In May 1865 the American Civil War came to an official end with the capture of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
With the rebellious Southern states forced back into the Union, black slaves emancipated (13th Amendment), and the U.S. government committed to providing education, job training, legal protections (14th Amendment), voting rights (15th Amendment) and deeded land to former slaves, the prospects of the realization of America’s ideals of freedom and equality seemed tantalizingly close. The enthusiasm and hard work of thousands of Northern Christians in assisting freedmen in their new lives of freedom evidenced a powerful expression of the Bible’s core teachings of love, freedom and the dignity of all humans as God’s creation.
Too soon, however, something went terribly wrong. White Southerners, in the name of God no less, resorted to intimidation, violence and terrorism in order to maintain a racial caste system of white supremacy and black subservience. Northerners, tired of trying to police the pervasive and entrenched violence, gave up and left the South to its own devices. Black Southerners for generations were left at the mercies of whites who took away most of their rights and beat or killed any person of color who dared to challenge white rule or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. White supremacy, the perpetrators of terrorism insisted, was the will of God. The Confederate flag remained, the same standard of white supremacy and black servitude that it had been during the war.
From the 1880s into the 1960s thousands upon thousands of white Southern men, often calling themselves Christians (many of whom were Baptists), murdered thousands of black citizens, raped many thousands more and in many other ways brutalized and persecuted African Americans, denying them the freedoms guaranteed in the United States Constitution.
It fell upon courageous black Christians, including many Baptists, to lead America in the 1950s and 1960s toward its ideals of freedom and liberty. For championing American ideals, they were terrorized by white Christians, who often resorted to burning and bombing black churches.
Finally, the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation in public schools, workplaces and public facilities. The 1965 Voting Rights in turn made voting discrimination illegal. In the decades following, white Christians by the millions sought to isolate themselves from the presence of blacks, preventing black citizens from moving into their neighborhoods and sending their kids to private, white schools, or homeschooling.
On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a black president occupies the White House, in his second term of office, no less. The presidency of Barack Obama, however, historic that it is, has done little to to bridge the enormous divide that yet separates white and black America.
Most white Americans today own homes, while most black Americans are renters, many living in the nation’s most blighted urban neighborhoods. The average black family owns about 5% of the wealth of the average white family. Alongside this vast economic disparity, black Americans are proportionally far more likely to be arrested than are whites. In the states of the Old Confederacy, white politicians have a solid lock on state political structures and dominate the region’s representation in Washington, D.C. And church sanctuaries North and South are the most segregated places in the nation.
In the America of 2015 and despite the amazing story of Barack Obama, white Americans as a class of citizens are advantaged in every way over black Americans, reflective of a systemic, racial bias hearkening back to antebellum days. The Civil War forced white southerners to remove the physical shackles of black enslavement, but ultimately did not tear down the underlying ideological construct of white supremacy both South and North. Today, although America’s legal system is formally color blind, social, educational and economic structures remain firmly grounded in white privilege and advantage. As of yet, there is no tangible movement toward parity.
During the Civil War America’s churches, opposed North and South, were an integral part of the battle to define freedom, liberty and equality. The bloody battlefields on American soil are long past, yet racism, discrimination and inequality remain a very real part of the nation’s landscape. If Christianity is to play a positive role in the America of the next 150 years, a good place to start would be in helping a still-divided nation overcome the dark side of the Civil War’s legacy.