“It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
President Woodrow Wilson, after seeing a screening of the 1915 blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation”
One hundred and one years ago, D.W. Griffith released “The Birth of a Nation”. The two-part movie received rave reviews and was an innovator for its filming techniques. Today, it is considered one of the most racist movies ever produced; in terms of highly-effective propagandist film it is often mentioned in the same line as “Triumph of a Will”. Earlier this month, “The Birth of a Nation“ was released in a new form; this film, rather, tells the story of Nat Turner’s 19th century slave revolt attempt, portraying in raw detail the horrors of the peculiar institution of centuries past.
Even more powerful is “13th”, recently released on Netflix. The documentary traces the criminalization of African Americans from the release of the 13th Amendment (Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States) up until today. One of every third black male is imprisoned today, in contrast with 1/17 of all white males. Political leaders from both major parties have toughened penalties for crime in passing mandatory minimum sentencing laws and stand your ground laws in recent decades– the politician that is the “law and order” candidate has been met with great electoral success. A brief description does not do it justice– it is the best documentary I’ve seen and I think readers will have similar thoughts.
As the trailer for “13th” suggests, injustice against African Americans is a story one hundred and fifty years in the making. In class, we are rewinding sixty five years to the civil rights movement to examine the connections between faith and race.
In the US during the Gilded Age and the first few decades of the 1900s, Catholic identity was closely linked to ethnic heritage. By the 1950s groups were being absorbed into a larger American church, a unifying effect of the war. Catholic liberals were leaders in the fight for better treatment for blacks; in 1958, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice was born. On a larger scale, the movement of blacks into white Catholic parishes and neighborhoods sparked a visceral reaction by much of white Catholic laity. Those with the means were able to flee to the suburbs while immigrant families remaining in ethnic urban neighborhoods actively resisted: there was redlining against blacks in heavily-Catholic neighborhoods of Philadelphia, and in Chicago, Irish Catholics as well as other Catholic immigrants organized riots when blacks entered. The influx of Mexican immigrants to city neighborhoods did not create the same level of discord in northern cities. The church establishment as a whole advocated for integration, but in incidents in Chicago and elsewhere Archbishop Stritch and other figures of authority remained silent.
Faith in our discussions was not restricted to Catholicism alone. Dr. Randal Jelks of Kansas University lectured to us about the great religious pluralism within the black community mid-century. A pending project of his examines four famous African Americans and their inner experiences with Catholicism and other faiths: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali. Faith for these four individuals was a means of claiming dignity and full citizenship in an era of racial turbulence. His central argument is that black America is (and always was) a heterodoxy, with variation between faiths but also within faiths (for example, Ali was not a member of mainstream Islam).
In his work, Jelks is pushing forward a narrative that all too often historically has been dominated by the white American experience: the importance and complexity of faith to black Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, African Methodist Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others . Just as the civil rights movement was intended to combat prevailing attitudes that had encased de jure and de facto segregation, the African-American experience continues to be projected through mass media and contend with previous “truths”. History continues to be revised in this way, for the better.