With regard to the most prominent content of this book, I must confess that my age and the color of my skin are both reasonable limitations to understanding, much less explaining, one of the most controversial subjects in American history. For many years, I was the silent product of an integrated society now reaping the benefits and challenges of a movement long gone. I have never been a victim of social injustice or an affiliate of white oppression. You will not find me among the ashes of a broken family or the riches of an affluent minority. I am, if anything, a common man of faith who loves his Lord, his family, and his imperfect country.
While there are no rules that can prevent one man from telling another man's story, I fully accept the strong possibility that I am insufficient to the task at hand. Over the years, it has become socially inappropriate for a white man to speak of black history with any racial discernment because he himself is not the subject of his own account. Let the record show that I am willing to risk a violation of this order but will make every effort to be objective in the pages that follow.
For most Americans of the present day, our national history as a people is only appreciated through the lens of the generations we represent. Baby boomers cherish the victories of a war their parents fought, Generation X-ers still wonder why they ever had to hide in the cellar, and millennial kids can't imagine what life was like before the Internet. Trying to communicate any level of comprehensive American history often requires a different approach for each audience. The eldest generation has, dare I say, the greatest attention span for information, so long as the history within which they lived is not redefined. While they have little tolerance for loose interpretations of the past, their attentive nature will hear out the vast majority of arguments if the information is reliable. However, for many the study of history still remains a sacrilegious activity if their own memories are made to appear incompatible with the new picture of history being introduced.
For those who make up what is known as Generation X, history has become a critical practice where no topic is off limits. These are the young people who grew up in homes where the terrors of a Cold War merged from what might have happened to what never happened. They learned that history is made up of imperfect people and imperfect nations all vying for their own right to succeed. More often than not, this is a generation of Americans who are open to seeing our national past with a critical lens of historical curiosity.
Millennials are, perhaps, the most difficult to comprehend because no dominant, mature voice has emerged to represent them. Unlike either of the previous generations, this group has learned through technological means that yesterday, quite literally, is old news. (The seventh winner of "American Idol" is far more relevant than the third or fourth.) Almost all of history, for them, represents a completely different world from anything they know today. As a result, their generation tends to be somewhat indifferent toward the events of our national past.
Depending on the generation, discussions of our racially divided history can produce a very different set of opinions. American slavery has become an abstract institution that we acknowledge, but with great difficulty imagining how it was ever justified. There are no living defenders of its practice. A little closer but no less abstract is public segregation. Children might still poke fun at one another's skin color, but they would never consider it serious enough to require separate facilities. We simply live in a different world than the one we so often read. The farther we get from our past, the more diverse we become in our convictions about what matters and what does not.
Black Liberation, for many Americans, is an irrational ideology that has no political purpose for the present day. From a distance, it seems incredibly out of touch with the way most people have evolved in their racial maturity. For the boomers who saw it emerge, Black Liberation represents the violent thinking of an era they wish to forget. For others, it seems curiously opposed, in theory, to the ideals of a postmodern culture. And yet, for causes rarely understood, Black Liberation has continued to thrive for decades in some of the most desolate neighborhoods of American society.
Residents of the inner city have a long history of fighting for survival during the week and turning to the steeple at the end of the road on Sunday morning. Fiery sermons and lively worship have established the Black Church as a traditional place of hope for those who have few or no tangible blessings when the service has ended. Their message, for the most part, has always been simple: when the world breaks your spirit, the Lord will build it back up with the help of the church.
Toward the end of the civil rights movement, these two institutions of African American history, the Black Liberation movement and the Black Church, were merged together in what became known as Black Liberation Theology.* Their progress to that point is the subject of this book. But before I begin, it seems only fair to explain briefly why someone such as myself would have ever become so engaged with the issue.
Several years ago, my wife and I moved to a quiet little town in Virginia where we both intended to work for a few years at the local university. Although I had lived in cities all over the United States and felt prepared for our new adventure, we soon discovered a culture shock like none we could have expected. Much to our surprise, racial segregation was very much alive and well.
I could recall watching the Grisham-inspired film "A Time to Kill" just before the turn of the century from a living room in the Pacific Northwest and thinking that the distant Mississippi setting was anything but realistic. Nowhere in the country, it seemed, could so much racial tension persist underneath the surface. And while it is true that the town of Canton had been fictionalized, it never truly occurred to me that racism was still so prevalent in the nation that I loved. Nor did I imagine that there could be a town quite so hampered by a past that many Americans now considered ancient history.
Our new small town home in Virginia had been the site of strikes and school closures that occurred as a result of enforcing Brown v. the Board of Education more than half a century before. Many of the children who lost their opportunity at an education during those years were now mothers, fathers, and grandparents living in the same town. Not much had changed in the community since the civil rights movement, and racial segregation was far more obvious than one might otherwise expect. The town was out of date, the jobs were sparse, and yes, the schools were still heavily segregated by the court of public opinion.
I worked as an assistant catering director for the university, and most of our salaried management shared the same story: we were well paid and we were white. Most of our employees who worked in the preparation and serving of each meal on campus shared their own story: they were underpaid and they were black. The racial contrast between staff and management was staggering. Cheyenne was a mother of three who worked in my department. She had no husband, no car, no phone, and no prospects for the future. Across the street from our campus was a McDonald's restaurant offering $7.00/hr to all new hires, but Cheyenne insisted on staying with our staff at a pay of less than $6.00/hr because she simply could not risk a shift in the pay period. Her home had been built by Habitat for Humanity, but she was in danger of defaulting on an already low mortgage. Between her full time service at the school and her full time care of children at home, she was a classic example of an economic depression most noticeable in the black community.
Each year, it fell on me to evaluate Cheyenne as a candidate for higher wages, but it wasn't long before I realized that this was just an illusory task I had given myself. No matter how hard she worked or how much I felt she deserved, the corporate powers that be would only permit a five cent pay raise. Some in our office had whispered rumors of the decade before my arrival when this same woman had been given a two cent raise.
From time to time, whether from frustration with life or income, Cheyenne would break down into tears in my office. Almost without knowing, I had become her advocate as well as her enemy. The notion of paying people for the value of their labor was common sense as far as I was concerned, but when I approached my superiors, the road blocks were far beyond my reach. As I soon discovered, Cheyenne was not the only one on the dining staff who faced an uphill climb. The challenges were widespread and troubling. Even if I cared deeply about their misfortune, they knew that I wouldn't be there forever. My title and social condition were a gateway of personal opportunity. At some point, my wife and I would be leaving town for a life of our independent choosing. For Cheyenne and the many other African American citizens of small-town Virginia, the fight to earn a decent living would continue in our absence.
Throughout our tenure, we visited several churches in the area and discovered a remarkable divide between the Black Church and the white church. On one particular Sunday morning, we were stunned to hear a white preacher compare the actions of the Good Samaritan to a white man providing necessary charity to a black man. It was then that we looked around to discover there was not a black face in the crowd. Across town and nearer to the face of poverty, my wife and I spent a Sunday morning worshipping with an all black congregation. We were openly welcomed, but received curious stares. There, in the middle of Virginia, we encountered a most sacred and segregated hour of American life on both sides of the aisle.
For several years after we left, I simply never made a connection between the Black Church and the concerns of a struggling black community. One seemed easily independent of the other. It never occurred to me that there was a reason segregation had managed to survive in the church. That is, until the presidential campaign of 2008.
In March of 2007 thousands of eyes were glued to the confrontational interview between Sean Hannity of Fox News and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (an interview now widely available on YouTube). Senator Barack Obama, an emerging candidate for president, was a long time friend of Wright as well as a member of his church. Their relationship had even inspired Obama to write a New York Times bestseller called The Audacity of Hope. Clearly, Wright was caught off guard when Hannity began challenging the teachings of Black Liberation Theology for the first time on a national stage. Their conversation became rather awkward and unsettling for many of the same reasons that I opened with in this introduction. Awhite man was openly challenging a black man on matters of racial theology. Diehard Republicans and curious liberals began spreading word that Obama was potentially in league with a racist cult from Chicago. And as the year progressed, few thought that a man with questionable affiliations would surpass the Democratic popularity of Hillary Clinton as the nominee of his party. But when he won the Iowa caucus in January of 2008, all eyes turned back to the junior senator from Illinois.
Within just a few weeks, he would have to publically address his views of Reverend Wright, the Black Church, and race relations in America. Voters from California to New Hampshire soon became witness to a cycle of videos within which Wright was seen cursing America for its oppressive history. The voting electorate, including those who had already cast their ballots in Obama's favor, were beginning to wonder about the relationship between these two men. Popular news commentators like Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, Glenn Beck of CNN, and radioman Rush Limbaugh stirred up controversy on the subject, but I began to wonder if there was a valuable history getting lost in the shuffle of politics. Few analysts seemed willing or able to offer a balanced assessment of Wright's theology without using the subject as a partisan wedge.
For most of the summer before that historic November election, I managed to turn off the news and immerse myself in the study and research of Black Liberation Theology. I have written this book to share that research, but I have no illusions that my work will in any way cover all that needs to be said.
*It should be noted that there are many, many black churches operating independently from the views of Black Liberation and/or the teachings of Black Theology.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Ch1 - Anything But Civil
Ch2 - The First Movement for Civil Rights
Ch3 - Poor Man Out
Ch4 - Depression of the Darker Brother
Ch5 - Malcolm and Martin
Ch6 - The War on Poverty
Ch7 - The Fight for Black Power
Ch8 - Between Heaven and Earth
Ch9 - The Most Segregated Hour
Ch10 - Faith, Work, and Politics as Usual
Book DetailsPages: 98
Publication Date: 02/20/2009
Street Date: 02/20/2009
Division: Wipf and Stock
ISBN 10: 1-60608-396-1
ISBN 13: 978-1-60608-396-3
Purchase from Wipf & Stock