How is it that in America the image of Jesus Christ has been used both to justify the atrocities of white supremacy and to inspire the righteousness of civil rights crusades? In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey weave a tapestry of American dreams and visions–from witch hunts to web pages, Harlem to Hollywood, slave cabins to South Park, Mormon revelations to Indian reservations–to show how Americans remade the Son of God visually time and again into a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations, deepest terrors, and mightiest strivings for racial power and justice.
We have some outtakes from our original interview with Blum and Harvey that we wanted to publish as independent posts. Here, Blum and Harvey discuss the Ku Klux Klan and its association with Jesus Christ’s race.
Q: How did the Ku Klux Klan associate itself with Christ?
A: When we imagine the Klan, we think of white guys who wear white robes and burn crosses. But it wasn’t always that way. The Klan of the Reconstruction era did not gallop around as so-called Christian crusaders. They dressed up as ghosts or devils (even sometimes making and wearing long horns that were painted red or black). It was not until the 1910s and 1920s that a new Klan emerged and claimed to follow Christ. This was a new era of white supremacy. Now, the Klan was not just anti-black. It was also anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-socialist. This Klan was not just (or even predominantly) southern. Its members could be seen marching in New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, and California too.
To justify their more rigorous white supremacy that stood against racial segregation and for immigrant restriction and conservative politics, this Klan turned to the white Jesus. They said that Jesus would have worn a robe, like them. They claimed that the first disciples were Klansmen whom Jesus had sent on a mission to dominate the globe. Klan pastors and artists they even had drawings made where Jesus handed out loaves and fishes to his disciples dressed up in Klan uniforms. The white Christ was crucial to this Klan, because they somehow needed to make racial rage appear as Christian kindness. A white Jesus did that work for them. They grafted his symbol of goodness onto their workings of hate.
The Klan still has an influence on approaches to Jesus, even though it is now a marginal group. After the Klan fell from prominence in the late 1920s and after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s devastated the concept of Christ’s whiteness, the Klan became a foil for everyday white Christians of what real racism looked like. It became easy for white evangelicals to criticize extremists like the Klan (or like the Nazis) when discussing white supremacy. Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham or Josh McDowell could claim that the Klan made Jesus white and thus ignore how everyday white American Sunday school teachers, artists, ministers, and suburbanites helped make Jesus an icon of white power and privilege. Basically, post 1960s evangelicals could blame racism and the white Jesus on the Klan and never take responsibility for the much deeper problems of race in American white Christianity.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey are the authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. For videos, teaching materials, reader-submitted stories, and more, visit colorofchrist.com. You can be a fan on Facebook and follow the authors on Twitter @edwardjblum and @pharvey61.