Petersburg: Race, Religion, and Politics

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Richard and Mildred Loving

I’m writing this in Jamestown, Virginia, on a day trip to see the new archeology work on the colony, which was settled here in 1607. I’m staying in Petersburg, a small city south of Richmond. Petersburg is a market town with railroads. It is the city to which Grant chased Lee, at the end of the Civil War. When Petersburg fell, Lee fled to Appomattox, and surrendered his army a week later.

Petersburg grew as a city before that war, with a population of free blacks. Yes, Virginia had them before the war, but they weren’t allowed to live with the whites and slave blacks in Richmond. So they lived here and prospered. The city had rail lines and factories and shipping businesses. Lee fled here because the rail lines made it a logistics hub for the Confederate war effort.

Lee forced 850 slaves and “free” blacks to build the defensive fortifications around Petersburg against Grant’s siege. 7,800 Union “colored” soldiers died here. And 30,000 confederate soldiers died during the siege of Petersburg. Free or not, these thousands died as the Confederacy clung to the dying dream of riches built on slave labor. Slavery died, but not the racism that justified it.

The Crime of Miscegenation
Today, one of the judges in the Petersburg District Court is Lucretia A. Carrico. Her father, Harry L. Carrico is the Senior Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. In 1966, Harry Carrico wrote the decision for a unanimous Court saying that Richard and Mildred Loving (shown above in 1967) had committed a crime by getting married. Richard Loving was white. Mildred was black.

Virginia prohibited interracial marriage – miscegenation they called it. Justice Carrico wrote that society had an important interest in marriage, and in protecting the institution of marriage from those who would debase it by such awful, evil things as marrying people of different colors.

In 1967, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court reversed Harry Carrico, holding that individuals have a fundamental, individual, deeply personal interest in the institution of marriage. That Court held that humans have a fundamental right to marry, a right that cannot be abrogated by the bigotry of those who want to promote racism despite scientific reality.

The first black settlers arrived in Virginia at Jamestown, in 1619, prisoners aboard a pirate ship that had stolen them as “cargo” from a Portuguese ship carrying them to Portuguese colonies. Historical records for Jamestown show us that at least as late as 1641, black men in Virginia had legal rights and could win cases in Court against whites. But in the 1660s, Virginia stripped legal rights from blacks and defined them as property – legally the same as real estate.

Justifying Slavery
In the 1660s, the purpose of stripping legal rights from blacks was simply economic. They were easy to identify, and the burgeoning plantation economy needed malleable labor. Native Americans, when they escaped forced labor, vanished into the wilderness. English law prohibited the enslavement of Englishmen or Europeans. But Africans, shipped directly from West Africa, didn’t have European legal status. And they were easy to spot, if they fled from plantation or workshop. English law also prohibited the enslavement of Christians. So Virginia made it illegal to teach Christianity to Africans. That removed the sole legal impediment to slavery.

Contemplate that for a minute.

Virginia made it illegal to teach Christianity to blacks, and then made it legal to keep them in slavery because they were “heathen”. Then contemplate the fact that thousands of “Christian” ministers took money from plantation owners in payment for preaching that this way of life had been ordained by God. After all, many Biblical patriarchs owned slaves, and the Bible brags about triumphant Jewish leaders making slaves of their conquered enemies.

The ministers were well paid by the plantation owners, and they ignored the question of whether black people might have opinions about whether slavery was Christian, or Biblical, or Just in simple human terms. Discriminating against an identifiable but unfamiliar group was easy and it was profitable.

Misusing the Bible Today
The transition of blacks from freedom to slavery in the 17th Century isn’t merely history. Today, we find self-proclaimed Christians at the forefront of efforts to impose their religious views on a variety of issues. As with the pro-slavery ministers, when it pays, today’s bigots happily misquote the Bible and work to end the right of anyone to believe differently.

At a national level, John McCain has painted a “Christian” face onto his extremist views. McCain opposes equal pay for equal work, despite the scientific reality of equal abilities. After all, the Bible commands women to be subordinate, deferential, and obedient to men. Sort of like Sarah Palin is deferential and obedient to Karl Rove’s campaign management team.

McCain opposes permitting women to control their own health and reproductive decisions. He doesn’t want women to be able to follow their individual religious beliefs about medical science. Rather, he wants to force all women to be ruled by his religious beliefs.

At the state level, bigots claim Christian justification for their campaign to discriminate against gay marriage. Just as “Christianity,” or its absence, was the excuse given for depriving blacks of their legal rights in the 1660s, a perverse and biblically inaccurate “Christianity” is today offered as the excuse for depriving gays of the legal right to marry.

The people misquoting the Bible to justify the Proposition HATE campaign argue, just like Harry Carrico, that the institution of marriage is too important to allow it to be debased by letting people who love each other get married, if they are the wrong sort of people, despite scientific reality.

Change Happens
But Petersburg was populated, before the Civil War, by free blacks who built successful, family and business lives despite laws which denied their legal existence. And Lucretia Carrico now sits as a judge in Petersburg, Virginia. When her father wrote that society had an important interest in discriminating against racially mixed marriages, she could not have been a judge. Only a few women, with privilege, wealth, and connections could even go to law school. Now, about half of all graduates of U.S. law schools are women. On the day I visited Lucretia Carrico’s courtroom, all the bailiff’s were black, and armed. When Harry Carrico wrote to enforce bigotry, a black man going armed near a courtroom risked his life.

The world evolves. Neither the end of slavery, nor partial integration a century later brought financial ruin. Gay marriage will not bring the end of civilization. Neither equal pay nor freedom of choice will bring God’s wrath.

But global warming may bring any or all of those things. The same people who made fortunes preaching that slavery was ordained by God, and who make fortunes preaching that “He” wants us to discriminate against gays and women, also tell us that global warming is a myth designed to disrupt God’s plan for maximum oil profits.

Proverbs 8:35-36 says “For whoso findeth wisdom findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD. But he that sinneth against wisdom wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate wisdom love death.” Neither John McCain nor the “Christians” to whom he panders quote Proverbs 8 much. Neither do they quote Proverbs 9:11 “By wisdom thy days shall be multiplied, and the years of thy life shall be increased.”

tom_hall_2.jpg This year we are given the choice between four more years of the politics of fear and lies or a real change toward a better world. Hate or hope? Science or pandering? Wisdom or folly – our choice. Our responsibility.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family law attorney. He is originally from Boston, where he grew up in the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quakers), thinking that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people to participate in highly disciplined nonviolent demonstrations (real disciplined nonviolence is just plain maddening to police forces who count on demonstrators giving them reason to get ‘messy’ during public demonstrations). After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make himself a comfortable life. The Bush administration has shocked him back into social concerns. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com

Recent articles by Tom Hall:

  • 08 Sep 2008 Getting Beyond Lies, Personal Attacks, and Evasions with the Palin/McCain Ticket
  • 30 Aug 2008 Proposition HATE
  • 22 Aug 2008 Justice and the Liberal Media
  • 02 Aug 2008 Truth or Consequences
  • 17 Jul 2008 John McCain’s Olympic-Class Flip-Flopping
  • 11 Jul 2008 Jesse and Joe
  • 04 Jul 2008 How Did the Pilgrims Get It So Wrong?
  • 20 Jun 2008 Thoughts on the Anti-Gay Marriage Campaign
  • Published by the LA Progressive on September 13, 2008
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    About Tom Hall

    Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com