Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jason Sokol on White Southern Resistance to Civil Rights Movement: "Some White Southerners Perceived the Civil Rights Movement as a Threat to Their Very Notion of Freedom" — Implications for "Religious Freedom" Discussion

In his book There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 (NY: Knopf, 2006), Jason Sokol writes about the response of white Southerners to the Civil Rights movement of that period:

Whites were so deeply influenced by a racial caste system that few could imagine a world in which blacks and whites would share power. They thought in terms of white supremacy or black supremacy: if blacks gained rights, whites would correspondingly "wear the yoke" (p. 80, citing Albany [Georgia] Herald, August 19, 1962, p. 18; and interview with James McBride Dabbs, by Dallas Blanchard, Southern Oral History Program).

If you have rights, then my rights must be diminished. If you gain freedom, then my freedom is being curtailed: as Sokol also notes, the white Southern response to the Civil Rights movement tended to be framed by a Manichean worldview, an either-or perspective that turned the quest for freedom and rights in American society into a zero-sum game: if you win, I must have lost:

The vision of a Manichaean universe prevailed. There were no partial victories or defeats, only black and white, freedom and bondage (p. 81).

And so if I value my own freedom and rights, I have no choice except to combat your freedom, your rights, at all cost: Sokol notes,  

An inability to comprehend black desires often went hand in hand with a certain notion of white freedom. Albany whites perceived in civil rights struggles a threat to their own liberties. A woman who suggested the formation of a committee for "The Removal of the Albany Movement" believed that only with the agitators' departure could her own freedom endure. "I have two children, and I feel that it is my duty to them to do anything and everything I can to preserve the freedoms and lawful way of life we adults knew when we were children" (p. 80).

It's for the children! If I don't fight with every ounce of strength I have to preserve my freedom, they will not have freedom and rights — since their freedom is being taken from them by long-excluded others who have now come along to insist that freedom and rights belong to them, too.

A central idea of Sokol's book (and he cites multiple authorities to corroborate it) is that white American visions of freedom have historically depended — for their very substance and survival — on black slavery and then, following abolition, on black oppression. There's a symbiotic (and parasitic) relationship between the much-vaunted (white) American notion of freedom and the subjugation of people of color, so that part of what's being celebrated when white Americans celebrate American freedom is our freedom in contrast to your lack of freedom, on which our freedom is grounded. White freedom demands as its opposite the subjugation of people of color:

In this vein, some white southerners perceived the civil rights movement as a threat to their very notion of freedom (p. 17).

Sokol's thesis here is intuitively powerful for me. It has significant explanatory force because it echoes what I heard verbalized all around me by white Southerners as the Civil Rights movement unfolded in the latter half of the 20th century, in my coming-of-age years. It helps me to understand why, when many fellow Americans (including most American Catholics, whose roots are not in the South) who presuppose formative cultural experiences very different from my own talk about how alluring the notion of liberty or freedom is for them, I find myself feeling cold about what heats them up so much. Having grown up in the crucible of the segregated white South battling with bitter ferocity against the 20th-century movement to secure rights for black people, I've long been very suspicious about the rhetoric of freedom or liberty in the U.S., and I'm not inclined to wave the flags that energize my fellow Americans of other sections of the country when the Fourth of July rolls around.

I've long known that for me and my sort in the white South, that rhetoric about American freedom means that you cannot and must not have freedom, since your freedom will come at my expense.

As Sokol notes (p. 19), the grand irony of the bitter resistance of white Southerners to the movement for black civil rights is that it began immediately after World War II, when white and black Southern men went to war together, fought side by side, saved each others' lives, and then came home and found that black men were expected to give up the freedom they had just fought to save — by returning to Jim Crow patterns of segregation and second-class citizenship. 

And how did the churches of the white South respond to these challenges? Sokol's sober historical testimony:

The majority of white southern clergy, like white southerners in general, opposed the rising civil rights movement (p. 52).

What Jason Sokol has to say here about the response of white Southern churches to the Civil Rights movement perfectly fits my memory of growing up in Arkansas (and Mississippi and Louisiana) in the 1950s and 1960s. Sokol notes (and I remember this perfectly well) that as a majority of white Southern clergy opposed integration and remained totally silent about the immorality of racial discrimination, the people really running their churches and driving the resistance to integration were those holding the purse strings — wealthy donors and businessmen who formed the bulk of those sitting on vestries, deacons' boards, elders' councils, etc. It was these businessmen who never failed to be received with open arms when they knocked on the doors of bishops and denominational leaders, or when they picked up the phone to call bishops and denominational leaders, to instruct church leaders to hold the line against the Civil Rights movement.

What Sokol has to say about how a generation of white Southern Christians and their church leaders responded to the movement to secure rights for people of color forms a perfect historical bridge to what is happening today as white Southern Christians respond to the movement for LGBTQ rights. Sokol cites historian John Hope Franklin to explain the myth-making ideological backdrop to the resistance of white Southern Christians to the Civil Rights movement (p. 53, citing "The Great Confrontation: The South and the Problem of Change," Journal of Southern History 38 [1972]). 

As Franklin notes, the typical response of many white Southerners to the Civil Rights movement was to pretend that things were perfect as they had "always" been, and so change was to be resisted, since it was troubling the paradise Southerners black and white had created for themselves when each agreed to live on the "right" side of a racial line congenial to both races. 

The price of paradise is that each remain in his place — a notion strongly compelling to white Southerners, since it had been built into plantation culture from its origins in the British class system: 

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.

This mythological thinking about racial norms that privilege one set of people while subjugating another set of people is, of course, simply a racially-framed version of the same argument offered by many white Southern church people today to the movement for LGBTQ rights: God made marriage for a man and a woman, and it has been that way for aeons. Why do they want to go and untune paradise all over again today, with this talk of same-sex marriage and "rights" for LGBTQ folks?

All is right with the world as long as we abide by the tried and true norms handed down to us from father to father for as many generations as we can count. (On any given day on Facebook, I can find, connecting to circles of my own white Southern relatives who are Facebook friends of mine, hundreds of postings by people claiming that things were just so much better in the good old days when children said their nighttime prayers and got whipped routinely, when Mama was in the kitchen smiling and cooking while Daddy was out earning a living for his family, when everyone knew his/her place and kept to it, etc. This nostalgic — and entirely false — worldview mesmerizes a huge number of white Southerners faced with discussion of same-sex marriage today, and it had the same mesmerizing effect on a previous generation of white Southerners during the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.)

When gay rights began to be discussed in a new way in American culture during the final decades of the 20th century, I saw exactly the same response to gay rights on the part of most clergy and congregations of white churches in the South that I had seen to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as I was growing up: total silence about the immorality of discrimination, a complete refusal to talk about LGBTQ people and their lives and the possibility that the gospel might envisage those people and those lives, too. As in the Civil Rights period, the silence reflected fear of loss of revenue if a minister or a church took a prophetic stance against discrimination and for inclusion, love, and justice.

As Robert Parkinson noted in his Fourth of July essay yesterday in the New York Times, built right into the foundational documents of the United States as they talk about freedom is the notion that freedom belongs to some of us but not to all of us: the foundational notion of freedom as it's set forth in our foundational documents is, Parkinson insists, "defined by racial fear and exclusion":

This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since.

And that is, of course, precisely Sokol's thesis regarding the foundational understanding of freedom among white Southerners confronted with the Civil Rights movement: my freedom exists over against the freedom (the lives) of people of color; my being free depends on some other people being unfree; and according rights to people long excluded from rights threatens my rights and my freedom. These ideas have a curiously strong contemporary ring to them, don't they? They must sound very familiar to anyone who has paid any attention at all to the arguments of the U.S. Catholic bishops about religious freedom in recent years: those arguments assert that, if women and LGBTQ people are given rights and freedom, the "religious freedom" of people of faith must automatically be threatened and diminished. 

Since they simply cannot have rights and freedom without threatening my rights and freedom as a person of faith . . . . To their real shame, the U.S. Catholic bishops have worked themselves into a position vis-a-vis religious freedom that is no different from the position just excoriated by Judge Carlton Reeves in Mississippi, as he struck down that state's bogus, discriminatory, unconstitutional "religious freedom" law. 

As Mark Joseph Stern notes, the entire purpose of that law and of others like it was to disadvantage LGBTQ people in the name of "religious freedom" (if you get freedom, then my freedom is being trampled on): Stern writes, 

Anti-LGBTQ activists just suffered their worst defeat since the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision—a rout so stinging and decisive that it calls into question the viability of their entire strategy post-Obergefell
That drubbing came in the form of an astonishing 60-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves blocking every single part of Mississippi's sweeping, vicious anti-LGBTQ segregation law from taking effect. . . . His decision marks a momentous occasion—the first time a federal judge has found that so-called "religious liberty" bills, designed to disadvantage LGBTQ people, violate the U.S. Constitution.

As German Lopez points out, Reeves's ruling exposes the so-called "religious liberty" arguments of the religious right as quite precisely anti-religious liberty: in the name of protecting religious freedom, the religious right seeks to diminish the religious freedom of anyone who does not buy into its peculiar understanding of Christian theology. Lopez indicates, 

A federal judge, however, has just blown up the entire argument for the law, finding that it in fact violates religious freedoms — by favoring explicitly anti-LGBTQ religious views over LGBTQ-friendly religious views. Since the entire point of religious liberty is that the government can’t favor one religious belief over another, Mississippi’s law is blatantly unconstitutional. . . . 
This is an incredible turn of the tables. In a supposed attempt to defend religious freedoms, Mississippi actually violated religious freedoms, according to Reeves. Legislators violated the constitutional principle they said they wanted to defend.

The "freedom" that anti-LGBTQ hate bills masquerading as "religious freedom" bills enshrine is  freedom for me, not not freedom for thee. To the extent that your religious views dictate tolerance for and love of LGBTQ people, mine will be rammed down your throat and yours will be nullified.

This is the antithesis of freedom — and of religious freedom, in particular. 

As Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley observes,

Mississippi, as the Arkansas law did earlier, passed a law nominally said to protect religious beliefs. 
The laws were meant — as legislative debate and contemporaneous events illustrated — to provide a ground for people to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring, housing and public services.  
Everyone knew that. 
But in Mississippi, the plaintiffs turned the religious freedom argument against the bigots.

In a very direct way, Judge Reeves's ruling engages the decision of the Supreme Court itself in Hobby Lobby. Those familiar with the Hobby Lobby ruling will recall that it maintained, in a supremely silly formulation, that if a religious belief is "sincerely held," courts cannot possibly challenge it, even it if requires discriminatory treatment of a minority group or is based on counterfactual evidence (e.g., the claim that birth control pills are abortifacients). What matters is only that the belief is held "sincerely." 

As David Badash indicates, Judge Reeves directly engages this argument by ruling that, no matter how "sincerely held" a religious belief is, if it makes second-class citizens of a targeted minority group and imposes a particular religious stance on everyone in the name of law, it's unconstitutional. And so I say again: how deeply shameful it is that the U.S. Catholic bishops have chosen, in the name of defending "religious liberty," to place themselves on the side of a political-religious movement that, as Randall Balmer has rightly noted (and here), was born in the resistance of white Southern Christians to the movement for civil rights for people of color in the 20th century.

It's surely not as if the Catholic bishops of the U.S. do not know this shameful history. Jason Sokol's book can easily be found in libraries across the nation, I would assume.

The photograph of the cover of Sokol's book is from its page at Amazon.

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