Last month I visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Founded by Bryan Stevenson, this stunning museum traces the history of racism in the U.S., beginning with the 12.7 million enslaved people who were forcibly brought from Africa, and proceeding through the Jim Crow era and the mass incarceration of Blacks today. Stevenson, a graduate of Eastern College and Harvard Law School, first moved to Alabama in 1989 to investigate prisoners on death row who had been wrongly convicted. A book and movie, Just Mercy, describes that phase of his work.
In addition to the Legacy Museum, Stevenson also developed a National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors some 4,000 victims of lynching. Plaques give some of the details:
“lynched because he didn’t say ‘Mr.’”;
“hung for writing notes to a white woman”;
“killed for talking back to a shop clerk”…
It would require days to absorb all the stories and facts presented in the museum and memorial, and I had only a few hours. I wish every American could see this state-of-the-art presentation of an evil that we continue to grapple with today. For me, it was a time of solemn reflection and repentance. Coming of age in Georgia of the 1960s, I was definitely not “woke.” In this passage adapted from my memoir, Where the Light Fell, I tell of my gradual awakening to racial injustice. Sadly, it meant learning to distrust what the church had taught me.
A pastor named Peter Ruckman is the featured speaker at church camp this week. Besides the evening sermons, which he illustrates with colored chalk as he speaks, he conducts afternoon workshops on various topics. We meet in the camp’s large dining room, and this day he’s chosen to speak about race.
It’s the sixties, and the civil rights movement is making daily news in Georgia. Freedom riders and other protesters are demanding an end to whites-only schools, restrooms, and lunch counters. Ruckman uses his workshop to defend segregation, citing the same “Curse of Ham” theory that I heard at church. “Read Genesis 9 for yourself,” he says. “God cursed Ham and his descendants to be servants. Campers, this is where the Negro race comes from.”
(The theory comes from a weird passage in Genesis 9 that tells of Noah, drunk and naked, cursing his grandson Canaan for some vague sexual sin. “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers,” declared Noah. According to the theory, Canaan’s father was Ham, and the Hebrew word Ham means “burnt black,” so God was condemning the Black race to a future of slavery. No one bothered to point out that a drunken Noah, not God, pronounces the curse, and that it applies to Canaan, not his father Ham.)
Then Ruckman grins and moves from behind the pulpit. “Have you ever noticed how Coloreds make good waiters? Watch them some time. They swivel their hips around the chairs and hold those trays high without spilling a drop.” He does an exaggerated imitation, and the campers laugh. “Don’t you see, that’s the kind of job they’re good at. But have you ever met a Negro who’s the president of a company? Have you? Name one. Every race has its place, and they should accept it. We can get along fine as long as we stay separate and don’t mix.”
As it happens, I have become the pet of Bessie, the camp cook. She’s a large Black woman who loves kids, works hard, and sings while she prepares food. As Ruckman is talking, I see her refilling the salt and pepper shakers at the other end of the dining room. She shows no sign that she has heard him, but I break out in a sweat just thinking about it.
My doubts about racism come to a head when I read the new book Black Like Me, by journalist John Howard Griffin. A line on the cover describes the premise: “A white man learns what it is like to live the life of a Negro by becoming one!” Although that stretches the truth, Griffin indeed underwent a regimen of drugs and ultraviolet treatment in order to darken his skin.
The book recounts his experiences during six weeks of traveling on buses through the Deep South, passing as a Black man. He tells of the “hate stares” that he gets in Mississippi when he asks for directions, applies for a job, or simply tries to buy a bus ticket. In his disguise, basic things I take for granted—a place to eat, somewhere to find a drink of water, a restroom, some place to wash up—pose a major challenge.
When the pigmentation finally fades and Griffin scrubs his face from brown to pink, everything changes. Once more he’s a first-class citizen, with the doors into cafés, restrooms, libraries, movies, concerts, schools, and churches now open to him. “A sense of exultant liberation flooded through me. I crossed over to a restaurant and entered. I took a seat beside white men at the counter and the waitress smiled at me. It was a miracle.”
The book has a profound effect on me. At once, I grasp the absurdity of racism based on skin color. John Howard Griffin was the very same man, whether with white skin or temporarily brown skin. Yet sometimes he was treated like a normal human being and sometimes like a dirty animal.
My brain aches after reading his book, as does my conscience. Unlike John Howard Griffin, I’ve never been treated—even temporarily—as if I were a Black person. What would that be like? Timidly at first, then greedily, I find books like Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The racist stereotypes I have inherited take on a new cast. Maybe Black people “don’t keep up their neighborhoods” because they live in dilapidated housing owned by slumlords. Maybe they “have no sense of history” because of what that history represents.
Black people, it dawns on me, don’t want to have names like ours, use the same grammar and pronunciation, enjoy the same music, wear the same clothes, shake hands the same way, worship the same way. For Blacks, “She thinks she’s white” is an insult, not a compliment. Black culture has its own set of gifts.
As I step over the fence to the church property where we live, I start viewing my own tribe of white-racist-paranoid-fundamentalism as its own kind of culture. I don’t like what I see.…
All summer a crisis of faith smolders inside me. The church has clearly lied to me about race. And about what else? Jesus? The Bible?
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Thank you. It was reading your chapter on MLK in your book “Soul Survivor” that began the repentance in my own life years ago. I’m most grateful to you for igniting that repentance in me.
Your fellow soul survivor…
Thank you so much for coming to Alabama and for writing this courageous, powerful piece about The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I live in the Montgomery area and am a member of a church in downtown Montgomery. I visited the Museum and Memorial by myself earlier this year, and it was a moving and eye-opening experience. Sadly I have not met anyone else in my church who has actually toured the Museum. It is disheartening to see so many well-intentioned people of faith uncritically and inadvertently buy into political messages and negative perceptions which, in my opinion, reflect a warped view of the kingdom of God. Thanks again for this post.
Philip, Always thankful for your gracious candor in how you choose your words, each thoughtfully written. It is with real Hope I pray we can all live more as Jesus did in whatever corners of the world we live and move in. Some of us grew up as I did in small rural (even Southern)
communities where racism was decried from pulpits and the fact that Jesus loves ALL the children of the world was practiced, tho of course never perfectly. In Christ there is real common ground ; I pray we each truly seek it.
Good post and still such an important topic. I find it interesting how people respond to this- some get defensive and minimize the significance of the church’s role in misleading people and others respond by wanting to throw away all the difficult portions of the Bible under the guise of grace and mercy, assuming that since they were lied to about race, everything else we don’t want to hear must be a lie too. I grew up in the north in the 1990’s so I didn’t experience the racial situations Philip describes but my church was quite legalistic. Like many today, in college I went down the path of what people now call ‘deconstruction’ in reaction to my upbringing. What I eventually learned and too few today seem to realize is that the ‘deconstruction’ philosophy that many seemed to have embraced is just is flawed as the legalistic one I grew up in, although in different ways. After I veered hard in the deconstruction direction to the point of questioning God’s very existence, God slowly lead me back. I have discovered a more loving and gracious God than I knew in my childhood, but also a more holy, just and demanding God than I wanted to find in my deconstruction phase. While we must combat damaging errors such as the one Philip highlights in his post; we must also combat going in the opposite direction and blaming everything we don’t like on ‘angry white men’. That is far too simplistic an understanding. Issues relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation are complex and we can’t write off everything relating to those issues that seems harsh or unpleasant. If we do we are only seeing part of the picture.
There is plenty of truth concerning historical racism, but I must give a counter-balance observation: When will (many, but far from all) people of color stop dividing the nation by continually reminding everyone about their historical injuries and modern perceived disadvantaged lives? When will we see compliments and encouragements for “white” racial successes come forth, instead of new, perceived offenses?
My ancestor gave his health, his 20-yr-old brother gave his eyesight to a Confederate bullet, in the war that freed slaves in this country. They were far from perfect, but they were working on it and they put their lives on the line for improvement. To date, I know of not a single erected statue, marker or even a modern speech delivered by any African-American organization thanking those soldiers.
Morgan Freeman, the actor, says everyone needs to stop observing “black” days and events like “Black History Month.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RosCZkH5uTI) Why? He says it only divides the nation, because whites have to keep silent, keep being reminded of past sins, real and perceived. Isn’t it biblical, to forgive and forget the past, and press on? Doesn’t God say he will forgive AS we forgive?
Booker T. Washington, black American political leader, educator and former president of Tuskegee University, said over a century ago when racism was indeed rampant: “There is [a] class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy, and partly because it pays.
Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs. …There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don’t want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public.”
(“My Larger Education”, 1911)
Stephen Douglass, the great ex-slave, orator and statesman who influenced Lincoln greatly, said: “I think the [white] American people are disposed often to be generous rather than just. I look over this country at the present time, and I see Educational Societies, Sanitary Commissions, Freedmen’s Associations, and the like, –all very good: but in regard to the colored people there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The [white] American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. (Union) General (Nathaniel) Banks was distressed with solicitude as to what he should do with the [freed but penniless] Negro. Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!” (“What the Black Man Wants,” a speech to Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, April, 1865. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, by Philip S. Foner, International Publishers)
Racism has always been and will never end, it is endemic to humans. But perhaps solely in Western society has such a massive and noble movement existed to stamp it out. Dominant races need to be encouraged by minorities, who also need to guard against professional agitators. I look at the progress the nation has made in just my 75 years, and I opine “we ain’t done too bad, folks.”
Lord, reveal to me the lies I have swallowed and bring me to repentance. Guide me on your path.
Thank you for your deeply felt insights about the ongoing tragedy of racism. I have just borrowed Griffin’s book, Black Like Me, from the library. So glad to know it’s still circulating and digitized after all these years.
Your books and writings inspire and sustain me.
I grew up and am still part of a denomination that split from another denomination because they would not speak out against slavery. Later, our denomination was also involved in seeking voting rights for women. However, standing up for the downtrodden faded over the years until many in our movement were no longer aware of our history. I did not become aware of it until I was in my 30s. In the meantime, I had graduated high school before the massive push for integration started. My parents ran a business where they had a number of black customers. When I heard them talking against integrating schools, etc., I struggled with why it was all right for me to play with the children of the customers who were having their cars serviced, but it was wrong for us to go to school together. My first experience with a segregated restaurant was when I attended a technical school in Danville, VA. A friend and I walked into a restaurant one day at lunch and were promptly told we would have to go to the other side of the restaurant if we expected to be served. We had entered on the “blacks only” side and had to walk around the kitchen area to get to the “whites only” side. I only lived 40 miles west of Danville, but I had never seen that in our community. I later attended a Christian college where I eventually settled on a degree in Sociology. In one of my earliest Sociology classes, the instructor had us to read Black Like Me. It was an eye-opener. The disappointing thing to me about that instructor was that he was strongly prejudicial of anyone he considered to be prejudiced. Another professor in a Basic Christian Beliefs class shared a story about his seven-year-old son looking at some baseball cards one day. The young boy noticed that Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson had the same last name. In childhood innocence, he held the cards up to his dad and said: “Dad, are they brothers.” Then the professor nailed it home. He told the class that children are not born prejudiced but are taught prejudice. These many years later, sometimes those things that my mother, who always declared she was not prejudiced, did and said, still come back to haunt my thinking and I have to again push back from them. I have especially appreciated a couple of books I read by John Perkins in which he states clearly that there is only one race. Those of us who are Christ-followers need to get this right and treat everyone the way He does.
I must say that I react strongly to Charles Stanley’s comments. It is not JUST a racist fundamentalist Baptist background that Philip Yancey experienced that is the
problem. I believe that it is an all-pervasive attitude that is expressed in Mr Stanley’s comments that is the problem. It is the denial that there even is much of a problem and that we might actually be a part of the problem !!!
I am a Canadian so never faced the racism towards Blacks but we have to deal more with some of the same attitudes toward First Nations people. I am much more aware of the same stereotypes directed toward native people which discredits the pure love of God for all mankind. Oh Lord change my heart!
I suppose I’m grateful for my rooting in fundamentalism. In some way, the bits of truth I found there gave me a hunger for more. Many of us grew out of such churches into a recognition of –I’ll call it the Bigness of God. He is so much more–everything–generous, merciful, intelligent, faithful, than we were led to believe. I never could settle for a small God who could be bent and shaped to a preacher’s or teacher’s or church’s errors. Some of us had to go outside the church walls to find the truth, and that’s where your books come in for me. Disappointment with God helped me find the way. Other books, events, people, too, but that was the first light, so to speak. Thank you for working so dedicatedly to expose the truth to us about ourselves and about our God.
Racism is demonic and satan is having a big laugh at all those who are guilty of it.
For me, coming from a segregated High School in Florida and then a Bible College that did not admit blacks but “ministered” to them, it was a summer as a counselor in E. Tennesee in a camp for black kids. Death threats happened nearly every week. With fifth and sixth graders in my cabin, I learned the shocking stories of what life was like on the other side of the color line. Bill Pannell of Tom Skinner evangelistic group was particularly memorable during a week when he was the preacher. All of us whites who had lived a racially sequestered life had a lot to unlearn (and still do). Many of us resonate with your journey, Phillip! BLM.
It’s sad to think that this kind of evil is allowed to continue because most of us choose to do nothing about it.
I was in high school in North Carolina in the early 1970s and experienced race riots explode during our school day when desegregation was forced upon the school system. It times, it was terrifying, but always tense. I couldn’t understand what was happening, because I was white. Mom said the black people had been mistreated for a long, long time. Slavery had ended so long ago, but the black race was still mad about it in 1970? I slowly learned black history in this country by taking the initiative on my own as an adult. I’ve read many, many books about the abolition movement and reconstruction, etc. However, the one book that changed my entire perspective on race and racism was Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak. It is a history on the eugenics movement. I had only heard of eugenics a couple of times before I read this book. Finally, a current history of the hatred and literal war against not just black people, but anyone deemed inferior according to this theory of eugenics. It began not in Nazi Germany, but in my own United States of America. The pieces of the modern puzzle of history began to fall into place for me. It is shocking, truly shocking what we don’t know.
Thank you for mentioning the Legacy Museum. I have ever only heard of one other Caucasian who has even heard of it, much less visited it to seek out and learn the truth. I am in a multi-ethnic marriage and I have learned so, SO much about the ongoing racism that exists today. I have watched my husband being treated as “less than”, inferior in some way to white men. I have watched movies and documentaries with him and heard his side of stories like Emmett Till and the Underground Railroad. Praise God we are in a multi-ethnic church so we have learned about value and grace.
Thank you for not sugarcoating this issue or suggesting that it no longer exists; it sure does! I appreciate and anticipate each of your monthly blogs.
Thank you for sharing this history. When we allow Jesus to powerfully transform us we can shed all of this darkness laid upon our backs.
Recently I was thinking about the principle of Original Sin, salvation, and repentance that forms the whole basis for the evangelical Christian gospel. And yet, the concept of Critical Race Theory negates that same paradigm when it defensively states that CRT is nothing more than a social construct serving to divide and heap shame and guilt on individuals who truly believe they never carried out “individual acts of racism”; as if Christians never individually “ate the apple”. Maybe there was a bigger principle all along that we were supposed to be paying attention to.
My heart skipped a beat when I read your blog, Philip. My awakening to racism was about the same time as yours (1961) and was channeled through the same book that you read, Black Like Me. After reading Griffin’s book at the age of 19, I experienced a literal circumcision of the heart through the Holy Spirit and finally understood that my ignorance and apathy about racism were at best, acts of omission if not commission. Apathy is a sin that scars the soul with its indifference and injustice to others. I will always be grateful to Griffin for writing his book and opening my eyes to the world around me.
I am a 70 year-old white South African. We did not go through the same traumatic racistic era as America…. or did we? I was too young to have known or differenciated on what was wrong or right, when it came to differing rules for white and blacks.
I do remember signs on the beach “Whites only/net Blankes” (Afrikaans). Train stations, restaurants; schools even park benches with designation plaques for whites only. It was only in the 1970’s that I began to ask questions, meet wonderful people who were black, and gingerly approach to subject of racism to hear the truth.
How desperately sad and sinful, as we still grapple with the aftermath of long ago.
Thank you, Philip. You have affirmed deep thoughts, and deep emotions. I grew up in the same era as you. Not quit as far South, but definitely considered Bible belt. I chose not to tell our children there was a Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. Why? Our friends would ask. I remember so clearly as a high school senior pondering making a personal commitment as a Christian and wondering–literally–what if this is just like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny and people just WISH God and Jesus were real? Now as a grandmother old enough to retire, I’m seeing how often the church lied to me. Told me I was “less than” because I was a woman. Lied about race, sexual orientation, etc. as white male elders cherry picked Bible passages to support a system that “protected our way of life.” I find myself settling into accepting Jesus never lied to me. I am beloved, I am forgiven, I am valued AND Jesus will help me pass on those truths to everyone. I’m exhausted trying to sort out who “deserves” the love Jesus promised is there for all of us. Thank you for sharing your struggles, your questions, your courage, and the gems of grace you are finding along the way.
Oh, WOW! I was there last month too! (First time in AL. Actually visiting my mother in law, and we stopped at the museum, the Peace and Justice memorial, and the Rosa Parks museum!)
Ironic, that I find the narrative being created by organizations like ICR and even CRI blames supremacy all on evolutionism rather than Genesis-wielding Christians. It’s like the “Ham” theory never even existed. And when they do acknowledge it in the Church, they minimize it to just an insignificant “aberration”! Peter Ruckman more recently was this obnoxious “King James Only” preacher who acted insane at times: even attacking other KJVOs.
I was reading “Just Mercy” when your memoir was released, and for a time I was going back and forth between both books. I was struck by the similarities of heartbreak that was ultimately slightly tinged with hope.
I find I crave shimmers of hope lately, and actively seek them out.
Thank you for shining the light in so many places. It matters.
I am currently reading your book. It is very moving so thank you for writing it. Very blessed by your books. Thank you Sir.
I finished your book last week. It touched me in a deep place. Your name has been on my radar since I was in high school in the 1970s when I would get my Campus Life magazine, reading it cover to cover. Your story was hard to read. Thank you for your honesty. Our “Victories in Jesus” are not sugarcoated. In my adulthood, I am continuing to learn how broken I am. Your story helped me face some of that brokenness. But for God……
I so relate to this having grown up in a fundamentalist denomination. Since I’ve gotten to know the God of love and mercy, I now have a relationship with God. It took awhile! Thank you Philip for having the courage to expose the hate-filled teachings that so detract from the love and acceptance of God.
Undoubtedly the church has lied to Philip Yancey about race. It is the result of wicked hearts and bad exegesis, not a bad Bible or a bad Jesus.
I wasn’t taught the lies Philip was taught in my church upbringing. Not the entire American church has been racist.
Don’t allow that one huge nasty error of a racist fundamentalist baptist background paint the whole church with a broad brush. Remember, it was Christians in England who brought down the British slave trade.
Excellent and moving.
I also recommend the website “United We Pray.”
This is an amazing testimony Phillip( I’m referring of course to your book). What strikes me is the way in which God revealed truth to you and his mercy covered so beautifully as you dealt with this realisation! It’s his mercy that provides strength to go on when we learn we have believed a lie ….