Subtitled How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, J. Russell Hawkins book The Bible Told Them So (Oxford University Press, 2021) demonstrates with clear lines of evidence how white Christians in South Carolina did all that they could to promote segregation in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Pastors who opposed segregation were ousted and institutions were created to combat what many felt was an ungodly mixing of the races. Of particular interest to me was the way in which believers coopted texts from the Bible to support their views, the subject of ch. 2 of Hawkins’s work. For example, in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), segregationists saw a deity who preferred separation over unification. Hawkins quotes Stuart Landry, a Louisianan businessman who peddled the gospel of segregation: “Let it [the church] not try to rebuild the Tower of Babel, and to attempt to bring together in concordance, discordant and disintegrating elements of the great human family, separated by God thousands of years ago” (p. 49). This appropriation of a polemic against Babylon for the purposes of keeping black Christians from worshipping alongside white Christians was hardly unique. Hawkins notes other texts, including Acts 17:26, which he says was “the biblical verse cited most by white Christians in the twentieth century to defend segregation” (p. 52).
The theology that defended segregation fueled its existence in Southern seminaries, colleges, and grade schools. In ch. 5, Hawkins lays out the origins of many Southern private schools. He writes, “Unquestionably…the growth of white support for private schools in the mid-twentieth century was directly tied to public school desegregation” (p. 134). When the United States government began to enforce desegregation, white supremacists in the South found a workaround: private schools. Hawkins observes that in South Carolina, following a ruling by a district court judge in Columbia in 1963 that denounced segregation and forced school districts to admit African American students, private schools began to proliferate in the state. This “mirrored a broader phenomenon that occurred across the southern United States. The meteoric growth in southern private schools that began in the mid-1960s reached its peak in the wake of the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a court decision that sanctioned busing as an acceptable instrument to achieve school desegregation” (p. 145). I had no idea the racist past behind so many private schools, but I should have suspected it.
The Bible Told Them So was eye opening in so many ways. What it describes is relatively recent history, the effects of which remain to this day. The picture Hawkins offers his readers is disturbing, a clear-cut example of the way in which the Bible can be weaponized against those without real power. Given our current historical moment with debates raging over Critical Race Theory, without a doubt The Bible Told Them So should be considered as evidence that systemic racism existed in the past. What are we doing to dismantle it in the present?