When I told our children we were moving from Kansas—literally, the Free State—to Arkansas, a state that spitefully celebrated Martin Luther King Day and Robert E. Lee Day on the same day for years and years, my oldest asked the question I’d already been thinking: Why would we move to a former Confederate State?
As a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I’d grown up reliving the Civil War as much as the students I would come to teach in Arkansas had. For me, though, the stories were of radical bravery in the fight to root out the gravest of sins: the Christiana riots, which predated the Civil War; the white Quakers who moved people escaping slavery north to Canada; the Republicanism of Thaddeus Stevens. And always, the importance of the Mason-Dixon line, which continued to separate the good people of the North from those who inhumanely enslaved others. Of course, I knew that the stories were more complicated, that racism and hate exist in the North (including my beloved rural Lancaster County) just as cruelly as it does in the South (and more, in some cases) and true in the Free State. It is the home of both John Brown the liberator and John Brown the mass murderer, the site of the Exoduster town Nicodemus and a place that treated Langston Hughes terribly, a place where Brown v. the Board was won because, after all, segregation was legal there.
Above left, a historical plaque marking the battle of Jonesboro, an 1862 skirmish that left killed 8 Union soldiers and one fool willing to die to defend slavery. Above right, a historical marker honoring the Christiana Resistance. Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch traveled with a posse to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to retrieve men who had escaped slavery on his farm. Gorsuch met armed resistance from William Parker, a free black man, and others, black and white, who opposed the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery. Gorsuch was killed, and nearly 40 people, black and white, including several Quakers, were arrested and charged with treason. Most charges were dismissed.
But still, I had to answer the question. I stressed that the Civil War was over, even though I know it’s just taken new forms. The best part, I told my sweet, white son, is that he’d likely have a sizeable number of African American classmates, which hadn’t been the case in his Kansas public schools, though he had had many friends who were native American (especially when we lived in the Haskell neighborhood in Lawrence) and Mexican and central American.
He looked appalled. “Why,” he asked, “would a black person ever live in the South?” It made even less sense than the descendants of Union soldiers moving there.
Above, though progressive in other ways, Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough responded to the massacre of black Arkansans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919 by rallying whites.
Below, Exodusters in Nicodemus, Kansas in 1855.
There are good reasons, of course, beyond the difficulty in picking up your life and moving it to a new region. Racism is everywhere, and perhaps it is easier to navigate in Arkansas or Louisiana or Georgia, which bring the benefits of being in a place with a long history of African Americans. We read up on how so many of our civil rights heroes were Southern and learned about the beauty of the myriad cultures of the African American South.
But still, the question: Why stay in a place built (literally, the infrastructure, the agriculture, the commerce) on your oppression?
I’ve been thinking about the question again with Lawrence Ware’s announcement in the New York Times that he is quitting the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC was founded as a defense against abolitionist Christianity; it’s origin is as a theological justification for keeping the captives captive.
Ware is a professor of philosophy and co-director of Africana studies at Oklahoma State, plus a pastor ordained in both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, founded by King. He renounced his SBC membership after those gathered at the recent national conference in Phoenix refused to take seriously the call the reject the racism of the alt-right, racism that the Trump campaign has deliberately fostered. Ware writes:
I want to be a member of a body of believers that is structured around my Christian beliefs of equity, not one that sees those issues as peripheral. The equality of all people should be a fundamental principle that is a starting point of the convention’s existence, not a side issue to be debated.
Ware’s departure brought criticism from those with little sympathy for someone who had spent his life as part of an anti-LGBTQ+, anti-woman organization and only left once he realized it was just too damned racist to be a part of anymore.
I understand that response. It informed by Fannie Lou Hamer’s stirring call: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” It’s the point behind intersectional activism, which requires us to think about the ways that different parts of our identities intersect and how those intersecting identities make us different from each other—even as they require us to collaborate in the movement for justice. Those who seek only their own safety will always lose it.
But I’ve also witnessed the destructiveness of call-out culture and efforts to overcome oppression that have been as much about purity, not hospitality, as are the worst churches. We too seldom have patience for each other’s growth, and we use other people’s weaknesses as an opportunity to show our own strength rather than our grace. Ware knew that the SBC was homophobic as well as racist, and he mentions his long-term grief about the organization’s failure to confront those prejudices in his letter; surely, he also knows of the group’s sexism, including its removal of women from the pulpit. He stayed because he felt that pressure from within was more powerful than pressure from without; he was hopeful.
We shouldn’t mock that, even if we don’t understand it. And we shouldn’t deride those whose process of recognizing the connections between oppressions is unlike ours.