As a pastor, God calls me to think his thoughts. Such thinking is possible because God has given revealed truth in Scripture. To think God’s thoughts is the nature of a Christian Mind.
A few months ago, the death of George Floyd presented me with a unique challenge. There was the simple biblical question: how does God define the sin of racism? The challenge was to answer that questions in the midst of cultural and ideological confusion. Sort of like building a house in a hurricane.
Because of the cultural hurricane, while it should be enough to say that God hates the dehumanizing of image bearers, such an answer is deemed simplistic or privileged. The issue is wildly politicized.
Rather than engage is the screeching debates among Christians about the legitimacy of critical race theory, intersectionality, and systemic racism, I took these last few months to read and to reflect. The reflection was on Scripture. In later posts I will bring the fruit of those labors.
The reading has been about history. Why history? One black brother told me I needed to understand that he, as a black American, experienced racism every day. He said it is in our DNA. Others affirmed that position. To evaluate such claims, I looked at the facts of history.
Deep into my reading list, I came to The Warmth of Other Suns. Perhaps no book brought greater clarity to my understanding of the wide influence of racism in the USA. This is my review of this magnificent book.
The Great Migration
In this long volume, Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the “great migration.” What is that? It was the movement of 6 million blacks from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West, from mid-WW1 to 1970. 6 million! Not immigrants from other countries but migrants within their own national boundaries. Why did so many move within their own country? Simply put: They fled for their lives.
Wilkerson’s book is not “scholarly”, replete with footnotes and abstractions. That does not mean it is not well researched. She tells us about racism, not by sociological analysis, but by focusing on the lives of three of the migrants. These three lived in the South and left the South in three different decades. Their stories, which span decades, provide a lens through which we see their world as they lived in it. Along the way, Wilkerson adds a variety of historical accounts and cultural insights. Let me try to summarize.
The birth and growth of Jim Crow
For page after page she recounts the South’s departure from Reconstruction. In the late 1870’s, as the North abandoned the emancipated slaves to the will of their former oppressors, a new form of oppression was born. While it took decades to ascend to power and to defeat those who sought a better course for the freed slaves, it is clear that many (not all) Southern whites were white supremacists. Notwithstanding the loss of the war, they utterly rejected the equality of the races. Rather than yield, they began to reverse the many good steps forward that started during Reconstruction.
Beginning in the 1890’s, the former confederacy, which was founded upon white supremacy, created a system of laws, codes, mores, and justice that assumed the rights of whites to do as they please with blacks, with no legal consequence. And that is exactly what they did.
Every State had its own versions of rules that restricted blacks in everything – from restrooms and lunch counters, to how to behave when a black person met a white person on the sidewalk. These laws are called Jim Crow laws (the origin of which name is not fully clear). Jim Crow laws even designated different Bibles for blacks to use when they took an oath in court.
Life under Jim Crow
These laws and the culture of white supremacy were omnipresent. Wilkerson summarizes:
It was during that time, around the turn of the twentieth century, that southern state legislatures began devising with inventiveness and precision laws that would regulate every aspect of black people’s lives, solidify the southern caste system, and prohibit even the most casual and incidental contact between the races. (p. 53).
For the former slaves and their children, this meant living under a dark shadow of repression and fear. Jim Crow was everywhere in the South. Speaking of one situation in Mississippi, Wilkerson summarizes:
An invisible hand ruled their lives and the lives of all the colored people in Chickasaw County and the rest of Mississippi and the entire South for that matter. It wasn’t one thing; it was everything. The hand had determined that white people were in charge and colored people were under them and had to obey them like a child in those days had to obey a parent, except there was no love between the two parties as there is between a parent and child. (p. 42).
Jim Crow was widely supported
Yes, I know from other reading, that many whites found this disgusting. They voted against the white supremacists who ran for public office. But there was a majority that supported these actions. That majority elected avowed white supremacist as governors and Senators, men who believed that whites must remain in the superior position even if it meant lynching every colored person in the South. There was nothing subtle or deceitful about their agenda. They were blatant white supremacists. And they sat in local, state, and national leadership positions.
Silence and capitulation were the rule of life for those who thought Jim Crow was damnable. Until WW2, politicians and judges, from local to the White House and the Supreme Court, refused to touch the policy or the vile practices for fear of jeopardizing their position. Even those who opposed the oppression on principle would not risk re-election by public denouncement.
Putting human story into the history
In college I read the breakthrough work by C Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward was a gentleman scholar. His ground breaking work was first presented shortly after the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown V Board of Education. His concerns were the concerns of a scholar, i.e larger matters of policy and culture and legislation. There was a price to pay as a scholar. He faced a strong backlash to his work. But he persisted in his research. In later editions he developed the story of Martin Luther King and Civil Rights legislation, court actions, and the aftermath of these actions.
Wilkerson addressed the same things as Woodward. But she made the truth sing. She brought Jim Crow down to the street level. There were many times when, while reading, I put my kindle down out of a sense of horror at what she had just described. For example: one study noted that in the South, from 1889 to 1929, a black hanged or burned alive every four days. Wilkerson put flesh on that idea. She told the story of whites who showed up en masse, children in tow, to witness the spectacle of blacks being burned alive and lynched (for the crime of acting like they were good enough to be white). This did not happen one time. It happened often. Can you imagine a Sunday family picnic, fresh from church, food spread on a blanket, kids playing, while the center of attention was the lynching and burning of a black man?
This book haunted me
I was in Virginia and Tennessee as I read. As I took my daily walks with my wife, I looked around and wondered what life was like in that community 80 or 100 years before. I wondered if any of the trees had been used for lynching.
Then there was the North
As Wilkerson paints the lives of the three migrants, she makes clear that there was more to racism than Jim Crow. These three fled from Jim Crow and encountered a less defined but equal prejudice elsewhere. Whether they arrived in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles, they faced bigotry similar to the South. They fled for their lives from the terror of Jim Crow and met the same in the North and West.
As one example: a bartender took the glass from one of the migrants as they finished their drink. Rather than wash it, he smashed it to pieces and threw it away. The touch of the black man had so polluted that glass that it could not be cleaned. He did this in the presence of the man who had just finished his drink. No one at the bar batted an eye.
Hatred and violence by whites
There was no legal system devised to support this. Yet the private individuals, merchants, employers, and neighborhood associations reserved the right not to associate with blacks. They could do so with impunity. In some cases, when the waves of migrants spilled out from circumscribed neighborhoods into “white” communities, the residents rioted.
The story sound much like recent events in US cities:
A mob stormed the apartment and threw the family’s furniture out of a third-floor window as the crowds cheered below. The neighbors burned the couple’s marriage license and the children’s baby pictures. They overturned the refrigerator and tore the stove and plumbing fixtures out of the wall. They tore up the carpet. They shattered the mirrors. They bashed in the toilet bowl. They ripped out the radiators. They smashed the piano Clark had worked overtime to buy for his daughter. And when they were done, they set the whole pile of the family’s belongings, now strewn on the ground below, on fire. In an hour, the mob “destroyed what had taken nine years to acquire,” wrote the historian Stephen Grant Meyer of what happened that night. The next day, a full-out riot was under way. The mob grew to four thousand by early evening as teenagers got out of school, husbands returned home from work, and all of them joined the housewives who had kept a daylong vigil . . . They hurled rocks and bricks. They looted. Then they firebombed the whole building. The bombing gutted the twenty-unit building and forced even the white tenants out. The rioters overturned police cars and threw stones at the firefighters who were trying to put out the blaze. The Warmth of Other Suns (p. 421).
That took place in Cicero, part of Chicago, in 1951. It was whites rioting to keep blacks out.
I read this book to understand how my friend could day “racism is in the wallpaper.” I believe that summary makes sense. I believe I had a superficial understanding of our history.
Treating blacks as less than human was everywhere. These families left Jim Crow South and ran into a less defined but equally powerful prejudice in the North and West. Even in the face of northern prejudice, they shuddered at returning to Jim Crow.
She traces the stories of these select ones through their relocation, their fight for employment and housing, their heartaches in their own families, and the many ways they adapted to the North through the turmoil and change of the 1960.s Wilkerson makes clear that the stories of the three are representative. They are not exceptions. She interviewed hundreds of people. These three are representative of 6 million. Their stories are to be multiplied by 2 million.
But surely, it was not that bad?
Yes, there were many exceptions. Yes, there has been large progress. But I can now understand why such a ubiquitous and powerful cultural prejudice has not been “solved”. Passing a few laws and making rulings in courts does not change the human heart. It seems quite reasonable to believe that the effects of racism are still present in the legal, social, and economic life of many black Americans. I cannot minimize this any more than I can minimize the holocaust of the Jews in Germany. (Interestingly enough, I have learned that Hitler studied Jim Crow laws to learn how to oppress the Jews).
If you are going to pick up a book to understand the ubiquitous reality of racism in the USA, this would be it. If you want to feel the effect on people, this is the book for you. It is long, but it is long with stories. The case that racism has been present in the USA, after the Civil War, is made beyond refutation.
Reading this book, you will meet with the skill of a master storyteller. But this is not fiction. Wilkerson develops the character of the three addressing both their circumstances and their inner world. Her writing was preceded by extensive research.
Remember, I read for the history. I simply wanted to understand if I had missed something. Other books have informed me, but this one made it clear that yes, I had missed much.
But what do I do with this awareness? How am I to interpret our national wickedness in light of Scripture? Are we an inherently racist nation? Are we that different than any nation in history? What does this mean in our current crisis? How do I guard my interpretation of these events from being overtaken by secular narratives?
In my next post I want to discuss my responses to this book.
 Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Warmth of Other Suns (p. 20). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. She notes that at one point 10,000 arrived in Chicago every month.
 The Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, said the war was about “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” The Warmth of Other Suns (p. 74). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.