Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown

Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown

The Journal of American History
Volume 91, No. 1
June 2004
pp. 119–144

Jane Dailey, Associate Professor of American History
University of Chicago

The religious history of the civil rights movement is strangely one-sided. “God was on our side,” the activists have said, and scholars have tended to agree. But the opponents of civil rights also used religion in their cause. Jane Dailey argues that historians have underestimated the role of religion in supporting segregation as well as in dismantling it. Viewing the civil rights movement as a contest over Christian orthodoxy helps explain the arguments made by both sides and the strategic actions they took. Dailey examines the connections among antimiscegenation anxiety, politics, and religion to reveal how deeply interwoven Christian theology was in the segregation ideology that supported the discriminatory world of Jim Crow.

This article explores how religion served as a vessel for one particular language crucial to racial segregation in the South: the language of miscegenation. It was through sex that racial segregation in the South moved from being a local social practice to a part of the divine plan for the world. It was thus through sex that segregation assumed, for the believing Christian, cosmological significance. Focusing on the theological arguments wielded by segregation’s champions reveals how deeply interwoven Christian theology was in the segregationist ideology that supported the discriminatory world of Jim Crow. It also demonstrates that religion played a central role in articulating not only the challenge that the civil rights movement offered Jim Crow but the resistance to that challenge…

…Although rebutted at the time and later, Ariel’s argument remained current through the middle of the twentieth century, buttressed along the way by such widely read books as Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900) and The Tempter of Eve (1902), both of which considered miscegenation the greatest of sins. Denounced for its acceptance of separate creations, The Negro a Beast was nonetheless enormously influential. Recalling the door-to-door sales campaign that brought the book to the notice of whites across the South, a historian of religion lamented in 1909 that “during the opening years of the twentieth century it has become the Scripture of tens of thousands of poor whites, and its doctrine is maintained with an appalling stubbornness and persistence.” In this tradition, miscegenation—or, more commonly, amalgamation or mongrelization—was the original sin, the root of all corruption in humankind.

The expulsion from Paradise did not solve the problem of miscegenation. By the time of Noah race mixing was so prevalent that, in the words of one civil rights–era pamphleteer, “God destroyed ‘all flesh’ in that part of the world for that one sin. Only Noah was ‘perfect in his generation’ … so God saved him and his family to rebuild the Adamic Race.” That perfection did not last long, however; according to some traditions, the cursed son of Ham, already doomed to a life of servitude, mixed his blood with “pre-Adamite negroes” in the Land of Nod. Again and again God’s wrath is aroused by the sin of miscegenation, and the people feel the awful weight of his punishment: Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for this sin, as was the Tower of Babel, where, in a failed effort to protect racial purity, God dispersed the peoples across the globe. King Solomon, “reputed to be the wisest of men, with a kingdom of matchless splendor and wealth was ruined as a direct result of his marrying women of many different races,” and the “physical mixing of races” that occurred between the Israelites and the Egyptians who accompanied Moses into the wilderness “resulted in social and spiritual weakness,” leading God to sentence the Exodus generation to die before reaching the Promised Land. For evidence that the God of Noah remained as adamantly opposed to racial mixing as ever, white southern believers could look back a mere fifteen years to the Holocaust. The liquidation of six million people was caused, D. B. Red explained in his pamphlet Race Mixing a Religious Fraud (c. 1959), by the sexual “mingling” of the Jews, who suffered what Red represents as God’s final solution to the miscegenation problem: “Totally destroy the people involved.” Here, surely, was proof that segregation was “divine law, enacted for the defense of society and civilization…

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