Theology Feed

The Superior Individual

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"Preachers, teachers, leaders , welfare workers ought to address themselves to the supreme task of teaching the entire [African-American] race to glorify what it has--its face (its color); its place (its homes and communities); its grace (its spiritual endowment)," wrote Nannie H. Burroughs the founding leader of the Women's Convention Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention and one of the founders of the Black Social Gospel in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition.  I'm glad to have discovered Burroughs through this book.

Of her Dorrien writes, "Burroughs brushed off conservative male constraints and middle-class family conventions, stressing something that made her controversial in the National Baptist Convention (feminist ideology), something that defined her career (the dignity of working-class women's labor), and something that defined her denomination (race pride)."

The annual women's convention were largely made up of working class women, domestics in particular.  "Women came to the convention to be inspired by each other and to draw strength for the fight against poverty and abuse."  The auxiliary was organized to counter the sexism in the church, this despite the fact that, according to Burroughs, "The women are carrying the burden. . . .  They've made possible all we have around us--church, home, school, business."

She taught that working class African-American women were morally superior to most people, particularly white people. "Let us at all time and on all occasions remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual."

She believed in an active church.: "If a congregation did nothing to improve the life of its community, it had not business being a church and no community should support it."  In churches there was "too much Heaven and too little practical Christian living."  She advocated the teaching of moral character.

She was called "the female Booker T. Washington" but Dorrien notes that she sided with DuBois on the need for protest politics.  He writes that "respectability and social justice politics fit together for Burroughs."  Then he quotes Evelyn Brooks Higginbothm in discussing Burroughs, "The politics of respectability, while emphasizing self-help strategies and intra-group reform, provided the platform from which black church women came to demand full equality with white America."

This historical fact made me wonder two things: 1) since church women were so essential to the civil rights marches and protests, Burroughs role is probably significantly underestimated; and 2) when I was taught about the Washington-DuBois debate in tenth grade American history, how interesting it would have been to also learn about Burroughs feminist synthesis of the two.

Like many of these early 20th century theologians, she anticipated movements from later in the century.  For instance, "I believe it is the Negro's sacred duty to spiritualize American life and popularize his own color instead of worshipping the color (or lack of color) of another race."

Burroughs advocated natural color and natural hair, long before that became a trend.  However, she was also against interracial marriage and jazz music.  She thought that the latter would demoralize people and lure them away from holy living.

Like many black leaders of her era, she was a Republican.  She was also a sharp critic of the New Deal.  Dorrien writes, "The Democratic Party, to her, became a perfect nightmare under Roosevelt, still dedicated to racist barriers in the South, but now committed to coddling an underclass of dependents."  She equated the welfare programs with "moral slavery."

But she also understood the need for revolution.  When Harlem explored in 1935 she wrote "They have been goaded, hounded, driven around, herded, held down, kicked around and roasted alive.  In Harlem the cornered rats fought back."

I enjoyed this point--"She waved off the 'great noise about the race problem,' countering that there was no such thing.  There was only the fact that white Americans treated black Americans despicably."  A nice, straightforward cutting to the point.

She was also not naive, writing "Yes, we are living in a dark period and it is going to be worse for a while, but I believe that God will lead his people through."

I definitely want to learn more about Nannie Burroughs.


Advancement through Education

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"For the majority that established the National Baptist Convention, the church was a refuge from a hostile white society. Black Baptists used the philosophy of self-help to survive Jim Crow, preaching a gospel of advancement through education," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of the sixth chapter of The New Abolition in which he tells the story of the Baptists (chapter five having covered the Methodists).

He begins with William Simmons, who was president of State University (later Simmons University) in Kentucky beginning in 1880 who was a preacher, academic, activist, and journalist.  He wrote, "If the industrial craze be not watched, our literary institutions will be turned into workshops and our scholars into servants and journeymen.  Keep the literary and industrial apart.  Let the former be stamped deeply so it will not be mistaken.  We need scholars."

And Dorrien writes that he was a "feminist activist" recognizing "that women, if organized, could be a source of creativity and power in the church."  This was obviously controversial in the 1880's.  

He was critical of a religion that did not engage the wider society and believed that "Black Baptists were failing at their Christian social ethical mission precisely because they did not work hard enough at attaining power in American society."

Like many of these theologians, he advocated for racial pride and the contributions of African Americans.  He believed they "must possess more intellectual vigor than any other section of the human family or else who could they be crushed as slaves in all these years since 1620, and yet today stand side by side with the best blood in America."

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Dorrien also discusses E. C. Morris, another of the founders of the National Baptist Convention.  Morris was a pastor in Helena, Arkansas.  I have visited his grave there.  Local leaders were trying to restore the gravesite and the historic black cemetery which had fallen into neglect and ruin.  

Morris believed that black Baptists were capable of freeing "the millions bound in heathen darkness" because they had already in a short time risen from slavery to vitality.

One reason African Americans had to form their own denominations was the supremacist attitude of white Christians.  Dorrien quotes the Rev. J. W. Ford, a white Baptist, speaking before the American Baptist Home Mission Society in St. Louis in 1890 in which he denounced an effort by the denominational press to publish black ministers.  He thought black ministers should tell their congregations "how to behave and where they belonged."  If they couldn't be trusted to do that then, "The alternative is to elevate or exterminate, to use the Bible or bullet.  There is either one or the other of these alternatives for the black man of the South.  A great national peril calls for a great national movement."  My skin crawls reading this vile filth.


The Free Spirit

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Want to quote in full this paragraph from Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition.

As far as DuBois could see, the only Americans who practiced way-of-Christ humility and nonviolence were black Americans.  White Americans asserted themselves and took possession, Du Bois observed.  This was understandable as a rebound from European oppression; moreover, he appreciated that white Americans built up a vital, bustling, prosperous nation.  On the other hand, white American self-assertion was "in many of its aspects a dangerous and awful thing.  It hardens and hurts our souls, it contradicts our philanthropy and religion."  Black Americans had a gift to offer in this area.  It was the gift that black folk had long offered to the New World: "Thus, in singular and fine sense, the slave became master, the bond servant became free, and the meek not only inherited the earth, but made that heritage a thing of questing for eternal youth, of fruitful labor, of joy and music, of the free spirit, and of the ministering hand of wide and poignant sympathy with men in their struggle to live and love, which is, after all, the end of being."


Christ Our Conqueror

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Alexander Walters, a bishop in the AME Zion church and one of the founders of the NAACP who was born into slavery, "saw the churches had untapped ability to change society," according to Gary Dorrien.   His career was spent trying to organize a civil rights movement, and he marshaled his theological views to do so.  Dorrien writes:

For Walters, the love ethic of Jesus was perfect, transforming, and universal.  Christ was 'the inspirer of all the reform movements of the world.' Thus Christianity, rightly understood, was essentially progressive, a river of progress. . . . It would probably take another two thousand years for Christianity to reach its highest development and 'conquer all evils,' he figured: 'Christ our conqueror is riding on gloriously and has the ages before Him.'"

Walters preached that "The whole plan of salvation is the complete restoration of mankind to the image of God.  Purity of life is one of the indispensable requisites for happiness and effectual service."

Preachers should teach how Jesus lived--"His self-denial, His meekness, His purity, His blameless life, His spirit of prayer, His submission to divine will, His patience in suffering, His forgiveness of His enemies, His tenderness to the afflicted, the weak and the tempted, and the manner of His death."

In response to their unjust treatment by white people, black Christians needed to learn to agitate--"By wise agitation I mean an intelligent, reasonable, yet manly presentation of the discrimination and outrages to which we are subjected." Had he lived to see the Civil Rights Movement, he probably would have been proud.


"The last spiritual reserves of humanity"

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"To be serious about abolishing racial caste, the new abolitionists had to reach deep into religious communities through which millions of Americans made moral and spiritual sense of their lives," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of chapter 5 of The New Abolition. In the last chapter, he discussed the founding of the NAACP, now he backs up a few decades to discuss developments in Black Methodism (chapter six covers key figures and events for Black Baptists).  

He introduces Reverdy Ransom.  At his funeral W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed "He has erected a monument in the history of African Methodism, America, and the world which shall last throughout time and history."  Yet, as Dorrien writes, "Ransom was almost completely forgotten" in the histories of the early civil rights movement.  Dorrien wants to recover him as one of the primary creators of the Black Social Gospel which gave birth to the religious movement for civil rights in the 20th century.

Ransom was born in 1861 "the only child of a powerful, loving woman who assured him he was 'let down from the skies.'"  And he rose to become a bishop in the AME Church.  His mother encouraged education as the way to solve the problem of poverty.

Ransom was one of the first black ministers to begin speaking out about social issues and supporting the anti-lynching movement.  Dorrien writes, "He warned that America could not be truly civilized and savagely terrorize blacks at the same time."

He believed that African-Americans offered a hope for Christianity and the nation.  African-Americans' "deep emotional nature will be the foe of tyranny and oppression and as a religious vehicle will carry the triumph of the King of Kings into the seats of pride and power, and over the dark and barren regions of the globe."

He was a powerful preacher, growing each parish he served through his eloquence and the relevance of his content.  He also guided his churches during the period of the Great Migration, when rural, Southern blacks were flooding northern, industrial cities.  His churches developed many social programs, and he and his wife "shared the life of the urban poor."  Ransom asked the churches, "Shall we sit smug and comfortable in our large churches, or go forth with Jesus Christ into the highways and seek for the sheep that are lost until we find them?"  

When he preached out against gambling; the racketeers dynamited his church.  So the next Sunday he preached "holding a loaded revolver underneath his Bible, taunting from the pulpit, 'Dynamite and violence are a poor answer to an argument.'"

Speaking to the National Reform Convention on the topic of "How Should the Christian State Deal with the Race Problem?" he proclaimed, "There should be no Race Problem in the Christian State."  For "Jesus broke down barriers, treating all human beings alike as human beings."  He denounced Jim Crow as a crime  against "the very life of human spirit" and also unChristian.  He declared that "Christianity will un-Christ itself" if it continued on this white supremacist path.

He advocated a pride of personality "Grounded in the recognition of the divine light within each soul, 'this pride becomes the highest form of meekness which inherits the earth and the heaven, too.'"  Encouraged by the Harlem Renaissance, Ransom declared that "In the highest and best sense, the black people are the only free people in the United States today" because white people were "chained to their prejudices."  Dorrien writes that "Ransom urged that blacks were called to bring white racists to repentance through Christian love, nonviolent protest, and scholarship."  He thought black people were America's conscience and contributed the "peaceable gifts of black soulfulness."  And "Black Christianity modeled what it looked like to take the teaching of Christ to heart."

In 1930 he preached that the white man "only yields or compromises in the face of aggressive, determined, uncompromising power" and never "out of charity or religious feeling."

In 1933 he declared that the white races had failed, they had lost their soul in the oppression of black people.  Therefore, "The African and his descendants are the last spiritual reserves of humanity."

He died in 1959, having long outlived his period of prime influence, dying just as the movement he helped to birth began to achieve the salvation of the country as he had envisioned.

 Incarnate Spirit of Justice was the last post in this series.


What Are People For?

What are People for?: EssaysWhat are People for?: Essays by Wendell Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first encountered Wendell Berry in freshman English at OBU. The essay we read seems to be in this volume, "Word and Flesh" (at least this essay makes the same points I remember from 1992). At the time I disagreed with him, particularly that problems, including environmental problems, cannot be approached globally but can only be addressed locally.

I came back to Berry near the turn of the millennium, when I read his poetry and fell in love. The poetry invited me into the essays, and Berry has been one of the most significant influence on my thought.

But his ideas are rarely easy for me. In fact, they are quite difficult. He is not a writer I read for confirmation of my own ideas, but to convict and challenge me. Whenever I read him, I am reminded of my hypocrisies and moral failures.

Back in 2004 I considered following Berry's advice and abandoning my life and career and moving to a poor small town to become a teacher and grow much of my own food. I didn't do that. I came out, and gay life led in a very different direction. Though I did have friends who did something of the sort.

It is exciting in 2017 to see Berry's influence for good upon our culture--the local food movement, more sustainable agriculture, more awareness about food ethics, the various craft movements, etc.

This is one of the essay collections I had long planned to get to. It seems particularly apt in our Age of Trump, even if the essays are from the 70's and 80's. What Berry was warning us about has come to fruition.

I marked up this volume like my adolescent Bible. I will return to it often.

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Incarnate Spirit of Justice

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Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois did not immediately part ways after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois was critical of Bookerism.  In fact, DuBois taught at Tuskegee that summer.  But part ways they did in the year after the book came out.  The particular details are complicated, but Gary Dorrien interprets the division broadly as one between DuBois' embrace of "the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus" and Washington's participation in the commercialism of the age.  Dorrien writes,

The age proclaimed that the greatness of the nation was its money; thus, religion, politics, and education became devoted to moneymaking.

Yet DuBois "believed in 'Liberty for all men' to live, vote, and associate 'as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.'"  While Washington "became preeminent by promising a cheap and docile labor force to New South capitalists."

And so DuBois organized the Niagara movement.

The Niagara Movement demanded full manhood suffrage, "and we want it now, henceforth and forever."  It demanded the abolition of discrimination in public accomodation, the right to social freedom, and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor, capitalists and laborers, and whites and blacks. 

They declared that black people "have the right to know, to think, to aspire."

Their meeting at Harper's Ferry drew on the legacy of John Brown. They declared, "We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right."

That year saw rioting and lynching in Texas and Georgia.  DuBois composed "A Litany of Atlanta" in response in which he questioned of God, "Is this Thy justice, O Father?"  Here are the searingly powerful lines:

Surely Thou too are not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing? . . . Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words.  Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul's soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

Beautiful!

This has been my favorite chapter yet in the book The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. Any student of church history knows that the theology of the early ecumenical councils or of the Protestant Reformation was worked out in a complex mix of discourse and action weighted by politics.  This chapter, which details the difficult and complicated organizational work that led to the NAACP, reads similarly, as the process by which a theology is developed in the midst of real world activity.

"Liberty and Equality" was the previous post in this series.


Liberty & Equality

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W. E. B. Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (our family visited his birthsite there last year) where he did not experience the racial discrimination common in other places in the country.  When he did later in life it was such a shock to him.  Gary Dorrien writes of the importance of Congregationalism in Du Bois development:

New England Puritanism pressed deep into his mind, persuading Du Bois that truth is a moral absolute transcending mere data.  Though Du Bois shucked off New England theism after he got to college, he never relinquished its belief that liberty is the conformity of one's will to moral duty.

Even as a young man Du Bois experienced a sense of call--"I rejoice as a strong man to run a race, and I am strong--is it egotism--is it assurance--or is it the silent call of the world spirit that makes me feel that I am royal and that beneath my scepter a world of kings shall bow."

Dorrien points out two of Du Bois's early contributions to sociology--he discussed "the moral corruption of the nation in its hallowed constitutional beginning" and he "conceived the color line in international terms."  

Du Bois's overriding question was "What  does it feel like to be treated as a problem?"  Dorrien writes that Du Bois wanted a Hegelian synthesis of what he had gained from black and white experience.  He writes, "Du Bois had a vision of black and white joining together to create a nation based on human equality and freedom."

The radical change for Du Bois came when he moved to Atlanta and experienced "naked hostility."  Dorrien writes, "Du Bois could not produce calm social science when African Americans were being brutalized and lynched."  And then personal tragedy struck.  His two-year-old son became ill and no white physician would treat him.  There were only three black physicians in Atlanta and Du Bois was unsuccessful in reaching.  The boy died before he could be treated.

Du Bois was not initially a critic of Booker T. Washington's.  Dorrien writes, "Du Bois recognized that Washington walked a daily tightrope merely to survive in Alabama, and he knew that Washington was not as accommodating as his cagey speeches to white audiences."  What ultimately led him to criticize Washington was the latter's influence. 

Du Bois believed that Up from Slavery was not the book that African Americans needed to survive the upsurge of lynching and repression, and he shuddered at Washington's growing eminence. The latter factor was decisive.  It was terrible enough that blacks were terrorized and oppressed.  Even worse was that violent white repression was becoming taken for granted, so normalized that white politicians and clergy did not feel compelled to apologize for it.  Du Bois saw it happening in Atlanta.  He despaired that colleagues treated Washington as the final word on racial politics.  The tyranny of Bookerism was degrading and suffocating; Du Bois later recalled, "Things came to such a pass that when any Negro complained or advocated a course of action, he was silenced with the remark that Mr. Washington did not agree with this."  So Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk.

 My previous post in this series was on Alexander Crummell and his christology and his influence upon Du Bois.


"The redemptive, humanizing influence of Christ"

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In his lengthy (almost 100 pages) chapter on the conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, Gary Dorrien takes a detour to discuss Alexander Crummell, whom DuBois met at Wilberforce and was a mentor and influence on his development.   Here is Dorrien's opening description of Crummell:

Alexander Crummell was an Episcopal priest, an intellectual, an Anglophile, and a former missionary and Liberian nationalist.  Like many black nationalists, he was an authoritarian collectivist and racial separatist, in his case with a social gospel theology, a puritanical/Victorian moral code, an American Federalist political philosophy, a romantic idealistic racialism, and a deep admiration for Plato.

What a complex description!

Crummell is one of the figures Dorrien believes is overlooked and thus part of the reason for this volume on black social gospel theology.  Crummell was essential in developing that theology.  Here, for instance, is a paragraph in which Dorrien treats of Crummell's christology.

To be sure, Crummell allowed, Christ had not yet abolished war, but "he has been abolishing war through all the centuries through, by the humanization which He has introduced into the policy of nations."  Under the influence of Christ, the world grasped that it is a "brutish, heathen" thing to love war.  Similarly, Crummell saw the redemptive, humanizing influence of Christ "in the suppression of the slave trade, in the destruction of piracy, in the abolition of slavery, in the reformation of prisons, in the progress of the temperance cause, in the improvement of tenement houses, in the increase of hospitals and infirmaries; in the care of the blind, the deaf, and the dumb; in the godly efforts to prevent the ravages of licentiousness; and in the merciful endeavors to save the victims of prostitution!"  Thought Christ took on flesh only briefly, suffering insult and crucifixion for his blessedness, "yet His divine face, the odor of His sanctity, the glories of His nature, and the mystical power of His resurrection come streaming down the centuries."

What a splendid paragraph!

Dorrien writes that DuBois was affected not only by Crummell's theology but viewed Crummell himself as something of a Christ-figure who had to "battle against hate, despair, and doubt" and face sharp opposition and criticism, always "refusing to be shamed."  Crummell became the paradigm of a Christian clergy person for DuBois, who criticized other clergy who failed to live up to Crummell's standard.

Crummell's life and thought are complex, but one point I want to address is his skepticism of the masses.  As a young man he had witnessed anti-abolitionist riots in New York City, which forever made him distrust the uneducated.  Dorrien writes, "For the rest of his life Crummell loathed the masses, urging that the educated elite of any civilized society had to restrain the majority's stupidity and violence."


Compromise

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My last post in my series reading through Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition was February 3 because chapter three of the book is almost 100 pages long.  And I decided early on to wait until I had completed the chapter before blogging about it, though I will likely break the chapter up into a series of posts.  Why was this chapter so long?  Because it sets up the crucial conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, the conflict which shaped the Black Social Gospel (the subject of this volume) and the future endeavors for African American Civil Rights.

I continue to read not simply to learn more about this vital school of American theology but in the search for a richer understanding of the American tradition so that we might marshal the ideas and virtues of our past in order to confront the current national catastrophe of Trumpism which threatens the Christian gospel, morality, and basic human decency on an almost daily basis.

So the theological developments of people who lived in the midst of a racial dictatorship that daily threatened violence and daily delivered injustice and oppression might be of some use.

Let's begin with Washington and what can be admired about him.  Dorrien writes at the outset that Washington's "accomplishments were colossal, and he achieved them in the face of a viciously oppressive society that erupted over any violation of Jim Crow."  But then Dorrien follows up that praise with a death-delivering sentence: "But Washington believed that he had no legitimate opposition, which contributed much to his downfall--nearly as much as the fact that his humiliating strategy did not work."  But more on the negatives later.

We must remember that Washington was born a slave and at the pinnacle of his power dined with the President.  At the age of five he was valued at $400, Dorrien reminds us.

Washington had overcome resentment, which is a key for any person hoping to achieve moral progress.  One thing I've blogged about is how much resentment, which is a moral weakness, seems to have played a role in the election.  According to Dorrien, Washington realized "that bad systems made people do bad things and that people of noble spirit did not bear grudges."  On the first point he seems to have anticipated Niebuhr.

He was educated by New England Congregationalists who came south after the war to educate the freed slaves.  His education emphasized self-reliance and hard work, which became hallmarks of his own pedagogy.  He believed education was the greatest need of his people, and he devoted his life to it, doing so in one of the most difficult of places--rural Alabama.  

Dorrien reminds us that Tuskegee was "a Klan stronghold before the Klan existed," which means that in the midst of the worst of circumstances Washington achieved much, always walking a precarious line. Dorrien writes that Washington knew "that he had no margin for error."  He became skilled at repressing his feelings in order to get along with white opponents of black education.

Washington's idea "rested on the promise that black economic progress would eventually dissolve the social friction between whites and blacks."  As Dorrien has already pointed out, this simply did not work.  Jim Crow grew worse in the years that white people were lauding Washington and his work.

He rose to national prominence by a speech called the Atlanta Compromise.  Dorrien summarizes it, "The deal on the table was that if white America allowed blacks to succeed economically, black would we willing to wait for their rights."  The story of Washington and the advance of Jim Crow is a reminder that sometimes incremental change becomes accommodation to evil.  But one does not always know these things at the time.  See my post on Frances Perkins, for example, on someone who chose to compromise her ideological purity and was later able to achieve much.

Interestingly, Dorrien points out that DuBois was not critical of the Atlanta speech.  "For the rest of his life he said that the Atlanta speech, in its context, was a 'statesmanlike effort to reach understanding with the white South.'  Had the white South responded with 'equal generosity,' the cause of racial justice would have moved forward."

But some African American leaders began to see Washington's compromise as an obstacle to progress, particularly because he was embraced as THE black leader by whites.  Some, like Ida B. Wells, criticized him for not directly attacking lynching, though Dorrien argues that Washington did his best to address it indirectly by publishing his story Up from Slavery.  Dorrien writes that the book "was published amid this mania of disenfranchisement, lynching, ramped-up segregation, and popular screeds justifying all of it."

One thing Dorrien does not shy away from his quoting the racist language of white politicians and clergy.  Parts of this chapter were quite difficult to read.  Important to read, but difficult.  As important as it is to be reminded of the way the culture once spoke of African Americans, I don't want to print any of those obnoxious statements here.  I refer you to the book.

The most difficult section was reading how the white press reacted to Booker T. Washington's dinner with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.  Here is one example, milder than many.  This from a Memphis paper, "The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President . . ." and from there the language becomes obscene.

This one event lost Washington any support he had from whites in the South.  Dorrien writes that he "keenly understood that white nationalist rage had surged out of control. He had to calculate the chance of a violent episode every time that he spoke in the Deep South away from Tuskegee, and for months after the White House dinner he stayed in the North."