Southern Baptists have walked a long and winding road on the subject of race. In the 1950s, SBC conservatives like WA Criswell, pastor of the 20,000 member First Baptist Church Dallas, denounced the civil rights movement as a communist enterprise. Criswell denounced the Suprme Court as a “bunch of infidels” following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
But by the mid-1960s, Criswell was confessing to a “colossal mistake” and admitting that his take on race relations had been deeply flawed. This bold admission made it possible for other conservative Southern Baptists to hop on the racial harmony express by denouncing racial prejudice and inviting black pastors to speak in their churches once a year.
Every year, Southern Baptists passed high-sounding pro civil rights decrees drafted by the denomination’s Christian Life Commission. At the congregational level, conditions were far more complicated, of course. Pastors and leading lay leaders didn’t shift from animosity to embrace in a mere decade. On the other hand, they didn’t oppose the denominational rush to the center on the race issue. Colorblind orthodoxy was too void of content to warrant strenuous opposition.
One might have expected that the SBC enthusiasm for civil rights would cool significantly after the nation’s largest Protestant denomination sent its moderate minority into wilderness exile in the 1980s and 90s. Nothing of the sort. In fact, the denomination’s new opinion leaders have made a point of apologizing for slavery and speaking appreciatively of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.
Bob Allen’s piece on Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, helps us understand this perspective. Instead of denouncing civil rights leaders as crypto-communists, Southern Baptist leaders are arguing that they are facing essentially the same oppressive forces men like King confronted half a century ago.
Land makes much of the fact that King’s famous letter to southern white clergy was composed from a prison cell. If Barack Obama’s opposition to religious liberty continues unabated, Land suggests, Christian men and women of Christian conscience may soon be dragged off to prison for refusing to bend the knee to Caesar.
This is a very clever argument, especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s tone-deaf decision to force Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive services. This is a tough issue. Catholic hospitals, after all, service non-Catholics. On the other hand, common sense militates against forcing anyone to go against conscience in order to stay in business. Men like Richard Land can argue that his Catholic friends are being oppressed for their faith just as King et al faced discrimination because of their race.
I’m not buying. Barack Obama believes in religious freedom as much as Richard Land. The difference is that Obama, speaking and acting as the president of all Americans, believes in religious freedom for Muslims and secularists as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.
If Richard Land wants to claim the likes of Deitrich Bonhoeffer and MLK as his spiritual forebears, there isn’t much either man can do about it. The dead have no opinions. (more…)
(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
By Alan Bean
I had always assumed that the confederate memorial in Winona, Mississippi had been destroyed in 1978 along with the courthouse. It seemed a bit counter-intuitive, but there was no sign of Civil War nostalgia on the grounds of the new courthouse where Curtis Flowers was convicted of murder in the summer of 2010.
Curtis has been tried for the murder of four people in a Winona furniture store in July, 1996. He has been convicted four times. Two trials ended in hung juries. Three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which is currently reviewing his most recent conviction.
Meanwhile, Curtis sits on Parchman prison’s death row.
Friends of Justice is convinced that Curtis Flowers is innocent, but you would be hard pressed to find a white resident of Winona, Mississippi who agrees with us. At Flower’s 2010 trial, it became apparent, perhaps for the first time, that District Attorney Doug Evans and his investigator, John Johnson, had decided Curtis Flowers was the killer less than three hours after the murder scene was discovered. The only evidence connecting Curtis with the crime at that time was a check for three days wages found on the desk of the slain Bertha Tardy. The check was made out to Curtis Flowers. Though this hardly constituted evidence of wrongdoing, Evans and Johnson centered their investigation on Flowers from the beginning; no other suspects or alternative theories of the crime were ever considered.
Melanie Wilmoth and I were in Winona this Monday to visit with Archie and Lola Flowers, Curtis’s parents. We were driving home from a local restaurant when I asked about the location of the old county jail and courthouse.
In June of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Sue Johnson and Lawrence Guyot were savagely beaten by several local police officers and a state trooper at the county jail. A few days later, they were arraigned at the county courthouse. Their crime: demanding to be served in the white-only restaurant of Winona’s segregated bus depot two years after the federal government integrated bus depots, train stations and airports across the South.
Archie Flowers didn’t answer my question about the old courthouse, he just guided the car in the direction of downtown Winona. “The courthouse used to be right here,” Lola told me, pointing to the Montgomery County library.
There it stood, the conferate memorial that graces virtually every courthouse in the old South. This one had been erected in 1909, just 44 years after they drove old Dixie down. Southern pride still burned strong. The monument was dedicated “To the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and the soldiers who fought for state rights.”
Even in 1909, southerners embraced the historical fiction that the War of Northern Aggression had nothing to do with the South’s “peculiar institution.”
The next morning, Melanie and I returned to the library. A Civil Rights display featuring pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us as we entered the room. I was impressed. Mississippi is one of three southern states where citizens can choose to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat. A Civil Rights display was above and beyond the call of civic duty.
I moved to the desk and asked if the library had any information about the old courthouse and county jail. “I’m not sure,” the librarian told me. “If we have anything it will be in the book we’ve got on Montgomery County history.”
She plucked an imposing tome from the library shelves. It was one of those local histories that most rural counties produce every half century or so. This one had been published in 1994, three decades after Fannie Lou Hamer and friends were savagely beaten at the county jail and three years before Curtis Flowers went on trial the first time.
Like most county histories, the book began with a section on local history. Although there was an extensive section on the Native American people who occupied the county before the arrival of white settlers, there was no discussion of slavery.
The book featured articles on every white family with roots in the county and several hundred pictures, but although Montgomery County is 45% African-American, not a single black face appeared anywhere. Melanie and I weren’t the first readers to notice this. One reader had scrawled his disgust on the table of contents page. “Sorry people,” the message read, “us black folks are not listed in family histories. Apparently we don’t exist though the copyright is 1994. Go figure racist white folks. Go Obama!”
The book’s extensive section on the Civil War merely reproduced documents from the war era with not even a passing reference to slavery. The war was all about Abraham Lincoln’s desire to “destroy all the institutions of the South and withdraw from her people the constitutional guarantees for the protection to property and the right to enjoy the same.”
A visitor to Montgomery County would have no idea that black people had ever lived there or that slavery and Jim Crow segregation were integral to the county’s legacy. No wonder the note writer was confused and angry.
But that was 1994 and this is 2012. I doubt you would have seen a civil rights display in the Winona library back when Curtis Flowers was first arrested in 1997.
At first blush, historical myopia and denial have little relevance to the fairness of the Montgomery County criminal justice system. Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, June Johnson and the other civil rights leaders arrested at Winona’s bus depot in 1963 weren’t simply denied justice; their captives took sadistic pleasure in their ability to beat and sexually humiliate the men and women in their control. Thanks to pressure from the Kennedy White House, the officers were tried in federal court, but an all white, all-male jury acquitted them after deliberating for a matter of minutes. The law of the land did not apply to black people (especially black civil rights activists) in 1963.
How much had changed when Curtis Flowers went to trial for the first time 34 years later?
A lot. When Doug Evans illegally kept black residents off the jury, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict. When, at a subsequent trial, five black jurors were selected, all five voted to acquit Mr. Flowers while all seven white voted to acquit.
These facts suggest radical change mixed with a disturbing degree of historical continuity. Things have changed for the better; but not nearly enough. That is why the case of Curtis Flowers and hundreds of other Mississippi defendants must be viewed through the lens of the Magnolia State’s troubled racial history. Did Curtis Flowers get a fair trial in 1997, in 2010, or at any time in between? You be the judge.
This talk was originally delivered as an address at an MLK program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Dallas Campus on January 12, 2012
I was thrilled to be asked to speak to you today. For one thing, it gave me a chance to reflect on what Martin Luther King’s understanding of justice can teach us about leadership in the twenty-first century. There is a big picture of King in my office. “The ultimate measure of a man,” the caption reads, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
As we will see, Dr. King knew whereof he spoke.
When I arrived at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the summer of 1975, I entered a new world. There were more Baptists in a single Dallas church than in all of Western Canada. I had come south because my denomination was too small to support a seminary. There were 3,000 men and women enrolled at Southern, and there were five other Southern Baptist seminaries stretched across the southern half of America.
I can still remember waking up my first morning in the dorm. “Gol-ly!” a preacher boy down the hall was bellowing. He sounded exactly like Gomer Pyle. I had never reckoned with the possibility that real people sounded like Gomer Pyle.
“I want to preach so bad I can taste it,” a young seminarian told me later that day. Then, he asked what struck me as an odd question: “Who’s your favorite preacher?” I had been asked about my favorite football team or my favorite rock group; no one had ever inquired about my favorite preacher.
I had never given the matter a moment’s thought, but when I did, the answer was readily apparent. “Martin Luther King,” I said. (more…)
In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, rocked the civil rights community back on its heels. Alexander accused the criminal justice reform movement of seeking legal solutions to a moral problem, of fighting for affirmative action while abandoning the victims of a brutal and counter-productive drug war, of telling pretty stories about wrongfully convicted poster-boys while ignoring the social nightmares unfolding in poor communities of color.
If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium. Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it. We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.
I have been inspired by the story about how Elizabeth Eckford (the black woman walking stoically into Little Rock’s Central High School in 1959) and Hazel Bryan (the white woman in the rear screaming, “Go home to Africa, nigger!”) had bridged the racial divide and become best friends.
Not surprisingly, it isn’t that simple.
Racial reconciliation comes hard. Everybody needs to feel good about their people, their heritage, their roots. At least Sir Walter Scott thought so:
Breathes there there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell . . .
African Americans and American whites, particularly in the South, have a hard time feeling good about their ethnic heritage. Few Black Americans chose to come to this country. In most cases, their ancestors were hunted down like dogs, manacled, separated from family, culture and religion, stowed into the hulls of slave ships, transported across the Atlantic ocean, and put to work under the lash beneath a blazing son. The Emancipation Proclamation hardly improved their lot. In its own strange way, Jim Crow was every bit as degrading as slavery. (more…)
Below is an interesting article detailing a lawsuit filed against a Georgia Girl Scouts organization. The lawsuit, filed last week, was a result of the expulsion of two sisters from their Girl Scout troop after they gave a presentation on the civil rights movement.
The audience and other troop leaders did not respond well to the civil rights presentation. According to the suit, “The only applause [the presenters] received was from the other two African American girls and one Indian girl in attendance.”
The response to the young girls’ presentation is not surprising coming from a largely white audience. In fact, this reaction is all too common. The civil rights movement does not reflect favorably on most Southern whites and, therefore, discussion of the movement is often met with resistance and resentment from white audiences. It will be interesting to watch the suit unfold and hear the response (if any) from the Girls Scouts of America . MW
ATLANTA — An Atlanta-area mother has filed a lawsuit against a Girl Scouts organization alleging that her twin daughters were expelled from their troop after they gave a presentation on their family’s involvement in the civil rights movement.Angela Johnson filed the suit last week in Gwinnett County State Court, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. The suit says the troop leaders knew an expulsion would cause the girls harm and that the organization had a responsibility to repair the situation.
In a statement, the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta says the girls weren’t expelled and calls the incident a “disagreement between well-intentioned moms,” referring to Johnson and the troop leaders. (more…)
It has been a few weeks since Alan Bean and I returned from our whirlwind trip to Mississippi. Since we arrived back in Texas, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the trip and all of our various adventures and encounters while we were there.
We planned the trip to Mississippi for several reasons. We are currently working on a few cases in the Delta and had some research to conduct. We also arranged to meet with other advocacy organizations doing similar work in Mississippi so that we could build relationships and collaborate with them on future endeavors. In addition, we planned to meet up for a civil rights tour with a professor and several students from the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. With all of this on our agenda, our days were filled to the brim. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted and exponentially more enlightened as the trip came to an end.
When we arrived in Jackson, MS, we were welcomed by the wonderful staff of the John M. Perkins Foundation where we stayed that night. The next morning, we met with the Foundation’s Special Projects Coordinator and learned more about the Foundation’s history and its goal of bringing racial reconciliation to Mississippi. From there, we touched base with the Program Director for the ACLU of Mississippi. She informed us of the current ALCU initiatives around immigration, youth justice, and the school-to-prison pipeline and we shared with her about the work of Friends of Justice, discussing opportunities for future dialogue and collaboration.
After two successful meetings with advocacy organizations in Jackson, we made our way to Cleveland, MS. There, we met with Professor Paul Ortiz and several University of Florida history students. Dr. Ortiz and the students were incredibly friendly and interested in the work of Friends of Justice. After meeting them, I was even more excited about joining them on the civil rights tour. (more…)
Most American students know nothing of substance about the civil rights movement. When Julian Bond talked to school kids twenty years ago, no one could even tell him who George Wallace was (see article below). For much the same reason, younger readers may not realize that my title was inspired by an old Sam Cooke song. George Wallace was Governor of Alabama in the early 60s. Sam Cooke released his famous song in the late 50s. But I bet students know much more about the evolution of pop music than they know about civil rights history.
How can Americans have a conversation about race relations when most of us know next to nothing about Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the evolution of the urban ghetto or any other matter germane to the subject?
Although Black Americans probably know a bit more about the civil rights era than white Americans, ignorance abounds on every square of the American crazy quilt. We won’t get anywhere until these depressing trends change, but first we must ask how much we want to learn about an era that makes white America look really, really bad?
Southern states, a new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center finds, actually do a better job of teaching civil rights history than their northern and western counterparts. In Mississippi, for instance, the trauma of the civil rights era was far too intense to be forgotten. The movie The Help is a step in the right direction, but if any person, white or black, had tried to publish a book about black domestics and their white employers in the real Mississippi of 1962, the White Citizens Councils and the State Sovereignty Commission would have kept the book from appearing on book shelves. A book that incendiary would have been delivered in a plain brown wrapper, in the dead of night. There were things that simply could not be discussed back then; how much has changed?
Mississippi has mandated a K-12 civil rights curriculum. If you don’t know about Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, you can’t possibly understand present conditions in the Magnolia State. The subject could be ignored for a while, but not forever. In Colorado, it seems, the issue is far less pressing.
When Julian Bond, the former Georgia lawmaker and civil rights activist, turned to teaching two decades ago, he often quizzed his college students to gauge their awareness of the civil rights movement. He did not want to underestimate their grasp of the topic or talk down to them, he said. (more…)