I was 48 years old the first time I heard a white Southern minister mention the Battle of the Colfax Courthouse. It’s as crucial to a Southern identity as The Alamo is to the story of Texas, but no one talks about Colfax.
In 1873, a white paramilitary force attacked freed slaves defending the elected government of Louisiana at the Colfax County Courthouse. Outnumbered and outgunned, the freedmen surrendered and were slaughtered on Easter Sunday. It was the first major victory in the counter-Reconstruction that spread across South, allowing whites to reestablish much of the Antebellum racial order. Good white church folk with a Bible in one hand and their “2nd Amendment remedies” in the other did their bloody work without conscience or mercy.
Under isolation from the wider Christian community and bent by violent pressure from plantation owners, a unique slaveholder religion evolved to dominate the South. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. In the forge of slavery and Jim Crow, a Christian message of courage, love, compassion, and service to others was stunted. For generations, messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race or challenged the power of property owners could not be taught from a pulpit at risk of life and limb. That theological legacy has yet to be confronted or reconstructed.
Former Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, writes of the painful “doublethink” necessary to survive under totalitarian oppression. He describes it as a psychological cleaving between the world as observed by our senses and the reality imposed by a violent, oppressive regime. Relentless pressure to maintain enthusiastic public belief in patent falsehoods creates dissonance that strains sanity. Wilson-Hartgrove describes this dissonance, played out among well-meaning white Americans for centuries, as “shriveled heart syndrome.”
Slavery is an act of war. You can’t maintain it without violence. If black people were to be kept in slavery, they had to become the enemy. That meant cutting off any empathy that arose from witnessing the suffering of a fellow human being. But you can’t shut up compassion in a human heart one minute and then go back to normal the next….Generations of committing an act of war against a group of people would have to have equally long consequences. But we’ve hardly known how to name them. Just as laws and custom are passed down, one generation to the next, shriveled heart syndrome has become part of white people’s shared inheritance.
This is the toll of “whiteness” and its essential moral compromises. Generation after generation, it degrades compassion. As time passes, the reasons and origins of this moral degradation are forgotten, but habit, culture, religion and economics perpetuate an atrophy of the soul. Though many white Americans recoil in horror at any honest confrontation of our racial history, Wilson-Hartgrove explains what they have to gain from a reckoning.