Retired Professor of History and Black Church Studies and author of “Black Preaching,” Henry H. Mitchell, had been charged with “teaching Black Church history like it’s your own family album.” Mitchell admitted to the charge, adding that he had also written to raise the esteem of his Black people.
Nevertheless, Mitchell also has some good things to say about the White Church and their role in Reconstruction:
· After the South was opened up to the missionaries, under protection of military occupation, the Protestant churches of the North launched a veritable crusade to bring literacy to the huge host of the newly freed. (Mitchell, Black Church Beginnings, 142)
Well, how great was this crusade? Mitchell investigated the annual reports of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS):
· I was stunned to see whole pages of names of people who had been sent south to do mission work. There were hundreds of these names, in tiny print, on page after page. (142)
· Regardless of paternalism and hazards to African American self-esteem, it was this huge crew of volunteer and minimally paid instructors, of not just Baptist but all denominations, who laid the foundation for all the secondary and college work reported in the pages that follow. There may have been only a log cabin church to teach in at first; it may have been by firelight, but these volunteers taught their very hearts out. There simply isn’t room to begin to cover the host of primary reading classes that were begun in churches and elsewhere soon after the Union troops took over. (142-43)
Mitchell later lists a vast multitude of schools started by these White missionaries to train Black teachers, who gradually took their place:
· There were, of course, some educated African Americans from the North hastening south to lift their sisters and brothers. But this vast number of newly freed African Americans required this white host at the outset… The first Southern generation of locally educated African American instructors was first trained in schools planted by white missionaries. (143)
Why am I writing about this? Well, for one thing, I was thrilled to read about this. I had been so tormented reading about how White Christians had failed their Black brethren during segregation. Reading about Reconstruction was a welcome relief.
This is certainly not because I am White and want to build my own self-esteem. Not at all! I am not White. Instead, I believe in the Church that Christ has purchased with His own blood and I rejoice when I see indications that our Lord still inhabits His people, and that this makes all the difference in the world.
Just the other day, a Black women solemnly informed me, “Whites do not love Blacks.” This perception needs to be countered.
I also do not want White Christians to carry undo guilt and to allow this false guilt to either silence them or to lead them into doing foolish things in a vain attempt to atone for their “sins.”
False guilt helps no one. As a panelist at a conference on racism, Professor Shelby Steele was asked what an ideal America would look like. He writes:
· I said that what I wanted most for America was an end to white guilt... the terror of being seen as racist— [the] terror that has caused whites to act guiltily toward minorities even when they feel no actual guilt. My point was that this terror— and the lust it has inspired in whites to show themselves innocent of racism— has spawned a new white paternalism toward minorities since the 1960s that, among other things, has damaged the black family more profoundly than segregation ever did. I also pleaded especially for an end to the condescension of affirmative action... the benevolent paternalism of white guilt, I said, had injured the self- esteem, if not the souls, of minorities in ways that the malevolent paternalism of white racism never had. Post- 1960s welfare policies, the proliferation of “identity politics” and group preferences, and all the grandiose social interventions of the War on Poverty and the Great Society— all this was meant to redeem the nation from its bigoted past, but paradoxically, it also invited minorities to make an identity and a politics out of grievance and inferiority... their entitlement and that protest politics was the best way to cash in on that entitlement. (Shame: How America's Past Sins have Polarized the Country)
Steele believes that white guilt is now more destructive to the Black community than white racism. He argues that the very programs intended to help Blacks were not simply ineffective but actually damaged the Black community:
· White guilt was a smothering and distracting kindness that enmeshed minorities more in the struggle for white redemption than in their own struggle to develop as individuals capable of competing with all others.
However, even more than this, I want to see the different races reconciled together as one in the Body of Christ. I want to remind my Black brethren that they are beloved, even though the White Church has often failed to show it in helpful ways that might result in healing and forgiveness.
Oneness in Christ was Jesus’ prayer (John 17:20-23). It should also be ours.