Thursday, April 24, 2014

"'The Problem of the Color-line': Edgar Gardner Murphy and the Montgomery Conference on Race" - The 2014 E.O. Wilson Lecture (J. Barry Vaughn)

Note: The Harvard Club of Birmingham established the annual E.O. Wilson Lecture to honor Prof. E.O. Wilson, an Alabama native and distinguished professor of biology at Harvard. They asked me to give the lecture this year. 

First and foremost, I want to thank Dylan Black, Rowena Frazer, and the members of the Harvard Club of Birmingham for the honor of presenting the E.O. Wilson lecture for 2014. To say the least, it is a little intimidating to present a lecture bearing the name of a scholar of Professor Wilson's stature, not to mention following in the steps of Diane McWhorter, Justin Brown, Dr. Wilson himself, and the others who have given this lecture in previous years.

It is always more challenging and frightening to speak to friends than to strangers. The people who know us, know not only our strengths but also our weaknesses, our vices as well as our virtues. I don't know if you are like this, but it is far easier for me to catalog my shortcomings than to realistically appraise the things that I do well, and so I assume that everyone else looks at me as critically as I look at myself.

It may be especially challenging to speak to a gathering of Harvard alumni and their friends. As the old saying goes, "You can always tell a Harvard man... but you can't tell him much." The popular idea of Harvard students, and perhaps even more Harvard faculty members, is that they think of themselves as set apart, special, perhaps even slightly superior. There may be something to this. My late and dear friend, Peter Gomes, the minister in Memorial Church for 40 years, liked to tell the story of a faculty member who came to him to discuss his funeral plans.  The professor said, "Should I die, Dr. Gomes..." But not even Harvard professors are exempt from death!

To speak under the auspices of the Harvard Club of Birmingham is a very special honor. Some of my oldest friends are members of this club and are among the people I admire most in the world, including Howard Walthall, who interviewed me for Harvard, lo, these many years ago! This club has been an important part of my life for almost 40 years. Harvard not only provided me with a wonderful undergraduate education, it has also provided me with an alumni experience equally as rewarding. Serving as president of this club several years ago, then being elected to the board of the alumni association, being a member of my class committee, and helping to organize several reunions given me the chance to fall in love with Harvard all over again.

I apologize for changing the topic that was advertised, but I am not entirely to blame for that. My dear friend, Rabbi Jonathan Miller, is partly responsible. A good friend not only tells you what you want to hear, he or she also tells you what you need to know. When I began to talk to about my topic to Jonathan the last time I visited Birmingham, I saw that his eyes were glazing over. "Boring, right?" I said, and he agreed with me. So Jonathan challenged me to tell you about some of Alabama's prophets, the men and women who have changed things, spoken a word of truth to power.

Traditionally, Episcopal priest and social reformer Edgar Gardner Murphy has been regarded as one of Alabama's prophets. But as I began to dig into Murphy's record on the issue of race, I realized that he did not deserve all the accolades he has been given.


In his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois  wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." Du Bois's words were prophetic; they could serve as a kind of refrain or chorus to the entire history of the United States in the twentieth century. They are even more prophetic when applied to the history of Alabama in the twentieth century.

Du Bois wrote only two years after Alabama's 1901 constitution was written and ratified, a document that effectively disenfranchised the black residents of Alabama.  Three years before Du Bois wrote, Edgar Gardner Murphy, the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Montgomery, organized the Southern Society "for the Promotion of the Study of Race Conditions and Problems in the South." The Southern Society's principal means of promoting "the study of race conditions" was to be an annual conference "for the expression  of the varied and even antagonistic convictions of representative Southern men on the problems growing out of the race conditions obtaining in the South; and thus to secure a broader education of the public mind as to the facts of the situation, and a better understanding of the remedies for existing evils."[i]

Despite its lofty ambitions, Murphy's Southern Society held only one conference in Montgomery in 1900, and that conference was less about the "study of race conditions" and more about promoting pseudo-scientific and even outright hateful racist propaganda.

Murphy's biographer characterized him as a "gentle progressive." Gentle he was, and there is no reason to doubt that he was a faithful pastor and priest. How is it, then, that he came to found the Southern Society and organize a conference on racial problems that not only excluded black speakers but also included some of the most vociferous champions of racism of his time?

My talk this evening has three major points: First, the 1900 conference was a major milestone on the way to the disenfranchisement of black voters in Alabama. Second, Murphy typifies the kind of white leader (especially religious leaders) who characterized themselves as "moderates" on the issue of race, but actually did far more harm than good. Third, I will make some observations about restrictions on voting rights in our own day and time.

Born in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, in 1869, Murphy was raised in genteel poverty in San Antonio, Texas, where his family moved after his father abandoned his family. Murphy's mother, Janie, suffered from tuberculosis but operated a successful boarding house. Murphy became acquainted with Walter Richardson, the rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio who arranged for him to receive a scholarship to the University of the South. At Sewanee, Murphy was much influenced by William Porcher Dubose, professor of theology and one of the most important theologians that the Episcopal Church has produced. An important fact that Murphy's biographer omits is that when Murphy attended Sewanee, the university was deeply influenced by the cult of the "Lost Cause."  As I'm sure you know, the Lost Cause was the attempt to re-write the history of the Civil War in Southern terms. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders became secular saints; the cause of the war became states' rights, not slavery; and even the South's defeat became a kind of victory because the South held out for four years in spite the North's overwhelming superiority in terms of men and materiel.

Murphy's mentor, William Porcher Dubose had been a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia; Robert E. Lee was offered (but refused) the position of vice chancellor at Sewanee; and Confederate Brigadier General Josiah Gorgas became vice chancellor in 1872. For many years Sewanee's baseball team, known as the R.E. Lees and who wore uniforms of Confederate gray, were the only organized sports team at Sewanee. A Confederate battle flag hung in the chapel, and Sarah Elliott (daughter of Georgia’s Bishop Stephen Elliott) urged southerners to “send us others – Flags of our glorious past – to hang where our prayers will hover.”[ii]

I believe that Murphy's exposure to the cult of the "Lost Cause" helps explain his reluctance to see the importance of strong legal protections for the civil rights of African Americans. Intellectually, Murphy seems to have lived in a world in which genteel plantation owners paternalistically cared for their slaves - a world, I hasten to add, that never existed.

Murphy went on to study at the General Theological Seminary in New York where he became acquainted with Arthur Brooks, rector of the Church of the Incarnation, whose brother Phillips Brooks, was briefly bishop of Massachusetts and one of the few influential clergy of the Episcopal Church who was an outspoken opponent of slavery and secession.

Murphy returned to Texas to serve as a deacon at Christ Church, Laredo. Here he was confronted in the most terrible way with the violence that racial prejudice can produce when a black man was lynched in 1893. Murphy convened a public meeting to condemn the lynching, and wrote, "... my whole heart cried out against the form of the Negro's punishment for I then foresaw that it would be taken as a precedent for many spectacles like it." Those attending the meeting approved a resolution objecting to the lynching. Murphy later wrote his friend Booker T. Washington, "I think if  our course had been taken throughout the South there would never have been another negro [sic] 'burning' with all its [brutal] consequences." [iii]

Murphy's career was on a sharp upward trajectory. He was at Christ Church, Laredo, from 1890 t9 1893; then served as rector of St. Paul's, Chillicothe, Ohio, from 1893 to 1897; St. John's, Kingston, New York, from 1897 to 1898; and finally at St. John's, Montgomery, from 1898 to 1901. When Murphy left St. John's in 1901, he also left the priesthood in order to devote himself to his work in the areas of child labor and education.     

While at St. John's, Murphy helped establish a "Neighborhood House" in the west end of Montgomery for mill workers. The neighborhood house was modeled on the settlement houses being built in cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It provided classes for workers and a library. In June, 1899, Murphy invited black Episcopalians to a meeting at St. John's to explore the formation of a black parish in Montgomery. He was instrumental in the formation of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was organized as a mission of St. John's church in 1901.

Prior to the Civil War, most of Alabama's Episcopal parishes had included black worshipers. The vast majority of these were slaves who attended church with their masters. Immediately after the war, most of the black members of Episcopal churches simply dropped off the church registers. The Episcopal Church was so closely associated with slavery that it must have felt more or less toxic to former slaves.  There was one black parish - the Church of the Good Shepherd, Mobile, organized in 1854 - that preceded emancipation. Furthermore, in 1891 a group of middle class and professional blacks sought permission to organize a church and school in Birmingham that became St. Mark's Church and Industrial School. It is significant that the two black parishes organized by white people for blacks were both named Good Shepherd. The image of the good shepherd conveys the sense of paternalism that many white people felt toward blacks.

That Murphy took the initiative to organize a church for blacks appears to be a noble and progressive action. However, there is another way to understand the organization of the Church of the Good Shepherd. The result of organizing a black church in Montgomery had the effect of pulling the few remaining black worshipers out of the city's white Episcopal churches into their own separate, ie, segregated congregations. It is true that in segregated churches blacks could take leadership positions unavailable to them in white churches. However, the current members of Good Shepherd, Montgomery, told me that a tradition handed down in their church is that Murphy's purpose in organizing Good Shepherd was to exclude them from St. John's.

My point in going into detail in relating the story of Murphy's role in organizing Good Shepherd is to show that in this, as in so much else Murphy did in the area of race relations, his actions and motivations were ambivalent and can be interpreted in both a positive and negative light.

As C. Vann Woodward shows in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the Jim Crow laws that were passed in the states of the former Confederacy toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries represented a break with the past. In the antebellum South, strict segregation was an impossibility. Slaveholding families worked with their slaves on a daily basis. Slaves attended church with their masters. Slaves accompanied white families when they traveled. The end of slavery in 1865 did not abruptly change this pattern. Even the end of Reconstruction in the years 1875-77, did not result in legally imposed segregation. But there were several developments between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the 20th century that enabled states to pass legislation that imposed segregation and disenfranchised African Americans.

One development was the weakening of resistance to racism. Woodward points out that Northern opponents of racism became less vocal, and Northern newspapers and magazines that had previously been staunch defenders of emancipation began to publish articles that espoused racist views. Secondly, a series of Supreme Court decisions, especially Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, began to whittle away at the rights granted African Americans in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. A third development toward the end of the century was that the U.S. engaged in a series of imperialistic adventures, especially the Spanish American War, and acquired control of Cuba and the Philippines. U.S. imperialism required the support of a racist ideology. Rudyard Kipling gave expression to this in his poem "The White Man's Burden," In another poem "Recessional," Kipling speaks of "lesser breeds without the law." Related to both developments was the rise of the pseudo-science of eugenics founded on the idea that "races were discrete entities and that the 'Anglo-Saxon' or 'Caucasian' was the superior of them all." Finally, the United States went through a long and deep depression in the 1890s, and African Americans were convenient targets for the anger and frustration that the depression generated.[iv]

Shortly before the Montgomery conference, Murphy became acquainted with Booker T. Washington. In a letter to the Tuskegee founder, Murphy said that "the welfare of each race is involved in the welfare of the other; ... whatever is a difficulty for one, is a difficulty for both... the true removal of difficulties must open the way of development for all the classes of our population." He told Washington that the purpose of the conference was to "secure the interest, confidence and co-operation of the white people of the South..."[v]

Murphy asked for Washington's help with the conference, and Washington suggested several speakers, including two prominent black religious leaders and a Republican congressman. Murphy feared that the black clergy would alienate conservative white Southerners and that a Republican politician would not get a hearing in the "solid South." But Murphy accepted Washington's final proposal, that he invited former West Virginia governor William A. MacCorkle, who turned out to be the only speaker who gave anything like a resounding endorsement of the idea of black enfranchisement.

The conference included fifteen speakers, plus Montgomery's mayor and the governor of Alabama who welcomed the conference attendees. Only about a fourth of the speakers had a favorable attitude toward political equality for African Americans, and none supported social equality.

The speakers included Alfred Moore Waddell of North Carolina, who had been the mastermind of the Wilmington insurrection of 1898, an event that replaced the biracial city council with an all white city council that subsequently elected Waddell  as mayor. In the process, perhaps as many as 100 blacks were killed.  Another speaker was John Temple Graves, an Atlanta journalist who played a role in the Atlanta race riot of 1906 which resulted in the deaths of 25 to 40 blacks. Graves was not only an outspoken advocate of lynching, he even offered a reward of $1000 for a "successful" lynching.

The topics that the conference's speakers addressed were: (1) the franchise; (2) education; (3) "the Negro in relation to religion"; (4) lynching, and (5) "the Negro and the social order."

The conference convened on May 8, 1900, beginning with words of welcome from Montgomery's mayor, E.B. Joseph. He told the conference attendees that in Montgomery they could see, "the results and dangers born of the great experiment of incorporating, with an equal share of power, different, and, in may respects, widely antagonistic races, into a free government."[vi] Then Alabama's governor, Joseph F. Johnston, sounded a major theme of the conference when he told the assembly that "the white men of the South should control its public affairs will be admitted by the most intelligent Negroes, because the whites by education, instinct, and centuries of training, are the most capable of governing.... it would surely reverse natural law to deny them the right to control their own government." He then touched on another important theme of the conference when he said, that, "It must now be apparent to every disinterested citizen that a grave and fundamental mistake was made when suffrage was thrust unsought upon the Negro when he was utterly unprepared to exercise it wisely. Had it been conferred as the reward of progress made on educational or property lines it would have stimulated great endeavor."[vii]

The first group of speakers addressed black suffrage. In 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which prohibited the federal and state governments from denying any citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "racecolor, or previous condition of servitude," and the states ratified it in 1870. Murphy's position on the 15th Amendment was complicated. In a letter to Washington, he said that he was "in favor of such a 'modification' of the Amendment as will make the definite terms of the franchise a local issue in each state of the Union." Murphy favored outright repeal of the amendment, but at a minimum, he wanted to see it modified in two ways: First, he believed that the franchise should be dependent on a property and literacy test (although to be fair he wanted to make this equally applicable to both white and black voters). Second, he wanted to make the franchise a matter for the states to decide, not the federal government. [viii]

Following the conference, Murphy wrote industrialist William Henry Baldwin, Jr., that the problem with the 15th amendment was that "it stands for a great coercive in justice, and that so long as it occupies the position of law upon our federal statutes, it will imply at least the possibility of military enforcement." Paradoxically Murphy believed that  if the 15th amendment was repealed, the result would "be the restoration of civic rights to the Negroes of the South." [ix] Murphy's tortured reasoning was that the only reason that the franchise was being denied to "qualified" blacks (ie, those who were hardworking, honest, and literate) was because Southerners resented federal "interference" in Southern affairs.

The first speaker on the program of the conference was Alfred Moore Waddell. He began by saying, "...the only proper question for me to discuss will be, 'How Ought Negro Suffrage to Be Limited?'"[x] Waddell believed that the 15th amendment "was done as a punishment upon the South by a victorious, overbearing North, desirous of humiliating and destroying... the self-respect and liberty of their defeated opponents."[xi] The next speaker on the topic of the franchise was John Temple Graves of Atlanta. Echoing Du Bois, Graves said, "The issue of races is not peculiar to America. It is the problem of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. It burns in India, in Africa and in America."[xii] Graves argued for a connection between the franchise and social equality, "The Negro's right to vote carries the right to political equality and makes the basis of his aspiration for social equality."  Graves opposed both political and social equality, "...[blacks] will never - North or South - be permitted to govern in any State or county, even where [they have] a majority, and ... can never therefore be ... political equals."[xiii] Despite the fact that Booker T. Washington was present (or more likely, because Washington was there), Graves used the educator to sum up his argument against social equality: "What man of you, gentlemen, philosophers, statesmen, metaphysicians, problem-solvers that you are... would install this great and blameless Negro in your guest chamber tonight? If he were unmarried, what man of you would receive with equanimity his addresses to your daughter or your ward? What man of you would vote for this proven statesman for governor of Alabama?" [xiv] Graves' solution was radical: "Separation is the logical, the inevitable, the only way.... One-third of the territory of the republic is untaken and undeveloped and recent official testimony has declared that stored reservoirs can redeem in the West a territory equal to the maintenance of 70,000,000 people. The islands of the seas are ours and may furnish a key to the solution. The repatriation of the dark continent from which the Negro came offers a suggestive remedy." In other words, Graves proposed the wholesale removal of all African Americans and their resettlement.[xv]

The only speaker who defended the 15th amendment without qualification was former West Virginia governor William A. MacCorkle. “Whether wisely or not this amendment was ratified, I will not discuss, but under its provisions the Negro has with you and me an equal right to exercise the franchise. If we are an honest and constitution-loving people, we will give him his constitutional right. His privilege of franchise is as sacred as ours, and should be as sacredly guarded."[xvi]

The second topic of the conference was education, and the speakers were Hollis Burke Frissell, principal of Hampton Institute, Booker T. Washington's alma mater; Julius D. Dreher, president of Roanoke College; and J.L.M. Curry, agent of the Peabody and  Dreher Funds to aid schools in the South and one of the founders of the Southern Education Board.

Predictably, the speakers favored Washington's theory that black education should be dominated by agricultural and industrial training. Frissell paid lip service to the good that was done by ending slavery ("We are glad now that our country is really 'the land of the free.' - that no man can be bought or sold..."), but like many, if not most Southerners, he believed that slavery had been a more or less benevolent institution. " is only fair to call attention to the part which the South performed in the education of the barbarous people forced upon her. The Southern plantation was really a great trade school where thousands received instruction in mechanic arts, in agriculture, in cooking, sewing, and other domestic occupations." [xvii]

The final speaker on the topic of education was Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, who had served in the Confederate congress and been president of Howard College (now Samford University) for a time. Curry, a veteran of the Confederate army, was a Southern apologist. He denied that the Confederacy intended to reopen the African slave trade. That was true, but only because it would have hindered the export of slaves from the state of Virginia. In 1860, Virginia's second largest export was slaves. Curry also denied that slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy and the principal cause of the Civil War.

The third topic was religion, and the speakers were D. Clay Lilly, Secretary of the Southern Presbyterian Board of Negro Evangelization; William A. Guerry, chaplain of the University of the South; J.R. Slattery of St. Joseph's Seminary in Baltimore; C.C. Penick, a former missionary bishop of the Episcopal Church in Africa; John Roach Straton of Mercer University; W.F. Willcox, chief statistician of the U.S.; and Herbert Welsh, secretary of the Indian Rights Association. The primary topic was whether it was advisable to establish separate black congregations or to have mixed congregations. Either way, the speakers assumed that black clergy and congregations need white supervision.

Lilly favored separation. "Preacher and people alike feel that it is 'our church,' and an esprit de corps is developed which renders them an effective organization." Like the other speakers, Lilly was opposed to any idea of social equality. "... spiritual contact can be had without any danger of social amalgamation. Social equality is not desired by either race."[xviii]

Sewanee's chaplain, W.A. Guerry followed the paternalist line of thought taken by all the speakers at the Montgomery conference: "...the best teacher for the Negro is the Southern white man, who thoroughly understands him, and who is more deeply concerned than anyone else in his welfare." [xix] Guerry believed that the separation of black and white worshipers that occurred at the end of the Civil War had been disastrous for blacks: "The result of the religious isolation of the Negro after the Civil War was most unfortunate; for, nowhere has he shown such a disposition to revert to the original savage as in his religion."[xx]

Father Slattery from St. Joseph's Seminary adopted a more positive point of view than most of the speakers. He pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church had retained more black worshipers than the Protestant churches. "... there is scarcely a Catholic Church in the South which does not number at least a few colored people in the congregation." And Father Slattery even compared the terrible way that blacks had suffered under slavery to the sufferings of Jesus: "There is not, indeed, among us a race whose history is more like that of the Son of Man... Of the Saviour of the world the prophet [Isaiah] declared that he was a worm and no man; a very scorn of men and an outcast of the people; he was poured out like water and all His bones out of joint... All this may be truly said of the Negro race..."[xxi]

Straton and Willcox argued that black people were degenerating both morally and physically. According to Straton, "There are some indications that, in connection with the seeming ethical degeneracy discussed, there has set in a physical deterioration ... the Negro is weakening perceptibly in his physical manhood year after year."[xxii] According to Willcox, "The balance of the evidence... seems to... indicate... a continuance of changes already begun [namely] a decrease in the Negro birth-rate . . ."[xxiii]

Other than the franchise, the fourth topic - lynching - was the most controversial. Lynchings in the deep South peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Tuskegee University, 3400 African Americans and almost 1300 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968. The first speaker who addressed lynching was South Carolinian, Alexander C. King, a railroad attorney, and who later became a federal judge and eventually was appointed the solicitor general of the United States. The other speaker who addressed lynching was Clifton R. Breckinridge, a Democratic congressman representing Arkansas' 2nd congressional district and later the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Both speakers explicitly condemned lynching but went far toward implicitly justifying it. Breckinridge even referred to "justifiable and unjustifiable lynching."[xxiv] Both King and Breckinridge believed that sexual violence perpetrated by a black man against a white woman was not only a terrible crime but also unique. For King, such a crime was the result of the anger that black men felt against whites: "He resents the fact that the white man insists on his subordination.... He will triumph over the other race in the person of a woman of that race."[xxv] Breckinridge believed that the catalyst for sexual violence had been emancipation and black civil rights: "The Negro, utterly unfitted to govern himself... was set to govern, not only himself, but also to exclusively govern us.... The Negro was taught to hate the Southern white man, to reject his influence, and conflicts were incited that outside power might be invoked to perpetuate the system."[xxvi]

The final topic of the conference was "the Negro and the social order." The speakers were Paul B. Barringer, a physician and chairman of the faculty of the University of Virginia, and Bourke Cockran, a Democratic congressman from New York.

Barringer's address was possibly the worst of the entire conference. According to him, "Slavery as it existed here was designed to shield and protect the Negro at every point..."[xxvii] But since emancipation, Barringer believed that blacks had been in slow but steady decline, morally, mentally, and physically. "The Negro, at least in the cities of the South, is already dying much more rapidly than the white." He went on: " a Southerner and a physician, I am familiar with the physicians of the South and it is the almost universal opinion of these men... that the Negro, as a race, is steadily degenerating both morally and physically.”[xxviii] The cause, Barringer explained, two-fold: The first was emancipation: "...the Negro feels that this was a dies irae; [day of wrath] he has no enthusiasm for 'Emancipation Day'..." The second was enfranchisement: "Something else was needed and fate supplied the need, the Negro was duly crowned with the ballot and given control of the South. That settled it."[xxix]

To his credit, Congressman Cockran refuted Barringer's assertion that black people were doomed to extinction by the twin "curses" of freedom and the right to vote: "... far from declining, the Negro has trebled in numbers during the last thirty-five years, and he has begun to acquire property - the crowning proof of capacity to support civilized life."[xxx] But Cockran did favor either the outright repeal of the 15th Amendment or modifying it and giving each state the right to enfranchise only those citizens - black or white - that it considered deserving of the right to vote.[xxxi]

In a letter Edgar Gardner Murphy wrote to William Henry Baldwin, Jr., a member of the Tuskegee board and one of Washington's principal advisors and fundraisers, the clergyman said, "The Conference is over, and its success has exceeded the most sanguine expectations of any of us." He went on: "While there were ... things said that some of us regret, the general trend of expression was distinctly wise and statesmanlike." [xxxii]  Former West Virginia governor,  William MacCorkle, who spoke in favor of the 15th amendment, was not quite as sanguine: "...every human being in the sound of my voice seemed to be opposed to my idea. It seems to me, that the determination  seems to be to disfranchise the Negro. This is a crying wrong and I hope such will not be the case."[xxxiii]

Booker T. Washington came to regret his association with the conference. Six months after it he wrote that there was not a single one of the conference's all white speakers "who did not lay special stress upon the superiority of his own race and the weaknesses of other races."[xxxiv]

One of the best characterizations of the Montgomery conference was by a writer in Washington, DC's Colored American, who said that it was "a gathering of Pharisees who continually thanked God that they were not as other men."[xxxv]

Almost exactly a year after the Conference on Race, Montgomery hosted another important meeting - a convention summoned for the purpose of writing what became Alabama's 1901 constitution, the document under which this state is still governed.  The members of the convention elected John B. Knox of Anniston to serve as president, who in his opening remarks said that the purpose of the convention was to establish "white supremacy... by law".[xxxvi] The 1901 constitution disenfranchised blacks and some poor whites by imposing literacy, employment, and property qualifications; by disenfranchising those who were guilty of minor crimes such as vagrancy or the so-called "mentally deficient"; and by imposing an onerous poll tax of $1.50 per year.[xxxvii]

Although Murphy was in favor of restricting the franchise only to those who possessed the necessary moral and intellectual qualifications, nevertheless he was critical of the 1901 constitution. To his credit, he realized that the implementation of the franchise clause of the constitution was an invitation to fraud and bigotry. He wrote, "I can see nothing in the scheme but the formalizing of our perennial fraud."[xxxviii]

It is difficult to be very sympathetic to Murphy. Like John B. Knox and other members of the 1901 constitutional convention, Murphy favored "white supremacy," although he defined it as "the supremacy of intelligence, administrative capacity and public order. It means the perpetuation of those economic and civic conditions upon which the progress of the Negro is itself dependent."[xxxix] But Murphy was only adopting a slightly more sophisticated argument for racism; he was putting a veneer of kindness on what was in essence a racist position. Murphy was saying that whites are not entitled to govern because they are white, but because they intelligent and have a superior capacity for the tasks of administration and maintaining public order. The other side of that argument is that blacks are less intelligent. Whether the argument was put in Murphy's terms or in the rhetoric employed by Alfred Waddell, John Temple Graves, or Paul Barringer, the result was the same for black people.

In 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, his reply to the eight religious leaders who had urged him to postpone or cancel his demonstrations in Birmingham during Holy Week, Dr. King could have been referring to Murphy when he wrote that he was

... gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.[xl]


Murphy perfectly characterized the "white moderate." One of the principal characteristics of the white moderates was that they feared alienating conservatives. That fear was a principal motivation of the religious leaders who urged King to wait. It also prompted Murphy to provide a national platform for some of the most virulent racists of his day and time. Like other moderates, Murphy favored slow, gradual progress. However, the problem is that if you proceed by half steps, you will never arrive at your destination.

In conclusion, I want to make some observations that are applicable to our own situation. Today, hardly less than in 1900, voting rights are under attack. Texas, North Carolina, and other states have enacted laws that have the effect of suppressing the number of minority voters.  In 1900, the U.S. seizure of Cuba and the Philippines was undergirded by a racist ideology. Today our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been accompanied by an upsurge of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. Today as in 1900, we are at the end of a long recession that has generated fear and frustration. Too often the fear and frustration has been focused at minorities. Today as in 1900, too many journalists, including the entire Fox News network, have abandoned journalistic objectivity and embraced reactionary positions. Today as in 1900, a series of Supreme Court decisions have begun to dilute the power of minority voting rights, including (but certainly not limited to) the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder striking down a key provision of the 1965 voting rights' act.

Perhaps civil rights are always at risk, although there are times when they seem especially vulnerable, and this seems to be such a time. African Americans are not the only endangered group. The great strides made in the area of gay and lesbian rights are now endangered by attempts in many states to legalize discrimination against LGBT Americans, including a recent attempt in this state by state legislator Becky Nordgren of Gadsden.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that one historical fact I omitted from my book is that I was the first openly gay person ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama.

Moderates such as Edgar Gardner Murphy are not well equipped to deal with the problems of entrenched privilege. Organizing conferences to represent all views will hardly ever change hearts and minds. No point of view should be suppressed, but there is no need to provide a national platform for those who preach the innate inferiority of those whose skins are darker, or who love differently, or who pray to a different god or who pray to no god. And it is naive to hope, as Murphy did, people of good will will eventually grant rights to those who have been denied rights for too long. As Dr. King reminded the moderates of his day, "Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

I am sure that Edgar Gardner Murphy believed that he was fulfilling the agenda of the prophet Isaiah, to "seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow." (Isa. 1.17) But fulfilling that agenda requires not only audacious hope but also cold-eyed realism. As Jesus says in Luke 16, "The children of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than the children of light." To confront the evils that Murphy confronted in his time and that we confront in ours, the children of light may need to learn a thing or two from the children of darkness, but the children of light never need to give a platform to the children of darkness so that they can promote their views. Thank you.


[i] Race Problems, p. 5.
[ii] Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 148-149, 151. In his Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South, (University of the South, 2008) Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., disputes the characterization of Sewanee as “a home of the Lost Cause” but does not specifically address any of the facts that I cite. See Chapter 5, “The Lost Cause, Race, and Academic Freedom: The Wiggins Example, 1893-1909.”
[iii] Bailey, p. 10.
[iv] Woodward, Jim Crow.
[v] Washington papers, vol. 5, p. 406.
[vi] p. 20.
[vii] p. 21.
[viii] Bailey, p. 40.
[ix] Washington papers, p. 514.
[x] p. 39.
[xi] p. 41.
[xii] p. 49.
[xiii] pp. 50-51.
[xiv] p. 52.
[xv] pp. 55, 57.
[xvi] p. 63.
[xvii] p. 84.
[xviii] p. 115, 116.
[xix] p. 127.
[xx] pp. 131-132.
[xxi] p. 140.
[xxii] pp. 147-148.
[xxiii] p. 155.
[xxiv] p. 175.
[xxv] pp. 162-163.
[xxvi] p. 173.
[xxvii] p. 185.
[xxviii] pp. 191, 193.
[xxix] p. 193.
[xxx] p. 197.
[xxxi] "Surely the condition of the black man would be immensely improved if, instead of straining at this moment after the shadow of political privileges the substance of which he cannot attain, he devoted his energy to improving his industrial capacity in which the whole people of the South are read to encourage him. If he follow this course I believe that political privileges will come to him, not in a year, not perhaps in a generation, but just as soon as he will have shown by his industrial efficiency that he is ready to use them to his own profit and for the welfare of the community." (p. 214)
[xxxii] Washington papers, v. 5, p. 513, 517.
[xxxiii] Washington papers, v. 5, p. 523.
[xxxiv] Norrell, p. 193.
[xxxv] Luker, A Southern Tradition in Theology and Social Criticism, 1830-1930 (Mellen Press, 1984), p. 326.
[xxxvi] Official Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama:
May 21st, 1901, To September 3rd, 1901 (Wetumpka, 1940), pp. 9-10.
[xxxvii] "1901 Constitutional Convention" in Encyclopedia of Alabama:
[xxxviii] Bailey, p. 62.
[xxxix] Bailey, pp. 59-60.
[xl] Bass, Peacemakers, p. 246.