The KKK, Selma, and southern Christianity
Religion & Liberty Online

The KKK, Selma, and southern Christianity

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Two January 2015 film releases provide great opportunities for Christians to examine the not so admirable aspects of American church history in order to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. First, the newly released movie Selma tells of the story of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the public protests leading up to LBJ signing the bill into law.

My parents were born and raised during Jim Crow and the movie does a great job of depicting life during that era for people like my parents and why federal government intervened to override voting restrictions in the South because of overwhelming resistance by white southerners to allow African Americans proper access to voter registration. The film focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr’s leadership of the Southern Christian Leader Conference during the organization of a march from Selma, Alabama to the Alabama State capital in Montgomery as a protest. The film does not shy away from the flaws in the movement, including MLK’s marital infidelities.

During the film, we learn about the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African-American protestor, who was gunned down in a town near Selma. After his murder by police, King issued a clarion call to anyone in America who wanted come to Selma and join him in the cause to fight for voting rights.

As a theologian, this is where the movie became really interesting. Those who joined King were mainly Jewish, Protestant mainliners from the North, Roman Catholics, and Greek Orthodox. Conspicuously absent were conservative Protestant evangelicals, especially those from the South. In fact, Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America was the highest ranking non-black religious figure in America to join King in the Selma march. This raised several questions for me: What was different about Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions that allowed them to freely join the fight for voting rights while evangelicals chose to do nothing or join the cause to support Jim Crow? Where were the Calvinists who believed in total depravity? Where were the evangelicals? Where was Billy Graham? Where were the Jonathan Edwards fans? Where were the Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, Methodists, and so on? I am asking because I do not understand.

The second noteworthy January film aired on PBS on January 13th. Klansville U.S.A. tells the story of the Klu Klux Klan in North Carolina in the 1960s. The North Carolina Klan had the nation’s largest statewide Civil Rights Movement era membership right at around 10,000. Previous iterations of the KKK topped out nationally at 4 million in 1925 spanning from the South, to Portland, Denver, Detroit, and so on, before a steep decline in the 1930s due to bad press and internal strife.

The documentary tells the story of the rise and fall of Bob Jones, first North Carolina Grand Dragon who teamed up with George Dorsett, an ordained Baptist minister and official Klan chaplain, to grow North Carolina’s membership to the nation’s largest in the 1960s. Again, I am struck with the absence of Southern evangelical resistance to the Klan. Rev. Lance Lewis, an African American Presbyterian minister asked, “How is that you simply allow the demonic use of the cross in this way while at the same time telling your children that the cross is our most precious symbol of God’s love for us?” That is, how could evangelicals let the cross of Jesus Christ be so publicly defiled in that way while associated with domestic terrorism?

What is it about southern evangelicalism that prevented those churches historically from seeing the plight of blacks as connected to the Gospel and the command to love God and neighbor? Maybe there is a real deep theological flaw in what is known as “evangelical theology?” Maybe the evangelicalism of the 1940s, 50s and 60s did not really understand the Gospel as clearly as many are lead to believe. I honestly do not have the answers to these questions but if evangelicals were so blinded by these issues during the Civil Rights Movement it makes me wonder what evangelicals might be missing today.

Perhaps one of the advantages of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism is that they are less vulnerable, as internationally connected communions, to any form of American Christian nationalism. Again, I do not know the answers to these questions but these two films act as a reminder of how crucial it is for Christians, from all traditions, to work together wherever possible for the cause of human dignity. When Christians across the traditions work together for cause of human dignity and human flourishing we are all less vulnerable to our blind spots and can make a more unified contribution to the common good.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.