jim crow

Jim Crow Again: Lessons for Fighting this Giant

Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

One in thirty-one. That’s how many Americans are in in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. In the U.S., our incarceration rate is 10 times higher than that of other countries while our actual crime rate is lower than those same countries. Citing a 600% increase in the prison population since the 1960’s, with no correlating increase in crime, Michelle Alexander has called mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” When people of color represent 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of those incarcerated, we are in league with David, staring at a towering giant, armed with a prayer and a handful of stones.

While the work before us is daunting, people of faith are called to fight giants. The Spirit who we remember in Pentecost, the Spirit who set the world on fire, has trusted us with this work. We are giant slayers, by God’s grace. For this reason, it is fitting that we revisit the story of the first giant slayer, a young boy who tended sheep and fought off bears and lions.

A Miracle of Resilience

Lisa Sharon Harper is Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson, was born in 1890 in Camden, S.C., with a different last name from all the other people in her household. Three generations later, we have no idea where the name Johnson came from.

Lizzie grew up working plantation land owned by her grandmother, Lea Ballard. Lea received the land in the wake of the Civil War: We don’t know how or why, though one theory speculates that Lea, who was listed as a 42-year-old mulatto widow on the 1880 U.S. Census, may have been the daughter of her slave owner. He may have given the land to her after the Civil War. We don’t know. We only know that Lea owned it, that she had 17 children who worked that land, according to family lore, and that the city of Camden eventually stole the land from her by the power of eminent domain. This we know from records I hold in my possession.

Lizzie married a railroad man named Charles Jenkins. Lizzie and Charles had three children; Charles later died in a railroad accident. Lizzie had a choice: endure the brutality of the Jim Crow South alone with three kids, or move with the stream of black bodies migrating north. Lizzie migrated to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, to Philadelphia and took her lightest-skinned child with her.

Both mother and child were light enough to pass for white. My caramel-toned, straight-haired grandmother, Willa, and her brother, Charlie, were too dark. So they were left behind in the care of their elderly great-grandmother. Willa and Charlie joined others on the plantation and earned their keep working the fields.

Darn It!

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Pining for 1950s Religiosity and Missing the Bigger Picture

Photo via Stokkete / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Stokkete / Shutterstock.com

State Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Ariz., wins the top prize for this year’s silliest religious idea so far.

While debating a proposed law that would permit people to carry concealed weapons in public buildings, Allen said, “Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.”

Although the senator said it was a “flippant” suggestion, she remained unapologetic for her comments on “the moral erosion of the soul of America.”

Testing Jesus

THE GOSPELS OF Mark and Matthew both include the story of a Gentile woman who begs a reluctant Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).

I thought of these texts last fall while reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical work of the acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, who died last year. Born in 1928, Angelou spent most of her childhood with her grandmother in small-town Stamps, Ark. After a few years of eating candy from her grandmother’s grocery store, Maya developed two cavities that, she writes, “were rotten to the gums.” However, the white dentist in Stamps did not take “Negro” patients, and the closest black dentist was 25 miles away.

For several days no aspirin touched the blinding pain, so her grandmother finally took her to the white dentist, determined to beg and plead for help. Her grandmother recounts the dentist’s final rejection in highly colorful language: “Said he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. … He said, ‘Annie, I done tole you, I ain’t gonna mess around in no niggah’s mouth.’”

We may recoil at such naked racism, but in the segregated Jim Crow South, this sentiment must have been typical. I can imagine white churchgoers reacting to this story by thinking, “The nerve of that woman begging help from a white dentist! She got what she deserved.”

In Mark, we find Jesus also comparing a woman of a different race to a dog. Matthew includes the same story, only here Jesus adds that he has no obligation to this woman because “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Most commentators are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response in both places, but it is often softened by an explanation that he was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. Or perhaps he teased her, with a twinkle in his eye, by calling the dogs “puppies”!

Darn It!

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Does Obama Owe Christians An Apology?

Obama in prayer. Image courtesy Stephen C./shutterstock.com

Obama in prayer. Image courtesy Stephen C./shutterstock.com

I’m very offended. Or so I’m told. As a believing Christian, I’m supposed to be deeply troubled by the remarks that President Barack Obama delivered at the recent National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, DC. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore had this to say:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

Strong words. But what were Obama’s terribly offensive remarks? Here’s what the president said:

And lest we get on our high horse and think [religious violence] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Wait… what? Why should I be offended by that? That’s a fact. That’s our history. Every Christian should be aware of what we are capable of when we turn our eyes away from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and instead turn Christianity into an ideology that justifies terror, brutality, oppression, and war.

It should be impossible to study Western history without getting some glimpse into the terrifying possibilities that any religious system — including Christian ones — hold out for those who seek to dominate others. We humans have a long track record of twisting our most precious faith into a weapon of violence and hatred. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it should be a matter of ongoing repentance and prayer for people of faith everywhere.

So I’m confused.

 

Obama Compares ISIS to Crusades, Inquisition, Slavery, and Jim Crow. Was He Right?

Photo courtesy New York Public Library / RNS

“EntrŽe des croisŽs ˆ Constantinople,” by Eugene Delacroix, circa 1885-1889. Photo courtesy New York Public Library / RNS

The conservative Twitterverse is all riled up because at Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast (an event founded and run by the secretive Christian organization known as The Fellowship), President Obama said that Christians, as well as Muslims, have at times committed atrocities. His words:

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

This would seem to be Religious History 101, but it was nonetheless met with shock and awe.

“Hey, American Christians–Obama just threw you under the bus in order to defend Islam,” wrote shock jock Michael Graham. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., called the comments “dangerously irresponsible.” The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue said: “Obama’s ignorance is astounding and his comparison is pernicious. The Crusades were a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages.”

More thoughtfully, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Obama’s comments about Christianity “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison. … The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

Really?

Why I Marched on McDonald's

Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, consults with Shyrl Hinnant Uzzell. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Recently, I marched with McDonald’s workers from three dozen cities to the company’s corporate headquarters outside of Chicago. After they refused to leave the corporate campus of the fast-food giant with its $5.6 billion in profits last year, 101 workers were arrested.

I knew I had to come when the workers invited me to share some of the lessons we have been learning in North Carolina about civil disobedience — and moral support.

I watched my new friends sit down. I watched the police gather. I prayed with the McDonald’s workers as the police looked on and then slapped plastic handcuffs on more than 100 of the workers and arrested them.

I could not help but think of the historic arc of the civil rights movement. For all the gains we have been making, the treatment of low-paid workers by some of the most profitable corporations in the world ranks high in the more significant causes of the growing inequalities in the U.S.

The Criminality of Blackness

Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.com

A core spiritual lie keeps us from seeing what is because we only see what we expect. Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.coA

There is a moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, when readers witness the transformation of a stereotype into a human being.

Set in Salinas Valley, Calif., around the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Hamilton picks up Lee, his friend's Chinese servant. Lee wears a queue and speaks Pidgin English. Moments after meeting him, Hamilton learns that Lee was born in the U.S. and asks why he still can’t speak English.

Lee’s face and eyes soften and he speaks perfect English, explaining that he speaks Pidgin for the whites in town to understand him. Lee says, “You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

Did you catch that? Lee plays the role of the foreigner in order to be seen and understood.

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