The “Kissing Case” and the Misuse of History

*updates below.

I’ve been seeing a story about the so-called “Kissing Case” going around, primarily used as evidence of how awful America is.  This happened in 1958, so about 50 years ago.  It was a case where a couple of young boys were incarcerated and beaten for the crime of being kissed by a white girl.  These boys were seven and nine.  The KKK threatened the parents and burned crosses in their yard, and they weren’t even able to see their boys for weeks.  The locals wouldn’t do anything about it.  The NAACP wouldn’t get involved.  Finally through a civil rights activist, Robert F. Williams, the story hit the papers in Europe, causing a huge international outcry leading to the president intervening with the governor of North Carolina, leading to the boys being released without explanation or apology, after three months of incarceration.

The case is certainly a travesty.  That certainly can’t be doubted.  There’s a lot about the case that isn’t clear given the rather sensationalized accounts I have read.  One account says that the NAACP wouldn’t do anything and that Williams was a socialist, but other accounts have Williams as the head of the local chapter of the NAACP.  So that’s not clear.

But more importantly, I think a case like this and the way it is being used is a great example of the wrong lessons being drawn from history.

We live in a cursed and fallen world, and if your goal is to demonize someone, you can always find examples.  If you know someone well, if you are familiar with their lives on an intimate basis, there is always a lot of dirt that can be dug.  This is why the 5th commandment is so important.  Ham thought he was very clever by mocking and deriding his drunken father.  Shem and Japheth wisely covered his nakedness.

What was going on around the world in 1958?  In China, Mao Zedong had begun the Great Leap Forward, leading to the deaths of millions.  Castro was launching his assault on Havana, with all the murder, torture and theft that involved (Castro was definitely a socialist, as was Mao Zedong).  Kruschev was in power in the Soviet Union, replacing Stalin in 1953.  Kruschev’s rule was relatively benign compared to Stalin, but the gulags all stayed open.  The Hungarian Revolution was crushed by Kruschev in 1956, with unknown thousands killed and many thousands more enslaved in labor camps as a result.  Many of those European countries protesting the evil of the “Kissing Case” in 1958 had all looked away just a few years before when the Nazis murdered their millions.  In Japan, it was just a little over a decade since they had been forcibly restrained, via nuclear weapons, from their multi-decade campaign of murder and rape of all the “inferior races” of China, the Philippines and Southeast Asia.  And who was it that fought against all of those things?  Who was it that resisted Japanese imperial ambitions, Soviet aggressiveness, Nazi totalitarianism?  It was America, and western Europe in general.  America wasn’t alone, but it was there.  America wasn’t perfect.  We live in a cursed and fallen world, and much fault can be found if that’s what you’re looking for.  But even with all that, I prefer America to the Soviets, to the Nazis, to the Japanese Empire.  And so do all the millions liberated by America from those empires.

Racism, hatred and injustice are not new and novel things.  They are not unique to white Christian civilizations.  When studying history, what is significant, what stands out, is the unusual.  When I read a story like this, in the wider context of history, what is remarkable is that it was stopped.  And why was it stopped?  Because of Christianity, and Christian principles, the ideology that did so much to shape America.  What other ideology provides any basis for the equality and dignity of man regardless of race or gender?

You take, for example, the horrible conditions of the Belgian colony in the Congo at the beginning of the 20th century.  The colony was indeed horrible, with many abuses.  People heard relatively little about the French Congo, and as a result assumed it was better.  In fact, it was far worse.  What was the difference?  The Belgians allowed missionaries in, and the missionaries told the story.  The French did not permit missionaries into their colonies.  So it was precisely the better impulses of the Belgians that brought their crimes to light.  As another example, you can look at the protests of Gandhi and the independence movement in India against the British.  The British didn’t have a great track record in India, though even that has to be set in context.  But the only reason the independence movement in India worked against the British was because the British were humane and Christian.  Most other empires would have just shot them all.  The Muslim empires that ruled in India at different times did exactly that.  What happened when subjugated peoples in the Soviet Union or Communist China protested?  They got shot, or sent off to die in labor camps if they were lucky.  But everybody talks about the evils of the British in India, precisely because the British were humane enough to not kill all the protesters.

A case like this is not unusual.  A million injustices like this occur all over the world every day.  Much worse things happen.  What is different about Christian civilizations is that they care about things like this, and try to stop them.  American slavery was not unique.  What was unique was that America, along with other Christian countries, ended it.  What was unique was that they cared about those two boys.  What is unique is that fifty years later we’re still talking about it, and resolving to be better than that.

So this was one town in North Carolina, and they deserve the shame they get for this story, if it all is as it appears.  The individuals involved all do.  But that something like this happened, and a stop was put to it after a couple of months, does not tell me that America is some sort of uniquely horrible place, when one compares it to the world at large.  Put in context, it tells me a very different story indeed.

Here’s another recounting of the story.  It doesn’t change the central details of the case, but it does highlight how there was a lot of outcry in America at the time over the case, which reinforces the points I make above.  The original story on Facebook made it very much sound like nobody in America even cared about it.

3 thoughts on “The “Kissing Case” and the Misuse of History

  1. JJJ says:

    I think the logical fallacy to which you refer is called the Hasty Generalization. I’m glad you wrote about this. I was (and remain still) confused regarding the message of the original poster who implied that, because the US was a “Christian nation” in 1958, everything bad that happened was the fault of the Church. Yes, bad things happen in churches, but as you so thoughtfully pointed out in your India comparison, what matters is what happens next. Did the people (the church, the nation) repent and change?

    1. Andrea Powell says:

      I’m so glad you wrote this. One of the things that was startling to me when I worked in the DC area and visited the capital often, was how much Scripture was permanently embedded all over the public buildings. That this wasn’t intended to be a nation thoroughly dedicated to the principals of Christianity is an idea debunked by the very buildings our forefathers built to house the government. Anyone with the most cursory understanding of American jurisprudence would know that our legal system was based on an understanding of Old Testament case law. That is why there are ten commandment plaques on all of our old court houses.
      I think of Paul’s statement, “Not all Israel is Israel.” The actions of some which are antithetical to the Christian doctrines and beliefs do not negate the legitimacy of the Christian name and principles our founders held to.
      As JJJ says, what happens next after a failure to act according to Christian beliefs? Saul doubled down and continued in evil more. But David repented and turned. Would you declare Israel not to be the people of God because their kings would do such things?
      Covenantal thinking, which heavily influenced many of our founders, can see both the one and the many. God deals with us in both broad groups and individually, the idea that separates us from communist China which can only deal with the group, crushing individuals under the needs of the many. And it separates us from the anarchists who can only see the needs of the one, sacrificing the weak and the society on the interests of the one.
      No, a nation can not be a Christian in the same way an individual can. But the broad principles informing the character of our nation were unquestionably Christian. Just as the broad principles informing the character of Saudi Arabia or Islamic, even though many, probably most, citizens are nominal and don’t live wholly devoted to Mohammed and his teachings.

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