Race, Politics, and Christianity in the American South

This last July we were driving through South Carolina. We had stopped to get some gas. I was waiting in the car with the boys and Jana had run inside to buy a drink.

When Jana emerged from the convenience store she looked shaken.

"You okay?" I asked.

She said, "Can't believe what I just heard in the store."

She was standing in line waiting to pay. A man in front of her was buying a newspaper. He had thrown the paper on the counter and was reaching for some money.

You'll recall that in July of 2011 President Obama and the House of Representatives were fighting with each other over the debt ceiling. The standoff had finally ended and the newspaper headline was declaring the deal, with a picture of Obama above the fold.

"Right there, that's an example of nigger thinking," said the man tapping his finger on Obama's picture.

The cashier, taking the man's money, nodded in agreement. "That's right." he said.

How did the Republican Party--the party of Lincoln "The Great Emancipator"--become saddled with racism?

I raise the question for a couple of reasons. First, as a college professor in West Texas I've found my students to be clueless about the relevant history. As far as they know the South has always voted for Republicans. No so. Take, as one example, the voting history of Mississippi. Since the Civil War Mississippi has voted for a Democrat in the Presidential elections 21 times. That is almost double the number of times the state has voted for a Republican (11 times). Needless to say, President Obama has almost no chance in Mississippi in 2012.

So what happened? When did this strongly Democrat state, along with the other southern states, turn from Blue to Red?

The other reason I raise the question has to do with Christianity in the American South, particularly evangelical Christianity. As noted in his recent book (which I reviewed in the post Are Christians Hate-Filled Hypocrites?), sociologist Bradley Wright cites statistics that show evangelical Christians to be one of the most racist groups in America. To be sure, only a minority of evangelicals fall into this category, but relative to other Christian groups as well as to non-Christians evangelical Christians are the most likely to hold a candidate's race against them in a political election. And as most people know, evangelicals tend to vote Republican and are plentiful across the American South. This racist strain in southern Christianity greatly disturbs me as I encounter it frequently where I live.

So what changed in the South? When did the South go from being strongly Democratic to being strongly Republican? The story can be summed up by looking at two electoral maps separated by a mere eight years:

Electoral Map of 1956 Presidential Election

Electoral Map of 1964 Presidential Election
The change is startling. This is one of the most dramatic shifts in American political history. The effects of which are being felt to this day and will be reflected in the 2012 electoral map. We are the heirs of this legacy.

So what caused the US political map to flip-flop in a mere eight years? What happened to cause the Southern states, proudly Blue and Democrat since the Civil War, to flip to Republican Red?

Why are the Red States Red?

What happened between 1956 and 1964?

Answer: The American Civil Rights Movement.

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38 thoughts on “Race, Politics, and Christianity in the American South”

  1. Nothing like the threat of a common enemy to mobilize the offense.  Reading the Wikipedia link, I couldn't help being sad at the thought of the triple assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    I know that yours and Jana's experience in the South Carolina gas station was pretty normal for that region of our country.  In the 1980's, my dad and his family migrated from the Midwest to Georgia due to job transfer.  He learned to hate blacks (and Jews) from his white, blue collar father (think Archie Bunker).  When I visited my dad in the early 1990's, he and his family spewed one racist slur after another.  Once, while being attended by a young black woman at the McDonald's drive-thru window, my younger half-sister, complaining about the slow service, muttered, "Stupid nigger."  I expressed disgust at her remark, only to hear her (and my step-mother) justify why it is correct.  Later, at home, my dad -- ever the even-handed, fair one -- tried to smooth over the rift by explaining how he "likes the blacks in the south, who are nice and polite, and know their place (unlike those Northern, uppity blacks)."  Holy crap!  Lastly, that was in the day when Tiger Woods was coming up in the golf world as an emerging superstar.  My dad, a long-time fan of golf, was indignant that a black "boy" dared to break into the dignified game of golf, and, why was everyone making such a big deal about him, anyway?  At the time, I gave voice to my gladness that black youth had a positive role model to look up to and inspire them.  Oh my God:  that was a long, awkward week.  So much for "Southern hospitality," eh?

    It so happens that I am married to a person of color (native of South India).  To some extent (and not solely for this reason, please understand), there is a sweet satisfaction in "sticking it to" my dad's racist attitude...in your face -- deal with it!

    See Robert Kennedy's quote from South African visit, toward the end of the Wikipedia article.  Love this:  "What if God is black?"  My husband gets a kick out of the European image of Jesus:  fair-skinned and blue-eyed.  Surely not!

    The best book I ever read about racism in America was 'Hearts and Minds: The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan' by Harry S. Ashmore.  Thanks for this post, Dr. Beck.  Your heart for the marginalized, and your courage to speak truth to power is what makes this blog one of my all-time favorites.  :-)  Keep on!

  2. Did the clerk and the man have on Republican buttons? What makes you so sure they were? I live in SC, grew up in Alabama, and have known at least as many Democratic bigots as Republican ones. Prejudice is assuming certain things about people you don't know. It is not always about color. 

  3. My apologies to South Carolina. Of course, the majority of South Carolinians, Republicans, and evangelicals are not racist.

  4. Interesting. I see the parallel in the gay rights movement, as well. It's interesting to see that Kansas (where I live) ever voted for a Democrat, but I guess crazier things have happened.

  5. It's also kind of strange that the Republican party and the Democratic Party has completely flipped views on a lot of big issues from the time they were founded. For example, the Republican Party was all about building a strong central government, whereas the democratic government wanted a small central government. Much later in history, the republican party wanted abortion legal to preserve personal freedom, while the democratic party fought hard against it.

  6. This post, as well as a few others, have made me wonder if we draw all of our conclusions from our own experience. 

    I am have lived in Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and South Carolina. I will add that I graduated from high school in Scottsboro, Alabama. Yep, that one — setting of the infamous Scottsboro Boys case. Of all the places I lived, Louisville, Kentucky was the most racist. Scottsboro was one of the least. Greenville, South Carolina, where I live now, is the best. Surprisingly, the folks that move down from the northern states have the hardest time adjusting. 

    By the time I graduated from high school in the mid 70s, the schools were integrated. We knew each other. Both races were in class together every day. There was only one high school for most of the county.  If you had to pick, it was the blacks and whites of the town against the rednecks of the county. Was there racism? Yes. Was it pathological? No. Did I have black friends? Sure. It was not perfect by any means but the difference was that we saw each other as individuals. 

    My father often preached at the local black congregation, North Houston Street in Scottsboro, when I was growing up. He was the son of a tenant farmer and mill worker. My mother grew up under the Nazi regime. Neither culture was particularly known for their racial tolerance. My parents decided that bigotry was wrong and made it a priority to teach my brother and me. My father did not ever vote Democratic that I know of yet he was the first to tutor at every church, neighborhood, or community we lived in. There is an endowed scholarship in his name, which is only for students of North Houston Street. At his funeral, folks of every race and class told us of ways he had touched their lives. I aspire to his service. 

    When our children were growing up, we made the decision to continue my parents’s teaching. Our children are about as race unconscious as they can be. They have dated across the races, have friends across the spectrum, and learned to judge by content of character rather than color of skin.

    This is how I see Alabama and South Carolina. There are others who have not had the same life. I wish there was some way we could find a common ground in discussions without only drawing from what we know or what we have heard. 

    Thanks for listening. 

  7. Isn't this more about conservatism and liberalism - both of which can have ugly fringes?
    The culture of the American South has long valued stories, heritage and is inherently nostalgic, hence is "conservative" in its desire to "preserve." The labels of the parties do not matter - it is about who champions conservatism. This nostalgic nature leads some to see any change as an enemy - but an enemy needs a real face, so it is projected onto people who somehow represent that change - which gets into really twisted thinking. Whichever political party best appeals to the nostalgia inherent in conservatism will capture the hearts of many southerners. Reagan's ability to evoke nostalgic visions of an American renaissance caused many southerners to switch previous party allegiances. Some of those who switched were racist, some were not.
    The racism which sadly is still pervasive in some communities is an unfortunate (though not unavoidable) by-product of conservatism.

  8. I am a white man who grew up in a black church in Newark, N.J. during the Civil Rights Era.  I experienced the riots of 1967 along with my black friends.  I moved to SC in 1972, and have lived here ever since.  In all these years I have rarely witnessed the behavior you mention.

    It is a shame that people such as yourself never seem to even acknowledge -- let alone address -- the issue of "reverse" aggression and discrimination.  I have seen it often and been a victim of it, as have both my wife and daughter.  The hate stares, the pushing and shoving, the cat calls, the threatening behavior in public places -- for no other reason than the fact that we are not black.
    There are two sides to every story, and you tell only the one that fits your own political agenda.  I have learned that if you treat other people with respect, they will usually be polite in return.  All bets are off, however, if you are dealing with two or more people at a time.

  9.  I too have lived in Greenville, SC since 1972.  I taught school here for a few years during the 1970's.  I can verify what you say.  Thank you for your story.

  10. To the extent it may be thought relevant, the voting patterns for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act may be instructive.

    "The Congressional Quarterly of June 26, 1964 recorded that in the
    Senate, only 69 percent of Democrats (46 for, 21 against) voted for
    the Civil Rights Act as compared to 82 percent of Republicans (27 for,
    [...] In the House of Representatives, 61 percent of Democrats (152
    for, 96 against) voted for the Civil Rights Act; 92 of the 103
    Southern Democrats voted against it. Among Republicans, 80 percent
    (138 for, 34 against) voted for it."Just sayin'.qb

  11. Let's also observe the voting patterns for/against BHO in 2008, stratified by race.  Anybody want to venture a conclusion?


  12. I agree Sam. There is enough sin to go around.

    But I'd like to add this. I have no problem with anyone voting for Mitt Rommey and the Republican ticket this year. There are good reasons to do so. I'll not be endorsing a candidate here.

  13. Tina, thanks so much for this. The quiet heroism of your parents is a model for us all.

  14. The Civil Rights Act, yes, but not just the Civil Rights Act. There's also the ugly legacy of Richard M. Nixon's Southern Strategy, which actively took advantage of the fears and hatred engendered by the prospect of civil rights and pandered to them with the coded language of states' rights, limited government and – more recently – voter fraud.

  15. At Johnson State Park, just east of Fredericksburg, there's a historical museum about LBJ. They have a theater and have a movie about his progression from school teacher into politics. The film talks about how LBJ, when he first entered politics, approached the local Republican office, the underdog in Texas at that time, with his vision of gaining political power, but they rejected it because it was unethical in their view. He then approached the Democrats, who embraced it.

  16.  what would be the un-coded way to talk about legitimate concerns regarding the rights granted to states by the Constitution, limits to government and genuine fraud in voting (which can cut both ways)?

  17. Having lived in SC for 7 years, I can attest from experience that racism is a powerful force there, on both sides. No matter what color you are, you're the wrong color to somebody, as we found out. In fact, the news talked about how the North Charleston city council meetings often broke out into physical brawls.
    1. My good friend and neighbor who was black, a single mom, and active duty Air Force, caught hell for being friends with me. She told me about how "the sistas" had informed her she didn't need "that little honky girl" as a friend.
    2. We lived there during the reign of the Lowcountry Serial Rapist, Duncan Proctor. He was mixed race himself, married to a black woman, and raped only white women, including a mother and daughter (the daughter committed suicide). After he wrapped his car around a tree in a high-speed police chase, the investigation reported that his crimes were based on a hatred for white women. At times, he had broken into to homes to find the occupent was a black woman, and he left without harming her. His own wife turned him in, after she found a victim's purse in their car.
    3. Another widely reported crime was a group of black men, I believe they were Army on leave, attacked and tortured a white woman, pouring bleach on her, in a racially based assault.
    4. I also was good friends with a black family from our church. They had their own business, and they told me that they struggled because the banks would not lend to businesses owned by blacks.

    South Carolina was a long way from home, and a very different social culture from Texas.

  18. Here, let me help you.  Anybody see ANY evidence of racism in this snapshot of the 2008 demographics?  Anywhere at all?  Any slice of the electorate that suggests purely racial motives?  No, I thought not.

    *shaking head*

  19. Near as I can tell, everyone but me is racist. Racism ranges from denying human rights to creating special rights.

    Harry Callahan and me are the only sane ones in the lot.

  20. HOW is it an example (other than perhaps a COUNTERexample)?  It was 1964, the year of Goldwater's Waterloo, and while Robert Byrd was cavorting with states-rights Democratic senators (hear that, Paul A.?) in support of segregation, the GOP was providing disproportionate muscle to get the CRA passed.  qb

  21. Since this is a blog about theology, I personally would like to see a post here about how the President took it upon himself at the National Prayer Breakfast to lecture the American people about what Jesus really had in mind when he spoke about gifts, personal responsibility, and taxes. The Presidential staff has 36 employees owing a total of $833,000 in back taxes – that comes out to $23,000 per employee.  One presumes they are all Democrats.  To whom has much been given?  To whom is more money owed? 

    Has the government now replaced God?

  22. There is none.  Except perhaps liberal/progressive whites who wanted to be the first to vote for a black president regardless of his ideology.  There are plenty of good black politicians that conservatives support, such as Alan Keyes, J.C. Watts, and Herman Cain.

    "Racism" is simply the most convenient word to hurl at people when you do not like their politics.  And it belittles and marginalizes the good people of the American South.

  23. My favorites parts of the speech was his nod to Dorothy Day and the story about Billy Graham at the end.

  24. This is a very complex issue and I'm not sure it can be boiled down to a singular event (or set of events) such as the Civil Rights movement.  You need to look much deeper into the issues than simply a "red/blue" map to understand that this shift isn't as profound as you present it. 

    A friend of mine from H.S. is a columnist for RealClearPolitics and recently wrote a book called "The Lost Majority"  (http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Majority-Future-Government-Grabs/dp/0230116469) explaining how different coalitions have voted over the last 150 years - often down to distinct blocs of counties within a state.  I haven't finished everything, but his research has very extensive and his analysis provides a good description of why the South "shifted" from blue to red.  The reality is that such a shift was never as profound as we believe it today.  While a party shift from Democrat to Republican occurred over the last 50-60 years, there is actually very little difference in the ideologies of the people they have sent into office during that time.  The Southern conservative Democrats from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, were no so different from the moderate and conservative Republicans of today.  Even Rick Perry started out as a Democrat.

    Now - yes racism exists in the South.  It exists among Republican Christians and bigotry exists among Democrats.  Having lived in "The People's Republic of Cambridge" (MA) and in various places across Texas, I can say that both sides are equally noxious. 

  25. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had overwhelming support of Republicans and Democrats except in the South. In the South both parties voted overwhelming against civil rights.   

    Also, Eisenhower was so beloved by Americans, he would have been elected as a democrat or republican.The Eisenhower administration had also supported the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954; this ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court ended legal segregation in public schools. As a result, Eisenhower won the support of nearly 40% of black voters; he was the last Republican presidential candidate to receive such a level of support from black voters.

    Both parties have made amazing flip-flops on various policies. The strangest change to me is how polarized the two parties have become. Back in the fifties and sixties there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals in both parties.

  26. So of the three black Republican "politicians" you are able to come up with, two have not in fact held elective office. I think that qualifies as Q.E.D.

  27.  "what would be the un-coded way to talk about legitimate concerns
    regarding the rights granted to states by the Constitution, limits to
    government and genuine fraud in voting (which can cut both ways)?"

    Well, cases of genuine voter fraud are hard to find, even though people are looking; I havene't heard of cases of more than a few voters at a time.

    As to 'states' rights', that's easy - when the right respects it when they don't like it. 

    Same for limits to government.  We just ended a few years ago an 8-year stretch where the right claimed virtually unlimited executive power, spent like crazy, looted like crazy, and call their political opponents unpatriotic.

  28. Actually, if one looks closely at the diagram, there is in fact one line in that chart that suggests race as a primary influence.  (You don't even have to look all that closely; it sorta leaps out at you.  But it's a terribly inconvenient truth.)

  29. So, what that is telling me is that if you take out the southern democrats, only 4 out of 145 democrats in the house voted against the CRA

  30. London Johnson knew the civil rights movement was right. He was a southerner. His masterful manipulation of southern senators such as Richard Russell of Georgia finally led to the collapse of southern senatorial resistance...thus the Civil Rights Act. Of 1964. He is reputed to have said, "We have lost the south.". Johnson knew King's crusade was right even though he personally struggled with race issues. Only the most powerful politician in American history could have pulled it off. Laws can't make new hearts, however, racist rationalizations notwithstanding. Thus the horrible comment experienced by Jana in the deep south. Carry on your battle! And, by the way...you're preaching to the choir in this little neck if the woods!

  31. I'm a bit amazed by your "what happened?" question, only in that you seem so well informed.

    Goldwater's run for the White House in '64 involved a very clear reach-out to the Dixiecrats of what was then the "Solid South" of the Democrat party. To do this the campaign invoked a very clear rejection of civil rights. (The Dixiecrats, unlike the otherwise Democrat party, were pro-segregation.)

    It was successful in that it broke the Solid South as had been in place to that time, bringing over such greats as Strom Thurmond (sp?), etc. 

    But yeah, '64 is where the worm truly turned. 

  32. The Democrats abandoned their portion of the conservative vote. It is too simplistic to say that the Civil Rights movement is the reason.

  33. I think the Civil Rights Movement went beyond race to expose class privilege. Perhaps a lot of resistance to progressive politics occurs because it challenges the deepest American story- that "we built this nation from the ground up with our own two hands". The British were the ones with privilege and "we" beat them with a ragamuffin militia. So an accusation of privilege challenges this story. And it sounds crazy to the large population of poor, often uneducated, whites in the US South. I would wager a guess that most of the racial tension exists between whites and blacks in lower economic classes. Their identity stories are in conflict. And they come to agree in their hatred of Latinos, who become convenient scapegoats for everyone. Meanwhile, opportunists capitalize on the political blame game until populations are sucked dry of resources and human energy. The rate of families dropping below the poverty line in SC is alarming.

    Racism doesn't go both ways, though hate and prejudice do. Racism occurs when one group is historically and generally privileged over another based on the outward appearance linked to (often inaccurately) ancestral and geographic origin. But that does not mean that everyone in the privileged "race" have access to that privilege. And even when they do, it is difficult to identify in themselves because it challenges the story above. Then, to defend that story, there are always people from the less privileged groups who become tokens. In the individualist worldview, the tokens are a success in and of themselves. In the tribalist worldview, they are scabs.

    The American story for blacks is different. They were forcibly taken from their homelands and forced to labor for white people. That is the American story just as much as winning the Revolution. It is not easily forgotten. The Civil Rights Movement in the 60's sought to remove the social apartheid that remained after slavery was abolished. Resentment and hatred did not magically disappear. The stories that shape self identities cannot be erased. For the white American, the bootstraps salvation story was to be defended to the teeth. The rise of industry and Ford's fascist corporatism assimilated this story and forged it in the factories and school textbooks, and cultural hero systems from Roy Rogers and John Wayne and Superman to Courageous to Act of Valor. Manifest Destiny gave it a Messianic mission to the world. It was given a name: Freedom for All. But for scores of other people who knew the dark side of this story, who experienced repression first hand, it had other names: Egypt, Babylon, Evil Empire.

    That's my poor attempt to understand things from a disinterested perspective. I was a former believer in the American hero story, but have walked away from it as an identity. I can't walk away from it as a product of it's history. So I am not completely disinterested. I actually try to be prejudiced in favor of those who have been historically oppressed, and sensitive toward those who were/are vilified by that story in my former life.

  34. I found this article via tumblr, and I must say the title and blurb had me expecting something entirely different. This article started off really nicely and caught my interest, and then... What happened? Have a link to wikipedia!

    I know when the civil rights movement happened. I also know how to look it up on wikipedia. In an article such as this, I'd have liked to see the issue explained further, more in-depth than a wikipedia article would do. Also, in that huge wikipedia article, is there an actual answer to the question, why did the South turn red? If there is, I didn't have the patience to find it among all the other information. Instead of linking to that, I would've loved to read more from your p.o.v., hear your opinion.

    I hope this is understood as constructive criticism, and not random whining.

  35.   He is arguing that the civil rights act was what caused the bigots to leave the Democratic party and join the Republican party.  You are pointing out that the dixiecrats  (the bigots in the democratic party) voted against the civil rights act.  How can you be this stupid????

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