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May 18, 2007

Jerry Falwell's segregationist legacy

Max Blumenthal examines Jerry Falwell's racist roots:

But for Falwell, the "questions of the day" did not always relate to abortion and homosexuality--nor did they begin there. Decades before the forces that now make up the Christian right declared their culture war, Falwell was a rabid segregationist who railed against the civil rights movement from the pulpit of the abandoned backwater bottling plant he converted into Thomas Road Baptist Church. This opening episode of Falwell's life, studiously overlooked by his friends, naïvely unacknowledged by many of his chroniclers, and puzzlingly and glaringly omitted in the obituaries of the Washington Post and New York Times, is essential to understanding his historical significance in galvanizing the Christian right. Indeed, it was race--not abortion or the attendant suite of so-called "values" issues--that propelled Falwell and his evangelical allies into political activism.

As with his positions on abortion and homosexuality, the basso profondo preacher's own words on race stand as vivid documents of his legacy. Falwell launched on the warpath against civil rights four years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools with a sermon titled "Segregation or Integration: Which?"

"If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made," Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. "The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line." [Nation]

In later years, Falwell would claim that Roe galvanized the religious right as a political movement. Blumenthal argues that this is just self-serving revisionism. The early seventies Supreme Court decision that launched the religious right was Green v. Connally, not Roe v. Wade.

While abortion clinics sprung up across the United States during the early 1970s, evangelicals did little. No pastors invoked the Dred Scott decision to undermine the legal justification for abortion. There were no clinic blockades, no passionate cries to liberate the "pre-born." For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. At about the same time, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until 1971.) Falwell was furious, complaining, "In some states it's easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school." [Nation]


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In all the recounting of Jerry Falwell's life, almost all of the focus has been on Falwell's 'religiously' motivated positions. But this ignores Falwell's first political activity: to defend the system of American apartheid known as segregation. Rac... [Read More]


Good riddance to bad rubbish.

McCain had it right the first time in 2000. The influence of the Religious Right is probably one of the biggest factors in turning this atheist away from the Republican Party.

According to Kevin Phillips, the actual galvanizing event was Watergate. It reduced Nixon's support even early on, decreasing the extent of his coattails in 1972. Thereby it ensured Congress would be under firm Democratic control, rather than under the control of a coalition of Southern Democrats and moderate Republicans employing a Nixonian Southern strategy. That required the Republican Party to turn more to the right instead of continue to marginalize the Evangelicals.

Hi Lindsay.

If you don't mind a little constructive criticism, you spelled segregation wrong in the title of the post!


Instead of critically reviewing the case for and against invading that nation, many evangelicals blithely accepted the Bush administration's war rationale. They implicitly trusted the president, their co-religionist, relying on the administration's dubious (and quickly discredited) claims.

For instance, Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson cited administration arguments in explaining that just war theory should be "stretched" to include preemption of terrorism. He added: "Of course, all of this presupposes solid intelligence and the goodwill of U.S. and Western leaders." Alas, it turns out that such intelligence was entirely lacking
An entry on a topic of discussion leads to other ah-ha's
Is there ever a champion of life and security ?

The religious right was in large part a reaction to the religious & moral color of the civil rights movement. Low church white Southerners, who had regarded blacks as their moral inferiors & racial oppression as morally benign, profoundly resented Christian & moral criticism of segregation. They were used to thinking of themselves as righteous, good people, & were humiliated by the harsh light the civil rights movement cast on their institutions & moral character. Thus their emphasis on the moral turpitude of the Freedom Riders (for alleged promiscuous & interracial sex, poor hygiene, drugs, Communism, etc.) & the “phoniness” of civil rights leaders. So they sought to reassert their compromised moral status. This accounts for much of the curdled resentment that characterized their later political activism, which was partly a delayed counter-offensive against (what they saw as vaguely the same kind of) people who had publicly revealed their Christian & moral defects.

A. Levy & KH, both spot on. I might only add that KH's last sentence is just as true in the present tense.

Thanks for quoting this. Puts Falwell into the proper perspective. This trajectory follows how the right reversed the progressive era and re-wrote history. Good work Lindsay!

I don't know that Falwell was that much worse than the average American. This country's racism is not an accidental defect but a design principle from its foundation, reaffirmed with the readmission of the former Confederate states and the repeal of Reconstruction. Falwell was an obnoxious windbag, of course, but he did not rise to his heights of political influence and power by alienating the core of American society; he was that core and we liberals are the statistical fringe.

To oppose racism is to be objectively anti-American, to throw a monkey-wrench into what makes this country what it is in its core. Racism defines our transit policies, our education policies, our policing policies, our criminal justice policies; it's the political Islam of our country. Every Presidential candidate must fear taking on racism in a serious way because it is effectively anti-American to do so.

Watch as Giuliani makes himself into an honorary Confederate. How will he do it? With the help of the black people whose skulls and rectums his police force violated. He will need to emphasize his anti-black violence very strongly to overcome both anti-Yankee sentiment and antisemitism, which will apply against Giuliani because he is "politically Jewish" as far as the American South is concerned. Italian Catholic from Queens is "Jewish" in a South Carolina Republican primary. But with enough anti-black violence on his resume, he can overcome this.

Jerry Falwell lives, folks; he lives in nearly every precinct. If this be treason, make the most of it.

He's not going to talk about black people. Nobody is; it's not the 1950s anymore, or even the 1970s. Instead, Giuliani is talking about his record of cleaning up the city and about crime. Nixonian Southern strategists used coded messages so effectively that they made people care more about the codes - crime, drugs, school violence, welfare, out of wedlock births - than about black people. So now you have a situation where Obama's a serious candidate and there's nothing the racists can do about it, and where the only Republican who can actually get to galvanize racist support is the one who really can talk about his record on crime. Even in the South he couldn't be overt about it, and if he wins the primary, the general election is going to be fought on the other side of the Mason-Dixon.

Alon’s comment recalls Lee Atwater’s famous comment from a quarter-century ago: ‘You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say 'nigger'—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger".’

Without denying that the change Atwater describes represents progress, it’s plain enough that it doesn’t amount to “doing way with the racial problem.” For politicians seeking to gain from racial division, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

In particular, it’s possible to galvanize racist support without having presided over one of the many cities in which the crime drop of the 1990s took place (on the actual causes & national scope of the latter, see Franklin Zimring’s The Great American Crime Decline, Oxford UP 2007). Giuliani benefits from having been in aggressive toward the black community in NYC, but other candidates have or can conjure compensating advantages. It’s far from true that he’s the only candidate who can galvanize racist support. The fact that the election will to be fought outside of the South isn’t, of course, evidence of the declining salience of race in politics.

Racial anxieties evolve. The most viscerally potent issue the right currently has is immigration, which is highly racially coded. And indeed, a prosopography of the contemporary restrictionist movement would reveal that much of its infrastructure was laid by aging veterans of the struggle against black racial equality.

The fact that the election will to be fought outside of the South isn’t, of course, evidence of the declining salience of race in politics.

No, but it suggests Giuliani won't explicitly use race in his campaign. "I reduced crime in New York" plays to far more people. It combines a coded racial message with a reassurance that he's competent, which is important to the moderates who turned away from Bush after it became clear he can't lead or run anything.

Racial anxieties evolve. The most viscerally potent issue the right currently has is immigration, which is highly racially coded. And indeed, a prosopography of the contemporary restrictionist movement would reveal that much of its infrastructure was laid by aging veterans of the struggle against black racial equality.

That's true... at the same time, Giuliani and McCain are more pro-immigration than the Democratic candidates in the race. In this area the Republican Party comes off as hardly different from the Democratic Party of the early 1960s: the people who were moderate on race were Republicans, while the Dixiecrats and the civil rightists were Democrats.

Alon is right, I believe, about how he will get it done. He will say "crime," "zero tolerance," "aggresstive street policing in the City's worst neighborhoods." He will talk about how Democratic partisans like Al Sharpton don't like him, how Democratic partisans like Jesse Jackson have marched against him, how civil libertarians don't like him.

Archie Bunker of CBS' All in the Family was a New Yorker's New Yorker, but Southerners loved Archie. Northern liberals - like his feminist's critic Maude who got her own show - viewed him as a joke, but that show lasted because people identified with Archie. Nobody remembers Maude.

Sorry for typos in prior post.

To oppose racism is to be objectively anti-American, to throw a monkey-wrench into what makes this country what it is in its core.

What the heck does that even mean? What authority or source even defines "what makes this country what it is in its core?"

I think we agree about Giuliani. Although the received narrative of his special crime-fighting abilities is unlikely to be dislodged in the popular culture, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t really bear close scrutiny. Putting aside the question of Bratton’s role, competent observers agree that the reduction in crime in NYC during the ‘90s was part of a national trend, largely attributable to national forces over which Giuliani had no control. Many other big city mayors, most of them less racially polarizing than Giuliani, can boast of equal or greater declines in crime rates, & they aren't held out as potential Presidents.

The parties’ postures on immigration are less simple than Alon allows. The data are imperfect, but I don’t accept that Republicans (either voters, activists, candidates, or party managers) are bunched around the (shifting) center of the distribution (however measured), or that Democrats are distributed bimodally toward the tails.

I'm saying it's the other way around now - the Republicans are distributed more toward the tails, while the Democrats are center-left. You have Giuliani and McCain openly advocate letting more legal immigrants in, which is well to the left of the average American's opinion. Even Romney, who's more anti-immigration than the three Democratic candidates, is talking about the need to encourage legal immigration. The tone is very legalistic - "We need to respect the law" - rather than the more boundary-based attacks on foreigners and foreign cultures. The legalistic tone is relatively easy to work with. For ten million dollars, you can get an ad campaign that will explain to everyone that virtually all political scientists agree stricter border controls only increase the number of illegal immigrants. Getting people to stop viscerally hating anyone who speaks Spanish is far harder.

Alon: Sorry, I got it exactly backward. My sentence should read: "I don’t accept that Democrats (either voters, activists, candidates, or party managers) are bunched around the (shifting) center of the distribution (however measured), or that Republicans are distributed bimodally toward the tails."

McCain & Giuliani are relatively liberal on the issue, as is Bush, but not clearly more liberal than the Democratic candidates, & the other Republican candidates are clearly more conservative than the Democrats, notwithstanding Romney’s avoidance of Raspailian rhetoric. In the Congressional parties & among voters, no large number of Republicans is more liberal than the median Democrat. If the Republicans were truly bimodal, there would be a larger party base of support for the positions of Bush, Giuliani, & McCain. Pro-immigrant activists aren’t irrational to believe that their strongest party-political supporters are Democrats.

One problem: law & policy complex here, with a lot of moving parts that aren’t fully described by scalar left-right measures. It matters how you evaluate a whole range of attitudes: toward guest workers, regularization (or not) of the undocumented, the relative emphasis on family unification versus skills, etc., etc. And, as you say, the numbers for legal immigration. These co-vary, but imperfectly. Employers’ interests may be ‘left’ in one respect but not in others, & any measure that captures only the similarities between, say, Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association & the National Council of La Raza is likely losing information. Better to think in terms of more than one dimension.

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