Earlier this week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) went to bat for the children of Mississippi by demanding an investigation into the school-sanctioned prayer walks that are happening in DeSoto County, Mississippi. FFRF wants proof that teachers and administrators are not unlawfully promoting religious indoctrination, and they want a public apology from the teachers and school administrators proselytizing at these events.
According to Dallas Gore, the principal at Bruce High School in Bruce, Mississippi, he and the other teachers promoting these prayer walks simply want to “change the culture of the school” for the better. He believes these walks are successful because children’s minds are so “moldable” and “still impressionable.”
The population of Bruce is 1,887, and there are more than 100 churches listed in or near the town. Incidentally, Bruce is located just a short drive from Elaine, Arkansas, where the infamous Elaine Massacre happened in 1919.
As much of the country reels from the rising voices of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups and witnesses the eruptions of violence across the South, I can’t help but wonder what exactly the educators in Bruce, Mississippi, are prompting their children to pray for as they walk.
I grew up just 150 miles west of Bruce, in rural south Arkansas. In my little town, which was twice as big as Bruce and just as poor, our churches and our schools touted the same religious dogma and had many of the same leaders. Together, they taught us that evolution was a lie and creationism was true science; that the separation of the races was God’s will—we were never intended to live together and we certainly weren’t equal; that educational integration was the reason for the failure of schools in the United States; and that being seen fraternizing with “blacks” would damage our reputations and we would be called N-lovers or worse. The first clear memory I have of a racist event happened in public kindergarten. It was my first day and I saw a little girl, who was African American, crying at her desk. I went over and put my arms around her. My mortified mother pulled me away and told me not to play with her again.
My parents employed an African-American woman to take care of my siblings and me until I was in high school. We loved her like a mother. She played with us, sang to us, scolded us, and even traveled with my family on summer vacations. But she wasn’t allowed to come to my church to hear my choir solo. “She’s black,” my parents told me. “She has to go to her own church.” It was 1986.
The Christian educators in my small town tried to mold my impressionable mind too, with white prayers in white churches worshiping a white god and praying for a white society. It’s forgotten all too often, but the religious right as we know it formed in the South as a direct reaction to the civil rights movement, and its purpose was to use “Jesus” as a cover story to resist desegregation.
Mississippi maintains a reputation for being one of the most racist states in the Union. In Charlottesville during last Saturday’s violence, an altered version of the Mississippi flag with a Ku Klux Klan message on it was waved in the streets, prompting renewed calls for changing the state’s banner. Separating church and state in the South is hard enough when the lines between them are upheld and enforced by organizations like FFRF or the American Humanist Association. Erase and soften those lines and the minds of our children are at great risk.
Randall Balmer, in his Politico article, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” points to the discrimination case, Green v. Kennedy, as the true beginning of the religious right movement. In 1969 a group of African-American parents in Mississippi sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only private schools from securing full tax-exempt status. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Men like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones (who actually argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible), and Paul Weyrich used that moment to galvanize the anger of evangelical community.
Hate is learned, just like the 1958 song says. It’s got to be “drummed in our dear little ears,” and when better to do this than when our minds are young and impressionable. For those of us who grew up in poor, rural, religious America, a prayer walk at school is not an inclusive, interfaith walk. It isn’t a civil rights march either. This is why, in addition to so many other reasons, the separation of church and state is so necessary. A school that teaches racism is breaking the law. A church that promotes racism in a prayer or Sunday school is not. We can’t control what parents teach their children at home, but we can regulate what our public schools are teaching them. And at least that gives these children and our nation a fighting chance.