Editorial: Critiquing the search for justice in 1965 and 2020

Bound volume of Baptist Standard issues published in 1965. Photos on the computer screen (left to right) are Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, who both died on July 18, 2020. (Photo by Editor Eric Black)

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Last week, I held up to the light a paragraph from an editorial by Editor E.S. James published in the Baptist Standard on March 24, 1965. I did not critique James’ words about race last week. This week, I will.

In this time of cancel culture and removing statues, stating I will critique James’ words about race may create concern. I know James is not here to defend himself. I know I also am open to critique, even when I’m not around to defend myself.

In responding to feedback, James gave as well as he took—as seen in his acerbic responses to letters to the editor.

In reply to a letter writer who chastised James for condemning existentialism “simply because you know nothing about it,” he wrote: “Of course you didn’t tell us anything except that I don’t know anything and you do. The readers already knew about me, and now they know about you. However, I don’t think they know any more about existentialism than they did before you wrote” (March 24, 1965).

Knowing this about James, I am comfortable critiquing his thinking on race and his reasons for writing and publishing what he did.

The bottom line is: James’ words perpetuated pain our brothers and sisters in Christ experience. We must acknowledge that fact in our efforts toward reconciliation.

The paragraph

James wrote the following: “If the people of God ever intend to show concern for the illiterate, uncultured, and downtrodden black masses, it is time to do it. Among the Negroes are rapists, murderers, and hoodlums of all kinds; but there are many white men in the same categories. It can be said for the Negro of the South that up until now he has seldom resorted to violence in pressing his claims for civil rights. This is probably due to the fact that he respects the leadership of his educated minister who has advocated passive resistance. The white people of the South ought to be thankful for those ministers against whom so many false accusations have been made by those who are blinded by prejudice and ill-will. Had it not been for them the docile marches in the South might have become violent race riots like those in other areas. Had not the Negro ministers taken the reins in the civil rights demonstrations, it is possible that half of Dixie might be engulfed in an uncontrollable conflagration at this hour.”

I had difficulty republishing in whole the preceding paragraph, because they are dehumanizing words, regardless of James’ intentions. Even so, the words needed to be republished so the Standard cannot hide from them. Now, to deal with them.

The critique

“The illiterate, uncultured, and downtrodden black masses”

“Downtrodden” we can agree on. The vast majority of Black people in 1965 certainly were downtrodden.

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Illiterate and uncultured? Both terms make sweeping negative assumptions about Black people. In turn, we can make assumptions about what James meant, and those assumptions rely on what was being communicated about Black people in the broader culture outside of the Standard. It is no secret many white people considered Black people as inferior.

We don’t know how many descendants of enslaved people were unable to read in 1965, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Even so, a person’s not being able to read should not suggest justification for oppressing that person. “Illiterate” was an unnecessary descriptor.

To describe the Black masses as “uncultured” ignores their real and vibrant culture and suggests that culture was inferior to James’ own and not worth consideration. “Uncultured” was a false assumption or a blatant mischaracterization that perpetuated a prevailing negative view of people created in God’s image.

“Rapists, murderers, and hoodlums of all kinds”

While acknowledging there also are “rapists, murderers, and hoodlums of all kinds” among white men, James’ choice of words is telling. Painting Black men as specific sexual dangers to white women, and as criminals generally, was a common tactic to stoke fear of and disgust toward Black men. Such tactics have no place in the Standard.

To claim educated Black ministers kept their people’s criminal instinct at bay suggested, among other things, that Black people were devoid of decency. Never mind that it was white slaveholders raping enslaved Black women and white men lynching Black men. Never mind that among those white men were professing Christians and, in the case of lynchings, even some ministers.

For the arc of James’ argument, naming any kind of criminality among Black or white men does not strengthen or support his central claim. Those words were better left unpublished.

“The educated minister,” “docile marches” and “violent race riots”

James credited “the leadership of [the Black] educated minister” for keeping “the docile marches in the South” from becoming “violent race riots like those in other areas,” engulfing “half of Dixie … in an uncontrollable conflagration at this hour.”

Ironically, history shows white people and their ministers have been and are at least equally given to violence against others. Consider another former editor of the Standard, J. Frank Norris, perhaps best-known for shooting an unarmed man. This is a sin problem, not a race problem, and all have sinned.

James’ audience was decidedly white, and he knew his audience. He knew his readers were concerned about violence. Unfortunately, the concern seemed only to be about violence against “white people of the South,” not violence against Blacks.

While gratitude for people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other leaders of nonviolent protest—or “passive resistance,” as James called it—can be appreciated, the not-so-subtle message is that without such leadership, “white people of the South” would see their fears realized by “uncultured” and supposedly violent Blacks.

Critiquing protest in 1965 and 2020

The violence of March 7, 1965—Bloody Sunday—was directed entirely at Black people. White Alabama state troopers bloodied Black men and women peacefully marching from Selma to Montgomery for the purpose of advocating for equal voting rights.

In response, little to nothing was printed in the Baptist Standard. Three weeks later, James’ words regarding racial tension put the blame on those seeking justice, not on those perpetuating injustice.

In 2020, James’ words are heard in the same way as Donald Trump’s words in announcing his presidential campaign. During his speech on June 16, 2015, Trump said Mexico wasn’t “sending their best” to the United States but was “sending people that have lots of problems … they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”

In both James’ words and Trumps’, the real focus is not on the “good people” among a population but is on the negative actions of some who are allowed to become representatives for an entire population the communicator seems to consider undesirable.

For too long, some have tried to nullify the injustice of millions under slavery and Jim Crow. For too long, some have blamed the oppressed for their oppression.

Then and now, protests are the sound of justice taking too long. As we respond to justice seekers today, our words must describe human beings created in the image of God, beloved creations who make up both the oppressed and the oppressors.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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