Excerpt from “Richmond Burning – the Last Days of the Confederate Capital” Nelson Lankford Page 237 – April 1865
“White ministers of black churches did not last many Sundays after their occupation. On Palm Sunday, before news of Appomattox reached the city, Robert Ryland dared to warn his flock of African Baptist Church against the USCT (United States Colored Troops) recruiting officers. On hearing his inflammatory remarks, black soldiers in the congregation tried to arrest Ryland when the service ended. Some parishioners pleaded with them to spare the old man that indignity. Like so many whites who thought they understood black Richmonders, Ryland could not fathom the loathing of people for their enslavement and their exaltation at its demise.
As much was clear from a conversation he had with the Rev. Peter Randolph some weeks later. Born a slave in Prince George County, Virginia but freed by his owners before the war, Randolph moved to the North. He returned to be the postwar pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond. Not realizing Randolph was a Virginian, Ryland tried to tell him that slavery in the Old Dominion had been an exceedingly mild institution. Randolph later remembered that he replied, with a long sigh “If Hell was any worse than slavery in Virginia, I did not want to go there”.
Things have not changed all that much in the past 145 years. White Americans still look at Black Americans through their “white” lens and have resisted, either overtly or subconsciously, to see life from a Black American’s perspective and we are still struggling with the same issues emancipated slaves encountered in April 1865.
White supremacy has always been a part of the American culture and until recently, the Christian church’s culture.
When Christian churches preached white supremacy and/or supported the violence against black Americans, it legitimized and reinforced the white supremacy culture.
Excerpt from a July 1, 2020, NPR article White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots In U.S. Christianity:
“When a young Southern Baptist pastor named Alan Cross arrived in Montgomery, Ala., in January 2000, he knew it was where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his first church and where Rosa Parks helped launched the famous bus boycott, but he didn’t know some other details of the city’s role in civil rights history. The more he learned, the more troubled he became by one event in particular:
“In May 1961, a savage attack was made on a busload of Black and white Freedom Riders who had traveled defiantly together to Montgomery in a challenge to segregation.
“They pull in right here, on the side,” Cross said, standing in front of the depot. “And it was quiet when they got here. But then once they start getting off the bus, around 500 people come out – men, women, and children. Men were holding the Freedom Riders back, and the women were hitting them with their purses and holding their children up to claw their faces.” Some of the men carried lead pipes and baseball bats. Two of the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activist John Lewis and a white ally, James Zwerg, were beaten unconscious.
“Why didn’t white Christians show up?” he recalled wondering. To his dismay, Cross learned that many of the people in the white mob were regular churchgoers.
Less than three weeks after the 1961 attack on the Freedom Riders, Montgomery’s most prominent pastor, Henry Lyon Jr., gave a fiery speech before the local white Citizens’ Council, denouncing the civil rights protesters and the cause for which they were beaten — from a “Christian” perspective.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the privilege of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city,” Lyon said. “If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am none the less a Christian.” The crowd applauded.”
There were Christian churches who supported the civil rights movement but overwhelmingly they were northern liberal churches.
“Simply put, any suggestion that the religion of southern whites aided the civil rights struggle grossly perverts the past. While many evangelicals displayed kindness in their personal dealings with blacks, most nonetheless enthusiastically defended a system designed to advantage whites and to correspondingly disadvantage African Americans at every turn. It is true that every major denomination in the United States embraced the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. However, the picture looks very different at the local level, where southern evangelicals more often fought ferociously against any effort to dismantle the system of white supremacy.”
“It is true that northern ministers participated in the southern struggle, but they represented the least evangelical and most “liberal” elements in American religion. They came largely from the ranks of the Episcopal, Presbyterian (UPCUSA), Unitarian, Disciples of Christ, and Methodist faiths (and from the “liberals” within those faiths), the very branches of American Protestantism that evangelicals have decried for their misguided theology. Furthermore, clerical support for the movement did not necessarily translate to the support of rank-and-file church members. My own preliminary research into the question of northern Christians’ responses to the movement indicates that a deep lay-clerical divide ran through northern congregations when it came to issues of black equality. Some northern ministers encountered serious opposition from their congregations when they advocated for black equality.”
“Most southern Christians did not regard segregation as a sin, and they resented those who criticized their “way of life.” They rejected efforts from their denominations to educate them into more enlightened racial views and frequently withheld funds from agencies in the church who advocated for equality. They sacked pastors who embraced any aspect of the freedom struggle. They formed lay organizations to keep their churches segregated; many individual congregations adopted formal resolutions instructing their deacons to reject black worshippers. When school integration became unavoidable, white evangelicals forsook the public schools in droves in favor of new private schools sponsored by their churches.”
“Finally, the role that religion played in thwarting the civil rights struggle raises important questions about the effectiveness of moral suasion in creating social change. Moral suasion often proves one of the least effective ways to create change. People too easily distort, circumvent, rationalize, or dispatched with moral arguments. Individuals with a vested interest in a system—as whites had (and have) in the racial hierarchy—often fail to grasp the evils of that system and will fight mightily to preserve it. And perhaps that is the bottom line: whites have benefitted from America’s racial hierarchy, and it should not really surprise us that white religious traditions have shored up these advantages. Nor should it surprise us that religion did not help pull them down.”
This was the culture in the ’60s and ’70s and I suspect it is still alive and well in many areas of America. This is the culture a good percentage of folks who are alive today were raised in. Is it any wonder many folks still have a white supremacy mentality…that’s how they were raised, both in the home and in the Christian church? So, when you look at why we are where we are today, the complicity the Christian church has had in creating and supporting the idea of white supremacy in the American culture must be considered.