Racist Fundamentalists…It’s Complicated

Sometimes the archives can make things too complicated. White fundamentalists have always been accused of racism—a charge they’ve vehemently denied. But what do we do when an African American fundamentalist agrees with the racism of his white fellow fundamentalists?

First, a quick historical sketch: Since the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, fundamentalism got tangled up with ideas about Southern Pride. Conservative religion has often become part and parcel of a broader cultural conservatism, one that included support for racial segregation and white supremacy.

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

By the 1970s, leading white fundamentalists became some of the most public supporters of racial segregation. Most famously, Bob Jones University steadfastly clung to its whites-only policy long after many white Southerners and white fundamentalists had grudgingly moved on. Some historians, such as Randall Balmer, have insisted that white racism among fundamentalists was the real root of the so-called New Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s.

I disagree. There is no doubt that white fundamentalism—especially in the South—has long had close ties to white racism. There is more to the story, however, than quick condemnations of conservative religion as a front for white supremacy.

In my recent work at the archive of the Moody Bible Institute, I came across a document that reminds us how messy history is. In 1970, the leaders of Moody dis-invited prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice from Moody’s big annual Founder’s Week event. Why? Because Rice had come out in support of the segregationist policies of Bob Jones University.

As President William Culbertson informed members of the Moody community,

Moody Bible Institute has for 85 years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible. Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ. We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture. We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships. We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation. We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Moody Bible Institute, Culbertson told anyone who would listen, still agreed wholeheartedly with John R. Rice’s fundamentalist theology. Moody refused to compromise with those who would modernize the Bible or water down fundamentalist religion. But Moody could not be seen as part of a racist, segregationist movement.

Naturally, John R. Rice and his supporters blasted this decision. More evidence, one Rice supporter charged, that Moody had

moved one more step away from the great revival that is blazing across this land into the camp of lukewarm churches that make God sick. I do not suppose that anything that I have said will make any difference to you or Moody Bible Institute’s position. Years will come and go and Moody will ‘go the way of all flesh,’ while the Moody Memorial Church continues to dry-up on the vine.

Among the fat stack of angry letters supporting John R. Rice, one stands out. It came from William H. Dinkins of Selma, Alabama. Dinkins was an African American fundamentalist and, in his words, someone who “stand[s] with Dr. Rice for fundamentalism and the old-time religion and all that goes with it.” Too often, Dinkins charged, “We Negroes [sic] . . . try to inject Civil Rights into every circumstance, without sensing the effect of what we are doing.” When it comes to religion and the Word of God, Dinkins continued, “Civil Rights is an extraneous issue, and ought not to be in question, and I feel that responsible people ought not to be effected by such pleas.”

The view from Selma, 1971

The view from Selma, 1971

Dinkins’s letter raises difficult questions about race and religion. First of all, we wonder if this letter was legitimate. Could someone have faked it in order to create an impression of biracial support for racial segregation? If not, we wonder how common such sentiments have been. As historian Jeffrey Moran has argued, white fundamentalists have long tended to ignore their African American co-religionists, at best. And, as John Dittmer and others have showed, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement many African American leaders in the Deep South supported segregation, at least temporarily and pragmatically.

In the early 1970s, was there really any support for racial segregation among African American conservatives? Did fundamentalism trump race?

Conservatives Win a Prize They No Longer Want

A new report about racial segregation in Connecticut’s schools raises a painful historical reminder for conservatives: Conservatives, both white and African American, often promoted school segregation as a central tenet of conservative ideology. These days, mainstream conservatives want to shed their historic legacy of racism. Ironically, that means that no conservative is claiming “credit” for the current resurgence of racial segregation in schools.

The report from Gary Orfield’s Civil Rights Project praises Connecticut’s schools. Unlike most states, Connecticut has made real progress in racial integration of schools. In other states, though, public schools are becoming more starkly segregated.

Sixty years ago, this would have been cause for conservative celebration. Though they don’t like to be reminded, conservatives embraced racial segregation back then as a central plank in the conservative platform. At National Review, for example, William F. Buckley Jr. took a stand in favor of continued white supremacy in the South.

As Neil McMillen made clear in his history of the White Citizens’ Councils, too, leading segregationists consistently tied their racist policies to the broader 1950s conservative movement. In his famous “Black Monday” speech, for example, Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Thomas Pickens Brady denounced the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision in both racist and anti-communist terms. Not only would school desegregation lead to “amalgamation” of the races, Brady charged, it was also part of a “socialistic” scheme to degrade southern traditions.

Back then, conservatism = segregationism

Back then, conservatism = segregationism

As McMillen tells us, southern segregationists often joined and led other leading conservative organizations. Georgia’s R. Carter Pittman, for example, not only led his local white supremacist Citizens’ Council, but also joined the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, and Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade.

Many white segregation leaders in the 1950s embraced religious conservatism as well. The Citizens’ Councils denounced “pinkos in the pulpit” who had declared “private enterprise, rugged individualism, and conservatism in politics . . . equally un-Christian.”

The historical record is clear, if awkward. Though most mainstream conservative thinkers these days don’t like it, in the tumultuous 1950s and early 1960s “conservatism” was tightly bound up with white supremacy.

Even weirder from today’s perspective, many African-American conservatives in the 1950s also embraced continued school segregation. Obviously, they did so in different ways and in different organizations than did white conservatives. No African Americans joined the White Citizens’ Councils, for example. And no African-American conservatives embraced school segregation in the name of white supremacy. Rather, African-American leaders supported segregation in a cautious and strategic way and they abandoned segregation as soon as better options appeared possible.

More complicated than we might think...

More complicated than we might think…

But as John Dittmer demonstrates in his careful history of the civil-rights saga in Mississippi, African-American leaders often preferred racially segregated schools, at least in the early 1950s. At that time, some leaders felt, segregated schools provided Mississippi’s African American population with a steady source of teaching jobs. Some African American leaders also believed that segregated schools offered a better option for African American students than hostile integrated ones.

These days, no one likes to be reminded of this history. African American conservatives largely got on board with anti-segregation campaigns. White conservatives, too, if a little later. But in the 1950s at least, conservatism meant racial segregationism.

And this leads us to our unusual current situation. If today’s public schools are reverting to racial segregation, as the Civil Rights Project documents, we might see this as a long-term victory for 1950s conservatism. Yet, since mainstream conservatives have since abjured their 1950s racist roots, there is no one around to celebrate this significant conservative “victory.”