R&P: As the subtitle states, your book is a sweeping survey of the American church’s complicity in racism. To your mind, what constitutes complicity?
Jemar Tisby: The book opens with the story of four girls who died when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Shortly after that event, a white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. got up in front of an all-white business club and gave an address in which he asked who was responsible for throwing that bomb. In answer to his own question, he said, “We all did it.”
He went on to explain that every time that the white community—especially Christians—failed to confront racism in its everyday, mundane forms, they created a context of compromise that allowed for an extreme act of racial terror like planting dynamite at a church. That’s the idea of complicity. It’s not that every Christian was a foaming-at-the-mouth racist hurling racial slurs and burning crosses on peoples’ lawns. It’s that when they had the opportunity to intervene in everyday ways, they chose complicity over confrontation, and this enabled a larger atmosphere of racial compromise.
R&P: Though some American Christians were enthusiastically racist and others were anti-racist, most just accepted racist institutions. To what extent are we free to judge that, and to what extent do we have to accept them as products of their time?
JT: I think some would argue that most of those who I am identifying as complicit in racism were merely men and women of their time. But I would respond that the abolitionists and civil rights activists and others who struggled for black freedom were also men and women of their time. So it’s not as though Christians—particularly white Christians—didn’t know there were alternatives. It’s that they must have had some investment in maintaining the status quo, or that they had some fear of what other people would say or what they would risk if they stood up for racial equality.
R&P: Was the situation in the South markedly different from that in the North?
JT: A lot of people like to point a finger at the South and say, “Those are the real racists.” The implication is that there is no comparable problem in the Midwest or the West coast or the Northeast. But the reality is much more complicated than that.