Nov 19, 2019
as preached on November 9, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, TX
The dedication of a new building for a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a momentous occasion. Every community is made better by having a place for Unitarian Universalism within it. Unitarian Universalists have long dedicated themselves to serving the wider community. Large and small our congregations have improved every city and town, village and suburb, in which they have been located.
In many cases our congregations have been the only places where people could freely gather to share their authentic selves and pursue their authentic truths. We have frequently offered the only religious oasis for the GLBTQ community. We have long been a place for political dissidents and critical thinkers who otherwise could not find a comfortable home. We are a non-creedal religious tradition. We welcome into our ranks atheists, humanists, and pagans alongside liberal, non-Trinitarian, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Historically, we have played a vital role in the struggle for justice.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries our forbearers opened their congregations to abolitionists and suffragists. During the Civil War, the first all black regiment from the North was funded by a Unitarian congregation in Massachussets. Some of the earliest women’s rights conventions were led by our co-religionists. In more recent decades, Unitarian Universalist congregations have played crucial roles in launching the public radio movement, sustaining the anti-war movement, confronting the AIDS crisis, fighting for civil rights, queer liberation, and women’s rights, and working for the environmental justice movement. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were started in our churches.
Our orientation to community improvement and building the just society comes from our theology. We are a this-worldly religion. We find this sentiment expressed by this campus’s namesake, Henry David Thoreau. The story is told that when he was on his deathbed a friend leaned near and speculated, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” “One world at a time,” was Thoreau’s reply.
One world at a time; we Unitarian Universalists do not orient ourselves to some distant heaven. Instead, under the starry firmament of this cosmos and with our bodies placed upon the good soil of this planet we commit to journey through life together. Together we seek the truth, love each other and the human family as best can, and work for the just society.
This campus is named for Henry David Thoreau, a man who attempted to embody these principles. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian in Concord, Massachussets. Much debate has taken place over his connection to Unitarianism as an adult. The pertinent facts are these: he spent his entire adult life in the company of Unitarian ministers such as Theodore Parker, former ministers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian feminists, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody; his funeral service took place in the Unitarian First Parish Church in Concord, and was presided over by a Unitarian minister; and he resigned his membership from First Parish Concord as a protest against a minister’s unwillingness to speak out against slavery. He was, in other words, an archetypal Unitarian--an individual guided by his conscience and living in tension with a society that failed to meet his ethical standards.
Looking to Thoreau’s life we find four lodestones that we would be well advised to take as our own. These are naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion. Naturalism: Thoreau understood that we humans are part and parcel of the natural world. He counseled that the moral law was to be found by looking to the woods and the rivers. This is wise guidance for our contemporary age when we find ourselves ever more tied to the world of technology. His sense that human wisdom was found in the rushing waters and in the knotty forests led him to observe, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The further we get from our connection to the natural world the further we drift from our own humanness. And so, it is good that this new campus we dedicate today is upon five acres of grass and brush--a space to play, a space to see the lights of the heavens, and a space to consider our connection to the great all of being.
Transcendentalism: Thoreau was part of the generation of Unitarian thinkers who came to be known as the Transcendentalists. They believed that religious truth is discovered through intuition. It was not inscribed forever in scripture. It was found by looking within and probing the mind’s infinite fathoms. They understood that the divine resides within each of us. “The highest revelation is that God is in every man,” Thoreau’s great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson taught in the gendered language of his day.
It is difficult to appreciate how radical Transcendentalism was in the nineteenth century United States. It was a religious philosophy that recognized that religious truth was not only found in the Christian New Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It did not point to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was first major religious philosophy to arise in Europe or the United States that taught that the world’s religions all contained wisdom. It opened the way for people of European descent to turn to yoga, meditation, or the poetry of the Sufi teacher Rumi. It is why we Unitarian Universalists use the verses from many traditions in our worship services, such as these from the fifteenth-century Hindu mystic Mirabai: “What is this world? A patch of gooseberry bushes. It catches on the way to the one we love.”
There are echoes of Thoreau’s naturalism and transcendentalism in Mirabai’s words. This is not a coincidence. The Transcendentalists were the first major philosophers of European descent to look to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They found beauty within these traditions and, through them, were inspired to connect more deeply with the divine. When we think of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists we should remember that the moral law lies within but can be found in the wilds of the world, the wisdom of the great religious teachers, and among all those who attempt to live lives of conscience.
Community: Thoreau is often portrayed as the great American individualist. He went to Walden woods to experiment with self-reliance and find freedom. He built a cabin and tried to live by his own efforts. He believed in the sovereignty of the individual conscience. He felt that the slave holding war making society that he lived in was corrupting and wanted to see if he could live apart from it.
And yet, Thoreau’s individualism is only half of his story. He was always seeking truth through community. He and his friends constantly debated and sought to discover their higher callings together. Even in his retreat in Walden, in the cabin he built himself, he ensured that there was room for others. In his famous text he wrote, “We belong to the community.” Throughout his time at Walden he frequently visited his friend Emerson’s house for discussion and dinner.
Thinking about Thoreau we should remember that the success of the individual is rarely possible without the community. Yes, there is a tension between the community and the individual. But it was Thoreau’s relationship with his Unitarian community, that ultimately allowed him to blossom as an individual. Without the support of Emerson or others in his circle it is likely that he never would have succeeded as a writer or philosopher.
Prophetic Religion: Naming a campus after Henry David Thoreau must be read as an act of bravery. Thoreau is one of the most politically radical figures in European American history. It is possible to claim that he is the most important political philosopher that the country has yet produced. His essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more commonly called, “Civil Disobedience,” is one of the foundational texts of the theory of non-violent resistance to government. Thoreau’s belief that the moral law lies within led him to believe that when there was a conflict between moral law and human law the only faithful, ethical, course of action was to choose the moral law. He wrote his famous essay after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay war taxes in support of the Mexican-American War, a war that, incidentally, ultimately brought the state of Texas into the Union and was fought primarily to expand slavery.
The influence of Thoreau’s essay can be traced through the great Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy to Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the mass movements of civil disobedience against injustice, tyranny, and ecocide today. Echoes of Thoreau’s call to the moral of conscience are found in Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, school striking for climate action, and on the streets in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere as people demand a better world.
Thoreau’s prophetic impulses made many of contemporaries uncomfortable. This is all the more true because in the years following his composition of “Civil Disobedience” he came to believe that slavery in South, including here in the state of Texas, could only be overcome with armed resistance. He was a vocal defender of John Brown. He called the man who led the armed raid on Harpers Ferry, the catalyst to the Civil War, “an angel of light” and compared the executed abolitionist to Jesus, saying, “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.”
Thoreau’s endorsement of Brown most likely makes many of us uncomfortable. I have certainly found it challenging to wrestle with. Just as I have found Thoreau’s statement, “The only government that I recognize,--and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small the army,--is that power that establishes justice in the land,” an inspiration in my own attempts to live by my conscience.
What Thoreau’s prophetic postions remind us is that the quest to live accordance with one’s conscience is never an easy one. The path less trod contains many a rock upon which we might stumble. It will often place us as an outlier to the wider society. And we may never know the impact our work for justice will have. Thoreau could not possibly have imagined the influence his essay on “Civil Disobedience” would enjoy across the globe.
Naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion, this campus has been named for Henry David Thoreau. The pillars of his life imply a charge for the gathered congregation as we dedicate this building. We are in era of profound crises: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. Let the namesake of this campus remind its members, all members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and people of good heart everywhere:
that we are part and parcel of the natural world;
that what happens to the green grasses, the rushing rivers, and the singing woods, will, ultimately, happen to our human species;
that there is a moral law within that we must follow in times of crisis if we are to lead lives of authenticity and spiritual honesty;
that there is but one human family and that there is wisdom spread across the planet;
that when we are confronted with injustice we are called to act;
that none of us, ever, is truly alone
and that every individual is stronger for being part of a community.
Oh spirit of love and justice,
that some of us call God,
and others know by many names,
we pray to you that
the Thoreau campus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
will make the community of Fort Bend County
better by its presence,
it will provide a space for children to learn to make justice
and love the truth,
for adults to share and find their authentic selves,
and for all who cross its threshold
or hear its name
to know that here in Richmond, Texas,
there is a religious community
that embodies love beyond belief,
nurtures the good heart,
binds up the broken,
and engages in the difficult,
work of building a better world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 19, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
We have just rung our church bell twenty-one times. Mallet has struck metal for each of the “twenty and odd” Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia in late August 1619. Their arrival was a pivotal moment in this country’s history. African Americans have provided this country with its some of its foremost artists, religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. African American culture has given the United States, and the world, powerful and popular musical traditions that shaped global culture: the blues, jazz, hip-hop, house and techno, rock ‘n roll, and soul. And African Americans have again and again pushed this country to be a land of freedom and equality rather than a land of slavery and injustice.
The Africans who arrived in Virginia were kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship originally destined for the Caribbean. At least a few of the names given to them by their kidnappers were recorded. There was a woman called Angelo and a couple called Antonio and Isabella. They were the parents of William, the first African American born in the English colonies. He was born free. Slavery did not become hereditary until later.
Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, and the others who arrived with them were natives of West Central Africa. They arrived on an English ship called the White Lion. The ship’s crew is believed to have traded them for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America. And their arrival marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the colony of Virginia.
1619. It is a year that is just as foundational to the United States of America as 1776. The two years represent the contradiction that lies at the heart of the country. From its very inception, the United States of America has proclaimed itself “the land of the free.” From its very inception, the United States of America been built upon unfreedom. It is like the late Toni Morrison observed, “the presence of the unfree [lies] within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Unfreedom has, from its point of origin, warped the very idea of freedom. To build one person’s freedom on another person’s slavery is to turn freedom itself into a lie.
I have a friend who has a joke about this. He says, “Whenever white folks start talking about freedom, I start to look around to see what, or who, they are trying to steal.” Often freedom for people who believe themselves to be white has come at the expense of everyone else. And just as often, African Americans have proclaimed that freedom is either for everyone or no one. It is like Martin King observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This contradiction between freedom and unfreedom has led slavery to be called America’s original sin. Unitarian Universalists, as I said last week, could use a more robust understanding of sin. And theological language is illuminating when we attempt to understand the legacy of slavery.
Sin can be understood as estrangement. Estrangement is a form of separation in which there are, at a minimum, unfriendly feelings between the estranged parties. It is the mission of religion to help us overcome sin. Sin, I am suggesting, is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality. It is something to be found in our human relations (and in our relations with the planet). When I speak of slavery as a sin, I am speaking of a pattern of estrangement that was actualized in the material conditions of people’s lives. The institution of slavery was a set of behaviors, and set of beliefs, that enabled people who believed themselves to be white to imagine other human beings as primarily tools and instruments for producing wealth. When an enslaver looked at someone they had enslaved they did not see the pain in the eyes of another human being. They did not see another being whose purpose in life was to love and laugh, imagine and create. They imagined they saw someone who existed to serve them, who existed to be exploited to build wealth. In their crass imagining the enslavers estranged themselves from their own humanity. In their fierce resistance those who had been enslaved proclaimed theirs.
Sin is overcome by practicing and preaching love. For if sin is estrangement then salvation might be understood as a coming back together, a reunification. And the impulse that brings us back together, and that binds us back together, is love. I am not speaking of romantic love. Instead, I refer to what in the Christian lexicon is called agape--goodwill towards all; the desire that all humans can be free. Salvation, the overcoming of estrangement, then should be understood as basing our lives, and our society, upon a love that honors all human beings.
Sin and salvation, freedom and unfreedom, all of these have a distinctly earthly flavor. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches us not to look for salvation in the next world but to see it in this one. It teaches that sin is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality, but something found in human relations. This is why the Universalist lay leader Fannie Barrier Williams said, “I dare not to cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice...” It is why the Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown prayed, “May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore to love.”
Freedom and unfreedom... 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia. They arrived after enduring the brutal Middle Passage. They had been forced into a ship in Angola and cramped below deck. We have no words from them describing their experiences, but we do have the words others who survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was one of them. Kidnapped as a young boy in what is now Nigeria, he published “The Interesting of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” the same year the United States Constitution became the law of the land. He described the Middle Passage as “filled with horrors of every kind.” He recollected his time confined below deck this way: “with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”
At least two million people--daughters, sons, children, mothers, fathers, parents, lovers, friends, artists, prophets, singers, geniuses, dancers, poets, human beings--died in the Middle Passage. Some succumb to illness. Some were beaten to death when they resisted. Some jumped from the ships rather than endure unfreedom. Let us honor them with a silent prayer.
And a poem: “August 1619” by Clint Smith.
Over the course of 350 years,
36,000 slave ships crossed the Atlantic
Ocean. I walk over to the globe & move
my finger back & forth between
the fragile continents. I try to keep
count how many times I drag
my hand across the bristled
hemispheres, but grow weary of chasing
a history that swallowed me.
For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.
I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.
I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.
The soft hum of history spins
on its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost ships
wash their hands of all they carried.
The soft hum of history spins / on its tilted axis. 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia not as slaves but as indentured servants. Europeans who lived in the colony were in a similar legal state. Indentured servitude was a system whereby an individual was bound to work for an employer for a particular period of time. At the end of the contract the individual was free to sell their labor to whomever they liked. If they could find land to work, they were also free to live as a farmer. Many poor Europeans made their way, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the English colonies as indentured servants.
Why is this technical distinction between indentured servitude and slavery necessary? Because slavery was created explicitly to divide Africans and poor Europeans. United in mutual love they were a threat to the wealthy elites of the colonies. Estranged through slavery, Africans and poor Europeans could both be exploited to produce wealth for the rich men who owned plantations and factories.
This condition of estrangement was intentionally created to shore up the power of the wealthy. It was created through the legal system. The Africans who arrived in Jamestown, if they lived long enough, died free. Their children were born free. They sometimes united with the children of European indentured servants for greater freedom for the poor. This mutual love was unconscionable to the men who owned most of the land in the colonies, men who understood freedom as the freedom to earn money and not the freedom to be. They passed laws that, in essence, created race and created slavery as a racial condition. First, they passed laws that declaimed that only African people could be slaves. And then they passed laws that said that an individual’s legal status followed that of their mother. If the mother was an African slave then the child, no matter the color of its skin, would be a slave.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Africans resisted and imagined true liberation from the beginning. They ran away almost as soon as they arrived in the Americas. In the dismal swamps, the mountains, in the deep recesses of the forests, they formed maroon societies. Sometimes joined by poor Europeans who had fled indentured servitude, sometimes joining with Native Americans, free Africans created communities where true freedom was the norm. Interracial solidarity--the salvation of mutual love--overcame the sin of slavery. These communities, as the political philosopher Cedric Robinson has described them, were “communitarian rather individualistic, democratic... Afro-Christian rather than... materialist.” Over the centuries they provided safe harbor for people escaping slavery. Over the centuries they offered a space where people could dream freedom dreams outside of or on the edge of a society where freedom only existed for some people. Many of these free maroon societies lasted until at least the Civil War when they provided bases of operation for African American guerrillas and Union loyalists in the struggle end chattel slavery that the Civil War became.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Here is an uncomfortable truth about the United States: enslaved people laid the foundation stones of the White House. Enslaved people placed the Statue of Freedom atop the Capital dome. The American Revolution was at least partially about the freedom of men who believed themselves to be white to enslave others. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed in England itself. Men like Thomas Jefferson feared that Britain would eventually abolish slavery in the English colonies. This dynamic prompted the English writer and politician Samuel Johnson to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of” slaves?
Throughout the history of this country it has most often been African Americans who held out a different vision of freedom. It is not a vision of freedom based in the ability to enslave others—a vision of freedom rooted in estrangement. It is a vision of freedom based in a belief, in the words of the abolitionist Martin Delaney, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” It is a vision of freedom organized around the idea of universal equality.
The great W. E. B. Du Bois called it abolition democracy. He coined the phrase abolition democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and transgender people.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
Abolition democracy is the greatest of the American political traditions. It is only one that actually offers the possibility of freedom for all people. It proponents form a pantheon saints. In that pantheon are people of African descendant like Phyllis Wheatley who said, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” And Harriet Tubman who wrote, of the struggle for freedom, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.” And Frederick Douglass who gave a speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” And Martin King, and Ella Baker, and Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others. It is a pantheon that includes not only people of African descent but all of those who have held out a vision of love that can conquer hate, a vision in which the estrangement of sin can be overcome by the salvation of equality.
Writing about the contradiction between unfreedom and freedom that lies at the heart of the United States, W. E. B. Du Bois argued more than a hundred years ago, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Writing as an advocate of abolition democracy, though she does not use that term, the African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones posed her answer to Du Bois’s problem in the form of a question, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
It is a hope that I cling to in these troubled days. It is why I look to people of color and women for leadership in the face of a blatantly white supremacist President who aspires to authoritarianism. It is the saints of abolitionist democracy who have most boldly articulated a different view--a view that proclaims the salvation of love for all. In this desperate hour, when democratic societies are under threat, when racial injustice is increasing, when inequality is growing, when we face the existential threat of climate change, let us turn to their vision of freedom. Let us a proclaim and live an understanding of freedom not born from estrangement and separation but love and unity. For now is the crucial time, not just for you and for me but for all who come after. We live in a moment like the one James Baldwin wrote of at the end of his magnificent meditation on the civil rights movement and race in America, “The Fire Next Time”:
“If we… do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Let us inscribe the words of Baldwin, and all the other abolition democrats, known and unknown, on our hearts. 1619. On this four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, who we know only by the name given to them by their kidnappers, and the other “twenty and odd” Africans who came with them, let us commit ourselves to a vision of freedom for all. It is not a vision of freedom to exploit. It is a vision in which you and you and you and I and all of us can truly be who we ought to be. It is a vision we find articulated in the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which I now invite you to join me in singing.
Jul 5, 2019
I want to begin our sermon this morning in what might seem to you as an odd place. I want to begin with an apology. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Unfortunately, I did not have this important anniversary on my calendar when we sat down to plan the June worship services. What was on my heart was figuring when to conclude our occasional series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We have done seven services on the principles as they currently exist. I wanted to make sure we had service as part of the series on the proposed eighth principle before too much time had passed. The wording for it reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
We will engage at greater depth with the principle in a moment. But first, I want to return to my apology. We should have devoted the entirety of our service to marking the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. And we did not. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, if you love someone who is part of that community, if needed your church home to honor the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall and if you feel that I have given that momentous event short shrift, I am deeply sorry. You are a vital part of this community. I see you. I love you. You are loved by this church. And we will do better in the future.
In the spirit of loving heart of our tradition, I offer you this poem by the Rev. Theresa Soto. They are a minister and transgender activist. They are also a leading voice in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Their poem:
--dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer
and gender-expansive friends and kin
(and those of us whose gender is survival):
let me explain. no,
there is too much. let me sum up*.
you are not hard to love and respect;
your existence is a blessing.
your pronouns are not a burden or a trial;
they are part of your name, just shorter.
someone getting them wrong is not a
poor reflection on you. it is not your fault.
your body (really and truly)
belongs to you. no one else.
the stories of your body
the names of your body’s parts
your body’s privacy
the sum of your body’s glory.
it is not okay for anyone
to press their story of you
back to the beginning
of your (of our) liberation.
we will find the people ready to be
on the freedom for the people way.
we will go on. no one can rename you
Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift
of being and saying who you are.
mostly, though, your stories belong to you.
your joy and complexity are beautiful
however you may choose to tell it (or not
tell it). some folks (cis) may take their liberty
for an unholy license. you are beloved. please
keep to our shared tasks of
Let me repeat those last three lines:
keep to our shared tasks of
Whatever the topic of the service, whatever the message of the sermon, that is what it is really all about. It is why we gather. It is why come together and create community. It is why there is currently a discussion within the Unitarian Universalist Association about adding the eighth principle. So that we might:
keep to our shared tasks of
Again, the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
There is a certain sense in which my thoughtless around the anniversary of Stonewall emphasizes the importance of the eighth principle. The eighth principle calls us to be accountable to each other and to work on dismantling systems of oppression not only out in the world but within ourselves and within our institutions.
And central to that work is recognizing that individually and institutionally we occupy certain spaces within society and have particular identities. You see, I was able to forget about the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall because of who I am. I am a heteronormative cis-gender white male. And even though I have plenty of friends who are part of the LGBTQ community, even though I have read texts on the history of sexuality, queer theology, and gender theory by people like Gloria Anzaldua, Leslie Feinberg, Michel Foucault, Pamela Lightsey, and Audre Lorde, even though some of my favorite musicians include gay icons such as the Petshop Boys, Frankie Knuckles, and Sylvester, even though I know how to strike a pose and vogue, my our consciousness is rooted my specific social location. And that social location makes it possible for me to forget to put something as important as the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall on our liturgical calendar.
Recognizing that we each inhabit particular social location is central to the work of liberation. It is one reason why scholars like Pamela Lightsey begin their texts with statements such as: “I am a black queer lesbian womanist scholar and Christian minister.” Lightsey teaches at the Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard Theology School. She is the only out lesbian African American minister within the United Methodist Church. Her work focuses on pushing Methodists and Unitarian Universalists to recognize that the majority of our religious institutions were not created by or for queer people of color. She argues that “institutional racism continues to be the primary instrument used to enforce personal racism.” And that if we want to be serious challenging racism in the United States we need to work on it within our own institutions. Her act of stating her own social location is meant to provoke people like me to make my own social location explicit.
Too often people like me often from a space of white normativity. We assume that our own experiences are typical, even universal. And we are oblivious to the ways in which the institutions we inhabit have been constructed to serve people like us. One good test to figure out how much you might operate from a place of white normativity is the “Race Game.” Have you ever played it? Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The preacher was an articulate white man.”
I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is a belief. And it is taught to children.
Thandeka recounts the stories of how many people of who believe themselves to be white learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:
See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see
We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee
She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin
Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say
Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...
It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.
I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.
I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.
The effort behind the proposed eighth principle is to prompt Unitarian Universalist congregations to challenge their own unspoken racial codes. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles are implicitly anti-racist. Moving from being implicitly anti-racist to explicitly anti-racist might help us to reveal the ways in which our institutions were primarily built for people who believe themselves to be white. And most of them certainly were. All Souls, DC, the congregation behind the eighth principle proposal, has been a multiracial community for more than a hundred years. More than a hundred years ago, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass used to worship there. Yet All Souls includes among its founding members John Calhoun, one of the principal defenders of slavery.
As you might remember, in addition to being a minister I am also an academic. Over the last several years much of my research has been into the history of white supremacy. It has convinced me of the necessity of adopting the eighth principle. While working on my dissertation, I read thousands of pages of texts from the Ku Klux Klan. I studied the history of the Confederacy and the ideology of chattel slavery. And I learned that until the middle of the twentieth-century white supremacists thought of themselves as liberal. They promoted the values of free speech and freedom of religion. They just thought that these freedoms were only for people who believed themselves to be white. Their position was sometimes implicit--they did not state such freedoms did not extend to everyone. They just refused to extend them to all of humanity.
Each year prior to the Fourth of July I read Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is a reminder that so often the liberal principles of freedom have not extended to all people. Their proponents have assumed white normativity. So, let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for those who believed themselves to be white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.
For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”
The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you believe yourself to white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.
The eighth principle is a vital effort to address the social construct, the collective sin, of racism. Racism requires institutions to maintain. The eighth principle challenges to place our institutional commitment to dismantling racism at the center of our faith tradition--not on its periphery. It challenges us to make Unitarian Universalism explicitly anti-racist, not implicitly so.
Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” The proposed eighth principle calls on Unitarian Universalists to break our institutional silence.
And breaking this silence requires people like me recognize that our perspective is not universal. It is just as vital for me to sometimes say, I speak as a cis-gendered heteronormative male who society has labelled white as it is for someone like Pamela Lightsey to specify her position. Such specificity means that in a country which devalues the lives of LGBTQ people and people of color we make it clear that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. This means breaking assumptions that the experiences of people like me that our experiences our universal, that this country honors everyone’s inherent worth and dignity because it has historically honored the worth and dignity of men who believe themselves to be white.
This is difficult work. It means making mistakes. It means apologizing. It means learning from those mistakes and then trying to do better. And it means committing to stay together in community because we believe that our community can be redemptive. It can be a place to overcome the sin of separation. For we understand that in the face of all of the difficulties and challenges, all the fear and assumptions, there is a higher truth: love is the most powerful force there is. Love can bind us together. Love is stronger than hate. Love can change the world.
In the knowledge that it is so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Apr 21, 2016
This morning I tweeted “Now that #HarrietTubman is going to be on the #twentydollarbill can we have #reparations for #slavery? #blacklivesmatter.” Someone I knew in high school responded on my Facebook page, “I know this is your big issue, do you have your economic plan/analysis for viewing somewhere?”* My first impulse was to reply to this comment by directing the commentator to John Conyers H. R. 40, “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” which he has introduced to every Congress since 1989. When I talk about reparations I usually say that I do not know exactly what form reparations will take. I point out that there is a precedent in the reparations that Japanese-Americans were given for their forced internment in camps during World War II. I then say that the first step towards reparations is the passage of Conyers bill. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.
As I thought about the question I realized I wanted to offer a more detailed response. The United States is a country built upon a system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism that raw resources of the earth are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the foundation of mostly white wealth. Chattel slavery was the foundation of racialized capitalism. Since abolition racialized capitalism has continued in alternative forms. I summarized its lasting impacts in a recent lecture: “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.”
Beyond “the peculiar institution” itself, the roots of these disparities include the failure of the United States government, after the Civil War, to offer any meaningful economic compensation to those who had suffered under slavery. This is why reparations remains an important issue today, 151 years after abolition.
I see reparations as taking place at three levels: the personal, the institutional, and the societal. Whites have benefited and continue to benefit from racialized capitalism at all of these levels. My Facebook friend’s response really only took into account the third of these, the societal. Briefly, here are a few my thoughts on all of them.
White people, no matter, their economic situation, benefit in myriad ways from racialized capitalism. On the personal level reparations require a recognition that race itself is a social construct designed to benefit some people at the expense of others. This recognition should lead to an admission of all the ways in which someone has benefited from being white. In my own case it has meant access to good schools and intergenerational wealth. It has also meant that I have never been targeted by the police.
In religious terms, all of this might be thought of as an act of confession. Ideally, it would also include a recognition of the many ways in which white people are in and of ourselves harmed by racialized capitalism. Du Bois rightly suggested that the existence of white racial solidarity was one of the major reasons why the United States has such an abysmal history of labor solidarity. I believe that undermining whiteness is an important step towards the general project of human liberation. I believe that this project will be partially achieved by the organization of strong democratic labor unions. Such labor unions are impossible to build when labor solidarity cannot trump racial solidarity.
One of the way in which social power is transfered between generations is through institutions. The myriad of benefits that come with, what one of my friends used to call, “the complexion connection” are often transfered through the participation in institutions.
On an institutional level, reparations might take the form of increasing access to people who come from marginalized communities to institutions that perpetuate privilege. Today, there are important conversations going on about how educational institutions like Harvard and Georgetown benefited from slavery. At Georgetown there is a project to track down descendants of 272 slaves that were sold to cover the schools debts. The school is considering a scholarship program for the slaves descendants. Reclaim Harvard Law is demanding the abolition of tuition.
A more radical and transformative approach might be to look at the barriers to entry to such institutions. Those barriers perpetuate various kinds of hierarchy, including, but not exclusively, racial hierarchy. Their abolition would go a long way to undermining those hierarchies.
Again, the first step here is passage of H. R. 40. The second step will almost certainly include some kind of redistribution of wealth. Personally, I suggest this redistribution take place in the form a mixture of institutional and individual ways. The infrastructures in communities that are compromised primarily of people of color have been systematically dismantled and divested in for generations (think Flint or Detroit). Reparations should include a rebuilding of these infrastructures. It might also include one time payments, as was in the case of Japanese-Americans. There are lots of ways such a redistribution of wealth might be effected. U. S. companies are currently hoarding over $1.4 trillion. The United States government could certainly tax a considerable portion of that hoard.
*I am not sure that I would characterize reparations as my “big issue.” It is certainly one of the racial justice issues that I feel strongly about and have been speaking and writing about for a long time. We live in a system of racialized capitalism that has unleashed an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. My big issue is engaging in the project of collective liberation that will ultimately result in the transformation of racialized capitalism into a social and economic system that benefits the majority of the world’s peoples and is ecologically sustainable.
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?