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The Ubiquity of White Christian Silence and the Promise of Righteous Resistance

In his study of white supremacy in the United States from 1918 to 2018, Will Coleman interrogates the “false deity” of racial superiority and presents a compelling blueprint for righteous resistance. Coleman advances a theological anthropology grounded in tzelem elohim and pater Christi that counters the historic development and continuing dominance of racism, sexism, and classism across every facet of American life. In this response, I examine the writings of several southern black and white Christians, mainly during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, with the hope of deepening Coleman’s analysis of “the ubiquitous dogma and practice of white supremacy.”

At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, one of the speakers preceding Martin Luther King, Jr. was John Lewis, a young leader from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis was the twenty-three-year-old son of sharecroppers in Alabama and emerged as an activist in Nashville, where he organized sit-in demonstrations protesting segregated lunch counters as a college student at Fisk University. On the day prior to the March, several of the March organizers debated the contents of Lewis’s address with him. Lewis understood the roots of racial discrimination were tied to the unjust economic systems of US. southern neo-feudalism. The emancipation of African Americans from slavery neither reformed these systems nor created new systems of equal opportunity and fair access for persons of color. In his original manuscript, Lewis wrote that one of the chief aims of their civil rights “revolution” was to “free themselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.” Lewis also incorporated bellicose imagery of marching through the South “the way Sherman did” to pursue “our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground.” Lewis alluded to William T. Sherman’s military devastation of cities and crops across Georgia at the end of the Civil War as a metaphor for the civil rights movement one hundred years later to underscore the severity of their task against the tenacious forces of racial, economic, and political oppression. But the SNCC leader also made clear that all their work would be done non-violently.[1] After much deliberation, Lewis ultimately agreed to soften his tone, but only slightly. He removed the reference to Sherman but did not refrain from his sharp criticism of the “immoral compromises” of American politicians and their “open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation.” He concluded his address with an unwavering commitment to “march with the spirit of love” and “splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy.[2] Lewis understood that segregation was a perversion of tzelem elohim because white persons and persons of color were not regarded equally as human beings created in the divine image.

James McBride Dabbs was a professor of English at the University of South Carolina and Coker College. He was a ruling elder in the southern Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.), and one of the foremost white activists for racial justice during the civil rights movement. Dabbs was one of the six white persons King thanked in his Letter from Birmingham Jailas examples of the “few members of the oppressor race” who understood the ferocity of anti-black racism and committed themselves to overturning white supremacy.[3] In his 1958 book, The Southern Heritage, Dabbs explained why most southern white persons, including Christians, were either overtly supportive of white supremacy or silently complicit. Just as Coleman unpacks Paul’s presentation of a new social reality under the rule of pater Christi in Ephesians as a rejection of the status quo of pater familias in the Roman Empire, Dabbs found the essential spirit of Christianity in the teachings of Paul stood in contradistinction to segregation in the American South. At the same time, Dabbs confronted how white supremacy shaped the moral and religious consciousness of southern whites in the seemingly “omnipotent” and “indomitable” ways Coleman identifies in his essay. Dabbs observed that most southern whites were raised in the “nostalgic sense of the Lost Cause” with limited social interaction with African Americans. The pater familias in his household, as with many white southern households, was steeped in an oppressive system that treated African Americans primarily as an economic means of production. Under slavery, white persons were generally unafraid of African Americans because of the defined hierarchies within master-slave relations. After slavery, whites imposed a complex model of segregation to maintain the social order of slavery. Dabbs described it as a deceptive system. Whites knowingly entwined their public affirmation of black communities receiving “separate but equal” resources with the private conviction that black communities in fact lived as second-class citizens in substandard conditions to whites because of their racial inferiority.[4]

Sarah Patton Boyle was another of the six white persons for whom King expressed gratitude in his Letter. Patton Boyle was raised on a plantation in Virginia and her father was an Episcopalian clergyperson. She married a drama professor at the University of Virginia and did not anticipate a career in civil rights activism. In her 1962 memoir, The Desegregated Heart, she confessed her upbringing entailed innumerable lessons canonizing the false deity of white supremacy. The Lost Cause was “stripped of all ignobility” as the Civil War was presented to her as a righteous battle to uphold states’ rights and defend the South from Yankee aggression. As a pastor’s child, she was spared from hearing the most vicious pathologies and slurs about black barbarism.

Nonetheless, her Weltanschauung was formed in a pater familias consisting of a “whole pattern of behavior” that either regarded African Americans from a lens of inferiority or a lens of romanticism. Whites viewed most African Americans as intellectually incapable of relating to whites as equals and undeserving of honorific titles like “Mister.” Or whites cherished a few African Americans, often their nannies, maids, and gardeners, as enchanted individuals possessing childlike faith, irrepressible kindness, and homespun wisdom. As Patton Boyle advocated for racial justice, initially to support Gregory Swanson, the first black law student at the University of Virginia in 1950 and then as the author of essays like “Southerners Will Like Integration” for the Saturday Evening Post in 1955, she increasingly understood that the only way for whites like her to embrace African Americans as tzelem elohim and embody the pater Christi in the United States was to break out of the “white prison” isolating them from genuine social relations with African Americans. She observed that even the white persons supporting integration in Charlottesville, whom she mockingly referred to as “library liberals,” knew as little about the real thoughts of African Americans as the segregationists.[5] The more subtle yet persistent patterns of white flight in neighborhoods and schools today, which Nikole Hannah-Jones traces in her precise and penetrating study of Tuscaloosa, Alabama for The New York Times Magazine in 2017, highlights one of Patton Boyle’s concerns from over a half-century ago: White persons in favor of racial integration liked the ideas of equality and inclusion more than its realities.[6]

In 1909, Francis James Grimké, the mixed-race son of a white slaveholder and an enslaved African American and minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., lamented the silence of white pulpits on race-based discrimination and violence. As a pastor himself, Grimké understood both the challenges and responsibilities of clergy. Grimké observed how white preachers gladly supported the politics of temperance and did not hesitate to denounce the sins of gambling and Sabbath desecration from their pulpits. He therefore surmised the two reasons for the deafening silence of “nearly a hundred thousand white ministers” on the evils of racial prejudice were cowardice and indifference.[7] Some ministers understood, in varying degrees, how white supremacy contradicted a theological anthropology anchored in tzelem elohim and pater Christi, but they feared the consequences of speaking the truth. Others did not grasp the realities of racism in their country. And more than a few pastors sincerely believed in white supremacy as divinely ordained. Grimké’s faith in white preachers wavered, but he continued to believe in the power of the pulpit: “This is the time for every pulpit to speak out, and to speak in no uncertain tone; the time when as a people we should get closer together, and understand each other, and prepare for the future.”[8] Fifty years after Grimké’s address, the writings of John Lewis, James McBride Dabbs, and Sarah Patton Boyle illustrate both the tenacity of white supremacy and the efficacy of righteous resistance. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, Will Coleman richly excavates biblical, historical, sociological, and theological resources to offer a powerful message that instructs and inspires Christians today in our ongoing struggle against the dogma and practice of white supremacy.


[1] William Powell Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 193.

[2] John Lewis, “Speech at the March on Washington (28 August 1963),” http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/lewis-speech-at-the-march-on-washington-speech-text, accessed on December 14, 2018.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 93.

[4] James McBride Dabbs, The Southern Heritage (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), 7, 37-43, and 235-236.

[5] Sarah Patton Boyle, The Desegregated Heart (New York: William Morrow, 1962), 6-14, 25-30, and 53-82.

[6] Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” The New York Times Magazine, September 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/06/magazine/the-resegregation-of-jefferson-county.html, accessed on December 17, 2018.

[7] Francis James Grimké, “Discouragements: Hostility of the Press, Silence and Cowardice of the Pulpit, November 20, 1909,” in The Works of Francis J. Grimké, edited by Carter G. Woodson (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1942),240.

[8] Grimké, 247.