Acton Institute Powerblog

The KKK, Selma, and Southern Christianity

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Selma_posterTwo 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 Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Jeremy

    Let the reader know that the author is playing the long-game here, and veiling his real thoughts. He is not asking these question because he feels he doesn’t understand. He’s asking them because he has a much stronger position he wants to lead you toward.

    “The South was never the Bible Belt and the Christian presence outside of the black church gets more and more questionable”……”The South had lots of belt during Jim Crow but very little Bible it seems outside of the black church.” – The author’s Facebook.

    • Anthony Bradley

      No Jeremy, I am not a liar. I really am interested in knowing the answers to the questions raised which is why I asked them. There’s no need for any gnosticism. There is not hidden agenda or conspiracy. But if you have answers to the questions I asked, I would love to hear your thoughts.

      • Jeremy

        You have a much stronger position than is listed in the article, but it is not written because people would shut down. You want people to listen and consider things carefully in a new light, and if you openly doubted the existence of Southern Christians outside the black church, people would shut down and that wouldn’t happen. I understand the motivation. But, ultimately, I think cards need to be on the table, and let things play out. If people shut down, then they shut down. If you think they’re dismissing you wrongly, then you pray for them and keep talking.

        • Krychek_2

          Jeremy, your argument is essentially an ad hominem — Anthony shouldn’t be paid attention to because of other positions he took in other discussions. If you have a response to the points he made, fine.

  • Andrew Irvin

    Where were the evangelicals is a fascinating, albeit disturbing, question. I currently serve a United Methodist church (that is not meant to be a blanket endorsement of the UMC, by the way) and when doing research for a sermon I ran across interesting biographical information on a tough circuit rider named Peter Cartwright. He had his own hangups and a very flawed view of black people, but he was deeply opposed to slavery. I think you’ll find some interesting reading.

    • Anthony Bradley

      Thanks for the tip.

  • Michael

    Where was Paul and the early church when Rome was killing the Germananic tribes and putting them in slavery? Why didnt the church stand up and do something? Why was it so easy for pagan religions to support Rome in this while Christians nerely stood by and did nothing? Why didnt Paul tell Christians to rise up against the government and end slavery?

    • scienceovermyth

      ” Why didnt Paul tell Christians to rise up against the government and end slavery?” Basically because it would have been suicidal. Slavery was accepted throughout the entire worlds, not just Rome, as a fact of life. Before the invention of machinery powered by fuel, the only kind of energy would be wind, water or muscle. Human muscle was accepted as the only way certain industries could exist (mining, rowing, etc.) and the only way to get that energy was by enforce slavery, the working conditions so horrific you couldn’t pay enough to get people to do those things for financial gain. So all societies existed on the backs of slaves. The difference with Christianity was that it recognized these slaves as human beings with souls, not merely chattel.
      But nice try in trying to deflect the argument from the failings of the Southern Evangelicals to follow the teachings of the Gospel and instead come to some sort of justification for their bigotry and racism.

    • chake

      I thought the reason was because Rome had a separation of church and state law.

  • Hermonta Godwin

    Well as we think about how Southern Christians did or should have responded to the Selma etc, perhaps we should investigate whether we have our facts straights about what actually happened there and in other contentious places –

    • cdplaya

      Slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow wasn’t so bad. Blacks and white folks in the south got along just fine until those outsiders came in with their agitation, fornication, and all manner of ungodliness. The response to the demonstrations was portrayed by the media to be worse than it actually was. The dogs, fire hoses, and deaths were rare and when they did happen they were the result of lawlessness of outsiders. Sarcasm ends now.

  • I don’t have an answer, but your questions sure echo the “If Kuyperianism is so great, why was apartheid such a dominant force in South Africa?” ones I’ve heard.

  • John Hutchinson

    The 20th Century Evangelicals to their shame have deemed it proper to not involve themselves too heavily in worldly affairs. The Gospel is reduced to the means of acquiring berth into New Kingdom of God (D.A. Carson (“What Are Gospel Issues” -Themelios39.2 (2014), John Piper) and any ventures into areas outside of this Great Commission are deemed to distract from that purpose. It turns Christianity into an esoterica theological abstraction, an orphan without any connected relevance with the real world. Certainly, I am primarily concerned with the Kingdom and the means to enter it. However, all these other issues act as vehicles by which to display the supremacy of the ethic and ethos of that Kingdom and make it desirable. Such endeavors are handmaidens of the Gospel although they can pose a potential peril into becoming the main event.

    You see this amongst the 1930s German Baptists, who kept their head ducked down and lived happily in their isolated ideological gated community during the Nazi regime and are only recently apologizing for their negligence, possibly because of the irrelevance of Christianity in Europe.

    Besides the reality that many “God and country” Evangelicals then and now are “tares”, who would find a multiracial Heaven, hell. Or like the folks in the UMC, they also pick and choose which of the Scriptural counsels to give scrupulous consideration. And then you have the “Left Behind” crew with unconcern for and ignorance of the world, except as it maps into their ever evolving systematic eschatologies. And on and on it goes…

    However, mainline Protestantism and Hellenist/Latin Christianity have their endless parade of faults.

  • Jp Stearns

    Don’t know how the movie portrays Billy Graham (being the most high profile evangelical leader, will limit my comment to his work); however, a quick internet search will establish his broader work during the broader period in question:

    Paraphrasing from the second link, Dr. King himself credited Billy Graham with significantly helping his movement. The simple answer to your question, at least with regard to Billy Graham, he was at the forefront of the movement, breaking barriers (see the 30,000 person, integrated 1964 Birmingham, AL crusade) and advancing the cause.

    • RocketRod

      Yes, Billy Graham was going to do a crusade in one southern city and when the organizers told him that they had separate sections for blacks and whites, Billy Graham said, “If that is the case, then I am not coming.” The crusade (and seating) was immediately “integrated.” He, being driven by the gospel, was well ahead of his southern culture and heritage.

  • Timothy

    Excellent point about the global nature of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions as a factor in their involvement in Civil Rights. In addition to the broader focus of these two global Christian communions beyond American domestic politics, the hierarchical structure of these churches and their universally known designated leaders ensured that these churches would be more capable of acting efficiently and in speaking with one voice. To a lesser extent, this could also be true with the more structured and hierarchical mainline Protestant churches as well. In contrast, evangelicals during the 1950’s and 1960’s were less involved in politics than in more recent times, and tended more toward a pietistic tradition with independent churches and multiple lesser-known leaders. This article also raises questions as to whether evangelicals today, if transported back 50 years in time, would approach Civil Rights with a different consciousness and response.

  • The participation in Jim Crow by the Southern Baptists is a serious black mark against the organization. It began with the church’s support of slavery before the Civil War. The only thing I can guess is that, just as happens today, some Christians assume the status quo is the same as Christian culture. It’s odd that Baptists ignored the brutal treatment of other people and then stood so strongly against alcohol and later abortion. But the irony doesn’t end there. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest organization of black churches in the US. Maybe that shows that black people have a great capacity for forgiveness.

  • Mark

    One of the big things to look at is that the civil rights movement also got caught up with the communist label. Back in the 30s, Stalin actively recruited African Americans to work for civil rights as a means to weaken the United States (he also ordered American affiliated communists to stop working on civil rights issues when the USSR was invaded). People like Rustin, Farmer, and the like had notable communist/socialist associations during the height of the red scare. For Fundamentalists (as Evangelical was not really a typology at the time), this is pretty rough folks to march with as a lot fundamentalists of the era well and truly believed that the USSR might be an instrument of the antichrist. Socialism was a far more deadly thing than racism to a lot of Fundamentalists of the era.

    Likewise, by the time the mid-60s roll around you have a lot of other players that would be fairly problematic for Christians who see their chief duty as eliciting individual conversion experiences. For instance Malcolm X, with his militant Islam tarred much of the civil rights movement in the eyes of Evangelicals. Atheists and at least functional agnostics, like Du Bois, Forman, and Rustin further made participation with the formal civil rights movement particularly troublesome for people who truly believe that Christian conversionism is the essential calling of the church. As the 60s wore on, the coupling of the Civil Rights movement to the sexual revolution and the like further made significant cooperation untenable.

    And let us not forget, becoming part of the Civil Rights movement would have meant forging common cause with theological liberals – opponents who had been literally anathematized. It takes peculiar sort of person to break up an entire religious denomination and forswear things like the World Council of Churches to then turn around and work, at risk of their life, to work beside former adversaries.

    Was there racism and many other reprehensible motives? Certainly, that was absolutely evident with the debates about desegregation within the fundamentalist denominations. But you also had to look at the entire ecology with which the Civil Rights movement was enmeshed. Fundamentalists turned their back on merely liberal (e.g. non-literalist) Christians; expecting them to work with communists, atheists, free love advocates, gay advocates, and liberal Christians is quite a lot. This is not unlike the case today where a large number of African-American church leaders from denominations that support the Pro-Life position have very hard times working with conservatives due to other associations (e.g. the NRA, the ) that crop up. It is exceedingly hard to get people, even those who might agree about a single issue, to work in an ecology where they have many foes.

  • Right. See: Forgotten history: The Klan vs. Americans of Hellenic heritage in an Era of Hate

    “Many Greek-owned confectioneries and restaurants failed financially or were sold at sacrificial prices to non-Greeks because of boycotts instigated by the Klan. Greek establishments doing as much as $500 to $1,000 a day business, especially in the South and Midwest, dropped to as little as $25 a day. The only recourse was to sell or close. The Klan often bolstered its boycotts by openly threatening or attacking customers entering and leaving.

    “A Klan Imperial lecturer told Klansmen in Spokane that Mexicans and Greeks should be sent back to where they came from so that white supremacy and the purity of Americans be preserved. Meanwhile, in Palatka, Florida, a Greek immigrant was flogged for dating a ‘white’ woman.”

  • Bob

    Despite their friendship, tensions between the Graham and King emerged in 1958 when the sponsoring committee of a crusade which took place in San Antonio, Texas on July 25 arranged for Graham to be introduced by that state’s segregationist governor, Price Daniel.[29] On July 23, King sent a letter to Graham and informed him that allowing Daniel to speak at a crusade which occurred the night before the state’s Democratic Primary “can well be interpreted as your endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination.”[31] Graham’s advisor, Grady Wilson, replied to King that “even though we do not see eye to eye with him on every issue, we still love him in Christ.”[32]

  • Bob

    By the middle of 1960, King and Graham had reconciled and traveled together to the Tenth Baptist World Congress of the Baptist World Alliance.[29] In 1963, Graham posted bail for King to be released from jail during the civil rights protests in Birmingham.[33] Graham held integrated crusades in Birmingham, Alabama, on Easter 1964 in the aftermath of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and toured Alabama again in the wake of the violence that accompanied the first Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.[29]

  • chake

    The culture doesn’t follow religion, religion follows the culture. The evangelicals were the ones clubbing and shooting the blacks.

  • chake

    What both of you are pointing out is that throughout history everybody needs somebody to feel superior to. That is true on an individual, group, organization, and country level. The Muslims feel superior to all other religions. The Southern Baptists feel superior to the Methodists. The United States believes they are superior to all other countries. Many straights feel superior to gays. The list can go on and on. Usually the one who thinks they are superior eventually winds up hating the one they consider inferior and calls them evil or some equally denigrating term. It is a sad human psychological condition which readily lends itself to a mob conformity mentality; sometimes referred to today as being politically correct. Those who are politically correct feel superior to those who are not and you must become pc or risk ridicule and persecution. BTW Don’t forget to check your privilege.

  • Andrew Orlovsky

    Anthony, I was actually raised Eastern Orthodox but became Evangelical in college after getting involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. At times in my adult life, i considered returning to the Orthodox Church after some frustration with Evangelicalism and its constant desire to be “cool and relavent”, but I now feel very content in liturgical reformed church. Most of the Orthodox Churches in America were essentially social clubs for immigrants that shrunk considerably as the people assimilated into American Culture, so Eastern Orthodoxy has its own issues too. When I visited the church I grew up in with me two year old son, he was the only child there and most of the congregation was 70+ year old women. One more question, if the behavior of Southern Christians during the civil rights movement reveals a flaw in Evangelical Theology does that fact that Vladimir Putin and his minions adhere to Orthodoxy reveal a flaw in Orthodox Theology.

    • Yes, many of the Orthodox churches in the United States are still wedded to an ethnic model which is a reflection of the strain of nationalism in many of the “mother churches.” That said, you can find deep faith and practice in many parishes and monasteries here. The ethnic social clubs are withering away. As for Putin, his worship in the ROC indicates nothing about “flaws” in Orthodox theology. I will refrain from speculating about the quality of his faith.

  • John

    Thanks for the enlightening article about The KKK, Selma, and Southern Christianity. Although there is may be little excuse for Reformed evangelicals not participating in the marches, as you note, in the 1950s. But historically speaking, (correct me if I am wrong) there were very, very few Calvinists in the United States in the 1950s. Almost non-existent. There were a few navel-gazing Presbyterians here and there but the USA was largely an Arminian phenomena until very late in the century. The 1700s and 1800s saw many Calvinists and some even participated in slavery but this movement largely “died out” until recently.

  • rickrod

    Valid observation that makes me think that evangelical faith was pretty much worthless in opposing racial injustice (perhaps worthless in general) and not much has changed to this day!

  • Not endorsing the KKK, still the civil rights movement has morphed into a black community made considerably worse from Johnson’s legislation. Also, to brand evangelicals in a sweeping generalization would be the same as branding Catholics as pedophiles and blacks as thugs. It is unfair.

  • Eric

    It is difficult to second-guess the feelings and views of our Southern brethren from an earlier generation. Many of us weren’t there at the time. Perhaps they were as turned off to King and company as we are today with the Al Sharpton, Eric Holder, and Jesse Jackson race baiters in our midst.

  • tehila

    i wonder if the author of this article fact checked the movie….do we really expect the producers, Brad Pitt and Oprah to hold to actual historical facts? they are part of the new world order. obviously truth is not something they would hold to. There is much propaganda disseminated through hollywood.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    I know this is an older blog post and perhaps some of your questions have been answered by now, but a new resource has been released by Broadman & Holman (B&H) Academic that may she’d some light on Southern Evangelical thinking of that time: Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention edited by Rev. Dr. Jarvis Williams and Rev. Dr. Kevin Jones. The first section of the book traces all of the statements and resolutions on race and race relations by the SBC since the inception of the denomination. As the authors and editors acknowledge, however, the public statements did not always manifest in the behavior of members of churches affiliated through the Convention. But at least it demonstrates the arc of thought of Southern Baptists. The latest statement (June 2017) does not appear in the book, but in light of some rhetoric from the 2016 election and renewed efforts of white nationalists to infiltrate SBC churches the denomination spoke out unequivocally and unanimously condemning white nationalism and racism of all forms.