In my column of June 25, I observed that, in the first decade of the 20th century, two very different practices had become commonplace in Mississippi. White protestant churches would sing a popular hymn of the day, “Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me,” and white Mississippians would lynch some 350 Black Mississippians between 1890 and 1910.
In a way, it is not surprising. We humans are awfully good at compartmentalizing our actions. All of us are probably doing it right now in some form or fashion. Since all of us live in glass houses, throwing stones is out of the question. But it can be helpful to try to understand this routine habit of mind and how it works.
Since the football season is kicking off – kind of – here is an example we can all relate to. It concerns the November 1951 game between Princeton and Dartmouth. It was the subject of a case study published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1954.
The ironic title of the study was “They Saw a Game,” but of course, they, the fans of Princeton and Dartmouth, did not see one game but two. In a survey of students a week after the game, 69 percent of Princeton students saw the game as “rough and dirty” against only 24 percent of Dartmouth students. Nearly 90 percent of Princeton students saw Dartmouth as the team that started the rough play, but less than 40 percent of Dartmouth students agreed.
You can see where this is going. You’ve probably seen such a game. The authors of the study, psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, concluded: “… the data here indicate that there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ The ‘thing’ simply is not the same for different people whether the ‘thing’ is a football game, a presidential candidate, Communism, or spinach. We behave according to what we bring to the occasion.”
“We behave according to what we bring to the occasion.” Here lies the beginning of wisdom for us today when it comes to understanding each other’s differences. Looking back to 1910, what did those worshippers take with them into their services where they sang, “Open my eyes that I may see?” And what about those lynch mobs? What did they take with them into their vigilante killings?
Unlike the Princeton and Dartmouth fans, the worshippers and the vigilantes saw one game, not two; they saw the same game: maintain the social order and punish those who challenge it. That’s what each group, in its own way, brought to their respective occasions. It was their shared understanding. There was no need to talk about it.
Over a century has passed, however, and those two views, of community life on the one hand and Christianity on the other, no longer live in harmony. It is out of fashion to justify white supremacy with Biblical passages and domestic terrorist tactics such as lynchings.
Today, the irony is clear – the irony of a faith tradition modeled on the life of Jesus of Nazareth claiming also to support chattel slavery and Jim Crow apartheid. The shared understanding of a hundred years ago has been shredded. Eyes have been opened, as the hymn says. Now it is actually possible to explore “what we bring to the occasion” as we struggle to converse across racial, political and religious boundaries.
Silence is easy (and so is shouting), but learning “what we bring to the occasion,” when we’re talking across those guarded boundaries, is not easy. But it’s a good place to start. After all, too many people being satisfied with silence is what got us where we are today.
Dick Conville is a longtime resident of Hattiesburg and a retired college professor.