N****** aren’t like us,” my dad, Lenny, said. “If you have to work with them, that’s fine. Just be sure that when the whistle blows, you go your separate ways.” Lenny was a hard worker, a union man who worked at a factory for as long as I can remember. He also worked hard to make sure I understood that the races shouldn’t mix—work being the only exception—but I went to school with the daughter of one of my dad’s coworkers. She was one of only three black kids in my elementary school, and one of only three black people I would know for the first decade of my life. We became friends, and that friendship with Cherie was the first crack in the racism my dad worked so hard to instill in me.

I spent my early years in the only integrated Southern Baptist church in my hometown. The pastor sometimes told stories from the pulpit about the rebukes he endured from area pastors and the occasional death threat for “allowing” black people in the congregation. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my dad and these Christian people in my community shared a somewhat common heritage, or at least an ideology birthed by the same midwife.

Lenny grew up on an impoverished farm in rural Oklahoma. For him, a poor white man from a no-name family in a no-name state, black people were his only recourse to being better in his own eyes. Lenny was able to convince himself—despite his objectively low standing in society—that he wasn’t the worst and his family wasn’t the worst. After all, they weren’t like “those” people, the others, who worked land not theirs and attended a different school and weren’t even good enough to urinate in the same stall as him. “At least I’m not a n******.”

Lenny was far from being a Christian. He refused to go to church on moral grounds. But his view of the world wasn’t all that different from the view of Southern Baptist leaders just a few generations past. They likewise thought black people weren’t like us. And they worked hard to ensure that the races were kept separate. In times when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) should have been leading the charge to recognize the image of God in all humans, we were breaking faith with northern Baptist because we wanted to own slaves, and later during the Civil Rights Movement we lagged far behind in supporting our brothers and sisters of color.

Russ Meek

Associate Professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology