The recent actions of the Tennessee Legislature to expel two Black Democratic representatives scream for answers. Why would members of the Republican Party, who have spent the past seven years swearing on a stack of Bibles, sometimes held upside down, that they are not racist, engage in a blatant act of racism?
The answers are buried in our past, but at least part of the answer may be that arrogance makes some people too blind to know better.
The Tennessee Legislature is no stranger to unjust and ignorant decisions. H.L. Mencken wrote in The Nation, on July 1, 1925: “Always, in the great republic of Tennessee, controversies depart swiftly from their original terms and plunge into irrelevancies and false pretenses.”
History proves the argument. Prohibition is a case in point. Prohibition — which outlawed the sale and distribution of drinking alcohol in the United States — began on Jan. 17, 1820. Tennessee preachers and politicians told people Prohibition would empty the jails, reduce the tax rate, abolish poverty and put an end to political corruption. They ignored the drinking habits of the American public.
Jack Daniels and Jim Beam and company were like Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett — American heroes. And Prohibition died a quick and necessary death after only 13 years.
But the most infamous act of the Tennessee Legislature in the 1920s was the anti-evolution law. This led to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. The legislature, determined to sling Tennessee back into the dark ages, came down hard on the teaching of evolution.
This, of course, brought the “big fish” to the battle. William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were the headliners, but the real star of this carnival was H.L. Mencken.
“Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist,” Mencken observed, “if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed.” Mencken considered his journalistic aim “to combat, chiefly by ridicule, American piety, stupidity, tin-pot morality, cheap chauvinism.”
“Enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed.”
There was a preacher who stirred the flames of prohibition and anti-evolution. His name was Billy Sunday. We have him to thank for the high theater of the Scopes Trial of 1925. As recounted by Edward J. Larson in his excellent book Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, the state Senate, considering a ban on teaching evolution in public schools, already had rejected the idea in committee when Billy Sunday swept into Memphis for an 18-day revival that February. Long before Elvis was to earn fame with his gyrations, this gymnast for Jesus, Larson tells us, “jumped, kicked and slid across the stage” while denouncing the “tommyrot” of evolution, the possibility “that we came from protoplasm, instead of being born of God Almighty.”
When the legislators noticed Sunday’s sermons had drawn an aggregate audience of 200,000 constituents, the Senate committee reversed itself, leading to passage of the Butler Act, signed into law in March by Gov. Austin Peay virtually unchanged from the wording crafted by its author, a farmer named John Washington Butler.
“It shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals and all other public schools of the state which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the state, to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” the Butler Act stipulated.
To transgress it was a misdemeanor, punishable by a minimum fine of $100 to $500 for each offense.
A politician, unlike Jesus, cannot resist the allure of a large crowd. There’s an implied warning here that not much good accrues to politicians who take the word of preachers like Billy Sunday. This seems an even more necessary warning today given the carnival of flakes, fakes, televangelists and con artists who pontificate on every subject as if they are experts in all of them.
While evangelicals have continued their pathetic efforts to slay the dragon — evolution — and cast out the devil — Darwin — their missiles are firing at the wrong target. Neither Darwin nor Darrow dismantled American fundamentalism at the Scopes trial. Mencken was the real culprit. It was his show. As an unattributed witticism in Marion Rodgers’s Mencken: The American Iconoclast puts it: “If the Scopes Trial had not existed, H.L. Mencken would have had to invent it.”
The evangelicals never have forgotten or forgiven the ridicule, the embarrassment, the shame of being the butt of religious jokes for the next century. When Ken Ham opened his Disney-like Creation Museum, he spoke of repairing the damage done to Christianity when Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial.
“It was the first time the Bible was ridiculed by the media in America, and that was a downward turning point for Christendom,” he told the enthusiastic crowd. “We are going to undo all of that here at the Creation Museum. We are going to answer the questions Bryan wasn’t prepared to and show that belief in every word of the Bible can be defended by modern science.”
Conservative politicians and evangelical preachers can’t seem to stop efforts at reversing progress and returning the nation to the Dark Ages. There’s an unceasing drive in the beating hearts of these sincere Christians to push until they reach the edge of the universe. The Tennessee Legislature is grounded in a very old American talisman: White supremacy.
Not content with attempts to keep the nation from drinking alcohol or teaching evolution, the Tennessee Legislature now seems determined to turn the clock back to the 1920s once again. This time the issue is race.
The partisans will insist this has nothing to do with race. But when a member of the Tennessee Legislature tries to amend a capital punishment bill to reinstate public hanging as a legal method of execution, we know we are back in the lynching age of our nation. No act of imagination is required. This analogy is too fresh not to leap to the front of the mind.
Not content to resurrect their lord and savior, white supremacy, the legislators are attempting to disinter another, far more discredited character from their dark past: Jim Crow. In truth, few characters ever have been further removed from the spirit of equality, freedom and democracy than the brutal laws and oppression brought on by old Jim Crow.
“Jim Crow has proved too powerful to keep in the grave.”
Until the second decade of the 21st century, we thought we had buried Jim Crow for good. Yet Jim Crow has proved too powerful to keep in the grave.
The fight to end Jim Crow was a long and bloody struggle. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Edgar Evers, as he stepped out of his car, carrying a stack of “Jim Crow Must Go” T-shirts, was hit by a shot from a high-powered rifle fired from a nearby vacant lot. He died there at midnight in Jackson, Miss. Little girls were killed by a bomb at church in Birmingham, Ala.
Jonathan Daniel, an Episcopal Theological Seminary student, a Roman Catholic priest from Chicago, and two Black students stopped at a small grocery store on the edge of a town in Lowndes County, Ala. The owner of the store called a deputy named Thomas Coleman. As Daniel and the priest were leaving the premises, Coleman opened fire with a shotgun. Daniel was killed and the priest, Richard Morrisroe, was severely injured. An all-white jury found Coleman not guilty.
This is the history politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas want America to forget.
Why, then, do ignorant members of a state legislature insist on reminding us again and again that white supremacy is alive and well, that old Jim Crow is still dancing on the graves of those who have been persecuted, beaten, murdered and buried? Is it a blind arrogance? A raw use of power?
Let’s say it out loud until the cows come home: It is white supremacy in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.
Country music has adapted to the times, but Tennessee politicians are still singing songs from the 1920s.
There’s something in the water in Tennessee, and it is not good whiskey. It’s the polluted stream of a tainted past.
I have a great suspicion of people who engage in acts of racism and then immediately insist, “We are not racists.” I am insulted by people arguing they are not racist as individuals while they continue to participate in systemic racism. They seem blind to a kind of racism that is less about individuals and more about collective commitments to the maintenance of white supremacy.
Tragically, what happened in Tennessee will not stay in Tennessee. Other state legislatures, emboldened by denials, blinded by systemic issues, will keep acting out in ways that are racist and a determined bid for continued white supremacy will keep marching on as to war.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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