I first learned about Lawrence Guyot from reading Taylor Branch’s celebrated Trilogy on the King Years. His name came up again when I researched the background of the Curtis Flowers story. Readers of this blog will know that Guyot, Fannie Lou Hamer and several other civil rights activists were beaten within an inch of their lives by men under the command of Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Winona, Mississippi in June of 1963. Three decades later, Mr. Flowers was arrested on the basis of fabricated evidence for the 1996 slaying of four people at a Winona furniture store.
A little over a year ago, I had the chance to meet the man in the flesh when he spoke at an event in Cleveland, MS sponsored by the Samuel Procter Oral History Program at the University of Florida. The civil rights icon seemed more interested in telling the students what they needed to do in the present moment than he was in sharing tidbits of civil rights nostalgia. This September, my wife Nancy and I shared our story with the Florida students.
This New York Times story captures the essence of Guyot’s amazing saga. There was nothing unusual about the man. He was not particularly eloquent or brilliant; he just refused to back down in the face of injustice. Without Lawrence Guyot’s brand of anonymous courage, the civil rights movement could not have succeeded. (more…)
Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, third best behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies. When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience applauded as the credits rolled–something you don’t see very often.
The film, loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is relentlessly historical. Lincoln is portrayed as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of turning The Great Emancipator into a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century. Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade in every corner of the Union and little else. (more…)
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…)
The Christian Century has a fascinating interview with Berkeley Professor David Hollinger who argues that “ecumenical Protestants” (he intentionally avoids the word “liberal”) shifted American culture in positive directions because they were willing to go to the wall on issues like civil rights.
This view conflicts with Ross Douthat’s critique of liberal Christianity, expressed most recently in the New York Times’Sunday Review that liberal denominations have declined numerically because they are “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
Hollinger disagrees. Ecumenical churches have suffered drastic numerical declines, to be sure, but for all the right reasons:
Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.
It could be that Douthat chooses to focus on the lame aspects of liberal Protestantism while Hollinger celebrates the heroic side of that tradition. Both are certainly part of the mix. The big difference is that Douthat describes Protestant Christians desperately trying to adapt to secular liberalism; Hollinger sees the ecumenical Protestant tradition establishing the foundations for secular liberalism on issues like civil rights, feminism, gay rights and a non-aggressive foreign policy.
Please read both articles and tell us what you think.
What happens to children of parents who are caught in the process of deportation? According to a judge in Missouri, those children go to foster care. The logic couldn’t make more sense: the parents abandon their children, so the state is in its right to take over. It is estimated that over 5,100 children are in foster care while their parents face deportation. It doesn’t matter the parents provided a home for the children, or that the children enjoyed a bed every night and a meal every day. All that matters is that the parents committed the civil offense of remaining in the country without papers. It is one thing to enforce the law; it is another to separate families that have done nothing wrong besides seek a better future for themselves, a more comfortable lifestyle for their children, a safer place to call home.
On Wednesday a Missouri juvenile court judge terminated a Guatemalan woman’s rights to her 5-year-son because they believe she abandoned her child when she was imprisoned after a 2007 immigration sting at a poultry processing plant.
Encarnacion Romero, the mother of the child, cried as she was leaving the courtroom, according to the Joplin Globe. Romero’s attorney say they will appeal the decision.
The case garnered National attention when ABC’s “Nightline” covered the story in February 2012. (more…)
Molly Worthen’s NYT essay on the social cleavage between white and black evangelicals is a statement of the obvious and a work of art.
Worthen teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her writing reflects a deep understanding of evangelicals black and white.
The term “evangelical”, in its common usage, refers exclusively to white folks. This may be the best explanation for a curious fact: only 35% of Americans in a recent Barna poll correctly identified Barack Obama’s religious faith as Christian. Ask African-Americans about Obama’s religion and I suspect over 95% would get it right. So I can’t help but wonder about the results from Caucasian respondents. My guess is that fewer than 25% of white people know that Obama is a Christian.
If we use political affiliation as a rough proxy for race (which, tragically, it is) the figures are interesting. 52% of Democrats know that Obama is a Christian (African-American respondents likely skewed this figure upward); but only 29% of Independents and 24% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Christian (with 18% believing he is a Muslim). (more…)
The Southern Baptist Convention is poised to elect its first African-American president. Is this a big deal, or a cynical ploy?
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.
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.”