Reinhold Niebuhr and the American South by Blake Barton Renfro


Introduction: Guest Blog–Blake Barton Renfro

In southern historical circles, the world traveling, cigar wielding, bourbon swigging gentleman known as Blake Barton Renfro hardly requires any such introduction. For the sake of consistency, we’ll give it a go anyway. JHW and I first crossed paths with Blake at a conference hosted by Emory University. It’s always good to meet a fellow bow tie aficionado, but we had a long haul home, so we graciously excused ourselves from the post-presentation festivities. The more we’ve gotten to know Blake, the more we realize what a mistake that decision had been. Bow tie + potential access to matters of national security + extensive knowledge of evangelicalism + drinks = better than average night at the bar. Add a slew of other well-known southernists, and JHW and I really blew it. Luckily for us, the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Mobile provided an opportunity for atonementand despite our epic expectations, Blake, bow tie and all, did not disappoint. But if you know him, well, you already knew that…


Reinhold Niebuhr and the American South

Much has been said about Reinhold Niebuhr’s impact on politics and religion. Perhaps the most vocal and socially engaged Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Niebuhr’s ideas have recently enjoyed a surging popularity. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain cited him as influencing their views on political power and foreign policy. Journalists including David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, and others thoughtfully appraised Niebuhr’s legacy and reconsidered his relevance for our contemporary political dialogue. Academics also joined the conversation, attempting to resolve Niebuhr’s tragic view of history with his spirited defense of American liberal values. The current interest in Reinhold Niebuhr has largely ignored his views on the national dialogue over race. In part, Niebuhr was not an especially vocal critic of racial segregation, but like many progressives of the day, he usually portrayed Jim Crow as a horrific social tragedy that would only be eliminated through personal conversions and a gradual shift in cultural attitudes. If racial segregation was cast by some as a wholly southern problem, Niebuhr portrayed it as a deeply individual prejudice exacerbated by the larger society.[1]

Reinhold Niebuhr was of a generation of scholars and public intellectuals who wrote sweeping narratives, luring readers with penetrating criticism and lofty conclusions about history, politics, morality, and culture. If the commanding prose were not enough, the book titles were often more daring, and Niebuhr was at the forefront publishing brazen works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943), and The Irony of American History (1952). Throughout his academic career at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr explored reoccurring themes between power and politics, the temptation to play God to history. He deliberated on this premise and found new meaning and insight from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War. Insisting that history is not a pedantic endeavor, he repeatedly probed the ethical dilemmas facing the nation, forcefully rejecting history as a solution to the human impulse to subdue Mammon.

Born in 1892 in Missouri, Niebuhr was reared in the German Evangelical Synod. He graduated from Elmhurst College and studied at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, where he took an M. A. in 1915 and completed a thesis entitled “The Validity and Certainty of Religious Knowledge.” In the 1920’s, the young clergyman relocated to Detroit where he served in the Bethel Evangelical Church, honing his preaching style and ideas about the promise and peril of modern life. Stricken with increased labor disputes and accompanying racial tensions, Detroit proved an ideal urban setting for Niebuhr to engage his congregation with the Social Gospel’s message of reform and societal uplift. There Niebuhr encountered firsthand the limitations of progressivism, recognizing that instituting large-scale social justice did not always change the beliefs of individual congregants. Nonetheless, he quickly became a leading spokesman for mainline Protestants, presenting guest lectures across the country and writing editorials for leading church periodicals. The national attention eventually resulted in a teaching appointment in 1928 at Union Theological Seminary.[2]

As a clergyman in Detroit, Niebuhr immersed himself in the civic life of the city. Transitioning into academia provided an insular environment, but Niebuhr resisted the temptation to solely lead a life of the mind. Critical of the innocence of the Social Gospel, he remained committed to social engagement and repeatedly challenged the hubris of American exceptionalism. He was also keenly aware of Jim Crow’s grip on the United States, especially the peculiar institution’s roots in the South. Surrounded in New York City by the cosmopolitan and intellectual elite, Niebuhr rarely performed the daily customs of Jim Crow. But, during a 1930 tour of several southern states, he found reason to reflect on racial segregation. He observed a region where whites and blacks lived in close proximity but were seemingly blind or unwilling to acknowledge social inequality. An essay published in The Christian Century, a leading mainline Protestant journal, articulated Niebuhr’s criticism of racial segregation:

I don’t know how a sensitive spirit in the South can escape constant depression at the sight of ubiquitous evidences of Jim Crowism, except by rigorous isolation from the race which bears the brunt of all these social ostracisms. It seems rather tragic in a world in which we are bound to misunderstand the stranger, we insist on adding to these inevitable misunderstandings those which could be avoided if we took some pains to understand people who live near to us and whose lives are bound up with ours.[3]

Despite his aversion to racism, Niebuhr did not always portray it as a political issue; he was preoccupied with changing “hearts and minds.” He was not notably outspoken about the most horrific expressions of Jim Crow, nor did Niebuhr put faith in progressive idealism a permanent solution. “I make bold to predict that the most heroic educational efforts will not eliminate lynching in the South as long as Jim Crowism continues. You can’t breed contempt of one group for another in such systematic fashion and not have an occasional mob push the logic implied to its rigorously consistent conclusion,” he concluded. [4]

Even in a tragic world, Niebuhr found reason to strive for a society where race would not vindicate a person’s lot in life. In the South he saw an opportunity to create an example of interracial cooperation. Collaborating in the 1930’s with southern liberals Buck Kester, Sam Franklin, and Eugene Cox, Niebuhr helped establish the Providence Cooperative Farm in Bolivar County, Mississippi. Situated on two-thousand acres, the farm was intended to validate that blacks and whites could live, work, and worship together in the Deep South. One of the cooperative’s primary supporters summed up the endeavor. “The whole situation is full of possibilities for good or evil-on the one hand, peonage, serfdom, poverty, disease, robbery, eviction and violence; on the other a cooperative commonwealth to guarantee the rights of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the Negroes and poor whites.” The farm was essentially an “experiment,” that would create a utopia in the midst of the feudal South.[5]

Funded by northern philanthropists and mainline Protestant denominations, the farm languished for nearly twenty years, subject to near constant financial bankruptcy and internal disputes. Charles S. Johnson, the prominent African American sociologist at Fisk University, observed that the cooperative was more difficult than anticipated: “The interracial policy of the Farm is one of the most difficult to work out satisfactorily, because of the external pressures and the long history of competition and group antagonism.” Like Niebuhr, Johnson alluded to dilemmas inherent in human interaction, suggesting that “if the prevailing pattern is too violently resisted much of the time will be consumed in handling racial details, and if the venture goes on it will induce a martyr complex.” At the same time, Johnson concluded that “if we yield on the racial issue at unnecessary points, merely to facilitate the economic aspect of the experiment, we lose important value of the work.” The quest for practical racial justice, even among downtrodden whites and blacks, met frustration and an occasional feeling of defeat. The Providence Cooperative Farm eventually bankrupted and dissolved, but it imbued later generations with a realistic example of the entrenched white opposition and the many hurdles impeding racial equality.[6]

Charles Johnson’s warning of a nascent “martyr complex” among the cooperative farm participants echoed Reinhold Niebuhr’s thoughts about power and politics. The liberal “hope of redeeming history,” Niebuhr suggested, is prone to an “American Messianic dream,” where political power is subject to naïve illusions of national innocence. Niebuhr’s seminal work Moral Man and Immoral Society examined this tension between individual morality and the inevitable evils of modern society writ large. As the title invoked, individuals can make ethical judgments, but morality is debased when contested within larger groups. Just as Charles Johnson worried that the Providence Cooperative Farm would unintentionally victimize participants, Niebuhr argued that American society could be seduced by visions of incorruptibility and claims to moral superiority. This cautious approach to social dynamics assumed that political discourse over racism, economic inequality, labor relations, and other issues are indelibly corrupted by modern liberal society.[7]

Niebuhrian themes of tragedy, hope, and irony reoccur in narratives of the South’s history and culture. Perhaps the most influential and prophetic southern voice for these ideas came in 1963 from a Birmingham jail. Responding to a group of white clergymen’s letter requesting a more restrained and gradualist approach toward civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. replied with a measured critique. He challenged the label of “outside agitator,” arguing that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Defending acts of non-violent resistance and “direct action,” King implored white Americans to change their hearts and minds, to reconsider the paradox between the moderate approach to civil rights and the long delayed reality of justice. Delicately balancing two American values of individualism and collectivism, King illustrated how individual freedom relied upon a communitarian obligation to liberty and equality. Where King was hopeful about the prospect of achieving racial equality, Niebuhr remained troubled about the inherent shortcomings of modern liberal democracy. Niebuhr’s restraint foreshadowed the stark reality of obtaining racial harmony in America, but King’s corrective underscored a more optimistic tone in American history, envisioning a nation redeemed from individual human prejudice.[8]

Academic historians occasionally struggle to reconcile these two visions of national identity. The dean of southern history, C. Vann Woodward wrangled with the South’s ability to simultaneously accept defeat and victory, to embrace regional solidarity while touting racial segregation. Woodward found inspiration from Niebuhr in his essay “The Irony of Southern History,” which was the presidential address at the 1953 Southern Historical Association Meeting. Just as Niebuhr contemplated the deceptive nature of American exceptionalism, Woodward described southerners as “blind to evils and imperfections,” unable to fully resolve tragedy and optimism into histories of identity and regionalism. Writing in an era of tremendous social change Woodward critiqued the South’s “suspicious inhospitality toward the new and foreign, a tendency to withdraw from what it felt to be a critical world.” He narrowed Niebuhr’s thesis and focused scorn entirely on the South, but in a follow-up essay entitled “A Second Look at the Theme of Irony,” Woodward recognized the national scale of perceived innocence. The civil rights movement slowly crumbled the white South’s cherished racial dominance, but it also exposed a more alluring tendency to blame the South as counterbalance to American liberal ideals. “The painful truth that Americans were so frantically fleeing,” Woodward suggested, “was that history had at last caught up with them.” That truth, of course, resonated with Reinhold Niebuhr’s dilemma “that power cannot be wielded without guilt [and that] the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.”[9]

Since the time of Niebuhr, King, and Woodward scholars vigorously debated the factors that gave rise to Jim Crow and the dramatic events that eventually ended white supremacy. Reinhold Niebuhr’s towering notoriety in the mid-twentieth century prompted him to act as a social commentator and activist on nearly every pressing issue of the day, and detractors have rightly illustrated his lack of depth and critical insight toward American race relations. Still, his cautious examination of power and history remains an important critique of American democracy. As a new generation of scholars studies the American political tradition, Niebuhr’s ideas will find new meaning. Contemporary explanations rightly underscore racism not simply as a southern problem but one inflicting the entire nation. Regardless of the fault line between scholars of the American South, the imperative to temper judgment occasionally becomes victim to the historian’s own perceived innocence. Interpreting history carries the onus of impartiality, but it also affords the power to convey a moral narrative. Thus, pursuing virtue succumbs to the burden of history, but tragedy nearly always yields hope.

Blake Barton Renfro (M.A., American History, Louisiana State University) is a consultant in national security and defense.

[1] David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse” The New York Times (April 26, 2007); E. J. Dionne, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); John Patrick Diggins, Why Niebuhr Now? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

 [2] Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 1987); Donald Meyer, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919-1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958); Beth Tompkins Bates, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Glimpses of the Southland” The Christian Century (July 16, 1930): 893-895.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sherwood Eddy to Niebuhr. April 2, 1936. Reinhold Niebuhr Papers. Box 4, Folder 6. Library of Congress; John Egerton, Speak Now Against The Day: the Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (New York: Knopf, 1994); Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of the Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1950 (New York: Norton, 2008); Arthur F. Raper and Ira DeAugustine Reid, Sharecropper’s All (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941).

[6] Charles S. Johnson. “Personal Note for Trustees Meeting.” November 1, 1938. Niebuhr Papers. Box 4, Folder 8. Library of Congress.

[7] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1932) and The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1952); Paul Carter, The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel: Social and Political Liberalism in American Protestantism, 1920-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954); Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991).

[8] David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); David W. Southern, Gunnar Myrdal and Black-White Relations: The Use and Abuse of An American Dilemma 1944-1969 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987; Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986).

[9] C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008 edition); James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

This entry was posted in 20th Century, General Commentary, Guest Bloggers. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reinhold Niebuhr and the American South by Blake Barton Renfro

  1. JHW says:

    As befitting the Hon. Mr. Renfro, this piece deftly examines Niebuhr the man and the image; his ideas as well as what others have made of them. Having myself encountered Niebuhr in countless historical works, this article seems especially pertinent now, as historians are earnestly concerning themselves again with the importance of religion and morality in shaping people’s worldviews, past and present. Myself a part of this broader historical trend, I salute Mr. Renfro for his insights and very much look forward to future discussions of the like, with a suitable bourbon and stogy in accompaniment.

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