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Jerry Falwell’s Racist Past
By George E. Curry
May 21, 2007

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When people die, even the racist ones, there is an inexplicable rush to trumpet the good in that person, even where none exists from a public policy perspective. The most recent example is Jerry Falwell, one of the godfathers of the religious right.

Like many Southern White ministers, Falwell didn’t sit on the sidelines at the outset of the modern civil rights movement, he joined the opposition.

“Decades before the forces that now make up the Christian right declared their culture war, Falwell was a rabid segregationist who railed against the civil rights movement from the pulpit of the abandoned backwater bottling plant he converted into Thomas Road Baptist Church,” Max Blumenthal writes in an insightful article in The Nation magazine. “This opening episode of Falwell’s life, studiously overlooked by his friends, naively unacknowledged by many of his chroniclers, and puzzlingly and glaringly omitted in the obituaries of the Washington Post and New York Times, is essential to understanding his historical significance in galvanizing the Christian right. Indeed, it was race –not abortion or the attendant suite of so-called ‘values’ issues – that propelled Falwell and his evangelical allies into political activism.”

Four years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated public schools, Falwell gave a speech titled, “Segregation or Integration.”

His message was unmistakably clear: “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

The argument that God ordained segregation and White supremacy was advanced by many southern White ministers. We should not forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written to his colleagues of the cloth. The letter, written April 16, 1963, said, in part: I have been disappointed with the church…When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies.

“Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

Jerry Falwell was not silent behind his stained-glass windows. He said, “The true Negro does not want integration…he realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”

As usual, Falwell was wrong. Autherine Lucy, a “true Negro” applied to and was accepted as a student at the University of Alabama. Once the university discovered she was an African-American, however, officials said state law prevented her from enrolling. With the legendary Thurgood Marshall as her attorney, she sued and gained admission. When she arrived in February 1956, a mob threw eggs at her and issued death threats. The university expelled her, purportedly for her own safety.

The following year, nine Black students attempted to desegregate the all-White Central High School. Segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from attending the school. A federal judge overruled Faubus and ordered the students admitted. When the Black students reported to class, a mob formed and president Dwight Eisenhower dispatched the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. The nine students were allowed to attend classes, though they were subject to abuse from White students.

Does that should like the “true Negro” did not want integration?

But Falwell didn’t stop there.

Claiming that integration “will destroy our race eventually,” Falwell said, “A pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”

Not as an unmarried couple, not as gays or lesbians, but “man and wife.” That was too much for Falwell to stomach.

As late as 1964, Falwell was attacking the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “civil wrongs” legislation. He questioned “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations.” Falwell charged, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

No, it was the Bull Conners of the world that were violently beating civil rights marchers. It’s too bad that Falwell, who later claimed that he had changed his views, was on the wrong side of history.

Next Column: Will Blacks and Whites Ever Agree on Race?

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