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Freedom: Civil War to Civil Rights

March 17, 2005

After graduating from OBU in 1983, little did I know that, beginning my graduate work in history at the University of California at Berkeley the following year, I would be going home again (metaphorically) for the next two decades of my academic career. Fortunately, the high-quality general education I received at OBU had prepared me well, and through my rather lengthy graduate career (not unusual in the Humanities), I felt on an equal par with fellow students who had been deemed fledgling superstars. My teachers at OBU — including James Farthing, the late Laura Crouch, Gerry Gunnin, Dale Soden, Don Wester, and many others — had trained me to think broadly and deeply in the questions that Humanities scholars ask. I remain in their debt for exemplifying the best qualities of a Christian liberal arts education.

Little did I know, either, that it would be my graduate school mentor at Berkeley, Leon Litwack, who would persuade me to turn my professional academic interests from completely different subjects back to the American South, and to American religious history, and even to Southern Baptist history.

Over the last nine years, now as a professor of history at the University of Colorado, I have worked on a book titled Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era, just published with the University of North Carolina Press. In many ways, this represents the culmination of studies undertaken as an inquisitive youngster, then as an OBU student, then as a graduate student struggling to finish a dissertation, and finally as a younger scholar in American religious history excited by the efflorescence of the field over the last decade.

“Freedom’s coming” has many meanings. Having worked on the subject of religion and race in the South for nearly twenty years now, perhaps “freedom’s coming” is, for me, the longawaited end of this book project. Yet, I wouldn’t trade anything for the journey, which has taken me across the country in search of treasure troves in libraries and archives, introduced me to a generous cast of people in and out of academia and religious communities, and inspired me to think deeply about questions at the heart of American history.

In the early 1960s, freedom riders seeking to desegregate public transportation took up this playful riff from a popular 1950s tune:

Freedom, freedom, freedom’s coming and it won’t be long Freedom, freedom, freedom’s coming, and it won’t be long.

But freedom would come only through constant struggle and suffering, as expressed in this song from some of the most difficult days in the civil rights movement in Mississippi:

They say that freedom is a constant struggle, They say that freedom is a constant struggle, Oh Lord, we’ve struggled so long, We must be free, we must be free.

Ultimately, freedom would come in what activists envisioned as the beloved community — a utopian religious vision that inspired devotion and sacrifice and, inevitably, created disappointment and disillusion.

From Reconstruction through the civil rights movement, white and black evangelical Protestants in the South understood the history of their times as part of sacred (albeit sometimes competing and contradictory) narratives about God’s intent and purposes in history. What did freedom mean, and what would it look like when it came? Was it coming in the sense of “having already come”? Was it coming in the immediate present, as portrayed in the freedom songs of the 1950s and 1960s? Or was it coming in a future, millennial sense? Generations of southern believers vividly expressed their struggles for spiritual freedom in song, sermon, tale, and dance. Meanwhile, many black and white Christians fought for freedom through social justice.

In preparing Freedom’s Coming, I was particularly interested in stories that relate to two major themes traced in the book: Racial Interchange and Christian Interracialism. After the Civil War, white and black Christians organized into racially defined denominations. That part of the story is well known. Yet within southern culture existed strata of white and black religious experience which threatened to undermine the hierarchies under which people were obligated to live. Racial interchange refers to the exchange of southern religious cultures between white and black believers in expressive culture, seen especially in music, the formation of new religious traditions, and in lived experience. In those liminal moments, the bars of race sometimes lowered, if only temporarily. White and black believers drew from common evangelical beliefs and attitudes, formed interracial congregations, and swapped oratorical and musical styles and forms. On occasion, they shared moments of religious transcendence, before moving back into the world where color delimited everything.

This common evangelical tradition eventually, if unintentionally, created openings for Christian interracialism, or self-consciously political efforts to undermine the system of southern racial hierarchy. In the years leading up to the civil rights movement, black and white believers struggled towards mutual respect, desegregation, and a politics (if not altogether a culture) of interracialism. Courageous black believers who formed the rank-and-file of the civil rights movement exposed the frail social and political underpinnings for segregation, and buried some of the folklore of blackness as inferiority that had enslaved so many Americans for so many centuries. While religious institutions were resistant to change, many religious folk, black and white, devoted themselves to a southern social revolution precisely because they perceived God as its author. Among them could be found numerous Southern Baptists, black and white, whose depth of religious conviction allowed them to brave the hostile social system of apartheid that attempted — ultimately unsuccessfully — to keep them separate and unequal.

Religion in the post-Civil War and twentieth-century American South was both priestly and prophetic. If southern formal theology generally sanctified the regnant hierarchies, evangelical belief and practice also subtly undermined the dominant tradition. In one sense, the seeds of subversion were embedded in the passionate individualism, exuberant expressive forms, and profound faith of believers in the region. Freedom’s Coming depicts southern Protestant religious expressive culture in their complexity, tragic pain, obstinate literalism, creative explosiveness, and reconciling possibilities. If the Freedom Summer of 1964 was “God’s long summer,” as memorably described by theologian and historian Charles Marsh, the era from the Civil War through the civil rights movement might be described as God’s long century, for it was in the South during this time that American Christianity may be seen at its most tragic and its most triumphant.

Paul Harvey is Professor of History, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In addition to Freedom's Coming (North Carolina, 2005), Paul is author of Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925 (North Carolina, 1997), co-author of The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945 and co-editor of Themes in Religion and American Culture (North Carolina, 2004). He also has a forthcoming book, Religion, Race, and American Ideas of Freedom: From the 17th Century to the Present (Yale).