Ida B. Wells

This woman.

Overflowing with holy discontent.
Emboldened with a contagious fury for justice.
Unwilling to sit idly by while injustice got the last word.

Ida B. Wells.

Without fear of her own well-being, she broke the silence and helped the world see the disparity that existed between the perception of lynchings in the late 1800’s, and the horrific reality of what was actually occurring.

And she wouldn’t stop sharing it until she had no more breath with which to share.

I have learned much from this incredible woman, and I deeply admire her courage and resolve.

#OurHistory

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Strange Fruit

Every American should know this song, because its inspiration is (sadly) part of #OurHistory.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This was originally written as a poem by a teacher, Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allen) in 1937, then made famous as a song performed by Billie Holiday in 1939.

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Controlling The Voting Rolls

As I looked at the Post-Emancipation South, a common theme of “control” clearly rose out of the history books. The southern white population continually asked and answered questions related to how they would now control the Black population in the wake of slavery:
– “What are we going to do about the rising number of African-Americans on the voting rolls?”
– “How will that affect jury selections?”
– “What does this mean for the elections and at the local, state, and national level?”
– “How will we maintain the southern economy that up until this point was borne on the backs of slaves?”

These are legitimate questions… questions that, (with humility), I must recognize are questions I’d likely be asking if I were living in this place and time. We ought not to be so arrogant to think we wouldn’t have fallen under the same mindset of the day.

There’s a whole book that could be written on the Sharecropping system. It’s easy to think that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment, but it’s not that simple. I think it might be benficial for all of us to zero in on that topic more, though I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about it today. It was certainly eye-opening for me to see the ways the South reinvented itself as soon as the Union troops left in the wake of the Civil War’s end. While you couldn’t any longer legally “own” a slave and call him property, you could certainly manipulate the labor system to force the African-American population to remain in the system, year after year, with very little hope of being able to establish themselves on their own. Essentially, slavery simply reinvented itself under this new labor system. A yearning to break out of this oppression is the primary reason why an astounding number of African Americans eventually would migrate North in 1915 and thereafter. It’s a fascinating and simultaneously discouraging example of the depravity of the human mind as we again chased the interests of self by dominating our neighbor.

Today I want to focus some energy on the voting registration and rolls of the late 1800’s in the Post-Emancipation South.

Related to controlling the voting rolls, one stark example (of many) is pretty profound. In Louisiana in 1896, over 130,000 African-Americans were now registered to vote. The black vote, which clearly would have gone to the Republican ticket, was a majority in 26 parishes in Louisiana.

Sadly, that quickly changed.

Just four years later, in 1900, the voting rolls plummeted down to just 5,300 African-Americans in Louisiana. That’s a 96% drop in just 4 years! Put that number in context with the other practices that were commonplace in the South during this time, and it’s quite easy for us to determine the causality for this decrease in black representation.

I think it’s worth educating ourselves on some of these commonplace practices.

According to a report put out by a National Historic Landmarks Program, “Violence played a large part in Republican defeats. The Ku Klux Klan, born in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865, along with other white vigilante groups such as the Knights of the White Camellia, unleashed a reign of terror throughout the South to intimidate African Americans and their white allies from voting. Klansmen inflicted beatings, committed rape and murder, and drove families from their homes. […] Throughout their ordeal, African Americans braved great risks to go to the polls, but each year their numbers dwindled. Furthermore, once Democrats returned to power, they enacted measures to restrict black suffrage, such as poll tax requirements, which fell hardest on the poor.”

In addition to the extra poll taxes and the threat of violence, other measures were used to manipulate voting results.

Under the guise of voter privacy and prevention of intimidation at the polls, the concept of the secret ballot began. Prior to the secret ballot, voters went to the polls with printed ballots distributed by political parties with their candidates’ names on them. The secret ballot system prohibited the use of this material and required voters to make their choices from the numerous names and offices printed on official ballots, a task that many of them could not perform. The concept makes sense to us today, but at this time, when the literacy rate among the majority of the black population was nearly still as low as it had ever been, it diminished the black vote.

Along a very similar vein, (much less subtle) literacy tests were used.

The report from the NHLP that I mentioned earlier went on to say the following:
“Literacy tests, if administered fairly, would have disenfranchised a considerable number of poorly educated blacks and whites. Instead, white registrars decided who passed the exam, and they used their discretion mainly against African Americans. In 1890, the Mississippi constitutional convention adopted a literacy qualification that would become the model for the region. It provided an illiterate suffrage applicant the option of enrolling if he could “understand any section of the state constitution read to him . . . or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” In this way, voting officials denied registration to blacks but not whites, however unable to read and write the whites might have been.”

Lousiana took it even further. Upon seeing the uneducated white population affected by the literacy tests, a new idea of “Grandfather Clauses” emerged. In it’s most basic form, it created the exception to those who failed the literacy test IF they’re grandfather had previously voted in the past. Since virtually no blacks had grandfathers that were given the right to vote during this time, this presented no advantage to the African-American, but it certainly did for the white man.

I know this is a long post, but all of this continued to show me how systemic and structural the discrimination against African-Americans has been in our history. When we today see riots erupt and communities of people shouting to the rooftops to be heard, it’s easy (and comfortable) for us as white people to find a way to blame it on an individual within the “movement”. Or if there’s an altercation between a white person and a black person it’s easy to ascribe it to something interpersonal between the parties involved. While that can be part of the story, there’s a deeper history that these examples hopefully begin to help us see. These tensions emerge at a far deeper level- a structural, systemic, and subconscious level. Over the years these have become cultural norms that (people that look like me) are in danger of not even recognizing.

#OurHistory

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Recreated & Relabeled

When did slavery in America end?

Just months ago I would’ve given a quick answer to that question. In my ignorance I certainly wouldn’t have known the date off the top of my head, and if I were able to do a quick Google search under the table without you knowing, I’d eventually come back with 1865.

“Yes, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was put into play.”

But today if we were having that conversation, I would hesitate a lot more, and I’d probably respond with some kind of hat-tip to the loaded nature of your question. After some conversation and back and forth, eventually, I’d just flat out tell you IT NEVER ENDED; that through the years slavery has just been recreated and relabeled in different forms.

Hopefully we’d still be talking.

Quite frankly, I’m hoping you’re still reading.

For me, I’ve grown up and lived with a lot of assumptions. But those assumptions have proven to be misrepresentations, and they have now in turn transformed into convictions deep in my soul. You know as well as I do- when a conviction is embedded deep enough inside you, you just have to share it. Even if nobody will listen.

Some have asked why I’m writing these posts. They think I’m trying to convince them of something. I’m really not.

In fact I think the following quote is most accurate to my heart in these posts:

“Sometimes I speak up because I think it might actually change the world. Other times, I speak up simply to keep the world from changing me.”

I know we’re only a couple days into this month, but I appreciate you taking this journey with me. Please keep reading. The posts coming up are about to get even darker, but we must remember the wrongs of our past lest we repeat them in our future.

#OurHistory

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Abraham Lincoln & Emancipation

One of the things I appreciate most about history is the complex nature of the characters involved. When we study history in school, we often only retain the “highlight reel moments” that still today ripple from a person’s legacy, while missing some of the important backstory that made those moments happen.

Abraham Lincoln is a great example of this.

To most people, Lincoln is known as the Great Emancipator because of the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on January 1, 1863. Of course, this was a pivotal moment in his leadership and in the African-American experience. However, even though he always hated slavery, his views on African-Americans and their role in society certainly evolved over the course of his political career.

Similar to the hot-button political issues of our day today, the solutions are easy and simple from our couch as private citizens, but considerably more complex as an elected official. Once emancipated, the questions of what to do with former slaves were not simple, and some of Lincoln’s early answers to these questions were frankly shameful from our perspective today.

– Throughout his career, he was often at odds with abolitionists, moving too slow in producing change. They called for an immediate end to slavery and for freed slaves to be incorporated as equal members of society. Instead, Lincoln advocated for a more gradual phasing-out process.

– For well over a decade, Lincoln felt that the best way to confront the problem of slavery was colonization: the idea that a majority of the African-American population should be asked or required to leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America. The thought process here came from seeing no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably.

– In 1861-1862, Lincoln pushed a variety of plans to compensate slave owners in return for their slaves’ emancipation. Aside from the District of Columbia, it got shot down at the State level and was never enacted.

As I looked into all this further, I gained a ton of admiration for Lincoln in this: he listened and changed!

As he edited the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in August of 1862, Lincoln opened the White House to a delegation of freed slaves in the hopes of getting their buy-in on a plan for colonization. However, this sparked a new level of frustration among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites, and thus deserved equal rights. Slaves and slave-owners alike resisted the idea of colonization (for different reasons, as you can imagine). Furthermore, a shift in Lincoln’s thinking occurred when he saw the high numbers of freed slaves leaving plantations and crossing Union lines to suit up in military uniforms and fight against the South. He figured since they put their lives on the line, they had placed a significant and personal stake in our nation.

The preliminary version of the Proclamation was published a month later on September 22, 1862, and it looked very different from his other public policies up to this point. Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia University and author of The Fiery Trial, explains Lincoln’s change of heart: “The Emancipation Proclamation completely repudiates all of those previous ideas for Lincoln. [The abolishment of slavery is] immediate, not gradual. There is no mention of compensation and there is nothing in it about colonization. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln says nothing publicly about colonization.”

What could this mean for us today?

I see at least two things…

1. It’s easy to view those in authority over us from a negative and fatalistic perspective. Ie. “That’s the way they’ve been, that’s the way they are, and that’s the way they’ll always be.” This narrative reminds me that the thought processes of ANY person in any position can change with time.

2. As people of faith, we should be voices of reason and compassion among the chaos of well-meaning but sometimes misguided leaders. When we see injustice do we speak up? Do we put pressure on our elected officials when we see our fellow man hurting as a result of public policy? There’s a way to do this that is both aggresssive and respectful, and people who want to influence change need to figure that tension out. Again, we have a responsibility to find a way to do it respectfully, but remaining silent about issues that matter is not an option. Can you imagine all that our nation would have lost if the colonization plan went forward?

#OurHistory 

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Poem: Bury Me In A Free Land

This poem was written in 1854 by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a journalist, activist, underground railroad host, and anti-lynching crusader.

#OurHistory

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One of History’s Darkest Moments

We all know that one of the darkest moments in our history as a nation was our participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In looking at it all a little deeper, it was shocking for me to understand the SHEER NUMBER of people we took from Africa in order to secure our desired future. Not thousands, but millions. Depending on the historian, it is estimated that 12.5 MILLION Africans were forcefully brought from their homeland to the New World over the span of 340 years. Nearly 2 MILLION didn’t even survive the trip to the Americas.

It can certainly seem barbaric and unthinkable to us today (as it should!) and as I looked at this more, I began to see the deep cultural norms that were supporting this ideology for centuries leading up to this time. Different forms of slavery and race domination were common practice. Many colonial settlers made passage to the New World with indentured servants, some of their own will, but many forced. When we look at slavery, we have to also look at and understand that our treatment of the First Americans was an outgrowth of these same ideologies. The idea of seeing another race of people as inferior to the White man runs deep, and the all-consuming quest for a better life, even at the expense of another race, was a trade our ancestors were willing to make.

One of the questions I had when looking at all this was related to the influence of Christians in these conversations and ideologies of the time. What were they saying, and how did they engage in this cultural moment? What I found was disheartening.

They justified it.

In his book, Divided By Faith, Michael Emerson paints a clear picture of the dominant religious thought in the early 1700’s: “According to one clergyman: ‘To live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible.’ This perceived necessity for slaves influenced Christian doctrine on the issue. For white ministers and commoners alike, at least in the South and border states, ‘a deep feeling of the misery of life without enslaved blacks often provided the hidden premise of theological and ethical statements about slavery.'”

By the 1830’s up until Emancipation, in response to a new wave of abolitionists, Southern whites began USING THE BIBLE and Christian ideals in a systematic defense of slavery.

We in the Church often like to blame “the world” for our cultural woes. But history is clear on this one: the Church has to own and recognize that we slept in a moment when we should have stood.

Like the potential for us today, we can become so used to the giant systems of corruption and oppression around us that we don’t even see the poison for what it is. We can take the Bible and read the same passages with an angle of justification, even though we know deep down inside, at the core of our being, it just isn’t right.

All of this has led me to see 3 sobering implications for us today:

1) Let’s take real caution in saying that our nation was founded on Christian principles. For sure, there were some values of the Judeo-Christian ethic that influenced our founding fathers, but this narrative tells a more complete picture. To say America began as a Christian nation is dangerous, and frankly, untrue. In light of our history, how would this be received today by a person of African descent? Our words carry weight, and we must be careful how we speak.

2) Let’s listen more intentionally to the contrarian voices in our culture. Let’s be discerning and keep ourselves grounded Biblically, but let’s not shy away from the voices of those outside our circles. Do we read books by authors of different theological backgrounds than us? Do we listen to podcasts and follow people that are often “hated” or “shamed” by our version of Christianity? We are in danger of so controlling the voices we allow in that we miss Truth that could set people free.

3) At the core of the Gospel and Jesus’ teachings is an intentional move AWAY FROM domination and control of our fellow man. Instead, a true understanding of the Gospel moves us TOWARDS selflessness, humility, and equality as it relates to all interactions with our neighbor. If I’m dominating another person I’m not living out the Gospel. And if I’m not speaking up for the vulnerable because of self-preservation or self-advancement, I’m not following the path of Jesus.

#OurHistory

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January 1st… 1863

On New Year’s Eve, 154 years ago, people of color, both slave and free, came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the promised Emancipation Proclamation had in fact become law. At the stroke of midnight, on January 1, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as many people fell to their knees and thanked God. As we celebrate the end of 2016, may we today also celebrate a moment in history when we as a people moved closer towards justice and equality for all. Even today, may we see all other men as brothers and all other women as sisters. #HappyNewYear

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