Journal of Southern Religion

The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice

Donald G. Mathews/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I am grateful for comments and responses from the following: Kurt Berends, Jon Butler, Gavin James Campbell, Peter Coclanis, Jane Sherron DeHart, David Graham-Voelker, Jacquelyn Hall, Sylia Hoffert, Cheryl Junk, Joel Martin, William McFeely, Thomas Tweed, and Harry Watson.  Fitzhugh Brundage and David Moltke-Hansen helped at a crucial stage in the writing and have been constant sources of support and encouragement. I am also grateful to Ann Turley for typing portions of the article. Elizabeth Farrior Buford also deserves special thanks for her patience and encouragement; an enthusiastic spouse is a joy forever!  When the paper was going through its penultimate draft, Joel Martin told me that Orlando Patterson was working on some of the same themes. Although grateful for Patterson's excellent and compelling  Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, DC: Civitas/Counterpoint, 1998), I was unable to incorporate Patterson's argument into that of this article. Like the work of Trudier Harris, and Timothy Gorringe–mentioned in the end-notes, Patterson's magisterial study reinforces my own reading of Christian theology and lynching. I must confess that it is Gorringe's work that has helped me see connections that I would otherwise have missed.  –DGM

Human sacrifice to a vengeful deity conjures savage and exotic images that distance us from the practices they represent as being strangely inhuman. Just as savage but sadly less exotic are images of lynched African Americans in the Southern United States. The word, "lynched," rips from reluctant memories shame, guilt and anger at white atrocities. The stark reality behind the word is an historical presence that haunts heedless patriotic celebration and belies professions of national innocence; its condensation of white peoples' fury and black peoples' anguish is as intensely malevolent as human sacrifice. The reality suffuses recent work by scholars who have turned their imaginations to explaining it as something other than calculated terror in service to the powerful. Recent publication of essays edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage in Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South joins his previous work and that of Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck together with earlier books by Jacquelyn Hall and Joel R. Williamson to prepare a solid base upon which to fashion an understanding of lynching in the American South.1  Since the early eighties, scores of scholars have turned their attention to specific, dramatic incidents of violence,2 or to patterns within geographical areas or in relation to associated issues such as gender.3 The achievements have been impressive; but few have noticed what a few African Americans such as Gwendolyn Brooks understood when she observed that "the loveliest lynchee was our Lord."4 Few have wondered why it made sense to imagine a lynched black man as Christ upon the Cross,5 that is, to imagine lynching as a human sacrifice. Yet it is just this compound of sacrifice, crucifixion, and death and its association with the predominate religion of the lynching-South that begs discussion.

"Masking the political functions of their acts, white men invented a 'sexual alibi' for punishing African-American men: the latter stood accused of having 'ravished' white women."

Scholars once attributed racial violence to a gladiatorial frontier tradition complemented by the logic of slave discipline. Violent resistance to Emancipation and Reconstruction contributed further to the terror that enforced white supremacy. Masking the political functions of their acts, white men invented a "sexual alibi" for punishing African-American men: the latter stood accused of having "ravished" white women. African Americans, then social scientists, and eventually activist Southern white women criticized the alibi. In briefly sketching the trajectory of these more substantial explanations of lynching, Fitzhugh Brundage points out that sociologist Robert Park influenced scholars to view mobs as made up of "individuals poorly integrated into the larger society." The solution to lynching, therefore, would have lain in integrating everyone happily into a modernizing society. Because they associated lynching with "rural culture corrupted by drunkenness, irreligion, illiteracy, poverty, and excessive license," social scientists thought that as the South became urban and industrial, mechanisms of social control "would become strong enough to discourage extra-legal violence and discredit the values that sustained it." In another venue, psychologists who were arrested by the "sexual alibi" found in "individual psychopathologies" related to sexuality and gender and in the mechanism of projecting ones own forbidden thoughts onto black men the source of white men's lust for lynching. For some scholars, seething sexual tension in an ineffectively modernized section–especially in its most "backward" areas–explained lynching.6

Historians of the South, Brundage notes, took little interest in lynching until the late 1970s. By then they had been schooled by social historians to believe that collective action was not the result of "failed social control or exceptional social and psychological states" but of "ongoing political and economic contests present in all societies: violence is a by-product of `normal' collective action."7 The view that lynching was the act of well-integrated as well as poorly integrated individuals, and that it was an expression of long established relationships received an innovative jolt from Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's Revolt Against Chivalry. Moving closer to the meaning of social dramas 8 such as lynching than previous scholars, Hall rooted the act in the patriarchal racial and gendered orders of the South to demonstrate how a complex public ritual could convey a broad range of meaning in one brutal event. The ritual reminded Southerners where each person fit into the racial, gendered, and otherwise classified hierarchy of community life. Sharing Hall's sensitivity to the sexual if not the gendered meanings of lynching, Joel Williamson teased out the psychosexual tensions released by economic insecurity and the shame evoked by fusing sex and failure in the dynamic conflicts of a changing culture. Bertram Wyatt Brown and Edward Ayers both delved into the culture of honor to explain collective white violence, but Ayers–like Williamson–reminded students to take account, too, of anxieties induced by an erratic economy.9

Perhaps the most impressive sustained analyses of lynching in the past few years have been Brundage's Lynching in the New South and Tolnay and Beck's A Festival of Violence. The latter is based on a careful, thorough analysis of an impressive county-by-county inventory of data on lynching in a South without Virginia and Texas but with Kentucky. The demographics, economics, seasons, and politics of lynching were patterned and correlated statistically to establish trends. Tolnay and Beck found that lynching was "an integral element of an agricultural economy that required a large, cheap, and docile labor force." When African Americans began to leave the South in significant numbers, they argue, "violence and terrorism" began to disappear. They agree with Brundage (as they understand his thesis) that lynchings were "crucial mechanisms" for assuring perpetuation of a plantation economy.10  But Brundage also emphasizes that lynching happened where the political culture made it feasible.11 The essays he brought together in Under Sentence of Death nicely complement these two books; they remind scholars of certain important things. These include the necessary insistence that along with lynching, there was near-lynching, and legal-lynching each of which has to be studied in order to understand the cultural context and public acts of ritualized vengeance. The essays also point out that the social genesis of lynching implies distance, hierarchy, polarization and objectification of the other. Although events can fall into patterns, analyzing the complexity of each case will yield knowledge that still confounds generalization. Combinations of gender and race, sexuality and distance, alternative trajectories and local histories all need to be taken into account before master patterns can be amplified. In his introduction, Brundage sketches the problems still to be addressed: the nature of contagion, a broad as well as close analysis of the linkages of "gender, race, and class", and lynchings that did not happen–among other things.

The causes of lynching are complex; there is no one explanation; but in the list of things still to study, it is important to add "studying religion and lynching." Above and around discussions of lynching endures a penumbra that entices further comment. The lynching of Leo Frank, observed a reporter, was almost "like some religious rite;" there was a "curiously reverent manner" and sense of "grave satisfaction" among the actors.12 Nancy MacLean's brilliant analysis of Frank's murder, seizes on the identification of Jews with capitalism but virtually ignores the lesson that adult Christians had learned before being plunged into Christ's death and raised in his resurrection: Jews had repudiated "the Lord." There are other references in Under Sentence of Death to ritual process or the "ritualized manner" in which blacks were lynched.13  There was something quite transcendent to the experiences of individuals and groups in a public lynching; but that transcendence has been difficult to engage in a meaningful way except to recount that it was there–not knowing exactly what "it" was in "its" mystery and horror even though mystery can sometimes be understood in images. In Patricia Schecter's compelling discussion of "how Antilynching Got its Gender," for example, there is a vivid "figure" the presence of which underscores silence about the meaning of ritual, symbol, rite, "reverent", and "satisfaction"; for these words all refer to a religious sensibility reflected in the crucifixion of a black man on a modern Golgotha.14 The silence about the meaning of religion in discussions of lynching is strange because of the common knowledge that crucifixion, an act of violence, is at the very core of the Christian paradigm that was so essential a part of Southern culture. African Americans understood this; they understood that Christ, too, had been lynched.

Silence on the religious context is surprising because of the furtive presence of the sacred in studies of Southern violence. Discussions of lynching have sometimes referred to the almost "primitive" religion of people from whom perpetrators were presumed to have come. Thus, Arthur Raper, in his classic survey of The Tragedy of Lynching, included a religious profile of counties in which lynchings occurred. Although he located the causes of violence against blacks in racial prejudice, poverty, illiteracy, isolation, and ignorance,15  Raper seemed to believe, too, that religion had something to do with lynching, but he could not quite come to terms with the meaning of his data in this regard.16  He understood that religion and community17 were fused and observed that clergymen all too easily reflected the values of their community that nullified Christian compassion for black victims. The ministers, he thought, had not taught their people "the sacredness and value of human personality."18 This phrase reflected an insight of a Personalist Methodism19 with which Raper was associated by background and marriage; but as a social scientist instead of a student of religion he could not move beyond his dismay that the religion which enshrouded lynchers was so primitive, simple-minded, and savage. Jacquelyn Hall, like Raper, fully understands that her story takes place within the Bible Belt,20 and is profoundly sensitive to the gendered and class meanings of ritual behavior such as lynching. She exploits Clifford Geertz's famous analysis of a Balinese cockfight to define lynching through his description of a drama in which participants are caught up in "good and evil, ego and id, the creative power of an aroused masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality."21 The weight of the citation in the context of Hall's discussion is on "masculinity" and "animality"–not "good and evil." The religious context–the biblicism of the Bible Belt, or Geertz's understanding of Religion as a Cultural System, within which such rituals occurred, was not Hall's concern in her innovative book on gender and lynching.

One who did attempt to address religion and violence was Joel Williamson in his prize-winning Crucible of Race;22 but he preferred to think of religion as an alternative activity after a cycle of violence and radical racism rather than context. He ignored the gradual waxing of organized religion in the South throughout the period from 1870 to 1930 and preferred to think of it as an eruption of extreme "otherworldliness" after racist violence had failed to bring relief from the dissonance between the imperative and the empirical. Moreover, Williamson believes that what he calls "fundamentalism" and "otherworldliness" were innovations of the period after 1900, when they were merely part of a quickened and heightened trajectory of religious life begun with the first evangelical preaching of the 1740s and 50s.23 Even though he ignores religion as context and thinks of it as an alternative to violence–not an altogether inappropriate hypothesis, Williamson does attempt to link religion and violence in a meaningful way. And so does Suzanne Marshall24 who believes that both "were intertwined in the Black Patch [tobacco-growing] culture" of western Kentucky and north central Tennessee. This conclusion was suggested by encountering a religion that had scourged the area since the Great Revival with a wrathful, punitive divine Patriarch, draconian in His ways with men, women, children and nature, Whose punishments modeled the harsh penalties His devotees "meted to violators of community standards." The fusion of violence and religion flowed from family as well as church; violence seemed an appropriate way for patriarchs to rear children and train wives, and it was not always easy to distinguish divine from human wrath.25 Marshall does not argue that religion alone caused violence, nor does she explain how religion fused with other variables; but she does attempt to factor it into a cultural context that shaped a pervasive understanding of sanction, morality, and justice in an agricultural region under strain.26 Except for Williamson's ruminations, Marshall's analysis is virtually unique. A survey of articles and books on Southern violence yields few if any other discussions of such a connection; so does a survey of works on religion in the South.27 The subject is a mystery–not exactly a "black hole" that pulls light as well as matter into its maw, perhaps, but certainly a cultural artifact that begs explanation.

1.Segregation and Religion

"Penalties–such as lynching–exacted of persons who were certified as having violated community in some way could be said to have been expiation rendered a power superior to individuals."

The overlay of religion and lynching in the New South is a compelling problem because both were waxing in influence throughout the region at the same time and because it seems natural to believe that a simultaneous increase in religion and illegal collective violence throughout the same region is at least a paradox if not a contradiction. Southerners may have been sloughing off the rule of church discipline by the Great War28 but they had been joining the church in greater numbers since the 1880s. To be sure, southern white communities of faithful people had been devastated both physically and morally by the Civil war; their buildings had been damaged or destroyed; their colleges ruined; their periodicals silenced; their young men slaughtered; their women demoralized.29 Gradually churchmen and women had to rebuild local churches, colleges and denominational boards and buy new presses. During the 1890s, denominational bodies could report that new educational and missionary facilities were producing more members than ever before although percentages of church members in the general population did not surpass 50%.30 Statistics, however, under-report the percentages and numbers of people who could be said to have come under the influence of religion. That influence included a majority of people because women were a majority of church members and it may be assumed they did attempt to live up to cultural expectations by influencing both their children who were not on the rolls, and the men with whom they lived. Moreover, an increase in support for temperance legislation also suggests a trajectory of moral influence mixed of course with political calculation and class imperialism.31 In addition, religion suffused the educational facilities of the New South; A. D. Mayo certainly believed as much. As Commissioner of Education for the U. S. government, Mayo–a Unitarian minister not infatuated with evangelical Protestantism–found in the South what he thought was a socially redemptive process. He saw it in the increasing number of young women in the 1890s who were entering Southern schoolrooms much as missionaries were entering foreign lands: to teach children the basic tools and values with which to bond communities together in a "common Christianity."32

Mayo's words are quaint–only a few people talk as he did anymore; when they do so their political agenda appears to be exclusivist and punitive. But this educational enthusiast was writing at a time when religious idiom and "progress" coincided. His words suggest that it is sectarian–secular or not–to identify the sacred only with "organized religion," magic, superstition, or "belief in God." All these things are religious, to be sure, but religion is something other than belief in a transcendent being, assent to a creed, participation in church, or the preternatural compulsion to sing "Amazing Grace" at funerals. Reference to a "common Christianity" was Mayo's way of saying that human brother-and-sisterhood were beginning to suffuse Southern society in such a way as to make it "Christian", that is by his lights, inclusive and just. That the trajectory of lynching was upward, that a "common Christianity" was anti-Semitic, and that he was far too optimistic even for a liberal are not impediments to understanding him. His insight was that religion can be understood as the pervasive ambience of society, the sum of its values, perhaps its ruling ideology–the pattern of ideas that normal people are supposed to believe.33 Mayo's desire for a "common Christianity" was a comment about the future of society and reflected a belief in religion as integral to harmonious social relations. He understood that "religion" was to be found not only in institutions defined as "religious", but in the quality and tone of a society. Religion may be understood as the complex symbolic representation of the social order through which we learn transcendence. The concept of god may be birthed from our social consciousness–the experience of which transcends self to make demands upon us through a sacred sense of the other. Historians, at least, should consider this broader and socially rooted insight of the classic sociologist Emile Durkheim who argued, a disciple observes, "that religious feeling is the individual's awareness of the group."34 Penalties–such as lynching–exacted of persons who were certified as having violated community in some way could be said to have been expiation rendered a power superior to individuals.35 The rite, "reverent manner" and "grave satisfaction" reported at Leo Frank's lynching were not, therefore, strange; they flowed naturally from the situations and culture in which they were observed.

Durkheim's pioneering insights into the social creation of religion have helped generations of students move beyond traditional ways of working with "religion". The presence of the religious in society apart from specifically "religious" institutions and ideas relating to deity is now a commonplace assumption–no matter what the method or theory with which they work.36 As anthropologist Mary Douglas said long ago, "We shall not expect to understand religion if we confine ourselves to considering belief in spiritual beings however the formula may be refined".37 Clifford Geertz's classic statement of religion as a cultural system is an example of this fact, but with an innovative advance. The phrase, pervasive ambience, used above, is analytically vague, but it was used as a way of referring to that sense of a total contextual reality that may confront an observer in a moment of recognition as it did Dorothy when she exclaimed to Toto that the two were "not in Kansas anymore." A better word is "culture" which Geertz calls an "historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols."38 Inviting scholars to think of religion as a cultural system, he defines a religion as39

a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [humans] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factiticty that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Symbols are models of as well as prescriptions for "reality"40 and even a symbolically stark Southern Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian Christianity over the years employed symbols of Crucified Christ, Baptism, open Bible, communion wine, sanctified bread, and empty cross to represent the Christian drama of salvation. Symbols may also be negative and still convey a range of meanings that pattern imaginative as well as everyday life. Black skin, white skin, the "New Negro," the "black beast rapist", "pure white women", "Reconstruction", "Whites only" placards, "Colored" signs–all these were symbols that established "powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations, by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of facticity that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

If "religious feeling," from wherever else it evolves, flows from "an awareness of the group," segregation must be understood as a religious system. An obsession with the "group"–the structure and substance of human relations–commanded Southern white elites and their mimetic constituencies after the Civil war. The media of this obsession were race and gender; and the ways in which law and violence worked together to distance human beings from each other, establish boundaries between them, and make dangerous the breaching of those boundaries were the ways of religion. Segregation was, to be sure, a political-economic system with laws to control workers essential to industrialization.41 The system was developed from the logic of slavery and the separation of free blacks from whites in antebellum cities. Whereas masters and slaves may have lived in proximity before the war, vertical boundaries that reinforced white supremacy before Appomattox became horizontal and diagonal afterwards to fulfill the same functions. Southern public schools were segregated from their very beginning; and by 1884 nine of eleven southern legislatures had banned miscegenation.42 Along with the acceleration of violence against African Americans there was also a remarkable increase in laws segregating the races during and after the 1890s.43 By the end of the century, Southern states were preparing to separate blacks from the political system, too, through widespread disfranchisement.44 The exclusionist goal of this policy suggests, as Howard Rabinowitz has pointed out, that the alternative to segregation was neither equality nor integration but exclusion from all public facilities; that is, there were worse things that whites could have done.45

What they did do in passing laws to perfect their mastery was to fabricate an elaborate system of boundaries, taboos, and etiquette in order to establish purity [whiteness] and therefore impurity [blackness] by distancing black people from white and making proximity dangerous. The Virginia historian and author Philip Alexander Bruce thought the results of this process to be "notable achievements" of "constructive local statesmanship." Segregating laws, Bruce believed, preserved racial "integrity," prevented conflict, avoided "moral contamination", discouraged "social equality," and relieved whites of painful "close physical contact" with blacks.46 The "moral contamination" which Bruce feared flowed only in one direction. Like so many other whites, Bruce viewed African Americans in terms of pollution; when African Americans were marginalized by segregation laws, they were also made more dangerous in the minds of whites since the margins in culture are always dangerous.47 Whites' perception of the danger inherent in a new generation of black people undisciplined by slavery was reinforced by the actions of whites themselves in legalizing segregation and sustaining it with a sacred aura.

These feelings of pollution and danger at the proximity of an anomalous other were reinforced by the tension that supported the "sexual alibi" for segregation. Bruce linked segregation of public education and the banning of miscegenation as part of the same impulse; and historians have long noted the hold of a "rape complex" on southern whites when justifying lynching.48 But to assign the mental patterns behind this connection to a neurotic obsession unsupported by statistics is beside the point. In the cases of both lynching and segregation, the bodies of white females symbolized the social body whether as little girls in grammar school or as women in masculine fantasy; the idea is commonplace. Symbolically coupling white females with black males underscored the danger of crossing boundaries and quashing distance and stipulated the meaning of any breach. A culture that already made woman a religious surrogate or mediator for men as well as the fount of purity found it amiable indeed to establish boundaries and distances that pushed black men to the margin of society to "protect" her. The pervasive belief that female virginity was sacred, together with the Christian conviction that sexual intercourse outside marriage was immoral, and whites' widespread assumption of their "racial" superiority, combined with aversive custom and political will to fabricate a system that had the tone, ambience, and imperative of certainty and facticity.49 Segregation became consensual among whites. It was right; the order of the universe confirmed it. It was sacred in that it placed certain issues beyond dispute; it approached holiness because it established boundaries that demanded individuals "conform to the class to which they belong. . . . Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation."50

Lillian Smith certainly remembered segregation as sacred. In Killers of the Dream, she mused in a compelling, reflective and unforgiving manner about the ways in which "sin and sex and segregation" had suffused the lives of Southerners.51 She could not separate the three motifs. Although as an adult she believed that Christian love impugned segregation, as a child she had been taught together with other white children "to love God, to love our white skin and to believe in the sanctity of both."52 She had learned sin and guilt within the incubation of a "warm, moist evangelism and racial segregation" sanctified by a religion "too narcissistic to be concerned with anything but a man's body and a man's soul." The body was the "essence of morality" based as the latter was on the "mysterious matter of entrances and exits" with sin hovering "over all doors." Critics, favorable or not, commented on her weaving of Freudian insights into the fabric of her interpretation, but her primary focus was segregation. It was part of the mental process of pushing "everything dark, dangerous, and evil" to "the rim of one's life" where danger lurked. Evil was thought to have been purged from the sin-distressed self so that [white] Southerners had become fascinated with other people's evil rather than their own and had somehow been compelled to find personal salvation in the "death of Christ" without carrying the cross.53 Their self-conscious, narcissistic purity had shriven them of a capacity for understanding religion as service to the kingdom. Although Smith was in what she later recalled as "a kind of amnesia about God"54 as she wrote the first edition of Killers, she nonetheless understood the intense psychic power of values taught by God-like parents who fused the spectrum of white-purity-god-aversion into a powerful compound of holiness. She has been classified as part of a "shame and guilt" school of Southern writers; she was too passionate, eloquent and angry, her critics thought: she was too much the prophet.55 Many people thought she was a heretic. Since she attacked the primary religious structure of the South, indeed she was.

"The white ribbons of women's temperance symbolized a ubiquitous Southern 'purity' associated with light skin, white supremacy, self-discipline, and teetotal clarity."

Smith's scrutiny of separation and purity was based on her own experience and an outraged recognition of the meanings of the spectrum, sin-sex-and-segregation. The cultural patterns that connected law, practice, morality, and meaning were woven and sewn together through a long creative process and could reflect differing local fabrics and textures. If locales produced varieties of separation, those who were separated and those who did the separating never varied. "Moods and motivation" of distance and boundary suffused the South and if legal patterns fabricated with regard to transportation after 1890 were new, they merely replicated the sensibility reflected in educational segregation from the very beginning. There were few white protestants in this medieval faith of hierarchy, separation, and distance; if there was a polarity between racial "conservatives" and "radicals" with the latter representing the pole of racial hatred,56 both poles existed within the broader consensus of segregation. With the passing of each year after the onslaught of economic depression in the late 1880s and early nineties, separation-boundary-and-purity became ever more pervasive in public discourse and action. Prohibition movements in southern states provided impetus to the process of enforcing purity until the South became legally dry before the First World War. The white ribbons of women's temperance symbolized a ubiquitous Southern "purity" associated with light skin, white supremacy, self-discipline, and teetotal clarity. If repressed male sexuality combined with shame at economic weakness and guilt for real or imagined sexual trespasses accounted for the rage with which white men confronted the "threat" from black men,57 there was a broader surge in white society that transcended the rage while making it authentic. That the body was elevated to sacred status–its boundaries secured, its orifices purified, and its distancing perfected–reflected a society whose elites were determined to master and to control. The fusion of southern Protestantism with prohibition, repressed sexuality, and the canonization of white women all combined to blur distinctions between sacred and secular where race was concerned.

The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice, Part II

This article published 8/22/2000
© 1998-2000 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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