No Jim Crow Church

Paul Harvey

I wanted briefly to call your attention to this new, and pretty darn cool, book that might fly under your radar: Louis Venters, No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina's Bahá’í Community, just out with the University Press of Florida.

Here's a brief description from the book's website, just to plagiarize an easy summary of it:
In No Jim Crow Church, Louis Venters recounts the unlikely emergence of a cohesive interracial fellowship in South Carolina, tracing the history of the community from the end of the nineteenth century through the civil rights era. By joining the Bahá’í Faith, blacks and whites not only defied Jim Crow but also rejected their society’s religious and social restrictions.

The religion, which emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind, arrived in the United States from the Middle East via northern urban areas. As early as 1910, Bahá’í teachers began settling in South Carolina, where the Bahá’í Faith is currently the largest religious minority. Venters presents an organizational, social, and intellectual history of South Carolina’s early Bahá’í movement and relates developments within the community to changes in society at large, with particular attention to race relations and the civil rights struggle. He argues that the state’s Bahá’ís represent a significant, sustained, spiritually based challenge to the ideology and structures of white male Protestant supremacy. His research provides a fascinating study of an unlikely movement’s rise to prominence and the role of the South Carolina Bahá’í community in the cultural and structural evolution of a new world religion.

This is a pretty amazing story, given that the Bahá’í  faith represents pretty much everything that ran contrary to the mores of the Jim Crow South. Its universalism, its emphasis on peace and justice, its roots in nineteenth-century Persia, its challenge to the Christo-centrism of Protestantism, is emphasis on the unity of all of the world’s peoples – could there be a more challenging faith to profess in the Jim Crow South? And yet, a handful of people did. One of them, by the way, was the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, a native of the state. 

Despite southern religious history being (cough, cough) my field of study, I knew almost nothing at all about this prior to reading this book first as a manuscript about 3 years ago. There are many fascinating sidelights to the manuscript. One caught my attention: the ability of a small community of Bahá’ís in the 1950s to get one city’s permission to hold integrated gatherings, with the city more or less acknowledging that they had the rights of freedom of religion to do so. That’s something you didn’t see every day in the 1950s South!

The writing throughout is strong, impeccably scholarly, and incredibly well researched. The author's extensive footnotes are fun to peruse. He has dug through all manner of materials relating not only to the Bahá’ís but also more generally to southern and American religious history. 


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