To mark the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in the land that would become the United States, the New York Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah Jones edited a special project to show how systemic racism has shaped America and celebrate the ways black people have, nevertheless, worked to preserve and reconstruct American democracy. The resulting 1619 Project landed on newsstands Sunday morning. Before most church-going folks had made it home for Sunday lunch, conservative pundits were attacking the project. FOX News commentator Newt Gingrich called it “a lie,” while the white evangelical radio host Erick Erickson tweeted “if the land in which the United States was founded has been tainted by racism since the 1600’s and everything derived therefrom is therefore tainted, then the US is illegitimate… and revolution is the answer.”
Erikson’s fear of black power is certainly not original. It is a product of America’s plantation economy just as much as the cotton that enslaved people picked and the sermons that were preached to save their souls without disrupting their bondage. Over and against this nation’s abolitionist movements, slaveholder religion emerged in America to bless a nation that promised liberty while relying on race-based chattel slavery. While this peculiar form of Christianity insisted that enslaved people had souls and should be evangelized, it also reimagined them as creatures ordained for servitude. Because slaveholder religion’s god ordained white supremacy, white people learned to fear equality and the black political power that challenged the social order they were taught to value.
Fear became slaveholder religion’s tool of control, inspiring millions of poor white families in the South to send sons to war and pray for victory, even as the white sons of plantation owners avoided combat. During Reconstruction, when black and white representatives worked together in Southern legislatures to guarantee public education for all people, many poor white children went to school for the first time; many poor white people received healthcare at Freedman’s Bureau hospitals. Still, their preachers told them to be afraid. Even when black power helped poor white people in measurable ways, slaveholder religion taught white people to fear shared power.
Nearly a century later, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a moral movement to reconstruct democracy in America, he knew that it would require dispelling the myths of slaveholder religion. “The poor in white skins … are chained by the weight of discrimination though its badge of degradation does not mark them,” he told the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in 1965. Systemic racism conspired to keep both black and white people poor, King understood, because the same politicians who played on poor white people’s racial fears also opposed their rights as workers. A year later, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March, King observed how this divide-and-conquer tactic became a matter of faith for white conservatives. “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus,” King taught, “then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.” Segregation wasn’t simply a social construct; it was a whole belief system based on fear of black political and economic power.
Today’s conservative movement has tried to eschew its connection to racist fear and the long history of white supremacy in America. Its spokesmen often repudiate the rouge violence of the Ku Klux Klan and blame segregation on Democrats, obscuring the link between today’s Republican Party and the Southern Democrats who made white supremacy a plank of their party during the Jim Crow era. But the conservative family values around which they organized after the success of the 20th century’s civil rights movement served to form a voting coalition of white people in the South, the suburbs, and the Sunbelt. That coalition has resisted the expansion of equal protection under law that the civil rights movement advocated and has leaned into the fear of slaveholder religion to motivate its based. Ahead of the 2016 election, leaders of the religious right made it a talking point to say this election might be their last chance to stand up for “biblical values.” Thus far, this fear has been enough to justify the separation and abuse of immigrant families, the rejection of refugees, and every effort by the Trump administration to undermine democracy through voter suppression and Census manipulation.
Last week, before Fox News had told its viewers to reject the 1619 Project, three generations of my white Southern family made a pilgrimage to Fort Monroe in Virginia. We were the only people on the National Park tour that day, but two young African-American women walked us through 400 years of history all the same. From the place where “20 and odd Negroes” were first recorded to the 500-year-old live oak under which formerly enslaved people gathered to learn to read during the Civil War, we listened to the stories of people who prayed for freedom in a land that promised liberty but denied their humanity.
Across the sound on the campus of Hampton University, we stood beneath the Emancipation Oak where both that institution of higher education and the dream of education for all people in Virginia was born during Reconstruction. I thought about my great-grandmother, a white woman who grew up in the hills of Southern Virginia some fifty years later but never learned to read. Jim Crow conspired to keep her family poor along with their black neighbors. But when I attended desegregated kindergarten in the 1980s, she lived with my family and sat at the dinner table each afternoon, determined to learn her letters along with her grandson. Thanks to the efforts of black people in America’s First and Second Reconstruction, I received both a free public education and the good news that the democracy black people have always wanted is good news for people like me.
For 400 years, slaveholder religion has told people who look like me to be afraid of black political power. But underneath the Emancipation Oak, it was clear that my family has nothing to fear. Much of what we have to give thanks for was given to us by black people who sacrificed to reconstruct America. “Love casts out all fear,” Jesus told us. I pray that some of us who’ve been given much in this land can love America enough to cast out the lies that hold us all captive.