Emily Suzanne Clark
Over at the Journal of Southern Religion we have decided to launch a new type of publication that Doug Thompson and I are calling "Critical Conversations." It's our attempt to merge the flexibility of an online journal with the timeliness of a blog. It's something that Doug has been wanting to do since coming onboard the journal staff. At last year's AAR, Doug, Ed Blum, and I talked about how much we love Donald Mathews's 2000 JSR article "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice." In that article Mathews wrote about lynching and southern religion and discussed the meaning of the ritual for both white Christians and black Christians. The article was truly ahead of its time and remains incredibly relevant today. When #Charlestonsyllabus starting trending on Twitter a few weeks ago, several people mentioned "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice," including myself and Doug as well as Anthea Butler. (But we all know that Prof B's tweet make bigger waves than mine or Doug's.)
Over the next few weeks, new reflections will be added to this Critical Conversation on the 15th anniversary of Mathews's article. Currently up on the website is Ed Blum's introduction and Amy Louise Wood's reflection. We're grateful to Ed for editing this collection for us. In his introduction, he shows how incredibly timely this conversation is. As the author of the award-winning Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, Wood's piece identifies Mathews's article as an important "revelation" she encountered while writing her dissertation. She then takes us through the article and why she has found it both helpful and problematic. The entire conversation is being published in Volume 17, which is our first rolling release issue.
We can extend the conversation here too. I'm sure "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice" has been influential far beyond the participants of the conversation at jsreligion.org. In my own work on race and politics in 19th-century Afro-creole Spiritualism, white violence plays an important role. New Orleans was no stranger to white terror and post-Civil War events clearly prove this. In the 1866 Mechanics' Institute Riot (more properly identified as a massacre) a white mob attacked a group of black Republican delegates and killed nearly 40. After 1874's so-called Battle of Liberty Place the White League temporarily took over the city and imposed their own government. The spirit guides of the Afro-creole Spiritualists I study responded in kind to both these events. The self-proclaimed martyrs of the Mechanics' Institute Riot frequently appeared and validated their deaths as important steps for black rights. And Saint Vincent de Paul offered assurance during that temporarily White League rule. As in Mathews's powerful writing, both white and black responses to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era matter and need to be part of the story. After the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League installed Confederate Colonel D.B. Penn as state governor, and he asked all assembled to go to church and thank God for their victory. That next day, the spirit of a former Confederate soldier appeared to the Afro-creole Spiritualists and he confessed that he was crying in the spirit world for his past offenses. He admitted that he was wrong to protect "the proud oligarchy of race."
White supremacy is an important part of southern religion, but Confederate flags are only part of the story. Southern religion includes black experiences, multiple understandings of what constitutes the sacred, the practices of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and more. In his lynching article Mathews helped us see beyond the Lost Cause, and the JSR continues that scholarly trajectory today.