Tea Partiers Say Slavery Not Race-Related

For those who wonder about the religious dimensions of the Tea Party movement, an event earlier this month at Faith Baptist Church in Deltona, Florida, looked pretty much indistinguishable from the 1980s era church-based political organizing efforts of the religious right. As each local candidate spoke at the Deltona 912 Patriots event, it was clear how profoundly conservative, Republican, and Christian (in the exclusivist conservative sense of Christian) this gathering was.

But there was a twist, born of the Tea Party’s efforts to run from the racist and violent imagery and rhetoric in its ranks. The banner on the Florida Tea Party Web site read:

9-12 Project: not racist, not violent, just not silent anymore.

The event was in a more rural part of Florida than where I live and I passed a number of confederate flags on my way there. I expected an all white crowd making arguments about “reverse discrimination,” libertarian arguments against violations of state sovereignty, especially with regard to the Civil Rights Act, and maybe even some of the “slavery wasn’t as bad as people say” arguments. Not so much.

Dont Like History? Make Up Some of Your Own

The keynote speaker was Frantz Kebreau of the Florida-based National Association for the Advancement of Conservative People of all Colors (that’s right: NAACPC), who has been traveling the Tea Party circuit with his alternative history of racism and slavery in America. The NAACPC maintains that the “once-great NAACP has become a negative, shameful tool of the left: overseers committed to keeping their fellow blacks dependent and subservient to the Democrat party.”

According to the NAACPC’s Web site, Kebreau believes “Identity Politics, race, white guilt, political correctness and racism are the means by which Socialism through entitlements will bring our Country down.” In his lectures, the site promises,

Frantz exposes the hidden history that the Radical Left, Progressives and Democrats do not want you to know about. Hold on because the information you will receive is virtually impossible to find in the history books.

Kebreau’s biography warns that the progressives and socialists are “are rewriting history as we speak” so they can “bring Socialism to the United States of America,” and promises that his truth-telling “will set you free!”

His audience at Faith Baptist was not unaccustomed to revisionist history. Sitting in the sanctuary decked in patriotic trimmings—eight big flags on the wall, bunting covering altar area, and a collection of small flags on the altar itself—the assembled activists discussed home schooling, David Barton’s seminal revisionist work on “American’s Christian Heritage,” all while Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” played over the sound system.

There didn’t seem to be any of those secular, libertarian tea partiers here. In fact, if the people at Faith Baptist abandon the Republican Party, it will likely be for the Reconstructionist-oriented, more conservative Constitution Party.

The Tea Party-supported candidates for local office all invoked the “Christian American history” and the “religion of the founders.” The “principles” of the 9/12 Project, the brainchild of Glenn Beck, are a distillation of those found in W. Cleon Skousen’s 1981 book, The Five Thousand Year Leap, to which the speakers repeatedly referred. Although Beck has been responsible for its recent resurgence, the book has long been a favorite for Christian schools and home schoolers (and among Reconstructionists—though Skousen himself is a Mormon, free market, Austrian school guy).

So, Slavery Was Not About Race?

As I understand it, the fight over the degree to which America was “founded as a Christian Nation,” is a fight over our mythic understanding of ourselves. I don’t mean myth in the popular sense—as in “myths are widely held to be true but actually are not.” Rather, I mean myth in the technical sense: narratives though which groups of people construct a sense of themselves and perpetuate that sense throughout the culture and to successive generations.

Kebreau’s presence at this event signaled a new development in the religious right’s myth-making. In Kebreau’s narrative, racism is a legacy of slavery but not a cause: instead, racism was a socially -onstructed mechanism by which people in power divided, threatened, and manipulated both blacks and whites to support slavery. Many of the pieces of historical data he marshals in favor of this thesis are not unfamiliar to those of us who have studied this aspect of American history, although they are probably not as well-known among Americans in general: some slave owners were also black, not all slaves were black, black Africans played a huge role in the slave trade, very few Southerners actually owned slaves. Most often, though, I hear these points made in argument from white Southerners—in a way that preserves the “us” and “them” division among black and white Americans—who just want the issue of slavery and racism to just go away.

These points are usually presented with a specific subtext: some slave owners were also black (so why are you blaming us?); not all slaves were black (and white people experience just as much racism today); black Africans played a huge role in the slave trade (“they” did it to “us” too); very few Southerners actually owned slaves (so why does it have to be such a big deal?).

But Kebreau’s subtext is different: he argues that slavery was not really about race. He says some slave owners were also black (so it wasn’t about race); not all slaves were black (so it wasn’t about race); black Africans played a huge role in the slave trade (so it wasn’t about race); very few Southerners actually owned slaves (so how did they convince the rest of them to go to war and die to defend the “property” of a few rich people)? They did so, according to Kebreau, by developing and perpetuating racial divisions among people who wouldn’t, otherwise, have had an interest in the fight.

He traced the ways in which the institution of slavery developed in the colonies, becoming increasingly race-based over time and accompanied by racist laws and customs that preserved it. Or to put it the way he does, how the “color line got darker and darker,” all in the interest of fostering racism to preserve the power, wealth and status of a few.

Kebreau convinced a white Southern audience who would likely insist that the “war of Northern aggression” was not about slavery to be “proud of America” in which nearly two-thirds of a million people gave their lives in a war to end slavery. He took an audience of Southerners and led them to claim the vision of the North. He took an audience of white Christians who would have opposed a Martin Luther King holiday, and had them shouting “amen!” and cheering him on from the pews like members of the AME, as he talked about Martin Luther King’s dream and the March on Washington. He moved the audience from the view that the Civil Rights Acts were an intrusion of government into realms in which it did not belong, to the view that they should be proud to be Republicans because Republicans introduced those bills and passed them, over the opposition of Democrats! (You could almost hear them saying, “Damn those Democrats.” Of course, the Democrats that opposed these measures have long-since moved to the Republican Party and, though the Republican party of another era freed the slaves, more contemporarily they also launched the divisive “Southern strategy.”)

So while explicit, traditional “God and Country” religion was everywhere at this event, so was the less explicit construction of a new “creation myth” for the Republican Party’s American civil religion. I couldn’t help but marvel at power of myth to unite a group of people in agreement about what’s wrong, whose fault it is, and how an election could be used to fix it.