Review: The Impeachers

the impeachers

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just NationBrenda Wineapple. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A history of the accidental presidency of Andrew Johnson, his resistance to the civil rights fought for in the Civil War, and the impeachment proceedings against him.

Impeachment. Only twice in American history has Congress pursued impeachment proceedings against a President of the United States. Neither instance resulted in conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This book chronicles the first instance where this remedy was pursued, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson.

Brenda Wineapple gives us a well-crafted account of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the circumstances leading to his impeachment, the key figures from the House of Representatives that prosecuted the impeachment, as well as the presiding Chief Justice, the defense, and the final denouement.

Andrew Johnson was always a bit of a lone wolf, rising from tailor to accidental president when Lincoln was assassinated. When the Civil War began, though sympathetic with the white supremacy of the South, Johnson argued against secession as unconstitutional, and that in fact it was impossible for states to secede from the Union, a position he maintained later on as president. When Tennessee seceded, he continued to take his seat in the Senate. Later, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee. When it came time for Lincoln the Republican to run for his second term, he did the unusual thing of offering Johnson, a Democrat, the Vice Presidency, partly to weaken the Democrats, and perhaps with a view toward the restoration of the Union.

Wineapple describes how Johnson quickly instituted his own version of Reconstruction, allowing many of the old leaders of the south to return to office, undercutting newly won civil rights for blacks, and looking the other way when blacks were violently attacked, lynched, and slaughtered. He undercut the efforts of moderate Republican Lyman Trumbull to extend the Freedman’s Bureau by vetoing the bill, even after Lyman’s extensive consultations with Johnson led him to think it would be passed. It increasingly appeared that all the sacrifice of Union troops was for naught, as Blacks still were treated as slaves in all but name. The crowning insult was Johnson’s campaign trip, the “swing around the circle” during the 1866 elections where he denounced Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Philips by name.

While Republicans in Congress seethed at this treatment and the reversal of gains fought for during the Civil War, all of this occurred under the cloak of legality. Wineapple then discusses the efforts to limit the military occupation, including the work of Secretary of War Stanton and General Grant. This was one of the remaining protections for Black citizens. To protect Stanton, Congress passed over Johnson’s veto the Tenure in Office Act, prohibiting the firing of cabinet officials without Congressional approval. Johnson, believing the act unconstitutional, eventually sacked (or tried to) Secretary Stanton, which represented the crossing of a threshold that triggered the vote of impeachment in the House, and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Wineapple takes us through the trial, introducing us to the managers for the House prosecution: Benjamin Butler who presented much of the evidence, and George Boutwell, and the courageous Thaddeus Stevens, enfeebled and dying. She gives us sketches of Chief Justice Chase, the defense for the president, key senators like Ben Wade, who stood to succeed to the presidency if Johnson was convicted, and correspondents including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Georges Clemenceau. Then came the vote, 35-19, with a key Republican, Edmund Ross changing his vote to acquit at the last hour. Six other Republicans joined him and twelve Democrats in voting to acquit. Though never proven, there was evidence of payoffs.

Johnson served out his term, but was disappointed not to receive the appointment of his party. He eventually returned to the Senate, dying in office in 1875. Ulysses Grant succeeded to the presidency, reversing to some degree the effects of Johnson’s “Reconstruction.” But the promise briefly glimpsed by Lincoln was never to be.

Wineapple does an outstanding job of unfolding the history and the fascinating characters around the impeachment. Her account of the life and death of Thaddeus Stevens was particularly striking. Her book makes the case for the challenges of impeachment: the ambiguities of language and procedure. The truth was, Andrew Johnson was a disaster and a white supremacist and could not be removed for these reasons alone. Only the violation of a questionable law (later ruled unconstitutional) provided the pretext. Even this effort fell short. Wineapple also shows us that white supremacy is nothing new but has a long and ugly history in our country, one accustomed to the commission of sordid acts and the constraining of civil liberties with the pretext of respectable legality.

Essentially, impeachment is an unproven remedy for the removal of presidents considered to have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Section IV of the 25th Amendment has never been attempted. This brings us back to the critical importance of the choices we make for who we elect to be president and vice-president. Whether in office by vote or accident, the only proven way presidents may be removed from office is by the Electoral College, reflecting (hopefully) on a state by state basis the results at the ballot box, an opportunity that comes only every four years. The attacks of White Supremacists on voting rights in Johnson’s day also remind us of the vital task of rigorously protecting voting rights for all our citizens, recognized as critical for “liberty and justice for all” then–and now.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Rev. Lonnie K. A. Simon

Reverend Lonnie A. Simon

Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon in his office. Source unknown, accessed from Delta Heritage Project at YSU Digital Archives

As I look over the posts in this series, one of the things I’ve realized is that it is a pretty White account of working class Youngstown. The truth is, that is where I grew up. The West Side was among the least integrated parts of the city. As I’ve worked on these posts, one thing I’ve become aware of is how much Blacks contributed to the working class history of Youngstown. In the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North, Youngstown was one of the destinations, particularly in the war years of the 1940’s as they filled jobs in the steel industry.

The purpose of these posts has not been to argue about things like politics, race, unions, sports, or religion, but to explore something of Youngstown’s distinctive history through the lens (in many cases) of my own early years in the city. My own thought is that to remember who we were helps us understand better who we are and what we bring as we move into the future.

One of the figures I remember who played a significant role in the Black community in Youngstown during the years I was growing up was the Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon. Rev. Simon was born in East Mulga, Alabama March 23, 1925. His family moved to southwest Pennsylvania where his father worked in the coal mines. His father also pastored a church. In 1946, after serving in the Navy during the war, he moved to Youngstown to work at U. S. Steel while working his way through Youngstown College, majoring in Philosophy and Religion. It was during this time, in 1951 that he heard a call to the ministry. He began working for the Post Office (where federal laws better protected minorities) in 1955. In 1954, he accepted a call to Elizabeth Baptist Church in Youngstown., where he served for five years followed by two year at a church in Canton before returning, in 1962 to accept a call to New Bethel Baptist Church, where he served until retirement in 1995. He resigned from his position with the Post Office in 1965 to devote his full time to the ministry of this growing church. The church moved into larger facilities on Hillman, purchasing their building from Highway Tabernacle which eventually re-located to Austintown.

It was during this time that the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr rose to prominence. Reverend Simon marched as one of the chant leaders in the March on Montgomery with Dr. King in 1965. In 1968, rioting occurred in Youngstown after the assassination of Dr. King. The causes of the riots have long been disputed (something we won’t do here) but Reverend Simon was firmly committed to Dr. King’s principles of peaceful advocacy and helped restore peace in the community while advocating for civil rights. He paid heavily for his advocacy, facing personal threats, and in October 1972, in typical Youngstown fashion, had a car bomb explode in front of his home.

In an interview for Youngstown State University’s Oral History Program, conducted by Michael Beverly, Reverend Simon described his “conversion” to advocacy work:

A lot of us pastors went to Montgomery and we participated in the Montgomery March. But it wasn’t until 1967 when I went to Chicago and was given a grant by the Ford Foundation to attend the Urban Training Center; we had to deal with urban problems and social problems in depth. This is what I have come to call a new conversion experience, where I felt that my role as a pastor was not just behind the pulpit, it wasn’t all preaching. Prior to that time the traditional pastor was always taught to tell your people to be patient, and wait on the Lord and pray, and things would turn out all right. But I discovered while I was going through urban training that unless you got up off your knees and started doing something, challenging the institution nothing would happen.

He served on the Youngstown Board of Education from 1972 to 1975 and attended my Chaney High School commencement. He was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on Socially Disadvantaged Black Males of Ohio, and received the National Leadership Award in Denver in 1991. He served in a number of church leadership roles and made several mission trips to Africa, including one to the All-Africa Council of Churches where he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He retired from the pastorate in 1995, becoming Pastor Emeritus. His son, Kenneth, continues to lead the church. His office in the church has been preserved as a memorial and an archive, and the church hosts an annual dinner that honors and raises funds to continue to extend its legacy.

Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon was both a spiritual and a community leader who gave crucial leadership in Youngstown at a racially volatile period of our history. Like many in Youngstown, his father worked in coal mines and he worked in steel mills before his call to ministry. The character of his leadership is evident in the enduring presence of the church he pastored and a son who is carrying on that work. He pursued peace, but not at the expense of justice nor without personal risk. He is among the many through Youngstown’s history whose presence and leadership made a difference.

Review: God and Race in American Politics

God and RaceGod and Race in American Politics, Mark A. Noll. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Summary: This text explores the interwoven story of religion, race, and politics in American history, with a concluding theological reflection.

Mark Noll makes the observation in this book, derived from his Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton University in 2006, that we have one of the most enlightened political systems in human history and yet we have failed signally in the matter of race. From our beginnings we accepted the slave trade that treated forcibly seized Africans as cargo that were simply one more asset to serve American interests. After the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, we settled for systemic injustices in the form of Jim Crow laws that a number would argue continue in some form down to the present.

What Noll does in this “short history” is look at the interplay of religious influences, shifting party affiliations and voting patterns and the continuing saga of race in America. As a careful scholar, he documents his narrative with numerous tables on denominational populations and party voting patterns by various states and populations.

He begins by looking at how the Bible was used to argue both for and against slavery. Interestingly, those who were pro-slavery held back from arguing for White slavery, revealing the racial animus behind this issue. In this racial divide he traces the origins and rise of African-American churches who would be a critical factor in years to come in civil rights advocacy. He concludes this chapter (2) with these prophetic words by W.E.B. DuBois:

“This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed….Especially are we surprised and astonished at the recent attitude of the church of Christ–on the increase of a desire to bow to racial prejudice, to narrow the bounds of human brotherhood, and to segregate black men in some outer sanctuary” (cited on p. 59).

The book traces the the failed efforts of Reconstruction (“Redemption” in the South) and the alignments of southern Whites (comprised of large Baptist and Methodist populations) with the Democratic Party while Blacks who could vote as well as northern Protestants aligned with “the party of Lincoln.” He recounts the rise of Jim Crow and the failure of the courts and political processes along with the lack of engagement (and some complicity) of white Evangelicals with these injustices.

Meanwhile, an African-American church was rising in organizational strength and the training of its pastors. Noll traces the antecedent influences on King and other civil rights leaders and how central the religious voice was to this movement.

A significant turning point came in 1964 with the passage of sweeping civil rights legislation under Democrat Lyndon Johnson. A major political realignment began, where the once Democratic white south became Republican, and the Democratic Party became one of northern liberals, mainline Protestants (a declining group) and ethnic minorities while Evangelicals and some Catholics identified with the small government, morally conservative policies of the Republicans.

One fascinating sidelight Noll observes is the emergence of southern Evangelicals on the national stage in this period. Having come out from an apparent identification with racism as a result of civil rights legislation, denominations like the Southern Baptists and figures like Jerry Falwell (and Bill Clinton) gain national platforms.

Noll concludes the book with a theological reflection. He notes the mixed history of Christian complicity with racial injustice and advocacy for civil rights and “the beloved community.” While not justifying the evils, he argues that in Christian theology’s understanding of both human evil and the redemptive arc of the gospel, there are the resources to help us neither be surprised by evil nor the acts of so many who selflessly pursue justice. It is a theology of realistic hope rather than starry-eyed optimism or pessimistic despair.

This is a book for anyone engaged in issues of racial reconciliation or who are trying to understand the complex interplay of religion and American politics around these issues. As in so many things, understanding where we’ve come from is critical to understanding where we are and discerning the road before us. This book can help.

 

Review: Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church

Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Epic Challenge to the Church
Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church by Edward Gilbreath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Solitary confinement in prison can be a shattering psychological experience, one often used to break the spirit of those imprisoned. For Martin Luther King, Jr., solitary confinement served not only to further forge the character of this civil rights leader, but resulted in one of the signature documents of the civil rights movement, indeed, one of the most important human rights documents of the Twentieth century. The document of which I’m speaking is “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Edward Gilbreath’s new book gives us an account of King’s life centered around the Birmingham Civil Rights demonstrations and this letter that became a kind of manifesto for this movement. Rather than give us another full-blown biography, Gilbreath briefly sketches King’s early life and the tension between coming from an elite Atlanta family of preachers with a distinquished education, and the call to civil rights leadership that began in Montgomery and suffered a setback in Albany, Georgia. King found himself caught in a nexus of caution, gifting, and necessity when Fred Shuttlesworth invited him to Birmingham.

Gilbreath paints the contrast between the cautious but eloquent King and the firebrand activist Pastor Shuttlesworth. Shuttlesworth grasped that King’s visionary leadership was necessary to turn passion into disciplined action. What it also led to were confrontations with police chief Bull Conner who threw King, and eventually hundreds of child-demonstrators into prison. Those confrontations, complete with fire hoses and dogs caught the nation’s attention and began to turn the nation’s support to King.

Meanwhile, a group of eight moderate white clergymen, known to actually have sympathies with the civil rights movement, published an open letter in the Birmingham paper taking issue with the marches led by outsider King, counselling patience, moderation, and local solutions. A prison guard, perhaps to further depress King, gave him a copy of the paper while he was in solitary.

Gilbreath explores the phenomenon of latent black anger at continued injustices as a backdrop to King’s response of scribbling the “letter” in the margins of the newspaper. In it, King makes the argument, later expanded into his book Why We Can’t Wait that makes the case for civil disobedience to unjust laws and that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

The rest of the book considers King’s life after Birmingham and the response of evangelicals then and now to King. Gilbreath does not attempt to cover over the flaws in either King’s theology or life but also explores the blindness of both the eight moderate pastors in Birmingham as well as many in the white evangelical community to the biblical themes that shaped King’s vision in the “Letter” and in his preaching.

The book helped me understand not only the circumstances behind King’s “Letter” but also raised questions for me about our continued racial divides in the United States and my own temptation to identify with the moderate white pastors rather than hear the anger and pain that comes from injustices and the biblical themes that challenge me to see why justice can’t wait.

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MLK Day Reflection: The Jangling Discords of our Nation

“With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

220px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS

I’ve just come from a Martin Luther King celebration that including a reading of his “I have a dream” speech, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of this speech. The sentence above caught my attention and I thought I might share some of my thoughts about this.

Certainly in the fifty years since we have come a long way from setting dogs and fire hoses upon those marching for basic human rights. We thankfully do not have the riots in our cities that I grew up with in the 1960s. From the President of the United States to top positions in many fields, persons of color have advanced and accomplished amazing things.

Yet we are a long way from the “symphony of brotherhood” Dr. King dreamed of. One need only look at the political and media discourse going on in our country that is filled much more with “jangling discord” than beauty. The gap between rich and poor in our country has widened and 46 million of our citizens live below the poverty line. We learned today that my home state of Ohio ranks 48th in the country in infant mortality, which is often a function of into which zip code a child is born.  If this is a symphony, it is one of dissonance, harsh and ugly rather than beautiful.

I do not play in a symphony orchestra, but I sing in a choral group and it strikes me that there are some things we learn that might help us create more beautiful music as a nation.

1. One very simple thing is that we all have to be singing off the same piece of music. For us as a nation, it is a realization that all are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”. We have been at our best as a nation when we’ve recognized that these values truly apply to all and enshrined them not only in our laws but in our treatment of others.

2. A basic rule of choral singing is that if you can’t hear others over your own voice, you are singing too loud. Similarly, if the only voices we are truly hearing in our national debates are our own, we are speaking too loudly and need to listen to others.

3. Most of the time, the note you are singing should harmonize with others. Even when a written note is dissonant, it usually is so to create a tension that the audience is waiting to hear resolved. This suggests to me that most of the time, we should be asking how our own perspectives blend with others to create a harmonious society. And sometimes, when we must be dissonant, it is in the hope of a resolving harmony–never for the sake of discord.

4. Sometimes, harmony comes as efforts are made to balance different sections. Is it “fair” that one section may not be able to sing as loud as they can while another section might especially have to sing louder to be heard? Similarly, we cannot live harmoniously as a nation if all we do is compete for our own interests.

Ah, if only becoming the “beloved community” were as simple a thing as singing in a choral group! Perhaps the best evidence of our flawed human nature is the disparity between our high ideals and the realities of our society. Perhaps the most difficult part is where to find the power to return love for hate and forgiveness for injustice. At the staff conference for our organization, we heard the account of Ben Campbell, the African-American captain of the track team at UNC-Wilmington, threatened by a truck full of whites.  Instead of pressing for their prosecution, he wrote a letter defending them and saying at most, they should be made to sit down to dinner with Ben and get to know him. Asked why he protected them, he said, “it is because I love them, and you protect the ones you love… Being loved by Jesus makes you love like Jesus.”

That is the faith of Dr King who likewise returned love for violence and hatred. I think that alone can turn “jangling discords” to “beautiful symphonies.”