Category: civil rights history

Three amazing stories reveal the rich contradictions of Mississippi

Chockwe Lumumba
Will Campbell
Paul Alexander

By Alan Bean

Three Mississippi stories grabbed my attention this week.  Will Campbell, the white civil rights activist and renegade Baptist preacher from Mississippi, died this week after a long and painful decline.  Chockwe Lumumba, the erstwhile Black nationalist attorney, was elected as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.  Finally, Paul Alexander, the former TIME reporter who has written for The New York Times, the Nation, Salon, the Daily Beast, Paris Match and the Guardian, will soon be releasing Mistried an eBook on the bizarre railroading of Curtis Flowers in Winona, Mississippi.

Taken together, these stories capture the rich contradictions of the Magnolia State.  Campbell and Lumumba represent opposite poles of the civil rights movement.  Lumumba ran for mayor of Jackson as a centrist candidate who cares about economic development and job creation as much as civil rights; but there was a time when the lawyer-politician was so disillusioned with White America that he advocated the creation of a separate, predominantly Black, nation in the Southeastern United States.

Campbell, by contrast, insisted that God’s grace was offered to the Klansman as well as the oppressed.  “Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well,” he famously said.  Acting on this belief, Campbell regularly engaged with violent white segregationists over a glass of whiskey. (more…)

Justice Scalia and the politics of racial resentment

scalia-465.pngBy Alan Bean

According to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court needs to rescue Washington politicians from the scourge of political correctness.  Sure, the Senate voted 98-0 to keep key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in place, Scalia seemed to be saying, but they only voted that way because the right to vote has become a “black entitlement” and Senators didn’t see an upside to opposing civil rights.

One assumes the same arguments could have been employed against the Voting Rights Act when it was initially passed a half-century ago.  After Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered in 1964 for trying to register black voters in Mississippi, and after civil rights leaders were gassed, beaten and trampled by horses on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma,, Alabama in 1965 public opinion was inflamed and a band of craven politicians yielded to the dictates of political correctness by unconstitutionally placing sovereign states under a federal yoke.  Is that what Justice Scalia believes?  And what of Justices Roberts, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito?  Do they buy this line of reasoning? (more…)

Haunted by America

By Alan Bean

It’s 3:41 am, but sleep eludes me.  I am haunted by America.

A few hours ago I walked from the Supreme Court building to the new Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and back.  Along the way, I stopped by the Lincoln Memorial, wandering among the perennial tourists.  A pudgy white boy of nine or ten, stood on the steps beside me.  “Hey, Larry,” he called to his friend, “‘I have a dream.'”

Looking back across the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial, I remembered that day, almost fifty years ago now, when Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary sang and Martin delivered his iconic speech.  The great divide in American politics and religion is between those who remember that day in 1963 with a aching veneration, and those who regard Martin’s Dream Speech with an odd mixture of respect, dread and discomfort.

I grew up with King’s speeches.  In my native Canada, the great civil rights leader was regarded as latter day prophet, a civil rights hero.  My generation of Canadian youth defined itself in opposition to America and its war in Vietnam.  We were impressed by America, a nation with ten times our population and fifty times our military and economic clout.  There was no sense that the great nation to the south meant us any harm.  But we were mystified by Jim Crow, and Vietnam, and cold war zealotry.  At the height of the civil rights movement, two teachers from my home town of Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories took a summer trip through the American South.  They told us of an encounter with a lovely woman in Georgia who made her Negro maids eat in the kitchen because it was improper for white and black people to share a meal.  Our teachers were appalled by such sentiments.

Canadians, of course, have our own species of bigotry but, like the woman from Georgia, we were largely blind to the sins that beset us. (more…)

Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonism

Mary Barker is a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s campus in Madrid, Spain as well as at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas.  She is also a product of Utah’s Mormon culture, a socio-religious world she understands intimately.

In this piece written for Religion Dispatches she explains how Mitt Romney’s Mormonism shaped his “severe conservatism” but why his faith also provides a foundation for a merciful vision of American community.  The two sides of Mormon spirituality help explain why Utah backed the New Deal and voted Democrat up until the 1950s when the civil rights movement and fear of international communism sparked a retreat into the world of John Birch paranoia that is still evident in the rantings of Glenn Beck.

Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonism’s “Other” Legacy

Growing up with Mormon narratives—a two-part memoir and reflection on the good, the very bad, and a dreamed-for future.

By Mary Barker

There are many stories on which a Mormon is raised: narratives of the elect, America and the Constitution, the latter days, and free agency—all of which play a role in Mitt Romney’s “severe” conservatism. The bombshell release of video in which he trumpets his disdain for moochers, and reveals a remarkably casual approach to Middle East politics, all resonate with the Calvinist heritage of Mormon theology, as well as with principal Mormon narratives. But Mormonism also holds the seeds of a decidedly progressive politics—a possible Mormon liberation theology.

Does Romney’s religion matter? It’s a question that has been asked many times this election season. My answer, below, is in two parts, as I journey from End Times theology (the “latter days”) through Mormonism’s radical social and political past.

I.

I grew up at the end of the world. As a Latter-day Saint, I made my debut just before the final curtain. During my youth, rumors circulated about neighbors and boyfriends whose special “patriarchal blessings” prophesied that they would never taste of death. That fairly clearly set the limit on time. The rebellious Sixties just confirmed what the Cold War had already shown us—that we were in a final showdown with evil that would only get worse until the second coming of Jesus which is now. (more…)

Southern Baptists poised to elect a black president; is this significant?

The Rev. Fred Luter is running unopposed for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Here, he delivers a sermon during Sunday services at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
The Rev. Fred Luter

The Southern Baptist Convention is poised to elect its first African-American president.  Is this a big deal, or a cynical ploy?

Neither, really.

As this Morning Edition article makes clear, Fred Luter isn’t just a prominent African-American preacher; he’s a transformational figure who stuck with his New Orleans congregation when the sanctuary washed away with Hurricane Katrina.  Luter is that rarest of preachers, a man who rose from the streets, understands poverty, and spikes his call to conversion with a strong dose of compassion.

In other words, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just placing a token black man in an honorary position to deflect attention from the denomination’s racist past; Luter rose to prominence the hard way and deserves all the accolades he is receiving.

But there is another side to the story embodied in the passionate minority report filed by Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.  McKissic is as theologically conservative as a Southern Baptist can be.  He preaches against “the gay lifestyle” with notorious gusto, but he is even more passionate about racial injustice. 

Fred Luter notwithstanding, Rev. McKissic sees little evidence that the moral fervor of the overwhelmingly white SBC “messengers” who will attend this year’s convention extends to civil rights.  

This impression was reinforced in a particularly painful way when Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, launched into a racially tinged radio rant that made him sound like the reincarnation of George Wallace circa 1962. 

Land lost his radio program over his diatribe (largely because his racist comments turned out to be an unacknowledged quote from an obscure right-wing zealot), but he kept his post with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  Land has apologized for dismissing prominent civil rights preachers as “race hustlers” and suggesting that Barack Obama only addressed the Trayvon Martin case in a desperate attempt to improve his standing with black voters. 

Is Richard Land truly repentant?  McKissic is hedging his bets.  And for good reason.

As law professor Michelle Alexander points out, New Jim Crow racism differs markedly from Old Jim Crow bigotry.  Richard Land has renounced his denomination’s support for Old Jim Crow segregation and the overt commitment to white supremacy that was part of that package.  But when it comes to the New Jim Crow realities associated with mass incarceration and the creation of a black male undercaste, the high-profile Baptist preacher is essentially clueless. 

As Michelle Alexander points out, you can’t understand the dynamics of the New Jim Crow unless you are willing to sympathize with the plight of poor young black men who are making all the mistakes Fred Luter made as a young man on the mean streets of New Orleans.  Luter loves these guys, even as he laments key features of their lifestyle.  So does Dwight McKissic.  White Baptists like Richard Land has come to terms with a long-dead Martin Luther King Jr., but isn’t ready to acknowledge the full human dignity of the pre-conversion Fred Luter.

For savvy black Baptists in the SBC like Dwight McKissic, that’s a big problem.

Southern Baptists See Their Future In A Black Pastor

NPR

June 19, 2012

The Southern Baptist Convention is expected to elect its first black president on Tuesday: Fred Luter, a former street preacher who turned a dying New Orleans church into a powerhouse. His election is a milestone for the 167-year-old denomination at a time when minorities make up a growing share of a shrinking membership.

Luter, who is running unopposed for president of the nation’s largest Protestant body, is a departure from his predecessors. He was the middle child of a divorced mother, and until a motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital at age 20, he had little interest in God.

Then God changed him, he told NPR earlier this year.

“I grew up in the ‘hood, and my mom worked two or three jobs. So I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done,” Luter said. “And so, when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing.”

Soon, Luter was preaching on the streets in New Orleans. In 1986, he was invited to take over Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Under him, its congregation grew from a couple of dozen people to 7,000 — the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, destroying the sanctuary.

“It would have been easy for Fred Luter to have said, ‘I think God’s calling me elsewhere,’ ” says Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “And he could have gone to a very comfortable pastorate anywhere in the country.

“And yet, he stayed,” Moore says. “And he stood with the people of New Orleans and said, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll rebuild’ — and became a spiritual anchor.”

‘The Future Of The Country Is Urban’

Luter’s decision to stay, and his personal charisma, propelled him to national prominence in the Southern Baptist Convention, says pastor David Crosby.

Crosby leads First Baptist of New Orleans, which shared its space with Luter’s congregation while they rebuilt. He adds that Luter brings something else desperately needed to this denomination, which has seen its numbers drop: He understands how to reach the only growth area of religion.

“The future of the country is urban; the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is also urban,” Crosby says. “We’ve got to learn how to operate and do our mission and thrive in the urban environment. And Fred brings that. He knows it instinctively.”

The SBC has made some progress in that area. Two decades ago, the denomination was “as white as a tractor pull,” as one critic put it. Now it’s 20 percent minority. Richard Land, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter’s election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.

“It’s as historic a moment as Southern Baptists have had,” Land says, “because the president of SBC is not just an honorific — it is a position of real power.”

Maybe — and maybe not, says Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of the largely African-American Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

‘A Historic Moment’

“This is a great job, but it’s somewhat symbolic and ceremonial,” he says.

McKissic says the two-year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.

Some say there’s a latent racism in the denomination. And many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Land’s radio program in which he said President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.

“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election,” Land said on the air.

“It was like someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart,” McKissic says. “It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt.”

Land has apologized and asked for forgiveness.

“I don’t want anything I’ve said, or any mistakes I’ve made, to detract from — in any way — from what is going to be a truly historic moment — a historic moment in which I rejoice,” he says.

Luter has forgiven Land; he says it’s time to look forward. He notes that if he’s elected, it will be because white Baptists voted for him.

“It won’t be because of the handful of black folk that’s going to be there,” Luter says. “So, it will say something to the country and to the world — that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing.”

“Brooker’s Place” opens a window on Mississippi civil rights history

By Alan Bean

Those who felt “The Help” whitewashed the social realities of civil rights-era Mississippi will welcome “Booker’s Place” a new film that debuted on the film festival circuit over the weekend. 

In 1966, Booker Wright was a waiter at Lusco’s, a restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi with an all-white clientele.  This brief quotation from theNew York Times gets to the heart of the matter:

His feat: He dropped his mask of servility in a 1966 television documentary about the state, admitting that he was “crying on the inside” as he kowtowed to customers who sometimes denied him tips and uttered racial slurs. “The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” he explains.

Booker Wright stood on the sidelines during the Greenwood Movement in 1962-63, but he spoke out when he had the opportunity, and paid dearly for it. 

Hodding CarterIII, the journalist and former member of the Carter administration, grew up and worked in Greenville, Miss., and said his first reaction upon seeing the documentary was that Mr. Wright was a dead man.

“In one person, in one interview, in one place, you have personified what it was black Mississippi was saying to white Mississippi after all these years,” he says in “Booker’s Place.”

The words uttered by Mr. Wright in that NBC broadcast led to a beating by a local police officer. He lost his waiter’s job at Lusco’s, which he had held since he was 14. His own restaurant was vandalized.

A beloved and respected figure in a town that was a major center for the segregationist Citizens’ Council, he reopened Booker’s Place and bought a school bus to transport children in the Head Start program. He was shot to death by a black customer in his restaurant in 1973, which raised some conspiracy theories.

How could such an innocuous comment spark consequences this dire?  If you have to ask the question you don’t know much about the social world of Mississippi during this period.  “The Help” was set in Jackson, MS, but was largely filmed in Greenwood, a town that has changed very little since the mid-60s.  If this project makes it to mainstream theaters I will be the first in line at the ticket window.