Christian complicity with racism
Books | Post–Civil War ‘Redeemers’ and the KKK used their faith to justify oppression and violence
by Jemar Tisby
Posted 2/29/20, 04:49 pm
Let’s conclude Black History Month with an excerpt from a sad saga, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. Tisby shows how even George Whitefield, the great 18th-century preacher, took time off from evangelism to advocate slavery. Without it, he said, “Georgia can never be a flourishing province.” U.S. Constitution writers, Tisby rightly notes, “used black lives as bargaining chips to preserve the union of states.”
Some apologists for slavery point to South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1840, which declared cruelty to be “highly unbecoming to those who profess themselves Christians,” and established fines designed to “restrain and prevent barbarity being exercised toward slaves.” But Tisby shows the clause was mere words. Slaveowners deprived their property of not only freedom but also education: Slaves could not learn to write or assemble in groups without white supervision.
And think about this barbarity: Of the 600,000-plus interstate slave sales in the decades before the Civil War, one-fourth destroyed a first marriage, and half broke up a nuclear family. Enslaved women gave birth to nine children on average, which meant millions grew up fatherless. Slavery ended in 1865, but white supremacists found a new way to exert control, as Tisby relates in the following excerpt from his book, courtesy of Zondervan.
The Color of Compromise made WORLD’s short list for 2019 Book of the Year in the History category. —Marvin Olasky
White supremacists initiate “redemption”
The creation of the Lost Cause narrative furthered political battles to restore some semblance of the antebellum racial pyramid. Southerners had witnessed the destruction of their towns and the surrounding land as well as the abolition of the slavery-dependent lifestyle they had always known. If anything, the Civil War and the Reconstruction eras increased the animosity that some whites held toward black people. Supported by most whites in the South, several groups initiated a sustained and violent effort to reclaim the South from white northerners and freed black people. They saw their efforts as a divine mandate for the white man to take his rightful place atop the social hierarchy. They referred to this period as “redemption.”
In biblical terms, redemption refers to God’s plan to save people from their sins and make them into a holy nation. Christ achieved the redemption of his followers through his sacrificial death on the cross. He bought back, or redeemed, those who would believe in him by paying the price with his life. In many Christian traditions, redemption is a sacred theological principle that undergirds their hope of salvation. Yet in the hands of white supremacists, a social and political version of redemption justified the racial oppression and violence used to retain white power.
One of the primary goals of the “redeemers” after the Civil War was to prevent black people from voting. Black voters were an especially formidable power in southern states where black people formed a majority such as South Carolina and Mississippi. To circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment, white officials, often former Confederate soldiers and slaveowners, instituted restrictions on voters like the poll tax. The poll tax charged people money to vote, money that black people and even some poor whites did not have. They also enacted the “grandfather clause,” which permitted people who could vote prior to 1867 and their descendants to vote. Of course, this excluded most black people. White voter registration officials also used “literacy tests” wherein potential voters had to read a portion of the state or national Constitution. Similarly, “understanding tests” asked black voters to answer obscure questions related to the Constitution. White “redeemers” selectively administered these tests to bar black voters from the democratic process.
White “redeemers” also introduced a deliberate and systematic reign of terror to prevent black people from voting, obtaining economic independence, and exercising their full humanity as citizens and human beings created in the image and likeness of God. This period of unrestrained abuse toward black people later led W.E.B. Du Bois to lament, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” White “redeemers” brought back the clouds of oppression to obscure the bright rays of freedom.
At every turn, southern Democrats blocked policies designed to enhance or defend black equality. In the 1868 presidential election, the first since the Civil War and the first since the death of Abraham Lincoln, famed Union general Ulysses S. Grant ran against Democrat Horatio Seymour, a northerner from New York and a supporter of the Union but a critic of Abraham Lincoln. Picking Francis Blair for his running mate, the two men ran on a platform supported by racism. One of their fliers proclaimed, “Our Motto: This is a white man’s country; let white men rule.” Sadly, this type of overt appeal to white racial resentment would remain a feature of American politics for most of the next century.
Several years later, the “Compromise of 1877” effectively ended federal Reconstruction. In a highly contested election, Democrats agreed to award the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes on the condition that he withdraw support for Republican administrations and permit states to exercise “home rule” in the South. In 1877, Hayes ordered federal troops who were stationed in southern states back to their barracks. This meant that black citizens could no longer count on the government to enforce their civil rights, and they were left alone to face the terrorism of white supremacists in the South. One black man from Louisiana remarked, “The whole South—every state in the South—had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.” One implication of this political compromise was that it effectively ensured that the battle for civil rights in America, even among Christians, would involve ongoing disputes over the role of the federal government in proactively ensuring the civil rights of marginalized people.
Conditions quickly degraded for black people in the South. In 1891, the Louisiana legislature codified segregation on trains, passing a law to force black people to ride in separate rail cars. The next year, in a challenge designed to reveal the absurdity of the rule, black citizens and lawmakers recruited Homer A. Plessy, who was one-eighth black (colloquially called an “octoroon”) and could easily pass for white, to test the new law by riding in the “white” car. The railroad company had been alerted about Plessy’s identity and promptly arrested him after he refused to move to the “colored car.” Lawyers for Plessy argued that Louisiana’s law violated the “equal protection under the law” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plessy’s case against Judge John Howard Ferguson went all the way to the Supreme Court, and on May 18, 1896, the justices of the Supreme Court ruled that Plessy’s rights had not been violated because it was a fallacy to believe that “the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.” The Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized what soon became standard practice throughout the country for the next sixty years—the “separate but equal” doctrine. Had the nation’s highest court ruled differently in this case, the color lines of the twentieth century might have been drawn much differently. In Plessy v Ferguson Americans had a choice—would they treat black people as full humans and fellow citizens? The court’s decision meant they chose not to do so, and in the years that followed many white Christians upheld racial segregation and defended it as a biblical mandate.
Christianity and the KKK
Though Nathan Bedford Forrest was nearly illiterate, he became one of the wealthiest planters and slave traders in the South by the start of the Civil War. When the conflict came, his wealth insulated him from serving in the Confederate Army, but ever-ready for a fight, he still chose to join as a private. His wealth earned him a quick promotion to Lieutenant Colonel where he quickly distinguished himself for bold military gambits and his accuracy with a gun. He recruited other southern white men with ads asking for soldiers who “want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.” Forrest would eventually become infamous for his bloodlust as a Confederate commander.
Little was more offensive to a Confederate soldier during the Civil War than the sight of a black man in uniform. And on April 12, 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest and his Confederate troops slaked their thirst for vengeance against the Union soldiers at Fort Pillow—about half of whom were black—by engaging in the utmost savagery. After a morning of heavy fire, the Union forces surrendered, and although Forrest later denied his part in what came next, it is clear that his Confederate soldiers commenced slaughtering their surrendered enemies. A letter from one of the witnesses later detailed the atrocities: “Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered on their feet and then shot down.” Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man who coordinated the butcher of black and white Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, went on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) has had three major iterations as an organization. The first came immediately after the Civil War. Six men in Pulaski, Tennessee, organized a “hilarious social” club to “have fun, make mischief, and play pranks on the public,” calling themselves the Klan. Within a few months the Klan turned violent, and their objective shifted to keeping whites in power by resisting Reconstruction efforts. In April 1871, the vigilante violence had become so unruly that Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, fining or imprisoning anyone who “shall conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway or upon the premises of another for the purpose of … depriving any person or any class of persons of the equal protection of the laws.” Forrest sat for a Congressional hearing about his involvement with the KKK, and he apparently told a reporter, “I lied like a gentleman.”
The next movement of the Ku Klux Klan was in the early twentieth century. It did not focus on opposing Reconstruction, since Reconstruction had already failed. Instead, it fused Christianity, nationalism, and white supremacy into a toxic ideology of hate. In The Gospel According to the Klan, Kelly Baker argues that the Klan cannot be understood apart from its unique interpretation of Protestantism. The Klan of the early twentieth century “was not just an order to defend America but also a campaign to protect and celebrate Protestantism. It was a religious order.” Facing rising waves of European immigrants, many of them Catholic and Jewish, and the ongoing presence of free black people, the KKK crafted a vision of a white America and, more specifically, a white Christian America. Only native-born Protestant men, and a few women, were allowed to join. Many Klan members actively participated in their local churches, and some of the same men who conducted night rides on Saturday ascended to the pulpit to preach on Sunday.
The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century was largely the effort of the son of a slave-owning Baptist preacher, a man named Thomas Dixon Jr. Like his father, the younger Dixon became an ordained Baptist preacher, but he found his true calling as a writer. Beginning in 1902, he penned a trio of books that romanticized the KKK—The Leopard’s Spots, The Clansman, and The Traitor.
In 1915, filmmaker D.W. Griffith adapted Dixon’s second book, a story about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, into the nation’s first blockbuster movie, a three-hour silent film called The Birth of a Nation. In this fanciful narrative, the Klan defends a noble South that faces invasion by northerners and arrogant black people who have the temerity to consider themselves equal to whites. One segment of the movie depicts a black Union soldier (actually a white actor in black face) pursuing a white woman into the woods to ravage her. Rather than succumbing to the brute’s vile advances, she hurls herself off a cliff and dies. In the name of virtue and white power, the Klan assembles to kill the soldier and then embarks on a broader mission to “redeem” the South from outside agitators.
The Birth of a Nation was one of the first films shown in the White House, and President Woodrow Wilson enjoyed the movie so much that he allegedly remarked it was like “writing history with lightning!” He held several showings for hundreds of guests in the White House. Woodrow Wilson’s own racial views were rooted in his Southern Presbyterian upbringing. Wilson’s father was a man named Joseph Ruggles Wilson, and he served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. In 1861, Rev. Wilson hosted Southern Presbyterian ministers for the first meeting of what would become the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America. Christian complicity with racism, as a generational trait, had now entered the White House in the person of Woodrow Wilson.
The film proved so popular that it spurred a rebirth of the KKK. On Thanksgiving Day in 1915, a former Methodist circuit-rider assembled a group of white men to hold a ceremony. They ascended to the top of Stone Mountain, and in a ritual taken from Scotch-Irish lore, they burned a cross. They also constructed an altar of stone and placed on it an American flag and a Bible opened to Romans 12, a chapter that states, among other things, “be devoted to one another in love.”
Religious themes permeated the ideology of the Klan and frequently appeared in its literature. Author Juan O. Sanchez explains that Klan members encapsulated their beliefs in the concept of “Klankraft—Klan activity in relation to its philosophies.” According to the Grand Dragon of Oklahoma, Klankraft was “the sublime reverence for our Lord and Savior” coupled with “the maintenance of the supremacy of that race of men whose blood is not tainted with the colorful pigments of the universe.” The KKK interspersed Christianity with racism to create a nationalistic form of religion that excluded all but American-born, Protestant white men and women. To maintain their concept of a well-ordered society, the KKK utilized lynching, rape, and intimidation to keep undesirable people groups in their place.
The well-deserved disgust that is common today at the mention of the KKK can make it tempting for those in the twenty-first century to disregard them as an extreme group with marginal views that did not represent the majority of the American people and certainly not the Protestant church. But the KKK of the 1910s through the 1930s was far from marginal. Their views were quite popular with mainstream white citizens. As Kenneth Jackson, in his work The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915–1930, writes, “To examine the Ku Klux Klan is to examine ourselves.”
Far from being a regional group, the second Klan “was stronger in the North than in the South. It spread above the Mason-Dixon Line by adding Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and bootleggers to its list of enemies and pariahs, in part because African Americans were less numerous in the North.” Klaverns could be found in locales such as Indiana and Oregon. The Klan capitalized on white fears of just about anyone they defined as nonwhite, non-American, and non-Protestant. For example, Klan members successfully lobbied for the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, which limited immigration from select countries.
The second wave of the KKK proved immensely popular. Linda Gordon estimates that membership numbered between three and five million in the North alone. Edward Young Clarke, one of the leaders of the public relations company that helped boost the Klan’s membership said, “In all my years of experience in organization work, I have never seen anything equal to the clamor throughout the nation for the Klan.” Gordon also points to white Protestant complicity in the racism of the KKK: “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” The KKK’s dedication to race and nation rose to the level of religious devotion because of its overt appeal to Christianity and the Bible. Many people believed that the KKK stood for the best of the “American way,” and in their minds, that meant the Christian way as well.
Jemar is the president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also the co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast.