slogan for the course. In the arc of the sentence we have arrived at the final clause, “then moved back again toward slavery.” The collapse of Reconstruction did not render blacks in the same state as they had been in before the war. It left in place a white supremacist regime that was different in structure and scope to the system of chattel slavery that existed before the war. I will close my lecture this morning with some reflections on the enduring legacy of Henry Wilson, Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant, called the “Counter-Revolution” that followed Reconstruction. Before we get there, let us focus on our central task for the day: the demise of Reconstruction.
Reconstruction ended with the Bargain of 1877. The bargain was a backroom deal brokered between the representatives of Republic candidate for President, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. It stemmed from electoral crisis in which votes were disputed and the outcome of the electoral college was far from clear. It resulted in Hayes gaining the Presidency. In exchange he agreed to have federal troops in Louisiana and South Carolina return to their barracks and thus grant the entirety of the South “home rule.”
The Bargain of 1877 returned the South to the control of white Democrats for generations. Its long-term impact was almost immediately visible. Albion Turgee reflected on the situation in 1879, two years afterwards. Turgee was a carpetbagger originally from Ohio who served as a state judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction. In an interview he gave with the New York Tribune he remarked: “In all except the actual results of the physical struggle, I consider the South to have been the real victors in the war. I am filled with admiration and amazement at the masterly way in which they have brought about these results. The way in which they have neutralized the results of the war and reversed the verdict of Appomattox is the grandest thing in American politics.”
The question at the heart of this morning’s lecture is this: How did the South turn in military defeat in 1865 to a political victory in 1877? History rarely yields simple answers. Yet, historians generally point to three factors that contributed to the reversal of “the verdict of Appomattox.” These are America’s enduring culture of white supremacy; the exhaustion of the abolitionist tradition; and economic shifts and disruptions. We will tend to each of these in turn. Along the way, I will layout a timeline for the counter-revolution that overturned Reconstruction. But before we turn to Reconstruction’s demise it is worth taking a few moments, again, to briefly outline its accomplishments.
The end of the Civil War brought the end of chattel slavery. With it, came the question of what would happen to the freedmen and freedwomen. What would their freedom mean? At least theoretically, Reconstruction granted blacks control over their own labor, control over their sexual reproduction, and the ability for black men to participate as full citizens in the local, state, and national polities. Each of these achievements profoundly threatened the Southern system white supremacy. White supremacy, again, might be summarized as the control of black bodies for the economic gain and sexual pleasure of whites. In white supremacy the primary mechanism of control is violence: both threatened and actuated.
Under Reconstruction, blacks gained what the free labor ideology of the Republicans had to offer. They had the right to work for wages. They could accumulate savings. They had the right to select their own employers. They had freedom of movement and in theory move up the economic ladder, eventually becoming employers themselves. To some extent, at least, they could also dictate the conditions of their labor. Professor Stauffer has already highlighted the ways in which the Black Codes of 1865-1866 immediately sought to undermine the ability of blacks to control their labor. Both he and Bob Mann also have recounted how free labor ideology for the most part failed to redistribute land.
Under Reconstruction, blacks gained the ability to control their sexual reproduction. Slave masters could no longer rip families apart and sell mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandfathers, or grandmothers off to other masters. The black family is one of the most important institutions to emerge from Reconstruction. By 1870 a significant majority of blacks lived in two-parent households. White men no longer had unlimited access to the bodies of black women to satisfy of their sexual pleasure. The access of white male elites to the bodies of black women had long been one of the cornerstones of white supremacy. Charles Sumner had exposed it in his speech “Crime Against Kansas.” Greatly offending Southern slave owners when he said of South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, “he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him... I mean the harlot Slavery.”
In his self-published 1884 memoir Yazoo, or, On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South, Albert T. Morgan recorded several disturbing vignettes about the place of the control of black women’s bodies in white supremacy. Morgan was a Union officer, carpetbagger, and abolitionist. Born in Wisconsin in 1842, he attended Oberlin College before beginning his military career in the Union army. After the fall of the Confederacy he and his brother moved to Yazoo, Mississippi to attempt to run a plantation on the system of free labor. While there he served as a delegate to the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1868 and as a Republican member of the Mississippi State Senate. In 1870 he also married a black school teacher named Carolyn Victoria Highgate.
In his travels through Yazoo, Morgan encountered a Southern Whig who shared with him stories of his electoral campaign for the State Senate prior to the war. Morgan writes,
“It was made by him on horseback with two mules following behind, upon which he had packed ‘that gal, Sal, by G-d, sir,’ together with an ample supply of whisky and tobacco. …Thus equipped he was able to offer the suffragans of Yazoo weightier arguments than his opponent on the Democratic ticket, for he could bid them ‘choose to their taste,’ from the greater variety of the ‘creature comforts’ which he ‘toted about’ with him. ‘By G-d, sir, that did the business for me, and I was the first Whig Senator ever sent to the legislature from this county.’”
In other words, the politician had essentially bought his state senate seat by allowing white male voters to repeatedly rape a black woman.
Elsewhere Morgan describes a conversation he had with a “popular physician” shortly after the 1868 Reconstruction constitution was adopted. The constitution outlawed concubinage and opened the way for Morgan to sponsor a bill that legalized interracial marriage. In the course of Morgan’s conversation with him, the physician admitted that his principle objection to the new constitution was that it restricted white male access to black female bodies:
“‘Why, sir, that so-called constitution evelates every nigro wench in this State to the equality of ouah own daughters. The monstrous thing! Look atzit faw a moment! Ever since Washington’s time—and he understood it—the world wide fame of the fair ladies of the South faw beauty, faw refinement, and faw chasity has been ouah proudest boast. This vile thing you call a constitution robs us of that too.’
[Morgan interjected,] ‘My good sir, how do you make that out?’
‘Possibly you all are ignorant of the effects of the work you’ve been doing down there at Jackson. But that only illustrates another objection ou’ people have to anything you all may do. Such work ought never to be entrusted to strangers, faw the very good and sufficient reason that they can’t be expected to know the peculiarities of the people to be affected by it. Everybody who has resided in the South long enough to get acquainted with ou’ people and thar ways must know that the nigro women have always stood between ouah daughters and the superabundant sexual energy of ouah hot-blooded youth. And, by G-d, sir, youah so-called constitution tears down the restrictions that the fo’sight ouah statesmen faw mo’ than a century has placed upon the nigro race in oauh country. And, if you all ratify it and it is fo’ced on the people of the State, all the d—m nigro wenches in the country will believe that they’re just as good as the finest lady in the land; and they’ll think themselves too good faw thar place, and ouah young men’ll be driven back upon the white ladies, and we’ll have prostitution like you all have it in the North, and as it is known in other countries. I tell you, sir, it’ll h—l generally ‘twixt ouah young men, and the nigros, too. The end of it all will sho’ly be the degradation of ouah own ladies to the level of ouah wenches—the brutes!’”
The good doctor’s problem was, in sum, that the new constitution protected black women from white men. No longer could “the superabundant sexual energy of ouah hot-blooded” be channeled through black bodies. The physician feared that this change would result in a loss of purity for “the white ladies.”
Reconstruction did more than just free African Americans from the bonds of chattel slavery. It brought black men into full citizenship. Throughout most of the history of the United States, full citizenship has had at least five elements. Three of these were highlighted in Rev. John W. Hood’s speech at the 1865 North Carolina Freedmen’s Convention. He said, “we want three things,—first, the right to give evidence in the courts; second, the right to be represented in the jury-box; and third, the right to put votes in the ballot-box.” Besides the equality under the law, the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, and the right to both elect representatives and hold public office it is worth lifting-up two other elements of full citizenship. These are the ability to create autonomous institutions and the right to bear arms. The relationship between arms, military service, and citizenship is something that Professor Stauffer has discussed in previous lectures.
Less discussed has been the ability to create autonomous institutions. Some of the first steps towards freedom that former slaves took after the military defeat of the Confederacy were the creation of independent black churches and schools. Almost immediately after emancipation, blacks withdrew from historically biracial congregations throughout the South to form their own congregations. During the antebellum period blacks had at best an associate membership within churches. They sat in the back or in galleys and been excluded from congregational governance and Sunday schools. With the end of slavery, blacks created their own worshiping communities. By 1877 almost all Southern blacks left biracial congregations for their own independent churches. In 1860 there had been 42,000 black Methodists who worshipped in biracial congregations in South Carolina. By 1877 there were only 600.
In many cases the first buildings built after armed conflict ended were black churches. Here is a picture of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Also called Mother Emanuel, the congregation was founded in 1816. In 1822 it was investigated by whites because one of its prominent members, Denmark Vesey planned a slave uprising. In 1834 the congregation was driven underground when independent black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. It began openly worshiping again in 1865. This building dates from 1892. The congregation is probably familiar to many of you. It was the site of a white supremacist terrorist attack in 2015. The attack killed nine people, a testament to the enduring links between violence and white supremacy.
As Professor Stauffer mentioned in his last lecture, along with churches, schools were quickly organized throughout the South. By 1869, according to the Freedmen’s Bureau, there were close to 3,000 schools serving 150,000 black pupils. Literacy rates rose slowly, but accordingly. In 1860 approximately 90 percent of blacks throughout the South were illiterate. In the 1880 the percentage had decreased to 70. Despite this limited success, Reconstruction-era Republicans established for the time the principle that the state was responsible for providing public education.
Alongside the creation of autonomous institutions came black participation in governance. Blacks held offices at the local, state, and national levels. In 1875, two years before the end of Reconstruction, African American representation in Congress peaked at members, seven in the House and one in the Senate.
Taken together the black control over black labor, sexual republication, and the ability for black men to participate as full citizens in local, state, and national politics presented a profound threat to white supremacy. White rage at the prospect of black freedom was widespread. A sense of the intensity of white rage can be found in the 1868 response of the Democratic party State Committee in South Carolina. In a pamphlet titled The respectful remonstrance, on the behalf of the white people of South Carolina, against the constitution of the late Convention of that state, Democratic party leaders wrote:
…That Constitution was the work of Northern adventures, Southern renegades and ignorant negroes. Not one per centum of the white population of the State approves it, and not two per centrum of the negroes who voted for its adoption know any more than a dog, horse, or cat, what his act of voting implied. That Constitution enfranchises every male negro over the age of twenty-one. The negro being in a large numerical majority, as compared with the whites, the effect is that the new Constitution establishes in this State negro supremacy, with all its train of countless evils. A superior race—a portion, Senators and Representatives, of the same proud race to which it is your pride to belong—is put under the rule of an inferior race—the abject slaves of yesterday, the flushed freedmen of to-day. And think you there can be any just, lasting reconstruction on this basis? We do not mean to threaten resistance by arms. But the white people of our State will never quietly submit to negro rule. We may have to pass under the yoke you have authorized, but we will keep up this contest until we have regained the heritage of political control handed down to us by an honored ancestry. This is a duty we owe to the land that is ours, to the graves that it contains, and to the race of which and we are like members—the proud Caucasian race, whose sovereignty on earth God has ordained…
White supremacists channeled their white rage through the primary tool that they had always used to prop-up white supremacy: violence. Violence against blacks and against their white allies, both Northern Republicans and Southern Unionists, continued and increased in intensity as the conflict between the Union and Confederate Armies ended. White supremacist(ism) was widespread and well-organized from the opening days of Reconstruction. In the autumn of 1865 freedmen were routinely assaulted in Edgefield county, South Carolina. As one freedman told a Union general, “It is almost a daily occurrence for black men to be hunted down with dogs and shot like wild beasts.” A band of a hundred former Confederate soldiers roamed the county whipping and killing blacks who were brave enough to leave their former masters. In Texas between 1865 and 1868 at least 1,000 blacks were murdered by whites for reasons as petty as refusing to remove their hats. The majority of murders, however, occurred when blacks tried to assert their freedom. Blacks were murdered for leaving plantations, attempting to buy or rent land, disputing the terms of their employment, refusing work orders, and resisting whippings.
Violence against blacks and their white allies went through three overlapping phases. The first phase was the briefest and is attested to by the episode in Edgefield County. White supremacists attacked blacks who tried to assert their new found freedom. This phase spanned roughly 1865 to 1866. The second phase was the phase of the Ku Klux Klan. It ran from approximately 1866 to 1872 and targeted the white and black political leaders of Reconstruction. The third, final, and most successful phase was the white line phase. Stretching from about 1872 to past the end of Reconstruction, it succeeded in doing what the other phases had not, re-establishing white supremacy in the South.
All three phases of violence were possible because of a massive demobilization and change in priorities on the part of the Union Army. In May 1865 the Union Army comprised one million. By the autumn of 1866 it had only 38,000 soldiers. Many of them were not even stationed in the South. With the Confederacy’s military defeat behind it, army leaders shifted their attention to the West and the national project of seizing land and resources from the continent’s indigenous peoples. Towards the end of 1867 the number of soldiers stationed in the South was down to 20,000. It was only 6,000 in the autumn of 1876. As Reconstruction ran its course, the United States fought wars with the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Navajo, Paiute, Shoshone, Sioux, Ute and other indigenous nations in the West. Many Union officers saw their focus shift from what had become a war to end slavery to the conquest of indigenous lands. The infamous Colonel George Armstrong Custer, for instance, had been present at Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant before being sent West. He ultimately perished in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
As Union soldiers left the South, organized violence against blacks and their white allies began to increase. The career Ku Klux Klan offered the most infamous phase of this violence. The Klan began as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee in late 1865 or early 1866. The organization’s original members were former Confederate soldiers and its name attested to the initial fraternal aspirations. Like other fraternities, the name Ku Klux Klan is supposed to be a Greek reference. Ku Klux was a corruption of kuklos, the Greek word for circle. The Klan expanded in late 1866 and in 1867 began to turn to small acts of terror when former Confederate generals and politicians joined and took over the organization’s leadership roles.
A secret organization with elaborate rituals, the Klan adopted costumes that were designed to both hide the Klansmen identity and inspire fear. It also created its own particular language to describe its nominal organizational structure. The head of the Klan was called the Grand Wizard. The first and likely, only, Reconstruction-era Grand Wizard was Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest was well-suited to lead a white supremacist terrorist organization. Prior to the war Forrest had been both a plantation owner and a slave trader. During the war he had been a Confederate cavalry general who earned a reputation for racism and brutality when he oversaw the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864. The massacre, you might recall, involved the brutal murder of a large number of black Union soldiers who surrendered after the fort they were defending fell to Confederate forces.
In early 1868, the Klan experienced rapid growth. It went from being a primarily local organization in Tennessee to one that stretched throughout the former Confederate states. It was probably united more by a set of common tactics, targets, and objectives than by any sort of unified command. Klan members would set out after dark to a community far enough away that they would not be recognized by their victims. Their targets were selected by local allies and subjected to a range of brutalities. Black Union Army veterans and White Republicans were whipped, shot, or lynched for offenses like voting for the Republican Party. Often the attacks were proceeded by warning notices, such as this one from Georgia. In other cases, the Klan threatened African Americans or whites telling them that they would be killed if they voted Republican or continued to operate a school. Wherever they operated, and whenever they could, they searched for and seized guns held by blacks. In many places the strength of the Klan was such that rather than operating solely at night, they would stage massive marches through Southern communities in full regalia. In some cases these marches were weekly occurrences.
All told, about 10 percent of black officeholders were the victims of attacks or threats. And at least 35 black public officials were murdered by the Klan or its imitators such as the Knights of the White Camelia. Andrew J. Flowers was a justice of the peace in Tennessee. He offers one of the few accounts of these attacks from a black perspective. He recounted that he was whipped by the Klan “because I had the impudence to run against a white man for office, and beat him… They said that they… did not intend any nigger to hold office in the United States.” In another of these rare testimonies, Alabama freedman George Moore reported that Klansmen came to his home, beat him, “ravished a young girl who was visiting my wife” and wounded a neighbor. “The cause of this treatment, they said, was that we voted the radical ticket.”
By the election of 1868, it was clear that the Klan was essentially the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party. Harper’s Weekly regularly reported on the group’s activities. In one article a reporter wrote, “A rebel colonel from Georgia, at a [Democratic Party] meeting in New York, shouted that if ‘Northern Democrats will take care of the bayonet, the Southern Democrats would be responsible for the result of the ballot in November,’ meaning that the Ku-Klux Klan would take care of loyal voters.”
Violence surrounding the election was predictably widespread. In Arkansas alone there were more than 200 murders in the three months leading up to the November 3 election. President Johnson blocked the release of federal arms to the state’s militia. Fourteen counties, primarily Republican strongholds, were unable to vote and the Republicans won the state with a bare majority of 3,000 votes. Immediately following the election, Arkansas’s governor, Powell Clayton, declared martial law in ten counties. Essentially following the national pattern of Congressional Reconstruction, Clayton then divided the state into four military districts. He marched a newly armed state’s militia through Klan strongholds, seized numerous arms, arrested dozens of Klansmen, and ultimately executed three of them after military trials.
Ulysses S. Grant had a clear picture of the situation by the time he assumed office in early 1869. He observed that the Klan was committed “by force and terror, to prevent all political action not in accord with the views of the members, to deprived colored citizens of the rights to bear arms and of the right of a free ballot, to suppress the schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely allied to that of slavery.” Shortly after taking office Grant sent federal troops to suppress Klan activity in South Carolina.
The initial efforts of President Grant, Governor Clayton, and other Republican leaders was not enough to suppress the Klan. In 1870 Klan violence largely continued to increase. The Klan was essentially eliminated in Arkansas but thrived in South Carolina. In Laurens County, South Carolina, a racial conflict in Laurensville turned into a “negro chase.” Bands of whites drove approximately 150 freedmen from their homes and murdered 13 people. Jackson, Florida as many as 150 people were killed. In Meridian, Mississippi, as many as 30 blacks were murdered by armed whites. Albion Tourgee counted 12 murders by Klansmen in North Carolina county alone.
In response Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. These acts prohibited state officials to discriminate against voters on the basis of race. They authorized the President to appoint election supervisors who could bring to federal court cases of election fraud, bribery or intimidation of voters.
The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 was the most far reaching of these measures. It turned actions designed to deny individuals certain of their rights into federal crimes. It was now possible to prosecute those who sought to deny citizens their right to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury in federal court.
The enforcement of the Klan Act was successful at suppressing the Klan but only moderately successful at ending white supremacist violence. Throughout 1871 thousands Klansmen were indicted. Many of the organization’s leaders were tried, often before predominately black juries, and sentenced to prison. By 1872 violence had decreased throughout the South and Klan itself was largely destroyed.
Not surprisingly, the 1872 election was the most peaceful of the Reconstruction era. Grant’s opponent for President, Horace Greeley, only carried three of the states of the former Confederacy: Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. Republicans elected the majority of Congressmen in Tennessee and Virginia and governors in Alabama and North Carolina. Blacks constituted a majority in the South Carolina House of Representatives and elected the state Speaker of the House .
All was not entirely well. The election returned Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, to Congress as a Representative for Georgia. Perhaps more significantly, the 1872 election produced rival claimants to the Louisiana governor’s mansion. The Democrat John McEnry refused to concede defeat to the Republican William Pitt Kellogg despite only receiving 43% of the vote. The intersession of federal troops was required to install Kellogg as Governor. The situation was mirrored throughout localities in the state.
In Colfax, the county seat of Grant Parish, blacks feared that white Democrats would seize control of the government. They formed a militia and built modest fortifications. Armed whites surrounded them for three weeks. On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, whites began their assault. In possession of both a cannon and a makeshift calvary, the whites soon forced the majority of armed blacks to retreat to the county courthouse. The courthouse was set afire and the blacks were shot down as they fled the blaze. The African American journalist T. Morris Chester described the scene: “The escaping men were overtaken, mustered in crowds, made to stand around, and, while in every attitude of humiliation and supplication, were shot down and their bodies mangled and hacked to hasten their death or to satiate the hellish malice of their heartless murderers, even after they were dead.” All told about fifty blacks died. Only two whites were killed.
Despite the outcome of the election of 1872, and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, the early 1870s marked the beginning of the end of Reconstruction. Northern Republicans began to shift their attentions elsewhere. As Professor Stauffer mentioned in the last lecture, the political leaders of Congressional Reconstruction, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens both died. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment convinced many weary abolitionists that their struggle to end slavery had come to an end. In March of 1870 the American Anti-Slavery Society, the major abolitionist organization, voted to disband. In 1874 the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society followed its example.
Other Northerners transferred their attention from the Reconstruction of the South to the accumulation of wealth. The decade after the end of the Civil War saw a massive expansion in American industry. In 1873, the nation’s industrial production was 75% higher than it had been in 1865. Approximately 35,000 miles of railroad were laid between 1865 and 1873. This rapid industrial expansion created opportunities for previously unimagined levels of wealth. A new class of industrialists arose and many of them had very close ties to the Republican Party. Historian Eric Foner provides a startling overview of the connections between the party’s leadership and the emerging corporate leaders:
“Sen. Lyman Trumbull… accepted an annual retainer from the Illinois Central Railroad. …The Central Pacific rewarded Sen. William M. Stewart of Nevada with 50,000 acres of land for his services on the Committee of the Pacific Railroad. Banker Jay Cooke, the ‘financier of the Civil War’ and leading individual contributor to Grant’s presidential campaigns, took a mortgage on Speaker of the House James G. Blaine’s Washington home, sold a valuable piece of Duluth land to Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes at ‘a great bargain,’ and employed as lobbyist… out-of-office politicos…”
The close relationship between Republican Party leaders and industrialists proved a massive boon for corporations. At the same time the federal government was failing to provide freedmen with land, it was giving massive amounts to corporations. Between 1868 and 1872 corporations were awarded more than 100 million acres of land. This prompted one former slave, Anthony Wayne, to ask, “whilst Congress appropriated land by the million acres to pet railroad schemes… did they not aid poor Anthony and his people starving and in rags?”
The economic expansion ended abruptly in the autumn of 1873. That September the financial problems of the Northern Pacific Railroad sparked a financial panic and spread throughout the credit system. Banks failed. The stock market temporarily suspended trading. Factories started to layoff workers. The prices of tobacco, sugar, rice and cotton, the major Southern cash crops, all fell dramatically. Unemployment became widespread. In 1874 as many as a quarter of New York City’s labor force was out of work. Labor unrest began to grow. There were railroad strikes, miners’ strikes and strikes in the textile industry.
In the 1874 election, voters responded as they do during times of significant economic crisis. They voted, in wide margins, against the party in power. Republicans lost the House. After 1872 elections they held 199 seats to the Democrats 89. The 1874 elections placed the Democrats in the majority with 183 seats and the Republicans in the minority with 106.
The results for Reconstruction were probably predictable. Emboldened by the Republican electoral defeat, white supremacists in Louisiana formed the White League. Openly devoted to restoring white supremacy, it continued the work of the Klan. Only this time, White League members, or white liners as they were alternatively called, did not bother with the robes and hoods. The White League’s purpose was most explicitly political but its membership was most likely almost identical to that of the Klan. An editorial in White League newspaper, appropriately called the Caucasian, testified to their intention of reestablishing Democratic party control of Louisiana by force. “[W]e, having grown weary of tame submission to this most desolating war of the negro upon us, propose to a take a bold stand to assert the dignity of our manhood, to say in tones of thunder and with the voice of angry elements STOP! THUS FAR SHALT THOU GO, AND NO FURTHER!” The Caucasian’s editors were three former Confederate soldiers.
In Mississippi, an organization similar to the White League appeared. It called itself the White Line. Its members authored and implemented the Mississippi Plan, which Professor Stauffer covered last week. It had five points: Kill every white radical leader. Establish a well organized military. Make no threats; kill instead. Control the polling booths. Whites from other states will help.
The impact on 1875 election was dramatic. The Democrats and White Liners launched a campaign of terror to regain control of the governor’s mansion. Prior to the election, Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames requested that President Grant send federal troops to the state to protect blacks and white Republicans. Under pressure from Ohio Republicans, Grant denied the request. They feared that if Grant sent federal troops to Mississippi war weary Northerners would vote for the Democrats in Ohio. Deciding that it was better to lose Mississippi than Ohio, Grant kept federal troops out of the southern state.
Governor Ames wrote a letter to his wife Blanche describing the situation this way: “Dear Blanche: The canvass is at an end, and tomorrow the voting will take place. The reports which come to me almost hourly are sickening. Violence, threats of murder, and consequent intimidation are co-extensive with the limits of the state. Republican leaders in many localities are hidden in the swamps or have sought refugee beyond the borders of their own counties. The government of the U. S. does not interfere, and will not, unless to prevent actual bloodshed.” When election came the Democrats regained control of the state.
The chief beneficiary of Grant’s decision not to send troops into Mississippi was Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes won election to the Ohio governor’s mansion. The next year he was nominated by the Republican Party to serve as its Presidential candidate. His opponent was the Democratic Governor of New York, Samuel J. Tilden. In the lead-up to the election a campaign of terror reminiscent of? swept the South. On July 8, 1876, violence broke out in the South Carolina of Hamburg??. Five blacks were murdered in cold blood, after they had surrendered to a group of armed whites. Elsewhere in the state former slave Jerry Thornton Moore, a Republican Party activist, was told by his white landlord that Democrats would carry the election “if we have to wade in blood knee-deep.”
The results of that autumn’s Presidential election were disputed. Tilden won most of the former Confederate states, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Indiana. Early in the morning someone in the Republican party headquarters realized that if Hayes carried the three Southern states Republicans still controlled he would win the election by one electoral vote. Telegrams were sent to Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and the states’ officials declared victories for Hayes. The country was thrown in an electoral crisis with Democrats challenging the results.
An Electoral Commission was established and divided equally between the parties. The addition of five Supreme Court justices brought the body to fifteen members. By series of 8-7 votes, the disputed electoral college votes were awarded to Hayes. Tilden’s supporters threatened to block the final count of electoral vote by the House. Representatives of the two candidates hashed out a deal, the exact terms of which are unknown. Whatever they were, they definitely included Hayes recognizing the Democrat-White Line candidates for Governor in Louisiana and South Carolina. These men had both been elected through campaigns of intimidation and violence. If Hayes carried their states it is doubtful that they actually won their governorships. Nonetheless, Hayes agreed to send the federal troops that were preventing them from assuming office back to their barracks. In doing so, he abandoned Reconstruction.
Over the next decades blacks lost much of the freedom they had gained during the Reconstruction years. By 1900 they had almost entirely excluded from voting or holding office throughout the South. When Congressman George H. White of North Carolina left office in 1901 he was the last black to serve in Congress until the late 1920s. Mississippi’s interracial marriage law was overturned and many white men continued to treat their black female servants as sexual playthings. Systems of penal labor were put in place that in many cases were indistinguishable from slavery.
Nonetheless, blacks never returned entirely to slavery and the gains they made during Reconstruction laid the groundwork for the twentieth-century civil rights movement. Autonomous black institutions, particularly the black churches, provided both resources and leadership development opportunities for countless heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.
To summarize and then conclude, historians generally agree that the abandonment of Reconstruction was the result of the endurance of white supremacy, war weariness in the North, shifting priorities amongst the Republican Party and the passing of abolitionist leaders from national politics. To offer my own gloss, I might blame the millennialist habit of thought. Millennialist abolitionists believed that slavery could be ended suddenly and abruptly. Human history could be divide in two. On one side slavery, on the other freedom. The human heart, alas, does not work that way. White supremacists remained white supremacists after emancipation and sought through whatever means they could muster to reassert control over black bodies.
And so a coda to conclude about the legacy of the abandonment of Reconstruction today. Well, two codas really. First, to say that white supremacy is still very much with us and the task of the abolitionists to build a just and equitable society remains undone. If you doubt me or other contemporary justice activists I ask you to consider the following statistics. The average wealth of a white family in this country is close to fifteen times that of the average African American family. Unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites. African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites .
Second, strategies of voter disenfranchisement designed to exclude blacks from voting continue to be part of American politics. Just this morning, the New York Times published an article on how today’s Republicans, who are yesterday’s Democrats, have perverted the federal Election Assistance Commission. They have turned it from an agency devoted to make it easier for people to vote into one making voting more difficult. Who knows what impact this will have on the upcoming election?
May 4, 2015
It is a pleasure to be with you today to celebrate the installation of the Rev. Sarah Stewart as your twelfth senior minister. I have known Sarah for more than two decades. We became friends in high school when we were both members of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists in Michigan. I doubt you could have selected a more conscientious, intelligent, and compassionate person to lead your congregation. So, I congratulate you on your wisdom. I thank Sarah for the honor of preaching to her congregation the Sunday morning of her installation.
It is unfortunate that this joyous Sunday is marred by the week’s unhappy events. The death of Freddie Gray and the resulting riots in Baltimore mean that today, across the United States, sermons will wrestle with the same issue. In Worcester, in Boston, in New York, in Detroit, in Chicago, in Atlanta, in Los Angeles, in Washington, DC, and, yes, in Baltimore, ministers will be talking with their congregations about race and racism, white supremacy, demonstrations, riots, and police violence. There will be sermons on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movements. There will be sermons on the necessity of action, challenging us on seizing the urgent moment. There will be sermons calling for healing, reminding us that whatever the color of our skin we are all living members “of the great family of all souls.”
Most of these sermons will have same general features. They will begin by declaring the death of Freddie Gray a horrid tragedy. They will make some observations about the protests in Baltimore and link those protests to the events in Ferguson. They may mention Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamar Rice. They might celebrate Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge the police officers involved with Gray’s death. They might describe the national epidemic of police violence; 393 people have been killed by police since the start of year. Perhaps they will refer to the vast disparity between white and black wealth. The average white family has twenty times the assets of the average black family. The unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. Maybe they will admit to the racist nature of our criminal justice system. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.
The majority of these sermons, I suspect, will invoke Martin King. The moderate preachers may quote from safe texts like his famous “I Have a Dream,” “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair... my friends.” A bolder few, perhaps, will cite his sermon at the National Cathedral. They will deplore, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning... we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” The bravest clergy might invoke his speech “The Other America” to observe, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” They could quote him to assign blame for the nation’s racial problems, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”
I imagine that whatever quote from King the preacher picks the vast majority of the morning’s services will end on a note of hope. Maybe the minister will decide to offer a prayer for racial reconciliation. Maybe the congregation will join their voices together in “We Shall Overcome.” Maybe the benediction will summon James Baldwin and finish with the encouraging admonition, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”
Taken together these sermons come close to a national conversation on race. In this hour, for a few minutes, the reigning white silence is being broken. White clergy like me are preaching about white America’s close to four hundred history of terrorizing, torturing, enslaving, killing, and imprisoning black and brown people. This morning’s rupture in the silence cannot be temporary if we are to have any hope of every transcending our troubled history. The shattering of silence must be permanent. The great poet Audre Lorde challenged people to transform the silence that surrounds suffering into language and action. That is what we must do. White people need to learn to speak about race and white supremacy with the same frequency that brown and black people are violated by institutionalized racism. Pulpits like this one cannot succumb to white silence on those Sundays when racialized police violence is not in the headlines.
Breaking the enduring white silence requires clergy who are willing to preach about racism. More importantly, it requires congregations who are willing to listen to sermons that make them uncomfortable. Often pulpits remain in white silence because ministers are afraid of upsetting their congregants. Preaching is a privilege and a vocation. It is also a job. I am a sometime parish minister. I can attest that many congregants link their support of their church to their satisfaction with the minister’s preaching. I know that too many unsettling sermons can cause some members pledging to go down.
We Unitarian Universalists like to uplift our social justice legacy. But I wonder how willing we really are to engage with the difficult work of transforming white silence into language and action. As an itinerant preacher I visit a lot of congregations. When I visit the settled minister of the congregations often asks me to preach about racial justice. What follows, unfortunately, is a scenario that has become familiar.
The scenario runs something like this. I deliver a sermon about how religious liberals should respond to this country’s racist legacy. I use the word murder to describe the killings of black men like Freddie Gray, Amadou Diallo, and Trayvon Martin.
After the service, during coffee hour, a member of the congregation comes up to me and tells me that he was offended by my sermon. The member usually fits the same profile. He is a straight white male over the age of seventy. He tells me that I was wrong to use the word murder to describe the violent deaths of black men and boys like John Crawford III and Sean Bell at the hands of the police.
His complaint appears in the form of a question, “Did you sit on the trial jury? Where you part of the grand jury? Do you work for the FBI?” This question is followed by a statement, “Because you are talking like you have some access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. It is the grand jury who decides if the police officers that killed Clinton Allen should be indicted for murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed Dante Parker violated his civil rights. Your rhetoric is dangerous, incendiary and unfair.”
Perhaps that is true. I don’t know what those juries know. What I do know is that in this country white police officers kill black men at the rate of two, three, or four a week. I know that the rate of police killings of African Americans now exceeds the rate of lynchings in the first decades of the twentieth century. I know that the decision of a state’s attorney like Marilyn Mosby to charge police officers with murder is rare. I know that the conviction of police officers is even more rare. I know that in order for this to change white silence has to be transformed into language and action. All of the silence in the world will not offer protection from the institutionalized structures of racism. It is only by speaking, and speaking often, that we can begin to dismantle them.
A call to transform the enduring white silence is essentially a call to conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings about a change in perspective, a shift in a point of view. If you are white and relatively privileged try seeing the society from a black or brown point of view. Imagine that you are Freddie Gray. Imagine that you are arrested, handcuffed and placed face down on the sidewalk. No one answers your request for an inhaler. You are put, head first, into a police van. The cops do not strap you in. They lay you on the floor. The van starts to move. It rattles about. It comes to a stop. You suffer a severe neck injury. You tell the police you need medical attention. They ignore you. By the time you arrive at the police station you are no longer breathing. A week later you are dead.
Such an act of imagination can be unsettling, even slightly traumatizing. It requires that we admit that ignorance of the racialized nature of our society is kind of privilege. We who are white can insulate ourselves from the reality that surrounds us. We can choose to be ignorant of the white supremacist nature of our society. We can surround ourselves with people who look like us. We can pretend the vast disparities of wealth between whites and people of color are accidental, not intentional.
Paul, or someone writing as Paul, reminded us in Ephesians that there is a price to be paid for such willful ignorance, “Their minds are closed, they are alienated from the life that is in God, because ignorance prevails among them and their hearts have grown hard as stone.” The author of this passage had in mind knowledge of God when he wrote it. I invoke it to suggest that choosing deliberate blindness and closing our eyes to the racist nature of our society will harden our hearts.
Softening our hearts requires that our pulpits are not silent on racial issues. Softening our hearts means that white Unitarian Universalists continue to talk about race next Sunday, next month, next year, and until we have finally overcome the racist legacy of the United States. It means that we have welcome words that trouble us. It means that we have to imagine our religious communities as sites for conversion.
Many of people come to Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking some kind of personal transformation. Breaking white silence means that we learn to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. To quote David Carl Olson, the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, it means understanding, “my liberation is bound up with yours.” Religious communities are uniquely positioned to teach us this lesson. What other institution in our society can prompt us to both examine our hearts--to ask us how we are seeing the world--and to challenge us to stand together to do something about the pain that we find there when we do?
I am practical person. And so, before I close I want to offer you a few simple suggestions that might prompt you on your way to conversion and becoming more comfortable with breaking white silence. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If not, consider starting.
For a conversion to happen, you have to expand your perspective. And that means getting to know people who have different perspectives than you do. The Washington Post reports that three quarters of European Americans have no African American friends. Zero. None. Now, I admit that making friends is difficult. Most people I know tend to fall into friendships, they meet people through work, in their neighborhood, or at their church. If you are white and you work at a predominately white workplace, live in a largely white neighborhood and go to a mostly white church then chances are most of your friends will be white.
My suggestion? Get out a more. Nurture an interest in cultures other than your own. Read books by African American authors. Start listening to hip hop, jazz, afro pop... Attend cultural events in African American neighborhoods. Visit a black church.
In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. You have to transform your previous silence into language and action. Ask yourself why you are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations and with certain people. Ask yourself how and why you benefit from our current social system. Ask yourself who the criminal justice system works for. Ask yourself why police officers so often get away with murder. And as you ask yourself questions think about how you can act. What can you do as a congregation? How can you support your minister to break white silence? How can you mobilize your resources to transform the racist, white supremacist, criminal justice system? Can you urge your lawmakers to spend money on schools rather than prisons? Can you imagine a world without prisons?
If we are to accomplish anything, if we are to truly end white silence, it will require action as a religious community. It will mean that congregants come to expect their ministers to speak about race not only when there has been a riot, or on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, or during black history month, but often. It will mean recognizing that the time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say not one more. Not one more unarmed black child shot and killed by a police office while playing on a playground. Not one more unarmed black man shot and killed while shopping in a grocery store. Not one more unarmed black man suffocated in the back of a police van.
May words like things ring across the land. May pulpits stand silent in the face of racial injustice no more. May we say not one more, not one more, not one more, until we truly transform silence into language and action.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Jan 18, 2015
preached January 18, 2015 at the Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA
There is a particular scenario that I have experienced several times since I left my pulpit in Cleveland, went back to graduate school and started on my career as an itinerant preacher. It runs something like this: I receive an invitation to lead worship for a wealthy, overwhelming white, suburban, Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one. The person issuing the invitation asks me to preach about social justice. I deliver a sermon about how religious liberals should respond to this country’s racist legacy. I use the word murder to describe the killings of black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
After the service, during coffee hour, a member of the congregation comes up to me and tells me that he was offended by my sermon. The member always fits the same profile. He is a straight white male over the age of seventy. He tells me that I was wrong to use the word murder to describe the violent deaths of black men and boys like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Amadou Diallo at the hands of the police.
His complaint appears in the form of a question, “Did you sit on the trial jury? Where you part of the grand jury? Do you work for the FBI?” This question is followed by a statement, “Because you are talking like you have some access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. It is the jury who decides if the police officers that killed Sean Bell are guilty of murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed John Crawford III violated his civil rights. Your rhetoric is dangerous, incendiary and unfair.”
Perhaps that is true. I don’t know what those juries know. What I do know is that in this country white police officers kill black men at the rate of two, three, or four a week. I know that the rate of police killings of African Americans now exceeds the rate of lynchings in the first decades of the twentieth century. I know that police officers are very rarely held accountable for any of these deaths.
In ethics we make a distinction between the general and the particular. The general, black men and boys are frequently the victims of unjustifiable police homicides. The particular, that police officer murdered that black man. I might be erroneous in stating that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I am not erroneous in claiming that police officers frequently get away with murder.
Consider the data. The web site FiveThirtyEight reports that grand juries almost always return indictments. That is, they almost always return indictments except in the case of police shootings. In 2010 U.S. attorneys convened 162,000 grand juries. Only 11 failed to indict. Yet, in Dallas, Texas, from 2008 to 2012, grand juries investigated 81 police shootings. They returned only one indictment. In Huston, Texas, a police officer hasn’t been in indicted since 2004. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reports that from 2004 to 2011 police officers shot and killed more than 2,700 people but only 41 of them were charged with murder or manslaughter.
The few police officers that do stand trial are convicted at a far lower rate than members of the general public. Their accounts of events are more likely to be believed by juries than the accounts of ordinary citizens. By the time we get to the bottom of the statistics only about half of a percent of police officers that kill someone while on duty are ever held legally accountable. Put differently, a cop who kills someone while on duty has only a 1 out of 200 chance of being convicted for any crime. That suggests that systematically they get away with murder.
Perhaps you do not find such evidence convincing. Perhaps you agree with my coffee hour interlocutor and find my language, my use of the word murder, to be troubling. Perhaps you think that I am being unfair and unsympathetic to the police. They are, after all, public servants. Their job is to keep people and property safe. Well, if you think that then my reply is that it is the job of the preacher to be provocative. If you find yourself provoked I hope that you will ask yourself why. I suggest that it might have something to do with privilege, the color of your skin, your zip code and the contents of your wallet. There is a reason why my coffee hour interrogator is a white male. There are also reasons I have coffee conversations of this type when I preach in places like Carlisle, Lexington, and Milton. Just as there are reasons why no one troubles me about my choice of words when I preach in Copley Square or Dorchester.
I want to trouble you this morning. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin King identified white moderates as one of the greatest obstacles to racial justice. He wrote, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate... the white moderate... is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Elsewhere, he went even further, saying, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”
I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to consider that even if I might be wrong with the particular I am right with the general. Our justice system sanctions the frequent legal unjustifiable murder of black men and boys. And that has to change.
I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to recognize that our society has developed what Michelle Alexander has labeled the New Jim Crow. This country is the heir to a legacy of racism that stretches back more than four hundred years. That legacy will not disappear if we close our eyes to it. Martin King told us that there are some things in our social system to which we ought to be maladjusted. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that police kill black men at more than three times the rate they kill whites. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of European Americans, that the average white family was twenty times the wealth of the average black family, and that African Americans live, on average, four years less than European Americas. The election of the country’s first black President has not ushered in a post-racial era. We ought to be maladjusted.
I want to trouble you this morning to ask the question that people asked Martin King fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. They asked him, “How long will it take?” You might remember his reply, “it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I want to trouble you and suggest that we know better than to give King’s answer. Change might be coming but we are a long ways from the tipping point. King might have seen the mountaintop, he might have seen the promised land, but for us they are still in the distance.
Let us not despair. There are reasons to be inspired. We can take inspiration from today’s new civil rights movement. And we take can inspiration from movements of the past. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Selma, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. This year we also celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War and, with it, slavery. Abolitionists, antislavery activists, civil rights organizers, and members of today’s new civil rights movement share an important commonality. They all linked, or link, personal transformation with social transformation. Recast in religious language, they understood and understand that social salvation begins with personal conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.”
To end racism, white moderates will need to undergo a fundamental change of heart and will. Such a change is often prompted by an unusual event or encounter. We had just such an event here in the Boston suburbs this past week when protesters shut down I-93. I imagine some of you were inconvenienced by the four and a half hour blockage of the highway. Maybe you feel, like Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Deval Patrick, that the new civil rights movement is disruptive. Or you resent the four and a half hours of traffic snarls that the action brought on. Four and a half hours because that was the length of time police in Ferguson, Missouri left Michael Brown’s body on the street after Darren Wilson shot him. You might do well to consider these words from the protestors, “Boston is a city that stops, on average, 152 Black and brown people a day on their ways to work, to their homes, to school and to their families. Is that not ‘disruptive’? Boston is the third most policed city per capita in the country. Is it not disruptive for Black and brown residents to live under this extensive surveillance, under police intimidation and brutality?”
Conversion brings about a change in perspective, a shift in a point of view. If you are white and relatively privileged try seeing the society from a black or brown point of view. Imagine that you are Michael Brown, unarmed and shot with your hands up in the air. Imagine that you are Eric Garner, choked to death by a police officer after saying “I can’t breath” eleven times. Imagine that you have to give your son the Talk, the words of warning many black parents offer their children. “If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he's harassing you, even if you didn't do anything wrong. Let him arrest you, memorize his badge number, and call me as soon as you get to the precinct. Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back. Do you understand me?” Imagine these things and you might undergo a conversion.
One of my advisors at Harvard, John Stauffer, wrote a book a few years back called “The Black Hearts of Men.” In it he chronicles of the story of four friends, two black men and two white, who struggled together to end slavery. You might recognize some of their names: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and James McCune Smith. During his research John discovered that these abolitionists, following McCune Smith, understood that there was key to ending slavery and racism. They believed, John writes, “whites had to learn how to view the world as if they were black, shed their ‘whiteness’ as a sign of superiority, and renounce their belief in skin color as a marker of aptitude and social status. They had to acquire, in effect, a black heart.”
It was Douglass’s confidence in his white friends ability to achieve such black hearts that enabled him to nurture hope in the decades of struggle that led to emancipation. He might admit, “that the omens are all against us,” as he did in the wake of 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which effectively stripped all African Americans, free or enslaved, of their rights. But he could proclaim, as he did in the same speech, “Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall.”
Conversion has long been a central concern of religious communities. Unitarian Universalists like us are often made squeamish by the term. We dislike the way religious fundamentalists use it to direct attention away from this worldly concerns and onto other worldly concerns. Let me suggest that, nonetheless, conversion should be a principal interest of ours. Our congregations should be sites of conversion, sites for a change of heart. In our religious communities we should challenge each other to develop the empathy necessary to see the world from a different point of view. If you are white, try seeing the world as if you were black.
Conversion is one of the principal reasons why some religious communities have been at the forefront for social change. Martin King understood this. He understood that we have to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. Religious communities are uniquely positioned to do so. What other institution in our society can prompt us to both examine our hearts--to ask us how we are seeing the world--and to challenge us to stand together to do something about the pain that we find there when we do?
I am practical person. And so, before I close I want to offer you a few simple suggestions that might prompt you on your way to conversion and help you mobilize your congregation. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If you don’t then consider making a late New Years resolution and trying one of them.
For a conversion to happen, you have to expand your perspective. And that means getting to know people who have different perspectives than you do. The Washington Post reports that three quarters of European Americans have no African American friends. Zero. None. Now, I admit that making friends is difficult. Most people I know tend to fall into friendships, they meet people through work, in their neighborhood, or at their church. If you are white and you work at a predominately white workplace, live in a largely white neighborhood and go to a mostly white church then chances are most of your friends will be white.
My suggestion? Get out a more. Nurture an interest in cultures other than your own. Read books by African American authors. Start listening to hip hop, jazz, afro pop... Attend cultural events in African American neighborhoods. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It is never too late to start. There’s a wonderful interracial Afrohouse dance night I attend in Boston called Uhuru Africa. There are regularly people in their seventies on the dance floor. If you haven’t done so already, mobilize your church. Develop a partnership relation with an African American congregation. Do things regularly with them. Join an urban interfaith coalition. Participate. If you put yourself out there you will eventually expand your network. It might not be easy, it might not be comfortable, but it will happen.
In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. Ask yourself why you are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations and with certain people. Ask yourself how and why you benefit from our current social system. Ask yourself who the criminal justice system works for. Ask yourself why police officers so often get away with murder. And as you ask yourself questions think about how you can act. Can you participate in the new civil rights movement? There’s a march tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. in downtown Boston starting at the State St. Station. What can you do as a congregation? How can you mobilize your resources to transform the racist, white supremacist, criminal justice system? Can you urge your lawmakers to spend money on schools rather than prisons?
I know that there is more wisdom in this room than I have. I know you can figure what you need to do. The time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say no one more. Not one more unarmed black child shot and killed by a police office while playing on a playground. Not one more unarmed black man shot and killed while shopping in a grocery store. As you consider my words, I offer you these by Martin King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
May we hear these words and upon hearing them act.
Amen and Blessed Be.