Two fast approaching anniversaries place race in the middle of the public square and at the center of the sanctuary, offering a time for truth-telling by those of moral good will.
One is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War on April 12, 1861. The other is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides on May 4, 1961, a civil rights initiative to challenge segregation by riding public transportation.
Both anniversaries take place against a backdrop of simmering racial tensions expressed by some who deny that the Civil War was about slavery and others who deny that the nation’s first African-American president has a U.S. birth certificate – and therefore is an illegitimate president.
The former are historical revisionists; the latter are conspiratorial extremists.
One son of the South has begun working overtime to get on the correct side of race.
Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) added to his regrettable history on race relations when he made troublesome remarks in December 2010 about civil rights. He said that he didn’t remember the situation being bad in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss.
To validate his claim, Barbour said that he, along with other whites and blacks, went to hear Martin Luther King Jr. at the city’s fairgrounds in 1962, an event that historians say didn’t happen.
Barbour claimed the goodness of the all-white Citizens Councils – business groups across the South in supposed opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, when in fact the Citizens Councils worked to advance segregation.
The Mississippi governor’s bothersome remarks tracked with what many politicians have done for decades – play the race card. Richard Nixon did it. Ronald Reagan did it. Barbour has done it.
Playing the race card has a good deal of elasticity, stretching from the claim that the Civil War was about Southern independence and Northern aggression to maintaining that the conditions for African-Americans in the South really weren’t that bad.
Note Barbour’s strained attempt to distinguish between the business whites and the KKK; educational and economic differences aside, both favored segregation.
However, to the governor’s credit – regardless the reason – he backtracked the day after his December comments appeared.
“My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African-Americans who were persecuted in that time,” said Barbour.
A few months later, Barbour said that he would not sign a bill that would celebrate the 150th Civil War anniversary by allowing the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to have a special license plate with Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A slave trader before the war, Nathan Bedford Forrest was accused of the “Fort Pillow massacre” in which 300 black Union soldiers were killed. He was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. He has become the hero of white Southern heritage organizations.
At the end of March, seeking to distance himself from the perception that he harbored sympathy for a racist heritage, Barbour said, “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did.”
Admitting the necessity for the Civil War to end slavery, he added, “Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession.”
Barbour also announced that he was calling for a special session of the Mississippi legislature, which he hoped would fund the Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History.
Some speculate that Barbour’s recent statements about the Civil War and civil rights are designed to help his run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Future comments and actions will determine the integrity of Barbour’s newfound commitment.
Nonetheless, Barbour’s statements come on the eve of two anniversaries. His shift should enable and encourage others to take truthful stands about the Civil War and President Obama’s birth certificate, especially in churches.
Make no mistake: Denial is a river flowing through church baptisteries. We, Christians, save the soul and deny that we have any moral responsibility to redeem society. We damn the social conditions by our inaction for justice and refusal to challenge falsehood. Such division between the spiritual and moral is contrary to authentic faith.
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides offer us a time to tell the truth about Southern heritage organizations and the civil rights movement.
And the truth is that we need to address racial division with the courage and urgency akin to the ones who rode buses decades ago.
We need the courage to denounce publicly that those who stoke the Birther ambers, as well as those who demonize immigrants and play the race card in seemingly endless ways.
Let’s side with the better angels.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s Note: Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism is a moral education resource designed for use in churches. It is accompanied by a free study guide.