A short history of Christianity and racism

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

Meeting of the KKK, probably in Portland, Ore., in the 1920s. (Image credit: Oregon Historical Society)

Buying and selling existing slaves was always perfectly acceptable to Christians, since the Bible specifically permitted it, and set out a number of rules to regulate it. Christians had a few theoretical rules about slavery, for example Christians should not in theory have enslaved other Christians unless they were prisoners taken in battle. In practice these rules were highly flexible, and the Church itself frequently condemned people to slavery. There was no question about the bible’s support for slavery, but when widespread slavery became rare during the Enlightenment, it now became necessary to justify specifically Black Slavery. Fortunately there were some convenient ancient Christian traditions.

The first justification came from a biblical character called Phinehas. The biblical Phineas executed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman while they were together in the man’s tent, running a spear or lance through the man and the belly of the woman. This double killing ended a plague sent by God to punish the Israelites for sexually intermingling with the Midianites, engaging in idolatrous practices brought in by Midianite women, and stopping the desecration of God’s sanctuary. For his actions Phineas is commemorated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 2. Phinehas, was cited by the promoters of laws banning interracial marriages, and his name was used by Christian Identity groups, such as the Phineas Priesthood.

A second justification came from another biblical character, Ham, one of the sons of Noah. Ham committed some unspeakable sexual crime against his father Noah (Gen. 9:20-27). For this crime Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan. The narrative was interpreted by Jews, Christians and Muslims as an explanation for Canaan and his descendants being inferior beings, having black skin, and being suited to lives of slavery. The Curse of Ham was frequently cited as the biblical justification for imposing eternal slavery upon black people, and black people alone.

The biblical explanation that black Africans, as the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins, was cited during the Middle Ages. It became increasingly common during the Christian slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was still a popular idea after the end of slavery in the west, and some denominations retained the idea well into secular times. Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that Black Africans were under the Curse of Ham. For this reason, Brigham Young held that Black people were banned from the Priesthood. In 1978 then president of the Church, Spencer W. Kimball, said he received a revelation that extended the Priesthood to all worthy male members of the Church.

A third justification came from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, where Cain is marked in some way for his crime. Early Christianity associated the Mark of Cain with black skin, explicit references surviving in many early texts, including Syriac and Armenian Christianity. The idea persisted through the Middle Ages and was used by Christian supporters of slavery.

Africans in North America and the Caribbean

The premise behind chattel slavery in North America had been the traditional biblical one that slaves, like women and children, were property. As such they had few, if any, legal rights.

Slave codes were effective tools against slave discontent, particularly uprisings and runaways. Enforcement of slave codes varied, but corporal punishment was widely and harshly employed. The original U.S. constitution discriminated against blacks. In 1776, seven out of the Thirteen Colonies that declared their independence enforced laws against interracial marriage. Both Northern and Southern states had passed further discriminatory legislation from the early 19th century.

As the abolitionist movement gained force, concern about blacks heightened among some whites in the North. The 1848 Constitution of Illinois led to one of the harshest Black Code systems in the nation until the Civil War. Indiana’s 1851 Constitution stated “No Negro or Mulatto shall come into, or settle in, the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” The Illinois Black Code of 1853 extended a complete prohibition against black immigration into the state.

Some American states had passed anti-miscegenation laws, banning the marriage of whites to blacks (“negros”), in the 18th Century these laws were justified by reference to the Bible, particularly of the stories of Phinehas and of the “Curse of Ham”. In the nineteenth century all slave states passed anti-miscegenation laws laws, as did new free states, including Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, using the same biblical justifications. Some states continued to pass such laws well into the 20th century.

The term “Black Codes” is used to refer to legislation passed by Southern states at the end of the Civil War to control the labor, migration and other activities of newly-freed slaves. During 1865 all Southern states passed Black Codes preventing emancipated slaves from becoming full citizens, allowing them second-class civil rights and no voting rights. Black Codes denied blacks the rights to testify against whites, to serve on juries or in state militias, to vote, or to express legal concern publicly. Black Codes also declared that those who failed to sign yearly labour contracts could be arrested and hired out to white landowners – attempting to re-implement a diluted version of slavery. Some states limited occupations open to African Americans and barred them from acquiring land. Others provided for judges the authority to assign African American children to work for their former owners without the consent of their parents. In Texas, Black Codes were enacted in 1866. The legislature, in amending the 1856 penal code, emphasised the line between whites and blacks by defining all individuals with one-eighth or more black ancestry as persons of color, subject to special provisions in the law.

Martin Luther King with his son removing a burnt cross from their front yard

Black Codes ceased after 1866, and were soon replaced by so-called Jim Crow laws. These were state and local laws enacted up to 1965. They mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with, starting in 1890, a “separate but equal” status for African Americans. The separation in practice led to conditions for African Americans that were inferior to those provided for white Americans, instituting a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages. Northern segregation was generally less formal, with segregation in housing enforced by covenants, bank lending practices, job discrimination, and segregation. Jim Crow laws required the segregation of public schools, public places, public transportation, public lavatories, restaurants, and even required separate public drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The US military was also segregated.

In the USA where Christian values were strongest, millions of whites belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, an organisation extolled by all manner of Protestant churchmen. The Klan was then, and still is now, a powerful advocate for Christianity. The Christian cross features heavily in its activities and it has consistently campaigned for the compulsory teaching of Christianity in public schools. The Klan was so well accepted as a desirable part of Christian American life that it commonly featured in the media — both factual and fictional.

The Rev. Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, for example was made into an influential film in 1915: Also known as The Birth of a Nation it is W. Griffith’s famous work, which explicitly glorifies the Klan. (The film is now rarely shown, and then only with heavy cuts). In the early 1920s the Klan boasted over 4,000,000 members, every one of them a practicing Christian. Woodrow Wilson, in his History of the American People referred to the film as “great” and described it as”terribly true”.

The constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws was upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1883 case Pace v. Alabama (106 US 583). The Supreme Court ruled that the Alabama anti-miscegenation statute did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. According to the court, both races were treated equally, because whites and blacks were punished in equal measure for breaking the law against interracial marriage and interracial sex. Between 1913 and 1948, 30 out of the then 48 states enforced anti-miscegenation laws.

When Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963 he was politely rebuking his fellow clergymen from Alabama for their failure to support even nonviolent protest against the racist enormities that were then everyday realities. The letter refers to “the Negro church” and “the white church” – a distinction that was taken for granted by all. Here are a few of his comments directed, remember, to clergymen who were his nominal allies:

Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation. … At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.

I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent – and often even vocal – sanction of things as they are.

But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.

(Click on this link to read the full text)

The white Churches were slow to see that times were changing. State-sponsored school segregation had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Remaining Jim Crow laws would soon be overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The ruling in Pace v. Alabama was overturned in 1967 in the case of Loving v. Virginia, where the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.

Segregation remained longest in the USA where Christian belief was strongest. Black people were denied education, the vote and civil rights. Segregation was the norm in health care, in church, on public transport, in places of entertainment, housing — almost every aspect of life. Various black rights groups and white liberals brought the iniquity to public attention. In the course of a few years public opinion shifted to such an extent that discrimination was made illegal. Once again the most strongly Christian states, like Alabama, fought a rearguard action in the name of God, and interracial marriage remained illegal in 19 heavily Christian states until 1967.

More detail, with dozens of images and references at https://www.badnewsaboutchristianity.com/gab_racism.htm.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is badnewsaboutchristianity.com.

The Real History of Slavery – Southern Negro

What Actually Happened When Slaves Were Freed

The KKK: Its history and lasting legacy

Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement

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