All the ‘flap’ at Princeton about Woodrow Wilson being a racist, which is in the press so much in the past couple of days, calls for a confession on my part: Nearly all of us who were raised in the racist South are racist—both black and white (though in different ways). I have a very much loved black friend from Mississippi, who is also an outstanding Christian leader and civil rights champion and we on occasions mutually confess our sins to one another.  We are both octogenarians. We were evidently one one of the first white families ever to invite him and his family into the hospitality of our home in Georgia. Likewise, my wife and I have been wonderfully hosted in their home in Mississippi. We can candidly acknowledge to one another that we were both formed in the racist South. Try as I may to delete racist responses that crop up from time to time out of my deep sub-consciousness, they are there and are part of the culture in which I was formed. He acknowledges that, having endured all of the brutal injustices of rural Mississippi in the post-World War II era, that he also has similar racist responses in his deep sub-consciousness, try as he may to expunge them.

In that culture in the South there were the well-defined black and white communities. Everything was segregated: neighborhoods, schools, seating, restrooms, … everything. I was from a more “separate but equal” racist family, and was taught to at least be polite to black folk, but I can remember a few times when I infringed too closely upon the black territory and got the response: “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here white boy. Leave!” I can only imagine the rejection and resentment on the part of my black counterparts who were so often dealt with brutally.

I was fully adult before I ever had any significant contact with other adult brothers and sisters in the black community. During Civil Rights movement heyday of the 1950-60s, we marched, sang: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall all be one … someday.” That was a dream, but it wasn’t yet a reality.

So when the protesters at Princeton University want to delete the name of Woodrow Wilson from all of its significant places there because Wilson was an extreme racist, my response is: Of course he was a racist. We all were. Wilson was born in Augusta, Georgia in the mid-19th century ‘for crying out loud.’ His father was pastor of the church where the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America was formed at the beginning of the Civil War. Wilson grew up in that racially charged—black –vs- white, slave –vs- free—culture. He was growing up during Reconstruction what with all of the racially charged responses to the South’s defeat—K.K.K. and all. He went first to Davidson College in North Carolina during Reconstruction days, then after a year off dealing with an illness, transferred to Princeton. The rest is history.

But the whole culture was racist. Robert E. Lee was evidently one of the more humane slave owners, who was always (by report) impeccably polite to black folk he encountered, … but he was also a product of the culture. Resentment among today’s younger generation of black men and women is not at all surprising, nor unwarranted, … but it does need context. The shooting in the black church in Charleston is horrifying evidence that racism is alive and well, and that, not only in Charleston but also in Northern and Mid-western communities obviously.

Transforming culture and attitudes defies easy solutions. Meanwhile, it has been the grace and forgiveness and ministries of reconciliation emerging from the black community (such as in Charleston) that are the signs of hope. Hopefully my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be formed into those ministers of reconciliation that will change the climate significantly. Racism is, after all, a denial of our Christian ethic of love and justice. God help us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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