Saturday, April 4, 2009

Iowa, the Churches, and Human Rights: A Meditation on the Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death

I am impressed by Iowa. Yesterday, when the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously declared that Iowa’s statute forbidding same-sex marriage discriminates against an historically disfavored class of human beings without a constitutionally sufficient justification for this discrimination, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a press release noting Iowa’s history of defending civil rights (here).

The statement notes,

Iowa has always been a leader in the area of civil rights.

In 1839, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected slavery in a decision that found that a slave named Ralph became free when he stepped on Iowa soil, 26 years before the end of the Civil War decided the issue.

In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated "separate but equal" schools had no place in Iowa, 85 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.

In 1873, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against racial discrimination in public accommodations, 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.

In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law.

In the case of recognizing loving relationships between two adults, the Iowa Supreme Court is once again taking a leadership position on civil rights.

Iowa and its history of defending civil rights have been on my mind lately for other reasons. As I’ve noted previously on this blog (here and here), I’ve been working on a writing project that tracks the history of an Arkansas family that crossed the color line in the 19th century. A white slaveholder-planter formed a marital relationship with a free woman of color in the 1830s and raised a family by her, living with her and his children by this spouse to the end of his life. This marriage could not be solemnized or legally sanctioned, due to laws that prohibited miscegenation.

In the 1850s, as the war neared and as racial tensions began to peak in the South, this husband and wife sent their three children north to Ohio for schooling and to set them up on land of their own, where they could live free of the dangers confronting them in the plantation South. All three children married white spouses, all from New England abolitionist families with strong ties to churches promoting abolition and aiding escaped slaves. One of the three children, in fact, married a Lyman, a relative of Harriett Beecher Stowe and of several ministers active in the abolitionist cause at Lane Seminary and Oberlin College in Ohio.

And here’s where Iowa comes into the picture: after marrying a white wife in Ohio, the oldest of these three children of mixed blood moved to Iowa. It’s clear that he did so in part because he could live free of racial stigmas there. From the time of his marriage and move to Iowa, he and his children “passed”: they lived as white people, even while his brother and sister in Ohio sometimes continue to appear in records as mulattoes.

Iowa was a place that beckoned this family with mixed racial roots. It was a place in which they could live free (or relatively free) of impediments due to their African blood. It was a place that respected their humanity in a way in which their home state of Arkansas decidedly did not.

In 1859, several years after the parents of these siblings had sent them north to safety, Arkansas passed a law mandating that all free people of color leave the state or be returned to slavery. Things grew even more hideous following Reconstruction. For that reason, the son in Iowa did not come home from the early 1850s until the 1880s, though numerous letters from his parents to him and from him to his parents and siblings indicate that the family members longed to be with each other.

He did not return home because, as a man of mixed racial ancestry living as a white man in the north, he and his family would have been in danger, had he come back to see his parents. He did send a son to stay for a while with his parents in Arkansas. That boy appears as mulatto on the census in his grandparents' household in 1880—a clear indicator that, had his father returned to see his parents in their old age, his mixed ancestry would also have been known, and would have mattered.

When this son finally did return, he did so only because his mother was dying. He was able to spend some weeks with her in the summer of 1882. She died the following March. Letters of the father written after his wife’s death indicate that he could not sustain life, once the wife who was his reason for living (the letters state this plainly) had died. He survived his wife less than a year. When his son got word of his father’s feebleness, he set out from Iowa to Arkansas. News of his father’s death reached him as he and a companion rode horseback through Arkansas, still some miles from his father's home.

The fears that kept this son so long from parents he longed to see, and who hungered to see him, were real fears. Less than a decade after this, an African-American minister, Rev. E. Malcolm Argyle, who was visiting the state, reported to the Philadelphia Inquirer that, in March 1892, eight black citizens of the state had been murdered, “strung up to telegraph poles, . . . burnt at the stake and . . . shot like dogs.” Argyle says that 500 African-American citizens of the state were waiting on wharves beside the Arkansas River in Pine Bluff, southeast of Little Rock, to take passage on steamboats to Oklahoma to escape the oppression. He notes that the statewide paper was stating that another 1200 black citizens had just passed through north Arkansas headed for Oklahoma for the same reason.

Seven years after this, the youngest son of the white planter and free woman of color, who had inherited his father's land in Arkansas, was shot in the back and killed while riding horseback on his land. A black man was apprehended and accused of murder. In the same week in which this man of mixed blood whose white father had dared to acknowledge him and leave him valuable land was murdered, black men were lynched all through that area of the state.

As I say, Iowa has been on my mind lately. When one reads these mind-boggling accounts of cruelty practiced by one group of Americans (by my own ancestors) against another group little over a hundred years ago, and when one thinks that some places in the nation afforded those being oppressed relative freedom—the birthright of all American citizens—one cannot help thinking that it matters supremely where we live. And what those who live in that particular place think and believe.

And whether we live among people committed to human rights and to respect for the humanity of fellow citizens. And whether we live among citizens who share our respect for the foundational principles of our democracy.

And whether we live in places in which—in contrast to the South throughout much of its history—the churches are not servants of the ruling class, parroting the ideas of those with money and power, bolstering their hegemony and blessing that dominance with selective snippets of scripture.

There have certainly been prophetic exceptions in Southern history. How could I deny that on this day in which we commemorate the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.?* The black churches have often kept the prophetic legacy of Christianity and Judaism alive while it sank from sight in the white churches of the South, buried under a ponderous heap of white power and white privilege.

Even with that legacy of the black churches, and with some notable exceptions in the white churches themselves, however, when one surveys the course of the history of the American South, one learns to count on the churches here to take the wrong side: my people, the churches to which they belonged and continue to belong, fighting tooth and nail against all that is right and just and merely decent, again and again.

They invested everything in the defense of slavery. When the world and the rest of the nation judged slavery to be immoral, they turned themselves to the defense of Jim Crow laws and segregation, to the defense of their baffling, fanatical need to classify human worth by pigmentation. When they lost that battle and history proved them wrong yet again, they began to preach against women’s rights, against woman suffrage, against women working outside the home (and bobbing their hair and wearing makeup and pants). Against women period, insofar as women were not under the hobnailed boots of some man somewhere—or, as an Arkansas leader once famously put the point, unless they were barefoot and pregnant.

And on and on it goes. The same people, my people, descendants of those who fought tooth and nail for slavery and then for segregation and then for male domination of women, wailing at each instance that the world would end if the line were crossed: those same people are now fighting tooth and nail against their gay brothers and sisters and against any fundamental decency shown to those brothers and sisters.

And still wailing, prophesying the decline of everything if the line is crossed and a scintilla of the rights they take for granted with such astonishing entitlement are given to these brothers and sisters whose humanity they continue to batter.

It appears some folks in Iowa don’t think this way, the way many of my churched relatives in the South think and have thought for lo these many years. As they apparently didn’t in the 19th century, either, when escaped slaves fled the South and headed to Iowa, or when free people of color seeking a better life somewhere outside the South moved to Iowa, or when women asked for equal rights under the constitution, or when African-American parents asked that their children receive an education in state-funded schools equal to that afforded white children.

As I say, I’ve been thinking about Iowa lately, and I think I may have discovered some reasons for Iowa’s defense of human rights. I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead these days, and much of that novel takes place in Iowa.

Gilead is a novel of ideas, a multi-generational meditation on how various religious ideas have played out in the American experiment, against the backdrop of the foundational documents of the nation, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The novel explores the varying responses of several generations of ministers in Iowa and Kansas (evidently Congregationalist ones) to slavery and its aftermath.

As it does so, it illustrates the role that churches can play in a democratic society, when they take ideas seriously—in contrast to many churches of the American South, for which all but narrow “official” ideas have long been anathema. In the 19th century, as we Southerners battened down the hatch and actively ran thinkers, newspaper editors, anyone critical of our peculiar institution away, and as we mandated lockstep conformity to our official ideas, the churches of the Midwest were moving in the opposite direction.

They were encouraging debate—about slavery, and then about racism. And later about women’s rights. They were encouraging believers to think what was strongly discouraged in most Southern evangelical churches: that is, that a religious commitment must necessarily issue in ethical commitments centered on social justice. While we in the South turned inward and fretted about liquor and uppity sashaying sisters in the Lord, our brothers and sisters in Iowa were debating the rights and wrongs of slavery and racial injustice, and were frequently concluding that not merely the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but the bible as well, condemned such practices and such institutions.

Churches, and what churches think and do, play a role in what a society becomes. As a white Southerner raised in the American South and still living there, as someone descended from generations of staunch evangelical believers, that is crystal clear to me. The difference between Iowa and Arkansas certainly has to do with the different ethnic groups that settled the two states, with differences in climates and economies, with differences in education and social institutions.

But it also has to do with differences in churches. In Arkansas, throughout much of the history of the state, it has been well-nigh impossible to get evangelical churches to admit that the scriptures say anything at all about social justice or the morality of economic institutions. We take our bibles neat, as we do our toddies: focused narrowly on matters of personal rather than public morality, on fornication and whoring and drunken carousing. And in this day and age, homosexuality.

When we do get an idea for social reform in our heads, you can bet it will spring from those personal moralizing concerns writ large: because we believe drinking liquor is wrong for us, we'll want to outlaw it for you, too. Or because we think that all human beings ought to abstain from sex outside a heterosexual marriage—one man, one woman, for life—you'd better believe we'll do all in our power to force you to adhere to our standards, whether you share our beliefs or not. We're concerned about your salvation, don't you know.

In Iowa, things seem different. And if Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is any indicator of the reason for that difference, it has much to do with what has gone on in many churches in Iowa, throughout the history of the state. Try as we in the South will to force our evangelical cousins in the Midwest to believe this—and there’s going to be a lot of pushing in this direction in coming weeks—many good Christian people in Iowa are just not convinced that repudiating and discriminating against their gay brothers and sisters is really a noble Christian cause.

They’re not any more convinced of that than they were when we made a similar argument about the nobility and moral salubriousness of our wish to hold some human beings as property over a century ago.

*Hence the graphic accompanying this posting.