Well, it’s time for MLK Day again, and our friends at the League of the South (known as LoSers on this blog) what to know why we can’t go back to the “good old days” when this weekend was used to commemorate Robert E. Lee’s birthday:
If you celebrate Martin Luther (Michael) King, Jr. Day instead of Lee-Jackson Day, then you are a moral idiot. King was a philanderer, a plagiarist, and a Communist sympathizer (if not an outright Communist). Both Lee and Jackson were both fine, upstanding examples of Christian manhood.
There are a lot of things I could say about this passage, but I’ll leave it to Frederick Douglass to explain, as he had a very intimate knowledge of the behavior of these paragons of “Christian manhood”:
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”
The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”
Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.
Okay, so the LoSers find MLK to be morally offensive. But who on the white conservative Christian side was available to help blacks during the Civil Rights Movement? The short answer is no one. From the end of Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Movement, the notion of granting civil rights to blacks was considered ill-conceived at best and communist at worst. For most white churches during the 1950s and 60s, the problem was not that Jim Crow was a soul-sucking system of oppression and degradation, but that black people were complaining about Jim Crow. Segregation was considered to not just be a positive social good, but the only thing keeping blacks and other racial undesirables from wrecking chaos across American society.
For example, Bob Jones, Sr., founder of the eponymous Independent Fundamentalist Baptist institution Bob Jones University, was what one could call “Klan curious”; that is, not a formal member of the institution, but he approved of the group’s goals and methods, and certainly had no qualms about taking the money of Klan members. As you probably know Bob Jones University took a hard line against integration, going to the Supreme Court (and losing) in the 1970s to claim its refusal to admit blacks was based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The school also maintained a ban on interracial marriage and dating that extended into the twenty-first century:
1 John 40:20 may say that whoever hates his brother hates god, but I guess the fine people at BJU missed that part of the Bible. Or more likely, black Christians were not considered “brothers” in the eyes of their white co-religionists.
While the Catholic church didn’t stake its entire theological identity on maintaining an oppressive racial caste system like many of the Southern Protestant churches, there was and still is a racial hierarchy within American Catholicism, and the church wasn’t going to go to bat for a racial group that was even less popular than “ethnic white Catholics” already were. Of course, we should also remember that the Catholic hierarchy had more important things to attend to during this time period, like committing and covering up child abuse. That hush money wasn’t going to pay itself, you know!
So with the white “Christian gentlemen” of the South uninterested in the plight of blacks, what were they to do? If we sat around waiting for white people to sudden reach a state of enlightenment regarding race relations, chattel slavery would still be an ongoing phenomenon. It was only when black people got out of the pews and into the streets that change became a reality. The LoSers don’t explain how Lee or Jackson would have addressed slavery or the black desire for full citizenship, because these concerns were illegitimate in Confederate and Jim Crow South discourse. And let’s get real, the LoSers harbor a not-so secret desire to bring back slavery and/or Jim Crow, presumably because it keeps blacks in “their place.” Like Frederick Douglass said, the South and its Northern enablers created a form of Christianity in which one could buy, sell, rape, and brutalize other human beings, and still be considered a “Christian gentleman.” These “Christian gentlemen” had no problem with breaking up families, raping black women and using the resulting children as more unpaid labor, beating people for fun, turning lynching into a spectator sport. As Douglass said, if this is Christianity, atheism is far preferable.
This brings me to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of those stories that has been told and retold so many times in our culture that we’ve become numb to it, but I think it’s relevant to the history of black civil rights. In the parable, a man has been beaten and left on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite see him, and keep on going, presumably for ritual cleanliness reasons, while a Samaritan stops to help. The Samaritians are a member of a small Abrahamic ethno-religious group that has many similarities to Judaism, but diverges on many key points:
During the Second Temple period, the followers of proto-Rabbinic Judaism and the Samaritans hated each other, which is why the parable is supposed to pack a punch to the reader. The priest and the Levite had a religious duty to help the injured stranger, but were more concerned with purity, while the Samaritan who had no such obligation did. The point of the parable is to show that all people should be considered neighbors by Christians, not just the ones in your “tribe,” but as the case of our “Christian gentlemen” shows, reality often falls short of the ideal.
As far as I’m concerned, humanists are the “good Samaritans” when it comes to the black community. The whites who have done the most to help blacks have tended to be religious freethinkers (Unitarians, Reform Jews, Ethical Culturists) and what we would now call secular humanists, while “orthodox” religionists were nowhere to be found. The NAACP and the Urban League were both founded by multiracial coalitions of progressive freethinkers, and the whites who supported the Civil Rights Movement also fell into this category. The same is true for modern supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. White conservative religionists tend to be more interested in the ideological “purity” of their tribe (of which blacks are not a member, regardless of their religion or lack thereof), whereas humanists care about other people whether they are humanists or not. White freethinkers like Mary White Ovington, Harry Moskowitz, and William English Walling could see that blacks were their neighbors, which is more than can be said for “Christian gentlemen” like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. Welcome infidelity, indeed.