By Joel A. Bowman, Sr.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees, Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh, Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, For the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, For the tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop
“Strange Fruit,” was penned by songwriter and poet, Abe Meeropol, also known as Lewis Allan. The very disturbing yet historically descriptive words of “Strange Fruit” were made recognizable by legendary singer, Billie Holiday, in her 1939 recording. One can feel the pathos dripping from Lady Day’s hauntingly beautiful vocal instrument, as she sings about the horrors of lynching in the American South.
From the period after the Civil War until 1968, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Organizations like the NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative have estimated the number of Black persons lynched, but it is impossible to know exactly how high the number is.
The definition of lynching has evolved over the years. However, lynching has been a major component of racial terror and violence in the United States since the end of the Confederacy. To be sure, Black bodies have been the primary targets of lynching. It is estimated that over 70% of lynching victims have been Black.
We are currently living in a time in which many are trying to whitewash America’s racist past, using what has been labeled “critical race theory” as their “boogie man.” Therefore, there’s a pressing need for more Americans to learn about the deplorable legacy of lynching. In her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced, With courage, need not be lived again.”
As a pastor, mental health clinician, and thought leader, I am connected to a rather large and diverse network. Further, I am an avid follower of social trends, as well as those who research the same. Therefore, I strongly believe there is one particular demographic that must learn about lynching: white Christians. I hold to this belief for three reasons:
1. White Christians Have Generally Been Silent About Lynching or Have Actively Participated
Lynching and Spectacle author, Amy Louise Wood stated, “A 1935 questionnaire answered by some 5,000 ministers showed that only 3.3 percent had either preached or worked against lynching in some way. Most simply felt that lynching was inevitable and that, in taking a stance, they would divide and alienate their congregations.” Ironically, in 2022, a number of white pastors and Christian leaders are reluctant to address the issue of white supremacy because it’s “too divisive” or “too woke.”
Jamelle Bouie said, “The lynching and torture of Blacks in the Jim Crow South weren’t just acts of racism. They were religious rituals.” Just like slavery and Jim Crow were often justified in the name of Christ, so was the evil of lynching. The Christian faith was polluted by the toxin of white supremacy. It was very common for white churchmen to join the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) which was responsible for numerous lynchings in the country. This happened within evangelical and mainline spaces, such as Southern Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches.
There are accounts of congregants leaving worship on Sunday and going directly to public lynchings of Black people that were promoted as if they were community-wide revivals. The festive atmosphere at these macabre events is evidenced by the smiles one can see on postcards.
2. Racism Among White Christians is Higher Than Among the Nonreligious
According to Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, white Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural or systemic racism. Jones says, “A close read of history reveals that we white Christians have not just been complacent or complicit; rather, as the nation’s dominant cultural power, we have constructed and sustained a project of perpetuating white supremacy that has framed the entire American story.”
Surveys conducted in 2018 by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), founded by Jones, found that white Christians- including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics- are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killing of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. Further, the survey found white Christians are about 30 percentage points more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism.
3. White Christians Are Collectively More Invested In Comfort Than the Equitable and Just Treatment of People of Color
As previously stated, many are trying to whitewash America’s racist past, using “critical race theory” as their “boogie man.” In every instance, white Christians have been actively engaged in the fear mongering and propaganda spreading in this regard. As a result, a number of “red states” now have laws on the books banning critical race theory. The language of such laws focuses on prohibiting teachers from creating an environment that is “uncomfortable” for white students, due to discussions about racism.
While parents have a right to question how sensitive subjects will be addressed, I can’t help but pose the question … Since when is the primary aim of a student’s education their being comfortable? In my estimation, being “comfortable” and being treated with respect within the classroom are not always one and the same. I have always believed that a classical education is one in which each student is challenged to think critically, to rigorously engage a broad range of topics of historical relevance. This is sometimes an uncomfortable endeavor. But human discomfort can be a powerful tool for learning and growth.
The same is true about education within a Christian context. When Jesus spent time teaching His disciples, He was concerned with the development of their character, not their comfort. We clearly see this in the Gospel narratives. That said, many white Christian parents are more concerned with their children being comfortable in the educational milieu than gaining the tools necessary for citizenship that helps us move toward “a more perfect union.” Interestingly, when Black students broke barriers and desegregated the segregated schools and colleges of the South, they were encouraged to push passed their emotional and social discomfort to achieve a greater good. Whatever discomfort a white student may feel during a discussion about racism could never be compared to the discomfort a Black student feels while actually experiencing racism!
When it comes to the lynching of the past, as in the case of Emmett Till, or the lynching of the modern era, as in the case of George Floyd, white Christians can no longer be silent! God calls all of His people to advocate for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” Proverbs 31: 8 (HCSB) says, “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed.” The dispossessed bear the image of God as much as anyone else. So, white Christians should use their racial privilege to champion their cause.
It is an indictment on white Christians as a whole that they have been found to be among the most racist groups in the country. They would do well to practice the words of Paul recorded in Philippians 2:4, as it relates to lynching and other acts of white supremacy. The passage reads, “Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
In closing, Jesus has not called us to a life of comfort. He has called us to be His disciples (Matthew 16:24). This involves self-denial, relinquishment of privilege and power, and personal identification with the suffering. For white believers, this involves empathizing with Black people and other people of color who have suffered much under the weight of racial oppression.
By Joel A. Bowman, Sr.