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Welcome to Left/Right, the third of four special issues to mark the twenty-fifth year of Southern Cultures. Backward/Forward and Inside/Outside are now behind us; Here/Away will cap the series. This time, our good friend Joseph Crespino, distinguished historian at Emory University, has come forward as our guest editor and we are deeply grateful for his wisdom and vision. Our chosen themes were deliberately open-ended but pointed to the changes and continuities that have swept the South since Southern Cultures first began. I was not sure what we would receive, but I expected a flood of essays about politics and policy, the environment, gender, and economic controversy. Instead, several writers brought us back to the ancient polarities of race and faith.
As political labels, “Left” and “Right” date to the French Revolution and describe seating arrangements that reflected support or opposition for revolutionary measures in the National Assembly. It’s been a long time since southerners debated monarchy and the like, but we still grapple with the revolution that swept over us after the Brown decision of 1954. As in France of the 1790s, sympathy for our own revolution has generally defined the modern South’s “Left”; from strident opposition to quiet misgivings, the opposite tendency has marked our “Right.” As also in France, our feelings about the sacred have deeply affected our feelings about social revolution, so it should not be surprising that so many of us define “Left” and “Right” in terms of race and faith together.
Joe Crespino introduces the issue by recalling Atlanta’s response to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. In lieu of a “community conversation” or a spate of social programs, the City Too Busy to Hate sought racial harmony in its biggest baseball stadium, through a passion play about the final days of Jesus that featured fake beards, costumes, and a black Christ. Five months after King’s tragic death, fifty thousand black and white spectators turned out, longing for the blessed assurance, so badly needed in 1968, that evangelical Christianity could bring them together when almost nothing else could. In the coming years, race and religion would divide Atlantans and other southerners far more deeply than they were briefly united that September evening. Obliquely, Crespino asks how these twin forces could be so powerful in that context. And how did they also lead us into that bitter tribalism we suffer from today? Each in their own way, our other authors struggle with the same question.
In “Reckoning with Southern Baptist Histories,” Alison Collis Greene opens her exploration of religion and racism by asking why she was once put in blackface for a “gratuitous” and “absurd” scene in a church pageant. Like many academic institutions, she reports, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently acknowledged its relationship to slavery and racial oppression, from its founding in 1859 to a 1964 visit by a fellow Baptist from another universe, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As puzzled by the omission of the [End Page 2] seminary’s more recent history as she was by her blackface memories, Greene investigated. Here, she draws a web of connections between the role of slavery in dividing southern from northern Baptists in 1845, in founding Southern Seminary on the eve of the Civil War, in inspiring the church’s conservative turn and support for segregation in the 1960s, and in moving it into the Christian Right today.
Angela Pulley Hudson takes us to a different and frequently neglected dimension of the South’s racial history and the region’s diverse Native American communities. Prompted by a student question, I once asked a North Carolina history class how many thought they had Indian ancestors. About a third of the class raised their hands. Today, the presence of Latinx students might make the proportions even higher, yet standard history courses often limit indigenous peoples to quick mentions of Pocahontas, Powhatan, and Indian Removal. Hudson rightly criticizes this tokenism...