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Recently here on The Twelve, colleague Jim Bratt gave a glowing review of Ron Chernow’s brilliant new biography Grant. Among other things, Bratt noted that even as David McCullough’s bio of Harry Truman went a long way toward rehabilitating Truman’s reputation as President, so Chernow has done Grant the same favor. Although Chernow does not sugarcoat Grant’s drinking problems nor deny how Grant’s naivete allowed altogether too much Gilded Age corruption to take place inside Grant’s White House, even so Grant’s utter humanity and goodness come through in striking ways.
A key highlight of the book as flagged by Jim Bratt–and something very new to me I must confess–was Grant’s role in breaking the spine of the original Ku Klux Klan. Grant deservedly is now being credited with taking a very high moral road against the original Klan, an organization vastly more brutal and murderous than even the terrible reincarnated version of the Klan that cropped up in the 20th century (and with which most of us are far more familiar). As President, Grant used his native military savvy and a few other tactics to bring the Klan down in only a few short years.
The descriptions Chernow provides of the late-19th century Klan are truly harrowing. But that is all one small piece of the larger narrative of how many–not all but many–in the South kept alive the Civil War fight to grant blacks equality many, many years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. There were several organizations that today we might describe as White Supremacists or White Nationalists that terrorized freed black people throughout the late years of the 19th century. And nowhere did such violence flare than at election time as blacks and sympathetic white Republicans tried to exercise the right to vote. The very idea of a black man being able to cast a ballot–and the sheer demographic fact that in many places of the South, blacks were numerous enough reliably to swing the vote to the Republicans–was more than enough to inspire murderous hatred and anger among many. Whole black families were burned out of their houses, shot, slaughtered, mutilated by whites to keep them from the polls. Many families took to hiding out in fetid swamps to avoid being harassed and killed.
This went on and on and although Grant was successful at getting rid of the Ku Klux Klan and though there were successful military interventions here and there to secure polling places and keep blacks safe, the fact is that these attacks and the vicious racism behind them went on and on. As Chernow writes, the successful intimidation of and systematic abuse and murder of American blacks in the South in the years after the Civil War is a little-known fact of American history.
But of course it’s not just history. You can draw solid lines connecting Southern revulsion against freed black people to later forms of this same intimidation in the form of Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, gerrymandering, and a host of ways that continue to this day to keep black people from feeling fully free and even from exercising the voting franchise. Recent controversies over the display of the Confederate flag echo all of this as well. For many that flag is not some auld lang syne connection to good old days of mint juleps sipped under spreading banyan trees but to the days of open racial segregation and cruelty. Period.
America’s Original Sin is racism. We may or may not ever be done repenting of it, atoning for it, dealing with its legacy. There are signs of hope: this past weekend’s White Supremacist rally in Washington was a bust as the bigots who came were overwhelmed and outnumbered by those who came to stand up instead for love and for equality. That is good, that is hopeful.
But all of us who follow Jesus as Lord have to keep standing up for all people. Statistics show that hate crimes in America’s largest cities are up 12% since 2016 and last year’s number of such incidents is the highest in a decade. There is no one reason for that but it only shows that we need to keep on praying and acting for understanding. The Civil War ended over 150 years ago. The United States was just 89 years old then and the Republic is now 242 years old. But for all of those 242 years the sting of racism and bias and bigotry has lingered in the shadows and all too often has burst forth into the light. Lately it feels like it’s been out in the light more.
Perhaps, though, when bigotry is more fully exposed to the light, the church and people of goodwill will use the opportunity to see such bigotry more clearly for what it is and so speak and pray and act in ways consistent with the Spirit of Pentecost who one day brought together people from every part of the then-known world into full unity in Christ Jesus who is the Lord of the whole church and all its many and wonderfully varied people.