Race in America 50 Years Later (Brent Aucoin)

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Brent Aucoin is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College at Southeastern. His published doctoral dissertation (completed at the University of Arkansas) is entitled, A Rift in the Clouds: Race and the Southern Federal Judiciary, 1901–1910. He continues to research race relations in America. So we asked him to evaluate where we are now 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. See below for more resources on race relations upcoming at Southeastern.] 

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008 and Fred Luter was elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012, some predicted that the elevation of these two black men to their respective offices would help solve the racial problems in America and America’s largest Protestant denomination. In the case of President Obama’s election, some prognosticators even began speaking of the advent of a “post-racial America.”   However, events such as the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the recent upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, make it clear that racial strife continues in America. Likewise, the Southern Baptist Convention continues to struggle with an image tarnished by its pro-slavery origins and the fact that it remains a predominately white denomination. While it is safe to say that some individuals expected too much from the elections of Obama and Luter (particularly the former), it is also safe to conclude that those expectations, and the extraordinary attention given to their elections, indicate that the issue of race continues to be an important and pressing topic in America and in the church.

It is for this reason that I believe Americans and Southern Baptists in particular must take time to learn about and to reflect upon the history of race relations in our country and denomination. As a society and as a church we are grappling with the issue of race. This has been the case since the founding of both the USA and the SBC. America and American Christianity have been on a long and arduous journey when it comes to the matter of the relationship between black and white. If one wants to know where we are now in this journey and how we can move forward, then one needs to know how we have gotten to this point, and what is the ultimate goal.

America’s observation of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provides the perfect opportunity for us to do these very things. The passage of this monumental piece of legislation half a century ago has been dubbed as something just short of miraculous, considering its historical context. In a single moment racist practices and laws, which in some cases had plagued African Americans for nearly three centuries, were upended. The Act sought to transform America from a color-conscious society to one that is blind to race. The Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment, access to public accommodations, and education. Like the unprecedented, historic elections of Presidents Obama and Luter, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a momentous milestone in the history of American race relations.

However, like the elections of Obama and Luter, the Civil Rights Acts also failed to solve all of the racial problems that many hoped and expected it would. (See, again, the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri as an example of that failure.) It, like other milestones, marked a significant turning point in American race relations, and the taking of another step closer to the ultimate goal of racial reconciliation. But how close are we to that goal? How far along have we come in the journey? We know we are not there yet, but are we close, and what needs to be done to bring the journey to a successful end?

During a two-day event being put on by the Center for Faith and Culture called “Christian Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” these questions and others will be explored and discussed. On the evening of Tuesday, September 16th, Dr. Gerald Smith will consider the role that Christianity played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and how Christians can guide the ongoing quest for racial justice and reconciliation. On Wednesday, September 17th a panel consisting of scholars and a veteran of the civil rights movement will examine the history of race relations in America from the 1960s to the present. This Casual Conversation event will begin at 10:00 AM and be held in Binkley Chapel.

For information on these events please check out this link. And if you have questions you’d like to ask Southeastern’s Casual Conversation’s panel please submit them here: https://sebts.typeform.com/to/iF5AXv. Join the conversation on Twitter at #Secasconvo and on the livestream: http://www.sebts.edu/news-resources/livestream.aspx


Some Thoughts on Race and the Presidency

Yesterday America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is hard to believe that, if Dr. King was still alive today, he would turn 80 this year. That’s a few years younger than all three of my living grandparents. As someone who was born about a decade after Dr. King’s assassination, I cannot imagine a world where he lives past 39 years old–he was such a young man in 1968. History will always remember him as a young man.

Martin Luther King Jr. was, above all, a Baptist preacher. He served local Baptist churches in Alabama and Georgia. Like many leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King saw his social activism as an extension of his Christian faith. He believed racism, and all forms of social oppression, were fundamentally sin issues. Society needed to change, but Dr. King and many others knew that societal change would only come as individual hearts and minds were changed. And this was especially true of Christian hearts and minds; too many Christian people were not walking in a manner worthy of the gospel when it came to racial justice in American culture, especially in the South. (See Dr. King’s scathing critique of racially moderate clergy in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which can be read here.)

We should stop and consider how America has changed in the course of a generation. When Dr. King was assassinated, there were some places where it was still difficult for African Americans to vote. Many places in the South were still segregated (my parents were in high school–in the early-1970s–before they had black classmates in South Georgia). There were virtually no African Americans (or other “non-whites,” besides a few Asian-Americans) serving in prominent elected or appointed positions in our national government. And now here we are, in January 2009, prepared to inaugurate the first African American President of the United States in a little less than one hour. Society has changed.

All Christians should be thankful that Barack Obama will soon be our President, even those who did not vote for him. Though racism will be with us until that day when all things are made new in Christ, the election of a black man as our Commander and Chief signals a significant advance in our nation’s history. I believe without reservation that this is evidence of God’s grace. I know that many of my fellow conservative evangelicals will disagree. They will bemoan Obama’s election because of his views of abortion, homosexuality, and other “social issues.” They will argue that his election is evidence of God’s judgment, not his grace. And to be clear, I strongly disagree with our new President’s views on these matters.

But as a Christian and a historian, I think it is at least possible that today is evidence of both grace and judgment. Why should this be surprising? We believe in the God of common grace, who brings rain to both the righteous and the wicked, who prevents each of us from being as sinful as we are capable, who allows a fallen world to still show great evidence of beauty, truth, and order, however imperfectly. We also believe in the God who exercises righteous wrath against wickedness, whether it be the murder of the unborn, perverse forms of human sexuality, the oppression of a people based upon the color of their skin, or the exploitation of orphans and widows.

History is complicated and messy, a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Isn’t it possible that God is blessing us in some ways, even as we face judgment in other ways? If you think about it, this is the individual experience of every person, both Christian and non-Christian. This is the experience of every family. Every church. Every nation. Life will be complicated until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he reigns forever and ever.

So I rejoice–really, sincerely, wholeheartedly, and Christianly–at the election of Barack Obama. It represents so much that is good. So much that is so long overdue. So much that, in God’s common grace, pictures the barrier-smashing power of the gospel. The strong disagreements I have with Mr. Obama on any number of issues can wait for tomorrow. Today is a day of celebration, for every American, and for every Christian. Hail to the Chief.