A Literary Conversation about Racial Prejudice

By LeRoy Lawson

02_FMB_JNThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Jon Meacham
New York: Random House, 2012

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
Gilbert King
New York: Harper Perennial, 2013

Trivial Pursuits: Why Your Real Life Is More than Media, Money and the Pursuit of Happiness
Ian DiOrio
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014

I often make my way through two or three books at a time, one on my Kindle, one for listening pleasure when grunting my way through morning exercises, and a “real book” with paper pages at the office or home. Sometimes this concurrent reading feels like eavesdropping on a fascinating literary conversation.

That happened recently when 19th-century President Thomas Jefferson and 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall addressed the issue of racial prejudice in America, and a contemporary pastor chimed in that we haven’t outgrown it yet.

Not that this was the dominant theme of Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t. A biography of one of our most scholarly, complex, and driven presidents has too much ground to cover (intellectual pursuits, political intrigues, real estate acquisition and development, the founding of a nation) to tarry long on any one subject. Meacham’s overriding theme, one that encompasses all others, is Jefferson’s grasp for and wielding of power. Today we would say he has control issues—not unlike most other high achievers.

While reading Meacham, I recalled that another noted historian, David McCullough, once started out to write a dual biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but lost interest in Jefferson. He went on instead to write his award-winning John Adams. I applaud his decision. Even as I read Meacham’s excellent treatment of Jefferson, I found it difficult to work up any enthusiasm for his subject. Undoubtedly one of our greatest presidents, with the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Declaration of Independence and the University of Virginia (and much, much more) to his credit, our third president’s image was sullied for this 21st-century reader. I kept thinking of the slave Sally Hemings and her children. And Jefferson’s.

The man who wrote of slavery in 1814, “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity,” was not telling the truth. As Meacham notes, “He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life.” There is now no doubt that his beautiful slave gave birth to several of his children—whom he neither publicly acknowledged nor emancipated. His whole Virginia planter’s life, including his intimate life, depended on slavery.

The Declaration of Independence he penned did not include independence for everybody.

We didn’t talk about Jefferson’s personal slaves when studying the American Revolution in my high school. As a result, my sense of the injustice done to African Americans developed too slowly.

 

Marshaling Justice

I was still a boy in an all-white town in the Northwest when Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP were fighting for justice in the courts for the blacks who were being hunted and lynched in the woods. Slavery had been abolished, but not prejudice. A very long time after independence had been declared, equality remained an unreachable star for America’s largest racial minority.

When Lyndon Johnson named Marshall to the Supreme Court as America’s first African-American justice, all I knew about him was that he had been chief attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove offers a dramatic example of his work. Marshall led the defense of four young black men falsely accused of raping a young white woman. For their noncrime, three were murdered; the fourth barely survived his beating. Then he courageously fought for his freedom through court battles that twice led to the Supreme Court.

His personal legal marathon helped end the terror of white racist “justice” in the South. And Marshall was with him all the way.

Thomas Jefferson was one of America’s most brilliant, highly educated, and sophisticated political leaders. If this man could somehow rationalize treating black men and women as subhuman, it should not surprise us that more than a century later a whole culture still would not treat blacks and whites as equals.

Devil in the Grove won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. The setting is 1949 in Florida’s Lake County, the citrus-rich barony of Willis V. McCall, a stereotypical racist, violence-prone, “I-am-The-Law-here” Southern sheriff in the worst of the pre-Civil Rights era. Rushing to the defense of the romantic if highly unrealistic view of “ideal womanhood,” McCall would do whatever it took to see those “niggers” pay for their crime. Even though they hadn’t done it.

The Ku Klux Klan jumped into the act with the sheriff, as did the state prosecutor and the governor. Against their assembled power, it was thought suicidal for the NAACP attorneys from New York to represent the surviving defendant. But they went. Later the FBI joined the investigation. After it was over, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson declared the event of the Groveland Boys as “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”

From the presidency to the swamps: the American struggle to provide “liberty and justice for all” has had to face every enemy, including the one poisoning the prejudicial hearts of our countrymen.

This was a tough conversation to listen in on.

 

Adopting a Better View

More “coincidence”? At the close of the North American Christian Convention last year, Ian DiOrio quietly handed me a copy of his book Trivial Pursuits. I didn’t know very much about him (even though he graduated from Hope International University, where I used to work), a deficit I hope to correct. My good friend and former colleague at Hope, Dr. Joe Grana, has long spoken of Ian (his son-in-law) with pride; but I left California years ago, and it’s in California that this young pastor and wife have been making their mark for Christ.

Trivial Pursuits impressed me for several reasons:

The author reads. Evidence of his commendable pursuit of knowledge can be found on almost every page.

He thinks. He doesn’t just drop names from his “book-larning,” but he has read the authors he quotes and assimilated the best of their insights into his own.

He remembers. He came from the dark side, he says, where as a nightclub DJ he pursued the trivia (media, money, happiness) he writes about. He has experienced firsthand the difference between lost and saved.

He loves. He loves his family, his Lord, his church. Check up on him on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. It really pleases me that he has succeeded another good friend, Don Hinkle, in the pastorate of Yucaipa (California) Christian Church. He will bless this congregation.

He sees through . . . the shallowness and confusion of America’s celebrity worshipping/money-mad/me-first-before-anybody-else culture. . . . Through the gradual slipping of the church toward the entertainment industry. All the way through to the “pursuit of wholeness” that will bring back to their proper prominence the Scriptures, the sacred, the real.

So why did I write “coincidence” above? The first two books trace America’s sordid history of slavery and racial prejudice. Well into this book, DiOrio writes about his three little adopted children—of African-American descent. This father can never again be dispassionate about how minority persons are treated, because that’s the category into which the young people he loves the most are too often thoughtlessly lumped. He devotes only a few pages to this subject, but in light of the books on Thomas Jefferson and Thurgood Marshall, they are enough to remind us the struggle isn’t over.

 

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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