On June 17, 2015, white nationalist Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot nine members of that church’s black congregation. Upon being arrested, Roof was discovered to have made numerous online postings about his racial views, including photographs of him draped in the flag of the Confederate States of America. As such, the past few months have seen the reigniting of a debate which has been going on since our civil war: is it right for southern states to continue waving their flag of secession and slavery?
Following the shooting, South Carolina took the initiative to remove the Confederate flag on display at their state capitol grounds. Many other states were likewise pushed to do this, and presidential candidates from both parties called for the end to the flags. Of course, many were upset by this, arguing that the Confederate flag represents the south’s heritage.
Roof justified and defended his racism using his Christian religious views. It was hard to believe that mainstream humanist and atheist organizations seemed to overlook this, as it was a great opportunity to address the constant criticisms of atheist groups by racial justice advocates about the lack of diversity in our movement. Luckily, one exception to this silence was the American Humanist Association, which supported the flag’s removal.
The question of race relations in America has been a concern for Humanists since our foundations. Many early anti-slavery activists, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Edward Coles, and William Lloyd Garrison were non-theists who attacked religion for its justifications for slavery. Indeed, while religion was an important tool for many abolitionists, using Christian morality to condemn slavery, the Biblical verses about slavery (such as Colossians 3:22) also served as justification for southern slave-owners. In the slave states, slavery was heavily associated with Christianity. Clergymen made it clear that slavery was a system ordained by God; a hierarchy existing within nature itself, and that to question it was to question God. It was for this reason that Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, attacked Christianity as a central pillar supporting the institution of slavery.
As the antebellum era went on, the slavery debate became ever fiercer. The early republic saw numerous reform movements emerging, many of which were created to fight slavery. Suffragettes and humanists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton started their feminist careers fighting for the abolition of slavery. And likewise, so did many other humanists. Future president Abraham Lincoln was known in his youth as being a Painite Deist, and he was attacked for this by political opponents. Robert Green Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic, was by far the most outspoken anti-theist of the time, taking part in numerous public debates against the existence of God. And like the others mentioned, Ingersoll got his start in politics by supporting the rising anti-slavery Republican Party; even gathering together a regiment of soldiers and fighting in the battle of Shiloh on the Union side.
Contrast Ingersoll and many freethinkers’ support for the anti-slavery cause with the Confederate States of America’s Constitution, which explicitly invokes the favor of “Almighty God”.
Indeed, with the energies brought upon by their anti-slavery work, many non-theists became radicalized and it is largely for this reason that the era immediately after the Civil War became known as the Golden Age of American Freethought. The freethinking activists of this time period carried on their anti-slavery sentiments into support for racial equality, often opposing segregation and Jim Crow. W.E.B. DuBois, perhaps the greatest advocate of racial justice during this era, was likewise a staunch humanist and socialist.
Even into the modern civil rights movement, humanists held an important position. While Martin Luther King Jr. may have been the one to actually march on Washington DC, the idea for said event came from African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph, a signatory of Paul Kurtz’ Humanist Manifesto. Likewise, the poet and radical civil rights activist James Baldwin expressed his discontent with religion and called for a non-religious route to morality.