All over again

I’ve been re-reading one of the great American autobiographies, James Weldon Johnson’s “Along This Way.” Johnson was a renaissance man: poet, novelist, school teacher, writer of hit songs with his brother Rosamond, diplomat who served as American consul in Nicaragua during a revolution, and executive secretary of the NAACP.

In this last capacity, Johnson investigated a number of lynchings, and in his autobiography he describes an investigation into a lynching in 1917:

“I rushed to Memphis to to make an investigation of the burning alive of Ell Persons, a Negro [sic], charged with being an ‘axe murder.’ I was in Memphis ten days; I talked with the sheriff, with newspaper men, with a few white citizens, and many colored [sic] ones; I read through the Memphis papers covering the period; and nowhere could I find any evidence that Ell Persons was guilty of the crimes that had been committed. And, yet, without a trial, he was burned alive on the charge. I wrote out my findings, and they were published in a pamphlet that was widely circulated….”

More than a hundred years later, we’ve been hearing about the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Aubrey. Reading Johnson’s autobigraphy has prompted me to ask myself: What, if anything, has changed? The biggest change might well be the wide availability of videography, and the ability to disseminate videos almost immediately: instead of just reading a pamphlet some weeks after a lynching, we sometimes see a video of a lynching almost in real time. Another change: according to Johnson, some 5,000 people turned out to watch Ell Persons being burned alive; today, while the people doing the lynching still aren’t trying to hide their actions, at least some bystanders might call them out on it.

But in many ways it feels as though not much has changed. A hundred years later, black men are still being murdered without cause. Too many murderers of black men still get away with it. And, as my cousin Saba has pointed out, we still mostly don’t hear about the violence perpetrated on black women.

I suppose now I should offer some of the usual platitudes that white people offer, using key words like “justice” and “white supremacy” and “reconciliation” and so forth. But I think instead I’ll quote James Weldon Johnson’s key insight as he researched the Ell Persons case, as he discovered both the physical sufferings of the black victim, and the “moral degradation” of the white community:

“The truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”

A comment from 1933

“…In large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”

— James Weldon Johnson in his autobiography Along This Way, 1933. Although Johnson was discussing his work at the NAACP fighting lynching, in large part this observation still holds true today (and, by the way, provides a self-interested reason for some of us white people to be involved in anti-racism work).

Current issues in liberal religion: race

Talk given during a class on the topic of race and liberal religion. I co-taught the class with Amy Zucker Morgenstern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on 17 January 2012.


I want to begin by telling you a little story. A couple of years ago, I was at a Unitarian Universalist social gathering, and I was standing around chatting informally with three other people, two of whom were white like me, and one of whom was black. I forget what topic came up, but it was some political topic in which I felt race played a part. I do have a clear memory of what I said. I said, “And of course, what was really going on was sheer racism.” The black person said something like, “Well, obviously.” Upon hearing the word “racism,” the other two white people suddenly found something else to do — they melted away from our little conversational group the way snow melts away when it falls on a Palo Alto lawn. The black person watched them go, looked back at me, and said, “Well. I guess they didn’t want to talk about that.” And I replied, “Well, I don’t care.” And the two of us kept on talking.

But I did care. This happens to me a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism, partly because from a moral standpoint I’m outraged by racism, and partly because from an intellectual and theological viewpoint the intertwined issues of race and racism provide a major impetus to rethinking the Enlightenment emphasis on individualism and the primacy of reason. Continue reading “Current issues in liberal religion: race”