Rev. William Barber and North Carolina Christian writer Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove recently authored the following essay on the close connection between modern “religious freedom” proposals and the dark history of racial discrimination in the U.S. We’re delighted to publish it here.
Extremists also remember Selma:
The ugly history behind “religious freedom” laws
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
From Ava Duvernay’s award-winning film to President Obama’s speech at the Edmond Pettus Bridge, to the thousands we crossed the Bridge with and the millions that joined by TV, America has remembered Selma this year. We have honored grassroots leaders who organized for years, acknowledged the sacrifices of civil rights workers, and celebrated the great achievement of the Voting Rights Act. At the same time, we have recalled the hatred and fear of white supremacy in 1960’s Alabama. But we may not have looked closely enough at this ugly history. Even as we celebrate one of America’s great strides toward freedom, the ugliest ghosts of our past haunt us in today’s “religious freedom” laws.
Many able commentators have pointed out the problem with laws which purport to protect a First Amendment right to religious freedom by creating an opportunity to violate another’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. But little attention has been paid to the struggle out of which the 14th Amendment was born—a struggle which continued to play out in Selma 50 years ago and is very much alive in America’s state houses today. We cannot understand the new “religious freedom” law in Indiana and others like it apart from the highly sexualized backlash against America’s first two Reconstructions.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was part and parcel of America’s first Reconstruction, guaranteeing for the first time that people who had been legally codified as three-fifths persons would enjoy equal protection under the law in this country. The very notion of equal protection for black Americans was so offensive that it inspired an immediate backlash. Two features of resistance to America’s first Reconstruction are essential to note.
First, it was deeply religious. White preachers led the charge, calling themselves “Redeemers” and framing equal justice for black Americans as a moral danger. At the same time, the threat was explicitly sexualized. Black men were portrayed in respectable newspapers as “ravishing beasts,” eager to rape white women.
Here in our native North Carolina, white vigilantes were armed and encouraged to defend their women, leading to the “Wilmington Race Riot” of 1898. Violent demonstrations of white men’s sexual fear led to lynchings throughout the South and Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ida B. Wells, the courageous African-American journalist from Memphis, did the dangerous investigative work to show that the great majority of these lynchings were not about sex but political power.
When the Civil Rights Movement—a Second Reconstruction—was finally able to draw national attention to the vicious patterns of Jim Crow in the 1960’s, the challenge to white power was again conflated with sexual fear. As Danielle McGuire has chronicled in her book “The Dark End of the Street,” civil rights workers were consistently accused of wanting interracial sex and/or having homosexual tendencies. Read More