Violence Against Blacks in America, Part 4

Historical photo of Emmett Till alive and then in his coffin after being murdered, terribly disfigured.

Vincent D. Jennings graduated in May 2020 from the University of Alabama with a dual B.A. in Religious Studies and Psychology. In the Fall of 2019 he began an in-depth study on America’s history of racial violence as part an independent study course with REL’s Prof. Theodore Trost — which culminated in this four-part series.

With the evolution of slavery in mind, consider a recent movie entitled “Just Mercy,” which chronicles the fight of the Equal Justice Initiative to defend wrongly convicted inmates condemned to death row in Alabama.

A memorable line from that film regarding an African American who was facing the death penalty was: “No matter what you call it, it’s just another way to lynch a black man.”  This line speaks to the more widespread concern regarding how the death penalty is being used to perpetuate excess violence against African Americans. Continue reading

Violence Against Blacks in America, Part 3

Historical photo of two African Americans lynched from trees with a large crowd of whites gathered to watch.

Vincent D. Jennings graduated in May 2020 from the University of Alabama with a dual B.A. in Religious Studies and Psychology. In the Fall of 2019 he began an in-depth study on America’s history of racial violence as part an independent study course with REL’s Prof. Theodore Trost — which culminated in this four-part series.

Of all the violations deemed worthy of lynching an African American, no offense or accusation stirred the level of vitriol and incited the level of violence more than the suggestion of sexual contact between a black man and a white woman. It required little more than a rumor based upon a whisper against a black for the result to end in a lynching. The trope of the lascivious hyper-sexual black male served as the basis for the most incorrigible acts of “retribution.” Sexual contact between a black male and a white woman (occasionally real, but usually imagined) often involved as little as a black man accused of failing to keep his eyes on the ground in the presence of a white woman. For the lynching era emerged on the scene at the same time that Jim Crow and racial integrity laws prohibited social interactions between people of different races. The fact that the violations were always perceived to occur in relations between black men and white women (but seldom between white men and black women) speaks to how “this trope regarding the hyper-sexuality of black men especially vis-a-vis the inviolable chastity of white women, was and remains one of the most enduring tropes of white supremacy” (Lartey & Morris, 2018). Continue reading

Violence Against Blacks in America, Part 2

Historical photo of a Ku Klux Klan Rally and Flag Burning

Vincent D. Jennings graduated in May 2020 from the University of Alabama with a dual B.A. in Religious Studies and Psychology. In the Fall of 2019 he began an in-depth study on America’s history of racial violence as part an independent study course with REL’s Prof. Theodore Trost — which culminated in this four-part series.

Between 1868 and 1871, a wave of terror swept across the South, resulting in the deaths of thousands of freed African Americans for simply asserting their most basic liberties; many were killed for simply walking freely on the streets while others were murdered for failing to obey the dictates of a white person during a random encounter. In response to this increasingly tenuous situation, legislators attempted to enact numerous levels of protection for African Americans. However, congressional efforts to provide federal protection and civil rights to formerly enslaved black people were undermined by the United States Supreme Court’s rulings, in cases like The Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1872); United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1875); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876) (Lartey & Morris 2018) .  It wasn’t long thereafter that Northern politicians retreated from the most significant and key pillar of Reconstruction: the commitment to protect freed black people. This unfortunate pivot resulted in the collapse of reconstruction soon thereafter while opening wide the door for cultural influences across the nation that bitterly opposed racial equality and once again this was especially true in the South. Continue reading

Violence Against Blacks in America, Part 1

Young African American boy singing as part of a church choir

Vincent D. Jennings graduated in May 2020 from the University of Alabama with a dual B.A. in Religious Studies and Psychology. In the Fall of 2019 he began an in-depth study on America’s history of racial violence as part an independent study course with REL’s Prof. Theodore Trost — which culminated in this four-part series.

In that land…, that land…, that land…, in that great BIG BEAUTIFUL land…
Lord you know I will fare better in that land….

Sitting on the first pew of the church as an eight-year-old I recall the words of this song vividly, as the congregation sang on Sunday mornings. As the son of a pastor I was practically born in the church sanctuary, so my memories are rich and vibrant from those early years. I recall how the congregation would rock and sway as voices would bellow the words of this song, particularly the lyrics: “great BIG BEAUTIFUL land.”  I remember being proud that I knew all the words as I sang along with the adults. It mattered very little that I didn’t fully understand the lyrics. The only thing that mattered was the shared sense of harmony permeating the room that seemed to transcend music. Continue reading

The Uses of Symbolism

Donald Trump holding a bible in front of a boarded-up church

There are certainly those scholars of religion who will study yesterday’s episode — when a large number of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, were dispersed by police and the national guard with tear gas, batons, and flash-bang canisters (otherwise known as stun grenades), about a half hour before a curfew went into effect, so that Donald Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across the street from the park, to pose with a bible as part of a 17 minute photo-op — as an episode in the misuse of a holy object. Continue reading

When Classification Becomes Deadly

dallasshooting

Sarah Griswold graduated from UA’s Department of
Religious Studies in 2016. She will begin work on her
M.A. in Religion at Florida State University in August.

We do not yet know the motives of those who shot and killed five police officers in Dallas last night. We do not know why Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed. We do not know if the man found in Piedmont Park in Atlanta committed suicide or was lynched by the KKK. We do not know if homophobia or allegiance to IS was the primary cause that led to the recent massacre in an Orlando nightclub.

I could go on, but we may never know. Continue reading

Elmer Gantry and A Little About Race

elmer-gantry-movie-poster

By Sarah Griswold

Sarah Griswold is a senior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them.  The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

“Elmer Gantry was drunk,” begins Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel. That’s how the movie Elmer Gantry begins too. The story is of Elmer Gantry who loves women and whiskey more than just about anything else. A fast-talking salesman, Gantry has an incredibly charismatic personality that convinces people to give him money for anything from helping out a nun to selling vacuum cleaners. After being drawn to Sister Sharon Falconer’s travelling revival tent, he finds himself immediately attracted to her and finds a way to convince her to allow him to join her in the show. The story goes on to follow Gantry and Falconer as the travel around the country selling their religion to any and everyone who will listen.

Watching the film, you are immersed in two and a half hours of 1960s humor and absurdity beyond the absurdity of the story itself. The protagonist Gantry is quite the character. Fast-talking and clearly extroverted, Gantry seems to be able to weasel his way into just about anything he wants. However, one of the many questions we are left with at the end of the film is whether Gantry ever actually knows what he wants. He seems to change throughout the film to become more genuine in his actions. While definitely interesting and meriting further discussion, I’d like to turn my focus to something else entirely. What I truly found fascinating about the film was the race politics. During the 1960s, overt racism was widespread and generally considered to be normal. While the film didn’t contain plot lines that were overtly racist, there were two particular images that stood out to me as indicative of the way the film’s director and producers imagined the world.

The first image that stood out to me was this scene in which Gantry wanders into a black church. During the scene, the congregation sings a gospel hymn when Gantry comes in. As they begin to realize that an outsider – a white man – is among them, they stop singing one by one and turn to stare. As the music dies, Gantry picks up where they left off and continues the hymn. The congregation slowly begins to join back in and Gantry begins to solo with the congregation acting as back up singers. The scene ends with the end of the hymn and a young girl who is still staring at Gantry. The solo serves the purpose of highlighting Gantry’s comprehensive familiarity with various types of hymns and church settings. But I cannot help but to think that the choice to include the solo carries an undertone of stereotypical 1960s racism. The young girl’s continued suspicion of Gantry coupled with the setting reflects an attitude (likely from the director and/or producers) of essential difference between black and white. To reinforce my suspicions, a comparable image appears towards the end of the film.

The other image that stood out to me was during the scene toward the end of the film when Sister Sharon’s church is burning down. Outside of the church is a large cross that is adorned with light bulbs. While brief, there is a shot of that cross going up in flames. In context and like the scene in the black church, it makes perfect sense for this cross to burn with the rest of the church. However, considering the context of the 1960s and the oppressive presence of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, it is near impossible to separate the image from association with the KKK. The image of a burning cross was (and arguably remains) a threat in and of itself. So while the image put into context makes perfect sense and the image carries no further explanation in the film, it is not devoid of the meaning associated in this particular way. Between this shot and the scene from the beginning of the film, Elmer Gantry carries undertones indicative of 1960s racism.

The film lacks any African Americans beyond the scene discussed earlier. This further highlights the racist undertones of the 1960s. Of course, these are only a couple of tiny pieces of the two and a half hour-long film, which as far as I could tell said nothing more about race. Instead, the film in its entirety produces an interesting exploration of revivalism and outrageous personalities, while providing intriguing entertainment. So one could read into these two particular aspects of the film as I have done, or one could choose to ignore them entirely and enjoy the film. Or just dissect a different part entirely.

The Devil Made Me Do It

devilmademedoitI assume that by now you’ve seen either the original video, or the subsequent apology of the principal of TNT Academy in Stone Mountain, Georgia — it concerns an incident at this past Friday’s graduation in which the principal mistakenly ended the ceremony before the valedictorian’s address. In her efforts to call the audience back, to hear his speech, she chastised the people who were standing and leaving, tried to get the venue’s doors closed, called a person a “little coward” and a “goober” and finally, now infamously, added:

Look who’s leaving: all the black people.

Continue reading