Remember that wonderful headline that Mollie hit us with the other day: "You mean Mormons aren't all Republicans?" I thought of that when I read the following New York Times piece by Patricia Cohen, focusing on the work of historians who are digging behind some of the white stereotypes of the Civil Rights era. Thus, the headline on this post. The key is that the Civil Rights Movement was not the only force that shaped the South in that era. Other forces included waves of Northerners moving to the region, a changing corporate climate on labor issues, the cultural turmoil of the '60s, government policies that fed exploding suburban growth nationwide and, I would have added, the changing political climate after Roe v. Wade.
Here is the thesis statement of the story:
A new generation of historians is exploring some of the untold stories of the civil rights movement and its legacies: the experiences not of heroes or murderous villains, but of ordinary Southern whites. And their research is challenging some long-held beliefs about the nation's political realignment and the origins of modern conservatism.
And then there is this crucial look at one of the most significant changes in the field of education, taken from the work of historian Joseph Crespino in his book In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press). Crespino grew up in rural Mississippi:
The racial and religious conservatism of whites, for instance, "converged in unexpected ways in the fight over federal tax policy toward Southern private schools," Mr. Crespino writes. He said that while many Southern whites set up "segregation academies" for the sole purpose of avoiding school integration, others were genuinely interested in sending their children to church schools for religious reasons. "By the late '70s, this issue of defending church schools against harassment by the federal government and the I.R.S.," Mr. Crespino explained in an interview, led to the "mobilization of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians."
In other words, there were Southerners -- white and black -- who wanted Christian schools and then there were Southerners who wanted white schools.
This is very similar to another theme from that era. There were Christians -- black and white -- whose faith was a key element in their opposition to racism and not all of them were religious liberals. There were also Christians whose faith was woven into their racism.
There are black fundamentalists. There used to be lots and lots of white Democrats who were old-school "Populists," pre-Roe. Lots of them were fundamentalists.
It is hard for journalists to gasp some of these concepts and keep them in mind, at the same time.
I'll never forget moving to Charlotte, N.C., in the early 1980s and paying my first visits to one of the city's most powerful fundamentalist churches (Let's leave the name of out this discussion). U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms was in the house and it was a big day. It was crucial for him to meet the children in the Christian school, so in they came -- white and black. And there was one of the leaders of the school, who was black, and his wife, who was white.
The South is a complex place and has been for a long time. I doubt that will change anytime soon. You know what? Religion is really complex, too.
The photos are from the website of a Christian school in the Deep South.