In the wake of the Parkland, FL school shooting, another angry white supremacist male is at the center of controversy. What drives them? I think I know how to find out and provide a possible cure for the malady. The ironic thing is that the participants in a 1930s epiphany of equality were dirt poor farmers who had little more than a fourth grade education. The Fifth Sunday movement united black and white congregations in our past. For a few times a year, the epiphany that all of us are humans shined brightly, even in rural Southwestern Missouri where my father comes from.
My dad was raised on a farm not far from the town of Mansfield in the Missouri Ozarks. What is surreal about this man is that he chose my middle name after Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Like so many working class whites in the South, he was fed the revised version of Confederate history as the lost cause. This idolization of the “lost cause” fought against a far off government in Washington, D.C. never ended with the Civil War. While the Army of Northern Virginia never made it to Mansfield, the significance of the Civil War and the humiliation of its top general weighs heavily upon the minds of Missouri residents. Although the state is technically in the Midwest, it is definitely Southern and was only barely held in the Union as so many other border states were. The terrible history of the Civil War has been revised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to make the “lost cause” a continuing shame that the people of Missouri feel personally, yet are strangely proud of at the same time. They wear the defeat heavily.
Really, my father and his brothers are very typical angry white males. My Dad is taken in by populists and Christian Evangelical religion which are by their very nature anti-establishment. He has dementia now, so I don’t know if he voted for Trump, but he voted for George Wallace in 1968, 1972 and 1976 and Ronald Reagan both times in 1980 and 1984. Evangelical figures such as Pat Robertson, a figure that my father admires very much, have egged on the forces of reaction for some four decades. In a strange way, the memory of the Civil War, Evangelical religion and white counter reaction mix together in a pressure cooker in a stew.
The Civil War is as basic as beef or potatoes to this stew. In many ways, the Civil War did not begin in Ft. Sumter, South Carolina, but rather in the Western border area of Kansas and the Missouri Ozarks. Missouri border ruffians sharpened their claws in the bloody Kansas Civil War from 1854 on. In reality, “bleeding Kansas” was the dress rehearsal for the Civil War and provided the War in Missouri with its particular savagery.
Confederate regular forces were subdued by the Union Army in a little more than a year by March of 1862. However, savage guerilla war raged until 1865. Its most famous guerilla “bushwhacker” was Jesse James, the most successful disciple of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s guerilla school of some eighty Missouri raiders that turned the state inside out. Bloody Bill had taught his star pupil Jesse the fine points of atrocities including beheadings, disembowelments, scalpings and shooting the opponent in the back.
Unfortunately, my family started down this path. My great great grandfather Robert Thomas Rodgers started a savage family tradition when he shot a man over a piece of land he was speculating upon in his native Louisville, Kentucky. Fleeing the state and dropping the “d” out of the name, he married my Cherokee great great Grandmother in Southern Indiana. In 1883, he moved to the St. Louis area where he made a good fortune in buying and selling land in places around St. Louis where suburbs such as St. Charles now exist. With the crash of 1929, he lost 90 percent of his money and died a poor man at 86 on his farm in Ava, MO.
There is a descendent of his who seems to have taken up the family tradition with a vengeance. I have an uncle is who is the very embodiment of Jesse James without murder. He’s been shot, stabbed in bar fights, jumped off of a bridge into a river for the Hell of it and served time in local, county and state jails in Missouri and Oklahoma. As a Northern Illinois University student in the 1980s on a trip to see my grandmother, I was tempted to tell him that he got his black curly hair from black slaves who had married Cherokee ancestors. Wisely, I visualized my butt getting kicked, so I kept my mouth shut. Go figure, I thought he was Jesse James and Confederate crazy. Was it the dive off the bridge that drove Cecil Lavelle “Butch” Rodgers (he put the “d” back in the name) over the edge or something in his heart and soul?
To see my Dad (although my Dad is a milder example) and my uncle Cecil, you would think that they were always raised this way and that there was never a break in the family tradition. This could never be further from the truth.
My grandpa Edgar Woodrow Rogers (yes, he was named after Woodrow Wilson) was the most loving man you ever met. Born in a cabin in Mountain Home, Arkansas, he lived through the Great Depression and was a local county legend known for his kindness. In the Great Depression, 6 million Americans died of malnutrition. While he was a farmer and always seemed to have food, it was a big deal to feed strangers and put people up for the night when you had a bunch of kids. If there wasn’t room in the tiny four room farmhouse where the kids were three to a bed, there was always a welcome cot in the smokehouse.
At 13, Edgar got measles. In those days there were no antibiotics and he lost most of his hearing. This got him out of the draft in World War II with a 4F when he went in front of the draft board. He preferred having his hearing aids off most of the time because he didn’t like gossip.
His father, Rue Rogers suffered much more. In the 1920’s, a wagon accident left him without a leg up to the hip. On his one crutch, he helped my grandma Roxie with as many chores as he could. Additionally, he took up being an itinerant Pentecostal preacher who read his King James Bible through a total of nine times, no mean feat for a man with a fourth grade education.
While my great grandfather may have simply reacted against his father’s youthful violence, I think more was at hand. What makes Rue Rogers such an interesting man to me and where I think that he and my grandpa Edgar got their kindness may have been in the “fifth Sunday meetings” where they worshipped in a service with the black church. In every month with 5 Sundays there would be a worship service that was multiracial on the fifth Sunday of the month. The Gospel of poverty preached in the black church may not only have liberated the souls of black folk. My grandfather and great grandfather also found solace and redemption therein.
I don’t think I need to tell you how revolutionary the meetings were in the Depression and afterwards. As a tour guide with Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company, I asked an old black driver how this came about because I couldn’t find anything on the internet about it. He said the preachers, black and white, got together all over the South and organized the services. Even my dad was impressed by this. Undoubtedly, Rue was in his element and shined spiritually. Edgar caught the spirit too. Truly, everyone was equal. No one needed to tell Rue about equal rights in the Gospels. He and his son lived this in their daily lives. Their prayers and good intentions provided results, not platitudes. They did not treat any of their black or white brothers and sisters like dirt. Rather, they treated them like gold, at least on those magical Sundays, although my grandfather would share what little he had with any human.
Unfortunately, the family moved to Goodman in McDonald County, about 60 miles from Joplin, Missouri, near the heart of the racist border area near Kansas in the West of the state. My father went to high school there in the 50’s and said the Ku Klux Klan was active and that a black person did not let the sun set on their heads there. He had seen only one black couple there in his entire time there in school. Their car had broken down. While their vehicle was getting serviced, they bought a thermos of coffee and some sandwiches to go, leaving as soon as the repair was completed.
The family returned to Mansfield to the old farm in the 1960’s, but the bacillus of racism had crept its way into my dad and his brothers. Doubtless, the time in Goodman was damaging for them. Even the older brothers who were taken to the interracial services were affected. The changes of the 1950s and 1960s in racial dynamics and the conservative backlash in the wake of Wallace’s 1968 presidential bid completed the damage.
Can the sickness of racism be reversed again in the mind of whites? It was for a couple of shining decades in my own Dad’s family. Many white folks are Evangelical Christians. They do have a conscience and need negative propaganda to make them forget it and dehumanize others. Perhaps legislation is not enough. There is a spiritual sickness at the heart of the problem of the angry white male. While many Americans doubt the existence of a creator, many have no doubt that there is and that there is a Devil. For them, their Sunday school marks the beginning of either a positive spiritual influence or a fundamentalist hatred. It is the only barrier between many and the animal within.
While it would be naïve to think that bringing blacks and whites together in houses of worship once in a while would solve everything, it is a good place to start. It is harder to dehumanize the person in the same building with you or next to you. Perhaps reading the Gospels in such a context will illustrate the value of treating someone in the congregation as a brother and sister rather than like a pile of dirt. It did work for Martin Luther King, but he wasn’t alone. The fifth Sunday salvation provided an entire army. Perhaps combining this approach and building on the Sanctuary Movement would provide a template for hope and moving forward.
Ok my brothers and sisters. Go and do thou likewise. Be better. All of you.