John Piper: I Was Racist
I was born in 1946 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and from the time I was six months old, I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. I left for college eighteen years later and spent four years in Wheaton, Illinois; three years in Pasadena, California; three years in Munich, Germany; and the rest of my life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. But those early years in South Carolina are the roots of my racial burden.
The population of South Carolina in 1860 was about 700,000. Sixty percent were African Americans (420,000), and all but 9,000 of these were slaves. That's a mere 150 years ago—only fifty-nine years before my father was born. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, largely in protest over Abraham Lincoln's election as an anti-slavery president and the implications that had for states' rights. Three weeks later, the Civil War began in Charleston, South Carolina.
Over four years later, on April 9, 1865, the war ended with the surrender of Southern general Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. Ninety years later, when I was nine years old in Greenville, the enforced segregation was almost absolute: drinking fountains, public restrooms, public schools, public swimming pools, bus seating, housing, restaurants, hospital waiting rooms, dentist waiting rooms, bus station waiting rooms, and—with their own kind of enforcement—churches, including mine. I can tell you from the inside that, for all the rationalized glosses, it was not "separate but equal." It was not respectful, it was not just, it was not loving, and therefore it was not Christian. It was ugly and demeaning. And, as we will see, because of my complicity I have much to be sorry about.
Which is one reason this book focuses so heavily on the gospel of Jesus Christ. I owe my life and hope to the gospel. Without it I would still be strutting with racist pride, or I would be suffering the moral paralysis of "white guilt." But the gospel has an answer to both pride and guilt. I hope this book makes that plain.
Growing up black in Greenville
Three and a half miles across town from where I grew up, in the same city, five years older than I, another little boy was growing up on the other side of the racial divide. His name was Jesse Jackson. Jackson was born October 8, 1941, at his home on 20 Haynie Street. When Jackson was thirteen the family moved to a newly constructed housing project, Fieldcrest Village (now Jesse Jackson Townhomes), three miles to the east. His biographer describes the boyhood neighborhood:
A dingy warren of flimsy little houses, with plank porch railings ranked with rusted coffee cans that, in the summer, held rufflings of geraniums and caladiums. Each house was perched on a tiny, grassless, rutted yard, some scattered with wood chips and upturned washtubs and old tires and bluish puddles of pitched-out dishwater, others whisked clean with straw brooms and enclosed by spindly fences assembled out of scraps of boards and wire, with walkways bordered by bits of brick and cement block and broken bottles set in neat parallel lines in the dirt.
Our worlds were so close and yet so far apart. His mother, Helen, loved the same Christian radio station my mother did—WMUU, the voice of Bob Jones University. But there was a big difference. The very school that broadcast all that Bible truth would not admit blacks. And the large, white Baptist church four miles from Jesse Jackson's home wouldn't either. Nor would mine.