Tuesday, September 5, 2017

4 Sept. 1957: Elizabeth Eckford Walks Gauntlet to Integrate Central High; 4 Sept. 2017: Robert E. Lee's Great-Grandson Forced to Resign Pastorate After Denouncing White Supremacy

Robert Wright Lee, "Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV Statement on Leaving His Church after Speaking Out Against White Supremacy at MTV Video Music Awards": 

I'm writing this statement to make sure that people are able to read in my own words what has happened to me over the last three weeks so that the events of my leaving Bethany United Church of Christ might be understood from my perspective. 
It began when MTV invited me to speak out at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles as a descendent of Robert E. Lee who is committed to speaking out against white supremacy and the hatred that had permeated our country. The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee. I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy. . . . 
My presence at the church as a descendent of Robert E. Lee and an outspoken opponent of White Supremacy had already attracted attention, but with my appearance on MTV the media's focus on my church reached an all time high. A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’ s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work.

Note the dates in the tweets above: it was on 4 September 1957 that Elizabeth Eckford made her lonely walk through the gauntlet of screaming white people in Little Rock as she and eight other young African-American students integrated Central High School. It was on 4 September 2017 that Robert E. Lee's grandson several generations down the line, Robert Wright Lee IV, resigned his pastorate at Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after members of his church made his pastorate intolerable when he spoke out against white supremacy, in defense of Black Lives Matter, in support of removing Confederate statues from public places, and in denunciation of America's deep, seemingly intractable sin of white-supremacist racism.

Plus ├ža change . . . .

On the day on which Elizabeth Eckford walked that lonely gauntlet — 4 September 1957 — with white citizens of my city surrounding her and screaming for her to be lynched, no. Christian. pastor. helped. her.

No Christian pastor stood with her. No Christian pastor walked with her. No Christian pastor defended her. No Christian pastor shielded her. In his book Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock (New Haven: Yale UP, 2011), David Margolick reports that, as Elizabeth walked her solitary gauntlet, one pastor, the pastor of Pulaski Heights Christian church, Reverend Colbert Cartwright, did witness what was taking place, but refrained from becoming involved, for fear that his involvement would be perceived as paternalistic. He took notes, writing the following:

"What struck me with force was the fact that neither segregationist nor integrationist preachers had bothered to help," he wrote. "Her only help came from this single woman who was generally regarded as an intellectual Communist. Who was neighbor unto that girl?"

The evening after Elizabeth's lonely walk, Baptist pastor Reverend Will Campbell of the National Council of Churches came to her family's house. Margolick reports on what Campbell stated as he visited with the Eckford family:

Elizabeth’s protectors, he noted, had been a Communist (Grace Lorch) and a Jew (Benjamin Fine); where had all of Little Rock's Christians been?

Cartwright gave a sermon to his church about what he had witnessed, entitling it "Portrait in Ebony." The sermon called on white Christians of Little Rock to repudiate racism and support for racial segregation, in the name of Christ and the gospel. In response to his sermon, thirty members of his Sunday bible class demanded that he be dismissed as pastor of the church, and he came under surveillance by the Arkansas State Police.

Benjamin Fine was a New York Times reporter who sat with and tried to shield Elizabeth Eckford when she was decisively turned away from the school's doors and could not find the other eight black students integrating the school, then decided to return home. Grace Lonergan Lorch, who also sat with Elizabeth and tried to protect her on that day, had been a teacher in the Boston public schools. Her husband Lee Lorch, a mathematician, lost job after job due to his affiliation with the Communist party, until he ended up in Little Rock teaching at the historically black college, Philander Smith (at which I was academic dean for several years).

Journalist Harold Isaacs of MIT, who happens to have been Jewish like Fine (and who would not, Margolick notes, have been permitted to join exclusive whites-only, Christians-only clubs in Little Rock in the 1950s), interviewed Presbyterian pastor Dunbar Ogden, who did assist the eight other black students from whom Eckford was separated on the day of her solitary gauntlet walk. Here's Ogden's testimony, reported by Isaacs as summarized by Margolick:

Of the clergymen he [Isaacs] interviewed, only the Rev. Dunbar Ogden, pastor of the local Presbyterian church and the sole white minister who, on that first day, had accompanied the black children to school, supported school desegregation. He found Ogden to be a tortured man, badgering, even begging, Isaacs to judge him. "I could not undertake to help Ogden wrestle with his soul," Isaacs wrote. "But I was relieved to find him struggling anyway. I wouldn't have wanted not to have met in Little Rock at least one preacher of the Gospel who at least showed an awareness of what it called upon him to be."

We can fairly well count on the fact that some 99.99% of those screaming curse words and racial epithets at Elizabeth Eckford as she was turned away from Central High on that fateful day in 1957 were Christians. Most of them would have been white evangelical Christians. Many, like Hazel Bryan, who walked behind Elizabeth Eckford bawling hate at her, would have been devout members of their white evangelical churches.

Effectively, the churches — particularly the white ones — did nothing as the hate poured out in this period of racial confrontation in Little Rock. This is my childhood memory of how things happened. Margolick's report confirms my childhood memory. The white churches did nothing, that is, to staunch the hate. In far too many cases, they defended and egged the hate on.

Hazel Bryan reports having heard sermons in her Church of Christ defending segregation and claiming that God does not want the races to mix. Let me repeat the point because I'm an old man who repeats things and you need to hear this, America, you white evangelicals supporting Donald Trump especially need to hear it: As I was growing up in the South when all this was happening, and quite specifically in Little Rock, Arkansas, almost no white pastors ever spoke out to defend racial justice.

The tiny handful of pastors who did dare to open their mouths and condem the prejudice, discrimination, and violence were almost always immediately punished — by the top officials of their churches, by the influential boards of deacons, elders, or vestrymen who controlled their churches, by the congregations themselves.

White churches in the South, in fact, usually moved along the moral arc pointing to the wrong side of history during the Civil Rights movement, and openly resisted the ending of legal segregation. Influential evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell spearheaded the resistance and condemned the Civil Rights movement using language very similar to language Christian folks are using today to slam Black Lives Matter. 

Not much has changed.

Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017):

In the fall of 1958 he [Falwell] preached a sermon ("Segregation or Integration, Which?") against the implementation of Brown in which he rehearsed a number of the arguments being made in southern fundamentalist circles: integration was ‘the work of the Devil’ that would lead to the destruction of the white race; "the true Negro" did not want integration, and "We see the hand of Moscow in the background" (p. 284).
[Billy] Graham also did not respond to King's plea that he hold crusades in the Deep South. He shied away from the term "integration," and when speaking of racial intolerance he often suggested that blacks and white northerners were equally culpable – even when the violence against the civil rights marchers was at its height (p. 204).

What U.S. white Christians will tolerate, vote for, and applaud: attacking immigrants, LGBTQ people, the poor, threatening to rip healthcare coverage from millions of people in Jesus' name.

What U.S. white Christians will not tolerate, vote for, applaud: rejecting white supremacy as inconsistent with the gospel, supporting Black Lives Matter, attacking America's endemic racism as a sin of the first magnitude.

There's a reason younger Americans are walking away from the churches as fast as their feet can carry them today.

Keep on walking, is my advice.

White Christians in the U.S., a solid majority of whom voted Donald Trump into office and continue ardently supporting him, have become deplorable counter-witnesses to the good news of the gospel of Christ. They have soiled and tainted the Christian brand with their fixation on hating people on the margins of society while refusing to challenge the white-supremacist racism on which Trump built his campaign, which is tearing the nation apart.

Oh, and by the way, don't miss Religion News Service's three-part set of articles today, very informative ones, on the unprecedented access that white evangelicals now enjoy at top levels of U.S. government under Donald Trump — and about how jubilant they are to have this access and power:

Adelle M. Banks, Emily McFarlan Miller, Yonat Shimron and Jerome Socolovsky, "All the president's clergymen: A close look at Trump’s 'unprecedented' ties with evangelicals."

Adelle M. Banks, "All the president's clergymen: The issues."

Adelle M. Banks, "All the president's clergymen: The key players."

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