The Crisis of the Nineties
By Roy Branson
With Adventists advocating vies similar to those of the most active champions of black men's rights from be fore the Civil War through Reconstruction, with Mrs. White providing firm theological underpinning for equality among races, how can one explain her statements such as these, that endorse segregation?
"Let the colored people work chiefly for those of their own race. ...The best thing will be to provide the colored people who accept the truth, with places of worship of their own, in which they can carry on their services by themselves... Schools and sanitariums for colored people should be established."[Ref: 1]
"Let white and colored people be labored for in separate, distinct lines."[Ref 2]
In what seems a further reversal of attitudes. Mrs. White. who wanted the Civil War prosecuted more rigorously, now cautioned that "we are not to agitate the color line question, and thus arouse prejudice and bring about a crisis."[Ref 3]
What changed Mrs. White's approach was not her theology. The never retreated from her position that all men are equal in creation and redemption. Nor did the change her ideas as to what was necessary to implement the principle of racial equality. In the early 1890's, long after Reconstruction and the establishment of Democratic, Redemptionist South, Mrs. White addressed the leading men of the General Conference, saying we needed an expanded work in the South. Her plans were similar to those advocated by the radical Republicans 20 years before. Expanded welfare services were needed to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Sanitariums and schools should be established. As the radicals and other progressive thinkers had insisted, the black man needed jobs.
Mrs. White suggested that industries could be started both in and out of cities. Above all, blacks should be taught how to grow crops other than cotton.[Ref 4]
The Crisis of the Nineties
Mrs. White's ideas and plans were as bold as ever. What caused her to counsel caution in practice was what one historian has called the "Crisis of the Nineties." The conservatives, Democrats, once again dominant in the South, "persuaded themselves that the crisis of the 'nineties was as desperate as that of the 'seventies had been. The South must be redeemed again, and the political ethics of redemption--which justified any means used to achieve the end --were pressed into service."[Ref 5]
Many factors contributed to the crisis of the nineties. The North had lost interest in stopping white Southerners from disfranchising the black man. Even liberals felt they should no longer protect Negroes; it was time for Negroes to prove themselves. Republicans discovered that they did not need black voters to win the Presidency. Business interests who had supported even the radicals in the Republican Party decided it was good business to have harmony between Northern and Southern whites.
Branches of the Federal Government were endorsing the idea that too much had been given too fast to the Negro. By 1898 the Supreme Court had been handing down, for 25 years, a series of opinions progressively limiting the civil rights laws extended to black people during the Reconstruction by radical Republican Congresses. In Plessy v. Ferguson the Court said, "Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts," and it justified segregation under the "separate but equal doctrine." The capstone was the Williams v. Mississippi decision which approved the 1890 Mississippi plan for disfranchising the black voters. Rapidly the entire South erected barriers between the black man and the ballot box. Literacy tests that could be (and were) administered to provide loopholes only for illiterate whites were followed by poll taxes and the white primary system. The effectiveness of this program of the nineties can be measured by the rapid decline of black registered voters in Louisiana. In 1896 there were 130,334 black men registered to vote. By 1904 there were only 1,342 - a 99 per cent decrease in eight years.[Ref 6]
Economic conditions in the Southern agrarian economy were a fundamental reason for the crisis of the nineties. Depression had hit the farms. "A great restiveness seized upon the populace, a more profound upheaval of economic discontent than had ever moved the Southern people before, more profound in its political manifestations than that which shook them in the Great Depression of the 1930's."[Ref 7]
In their frustration the various elements of Southern white society - conservative Democrats who had supported secession, Southerners who collaborated with Reconstruction, and Populists who had at first championed Negro rights even after the start of Redemption had come - all now united in making the black man the scapegoat in order to cure the disunity of the white South.
"If the psychologists are correct in their hypothesis that aggression is always the result of frustration, then the South toward the end of the 'nineties was the perfect cultural seedbed for aggression against the minority race. Economic, political, and social frustrations had pyramided to a climax of social tensions."[Ref 8]
Jim Crow segregation laws were one important result of white aggression. Jim Crow laws had begun in 1875 with bars to inter-racial marriages, followed by the construction of some separated schools in 1885. But n the late nineties new Jim Crow laws spread rapidly to trains, streetcars, employment, and hospitals.
At the height of this "Second Redemption" of the nineties, Edson White tried to implement the comprehensive plans for the South proposed earlier by his mother. Having read some of his mother's appeals, Edson responded by constructing a 70-foot steamboat, the "Morning Star," and sailing it down the Mississippi River. Arriving in Vicksburg, Mississippi, January 10, 1895, Edson made the Morning Star a floating headquarters (complete with chapel and print shop) for publishing, evangelistic, educational, and agricultural work among Mississippi black people.
In a thesis written at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and in a subsequent book (to be published soon by the Review and Herald Publishing Association) Ron Graybill has examined Mrs. White's statements on race and the Mississippi venture of her son Edson. He argues persuasively that Mrs. White's first calls for segregation came after white Adventists, working primarily with blacks in Mississippi river towns, faced looting, shooting, and burning mobs of whites.
On May 25, 1899, Edson reported to his mother in a letter: "Two weeks ago tonight a mob of about 25 white men came to our church at Calmer at about midnight. They brought out Brother Stephenson, our worker, and then looted the church, burning books, maps, charts, etc. They hunted for Brother Casey, our leading colored brother of that place, but he had escaped in time so they did not reach him. They then went to the house of Brother Olvin, called out, and whipped him with a cowhide. I think they would have killed him if it had not been for a friendly white man who ordered them to stop whipping after they had struck a few blows. They did not pay any attention to him at first, but he drew his revolver, and said the next man who struck a blow would hear from him, and then they stopped. During this time they shot at Brother Olvin's wife, and struck her in the leg, but did not hurt her seriously. They took Brother Stephenson to the nearest railway station, put him on the cars, and sent him out of the country. They posted notice on our church forbidding me to return, and forbidding the steamer Morning Star to land between Yazoo City and Vicksburg.
"The whole (difficulty arose from our efforts to aid the colored people. We had given them clothing where in need, and food to those who were hungry, and taught them some better ideas about farming, introducing different seeds such as peanuts, beans, etc., that bring a high price, and this the whites would not stand."[Ref 9]
Only a few days after receiving her son's letter from Mississippi, Mrs. White wrote on June 5, 1899, to A. F. Ballenger on the subject of race. She included sentences repeated verbatim later in her 1908 essay on "The Color Line." "So far as possible, everything that will stir up the race prejudice of the white people should be avoided. There is danger of closing the door so that our white laborers will not be able to work in some places in the south."[Ref 10]
Graybill points out that much of the material on race appearing in volume nine was written almost immediately after the Mississippi persecutions. He specifically places in this setting her most puzzling sentence.
"In the case of the statement that 'colored people should not urge that they be placed on an equality with white people,' it is, as mentioned above, possible to look with some validity to Mississippi and the incidents in Yazoo City and Calmer for historical settings, or at least the general conditions pointed to in the Ballenger letter, for it was evidently sometime before 1903 that she first made the statement."[Ref 11] Elsewhere in his thesis, Graybill analyzes Mrs. White's use of the terms equality and social equality. He devotes a chapter to the meaning of social equality in Mrs. White's time and the manner in which Mrs. White used the phrase.
It cannot be said too emphatically that Mrs. White's statement that "colored people should not urge that they be placed on an equality with white people" referred to certain social arrangements--forms of integration--she considered not possible during the crisis of the nineties. She did not want to move too rapidly at that precise moment when Adventists were being physically attacked, but she most definitely was not talking about the possibilities of social and civil integration in the United States of the l970's. Nor, most assuredly, was she discussing the fundamental nature--physical, mental, or spiritual--of the black man. As we have seen earlier, on that point Mrs. White was definite: all men are equal brothers.
Some may feel that Mrs. White, at the turn of the century, did not extend her basic principle of equality into the life of Southern Adventism with sufficient firmness and boldness. But there should be no doubt as to the answer to the first part of the title for this essay. Concerning the nature of the black man, Mrs. White was no racist.
As to the other half of the title, whether or not Mrs. White vigorously championed equality, the record shows Mrs. White taking two approaches. When Jim Crow laws swept into law books in the nineties, when Adventist ventures into the South were met with whips and torches, Mrs. White urged a moderate stance in race relations. "Shall not His [Christ's] followers, for His sake, be willing to submit to many things unjust and grievous to be borne, in order to help the very ones who need help?"[Ref 12]
Mrs. White's counsel was a concession to a specific problem that she hoped would be temporary. Referring to black believers who were to have their own churches, she said, "Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way." [Ref 13]
When at 76 Mrs. White referred to the "color question" and wrote in a 1903 letter that "in different places and under different circumstances, the subject will need to be handled differently," she may well be remembering her earlier role of vigorous leadership in race relations.[Ref 14] Forty-one years before, when Mrs. White was 35, she and her young associates leading the Adventist denomination felt that the North was guilty of being too moderate in its pursuit of the war. At that time Mrs. White had complained about "the prosecution of this war--the slow, inefficient moves, the inactivity of our armies." Here was no gradualist, no moderate. Here was a zealous reformer, vivid and full-blown.
Mrs. White was one of those spiritual leaders who saw Christian duty leading into reform of slavery as well as other problems, such as temperance, education, and public health. In midnineteenth-century America revivalism had often led to social reform.
"The militant anti-slavery movement that had developed by 1831 was, in itself, a powerful religious crusade. ...It was closely connected, in many respects, with movements for peace, women's rights, temperance, and other reform programs that developed simultaneously. In the West, it was connected with the Great Revival, of which Charles G. Finney was the dominant figure, emphasizing the importance of being useful and thus releasing a powerful impulse toward social reform."[Ref 15]
A recent historian of American religion feels that Adventists have dramatically demonstrated how a revivalistic longing for the hereafter can be combined with a concern for the whole man, here and now. Noting that Adventists have built and operated hospitals, publishing houses, homes for the aged, and a complete school system, Winthrop Hudson quotes approvingly one observer's comment "that seldom while expecting a kingdom of God from heaven has a group worked so diligently for one on earth."[Ref 16]
Today, as we got to Mrs. Ellen White for guidance in race relations, let us take seriously her commitment to the basic equality of all men, whatever their race. As we further study her to find clues to the proper pace for implementing equality, let us remember that she supported achievement of racial justice at the earliest moment of course, the nub of the problem. Here the more mellow Mrs. White, advising caution in the crisis of the nineties, should not obscure the younger more zealous Mrs. White of the Civil War and Reconstruction. If we are to learn one lesson from this brief glance at our denominational forebearers, it is that circumstances sometimes dictate moderation in achieving justice, but that equally often, the times demand we be nothing less than militant reformers.
Although he was referring to the issue of slavery, J. N. Andrews accurately described how many of us still avoid our moral obligation to attack the evils confronting us today.
"This sin is snugly stowed away in a certain package which is labeled 'Politics.' They deny the right of their fellow men to condemn any of the favorite sins which they have placed in this bundle; and they evidently expect that any parcel bearing this label, will pass the final custom-house, i.e. the judgment of the great day - without being examined. Should the All-seeing Judge, however, inquire into their connection with this great iniquity, they suppose the following answer will be entirely satisfactory to Him: 'I am not all the censurable for anything said or done by me in behalf of slavery; for O Lord, Thou knowest, it was a part of my politics!' Will this plea be offered by any reader of this article?"[Ref 17]
1. Testimonies, vol. 9, pp. 206, 207