A tactic frequently used by those who resist seeing the current call for religiously grounded discrimination against gays as akin to the resistance of white Southerners to the rights of black people is to deny that there was any religious component to the refusal of white Southerners to respect the rights of African Americans during the Civil Rights struggle. An important new book by historian Carolyn Dupont challenges this argument.
Dupont's book is Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (NY: NYU Press, 2013). Dupont does a close reading of the history of resistance to integration in a single state, the key Southern state of Mississippi, in the period 1945 to 1975. As the NYU catalogue description of Dupont's book to which the preceding link points notes, here's what Dupont found when she completed that close reading: "Challenging previous scholarship that depicts southern religious support for segregation as weak, Dupont shows how people of faith in Mississippi rejected the religious argument for black equality and actively supported the effort to thwart the civil rights movement." As it also states, "This religious history of white Mississippians in the civil rights era shows how Mississippians’ intense religious commitments played critical, rather than incidental, roles in their response to the movement for black equality."
Paul Harvey recently interviewed Dupont for the Religion in American History blog. In this interview, Harvey asks Dupont what fundamental point she'd like readers of the book to take away from it. Dupont responds,
We focus so much on the problem of individual attitudes—racism—as the source and cause of black suffering but, in fact, the most effective strategies for preserving racial hierarchies have always been systemic, institutional, and collective. While racial disparities often masquerade as products of individual effort, the fates of both black and white Americans have been written into our economic, political, educational, judicial, and religious systems.
Racism is about more than how I feel about you. It's about more than my attitude towards you. It's about how a society is organized. It's about the underlying ideologies that help to structure a racist society. When religion plays a key role in structuring a society and engendering certain racial attitudes--as was the case in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement--racism is about religion.
Harvey also asks Dupont,
You argue that "White Mississippians created a faith divinely suited for a segregated society." Can you elaborate on that point, and explain more about your findings that, contrary to the views of some other historians, segregationists did in fact find substantial support among southern white Christians?
A problem arises here with identifying “support for the system of segregation.” Scholars tend to look for such support in biblical defenses of the system, and some argue that there just weren’t really that many such polemics. However, religiously motivated segregationists supported the system in many ways other than making the strained biblical case for it. Among such methods, evangelical segregationists very effectively argued for the racial hierarchy by attacking those in their faith traditions who embraced or worked for black equality, and in particular attacking their theology as dangerously apostate. I found tons of such activity in Mississippi. And there were other strategies as well--boycotts against denominational literature, complaints about and punishment for progressive leaders, forming groups to preserve segregation in the church, strategizing to leave the denomination if it integrated. Essentially, any effort to give a religious imprimatur to the notion of black equality met howls of resistance from white Mississippi evangelicals. And, finally, religious people certainly supported segregation simply by sanctifying as holy the political ideology that kept it intact.
Any effort to give a religious imprimatur to the notion of black equality met howls of resistance from white Mississippi evangelicals. And, finally, religious people certainly supported segregation simply by sanctifying as holy the political ideology that kept it intact: this is very much how I remember things panning out as I grew up in Mississippi's contiguous sister state of Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s. And as my family lived in Mississippi for a period of time--in Mississippi, the state in which my maternal grandfather had grown up . . . .
I remember resistance to the civil rights of African Americans being deeply rooted in white churches--in white evangelical churches, in particular. I have no memory at all of the leaders of white churches in my part of the world speaking out in any prophetic way during these years, to deplore the oppression of people of color and to defend their rights.
My memory of this period is echoed in a story told by Arkansas historian Grif Stockley in his book Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present (Fayetteville: Univ. of AR Press, 2008). Stockley describes the fate of Methodist pastor Rev. Edward W. Harris when he dared to speak out in First Methodist Church of Pine Bluff to argue that the doors of white Methodist churches should be open to black members (p. 334).
As Stockley notes, when Harris preached at this church on "Race Relations Sunday" in 1964, calling for eradication of segregation in education, housing, voting, employment, and use of public facilities, he "incurred the almost total wrath of the First Methodist Church." As Harris was threatened by the White Citizens Council, his bishop remained totally silent, and then demonstrated his contempt for Harris by transferring him and his wife to St. Louis with only a week's notice. Six years later, Harris was assigned to a Methodist church in Little Rock where he discovered that, in 1970, a no-blacks membership policy still stood on the church books (p. 335, citing Mabel Harris Webb, “A Minister’s Stand: Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1964,” in Crisis of Conscience, ed. James T. Clemons and Kelly Farr [Little Rock: Butler Center, 2007], p. 186).
This is the kind of story I remember over and over from the 1960s in Arkansas. Harris's story grabs my attention both because it epitomizes the response of almost every white church in my state to the Civil Rights movement, and because Pine Bluff is where my "oldest" Arkansas ancestor, a 3-times-great-grandmother, Talitha Cherry Monk, is buried. In Good Faith Methodist cemetery . . . . Pine Bluff, which is the seat of the county in which my mother grew up and was her family's market town as she grew up, is full of my cousins, in fact.
Having learned what I learned coming of age during the Civil Rights period in Arkansas, I'm now baffled by the counterfactual, ahistorical claim that religion played only a minimal role in the resistance of most white Southerners to the civil rights of people of color. Or that many white Southerners were moved by religious commitment to support the rights of people of color . . . .
As I'm baffled by the claim these days of those who cite religious conviction as their basis for resisting the rights of a new minority group seeking equality that they are nothing at all like those bigoted Southern Christians of the 20th century . . . . When they're, in fact, the contemporary incarnation, the living and breathing embodiment, of the same religious impulse to ugly bigotry in 21st-century clothes . . . .