Thursday, October 11, 2007

Happy Anniversary!

Today marks a very special anniversary for the City of Moscow, for on this date four years ago, the Moscow–Pullman Daily News ran the first of several front-page stories that ultimately determined the end of Douglas Wilson’s relationship with the community, ultimately forcing him into a “You’re persecuting me!” position, from which he has never recovered. And when I say “several front-page stories,” I mean at least one a week (sometimes more), from November 2003 to February 2004, that covered a particular aspect of the story. “What was the story?” you ask. Well, in short, the story was about a local pastor who co-wrote a booklet that affirmed the Southern institution of slavery as a biblical practice, approved by God, and a pretty good deal for the slaves.

Locally, the fallout from the story continues to this day as the community remains scandalized from Wilson’s outrageous revision of history and his equally outrageous behavior. Nationally, the fallout has been significantly less because the national media never ran with the story, which prevented most people from witnessing Wilson’s breathtaking hypocrisy. However, given the tremendous number of hits I receive, I hope to remedy this.

A shortlist itemizing some of the fallout from this scandal

  • Douglas Wilson and Christ Church refused to acknowledge the book’s thesis, insisting that he wrote a book condemning the Civil War as a means of abolition.

  • Christ Church ran a PR blitz in all of the local papers (including the college papers) to deny that Southern Slavery, As It Was, defended slavery. The same ads contended that the book condemned the Civil War as a means to liberate slaves.

  • The presidents of the University of Idaho and Washington State University published open letters repudiating Christ Church’s revision of history.

  • Over 1000 people signed a public rebuke to Douglas Wilson for his revision of history and published the rebuke in two full-page ads in two local papers.

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center identified Christ Church as a “hate group.”

  • Christ Church sponsored a website called “Hatesplotch,” which Wilson used to insult, offend, and harass his detractors in the community.

  • The website “dougsplotch” went up, in response to Hatesplotch, to tell the story of Wilson’s casino woes.

  • Two historians from the University of Idaho published an angry response to the booklet, which they titled Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t: Professional Historians Respond to Neo-Confederate Misinformation. The University of Idaho freely distributed hard copies of the response and made the pdf available on their website.

  • Wilson wrote a letter to the interim presidents of the University of Idaho threatening the university with a defamation suit.

  • Wilson wrote a letter to the governor of the State of Idaho, asking the governor to make the University of Idaho stop harassing him.

  • Wilson went ballistic on the Moscow–Pullman Daily News, demanding that they apologize for misrepresenting his “history conference.”

  • Douglas Wilson was a regular contributor to the local electronic bulletin board, but after this scandal broke, he contradicted himself so much that he could no longer post without getting blistered from any number of people. So he ceased posting using his own name.

  • Douglas Wilson returned to the listserv under the guise of multiple pseudonyms, mostly to defend his reputation. He presently uses the pseudonym “Glenn Schwaller” (someone needs to do a website telling this story; they should call it “The Edna Files”).

  • Hundreds of people protested Christ Church’s three-day “history conference,” which was the original pretext for the story.

  • About a year later, the community discovered that Wilson and Wilkins plagiarized most of the booklet from a book titled Time on the Cross, and that they completely misrepresented the authors’ conclusions from that book.

  • Roughly 75 academics from the Palouse signed a petition publicly rebuking Wilson for committing plagiarism.

  • WORLD Magazine ran the plagiarism story, which sent Wilson over the edge.

  • Douglas Wilson alienated himself from the community so badly that two attempted land deals for Christ Church fell through because the sellers wanted nothing to do with the man, which forced Christ Church to retain a proxy in a recent real-estate transaction.
In short, Douglas Wilson completely scandalized the Palouse, putting himself and his church on the radar as an offense to human decency, and in the coming months I hope to enlarge on some of these bullet points. Until then, here are the first two major front-page stories from four years ago. They appeared about a month apart, with several other front-page stories in between.

This article was the original bomb that broke the story. It ran on Saturday, October 11, 2003, in the Moscow–Pullman News:

Slavery revisited; Debate, emotions already stirred as preface to February conference at UI
By Alexis Bacharach
Raul Sanchez and Doug Wilson have very different views on slavery.

The two perspectives will clash early next year when Wilson and Louisiana minister Steve Wilkins arrive on the University of Idaho campus. Wilson and Wilkins co-authored the booklet, Southern Slavery, As It Was.

Sanchez, director of diversity and human rights at the UI, decided to research the Christ Church-sponsored conference in February that features the authors discussing history and slavery. Sanchez said the viewpoints expressed by Wilson and Wilkins in their publication seek to provide a biblical defense of slavery. “Coming from the South, I know that this stuff exists,” he said. “There are people out there who believe this stuff — that maybe slavery wasn’t that bad.”

Wilson, pastor of Moscow’s Christ Church, said he did not co-write the book to defend slavery. His intention was to defend the Bible. There are passages in the Bible that indicate slavery is not a sin if the slave owner treats the slaves humanely. “Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity,” the booklet reads. “Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”

As a pastor, Wilson said he’d seen too many Christians take bits and pieces from the Bible to suit their needs. He said good Christians apply all the Bible’s teachings in their daily lives. “I was watching a television program where Jerry Falwell was making an argument against abortion . . . The Bible tells us not to do this thing,” Wilson said. “A critic comes back with, ‘well the Bible says this too. . .’ and Falwell says, ‘yes but that doesn’t really apply anymore.’ I have long believed that we should not be embarrassed by anything in the Bible. You find many Christians who use the ‘that was then, this is now’ argument. When Falwell used that argument, he lost the point he was trying to make about abortion.”

Wilson used the Bible’s view on homosexuals as another example. The Bible indicates the punishment for homosexuality is death. The Bible also indicates the punishment for homosexuality is exile. “So death is not the minimal punishment for a homosexual,” Wilson said. “There are other alternatives.”

Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine, said the community should be concerned about the messages Wilkins and Wilson provide in their book. The SPLC is a nonprofit, civil rights law firm that tracks hate groups in the United States and provides educational programs. Potok said the SPLC has kept a close eye on Steve Wilkins and his followers. He said conferences and literature presenting propaganda, like that in the book written by Wilkins and Wilson, is what attracted the SPLC’s attention in the first place. Potok said his colleagues are mainly interested in Wilkins’ involvement with the League of the South, an organization the SPLC has identified as a “white supremacist hate group.”

Wilkins said he is aware his associations with various groups have stirred controversies, and denied the League of the South was a hate group. He said the league was formed to examine Southern independence and the Constitution as it existed before the Civil War.

Potok said his take on the group was a little different. Members of the league believe the Constitution, as it was written by the founding fathers, was destroyed when the South lost the Civil War. He said the league frowns upon “race-mixing,” and believes that slavery was not the social injustice some people have made it out to be. Wilkins’ views on slavery are evident in the book he co-authored with Wilson, Potok said. “This group is totally opposed to democracy,” Potok said. “Wilkins and others believe the Civil War was an attack on the last true Christians. They say the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and the North tried to destroy God’s land.”

Potok said it’s important to understand the differences between neo-confederate ideology and that of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. He said Wilkins and Wilson are not Nazis pretending to be Christians. “They are dangerous on an ideological level,” Potok said. “They aren’t going to batter black people in the streets or stage any marches. But their message is patently racist. Their books and publications are justifications of modern-day racism. They won’t say it, but that’s what it is.”

Wilson said his book about Southern slavery was carefully put together so it would not be perceived as a racist publication. He had two thoughts in mind when he decided to take on the subject of slavery. The first was to defend the Bible. The second was to present a historically accurate picture of slavery as it existed in the South prior to the Civil War.

The book suggests people are misguided in their assumptions about slavery. In one chapter, the authors argue that slaves would have organized rebellions against their masters if servitude was so unpleasant. According to the book, slaves lived better lives than most poor white people who lived in the same era. “Slave life was a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, food, clothes, and good medical care,” Wilson and Wilkins wrote. “Welfare laws have removed the black man from his position of bread-winner and head of the home, and the black family has been gradually destroyed.”

In the book, Wilkins and Wilson acknowledge that some brutalities were committed against slaves — that some were beaten and some were raped. But the authors indicate these were rare situations. The book suggests that most Southern slave owners followed the Bible as it pertains to slavery.

Pastor Daniel Saperstein, from the Pullman Presbyterian Church, said the Bible should not be used to defend slavery. He said it is irrelevant that slavery is not expressly forbidden by scripture. The Bible is misused when texts are taken out of context, Saperstein said. “This is an example of someone misinterpreting scripture,” he said. “The same argument was made to defend slavery in earlier centuries. It’s not the way scripture is supposed to be read, but people do it all the time.”

Several Moscow residents and members of the UI community have discussed how they might protest the history conference in February. Latah County Human Rights Task Force founder Joann Muneta said Wilson and Wilkins can expect to be greeted with protest. “We respect their rights of free speech,” she said. “I’m just puzzled why they think Moscow is the place to do this. I’m also concerned that this will happen during Black History Month.”

Sanchez said he respects Wilson and Wilkins’ First Amendment rights, but he is concerned how their ideologies will affect the community. He is especially worried about the campus climate. “I find this very disconcerting,” he said. “We all need to keep our heads.”

Wilson said the community’s concerns are unwarranted. He stressed that he does not support slavery, and opposes racism. In order to be reliable as a pastor, Wilson said he has to defend the Bible as a whole, even those parts of the Bible that people are afraid of. “I did know I was defending an unpopular issue,” he said. “I resolved a long time ago that I would not be ashamed of anything in the Bible.”

Alexis Bacharach can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 234, or by e-mail at

This story ran on Saturday, November 8, 2003, in the Moscow–Pullman Daily News, accompanied by several photographs of black people living in squalor (I’ll try to dig them out). It speaks for itself.

Slavery, as it was; Nation’s top historians dispute Moscow pastor’s view of pre-Civil War slavery
By Alexis Bacharach

Tempie Cummins never knew how old she was. No one ever told her. She was born into slavery on a potato and cotton plantation in Brookeland, Texas, sometime before the Civil War. There were few happy memories to speak of from her childhood. Even her first memories of freedom were marked by fear and sadness.

“When freedom was ’clared, Marster wouldn’t tell em (slaves), but mother she hear him tellin’ Mistus that the slaves was free but they didn’ know it and he’s not gwineter tell ’em till he makes another crop or two,” Cummins said in a 1937 interview for the Slave Narratives. “When mother hear that, she slips out the chimney corner, cracks her heels together four times, and shouts, ‘I’s free, I’s free.’ Then she runs to the field and against Marster’s will and tol all the other slaves and they quit work. Then she run away and in the night she slip into a big ravine near the house . . . Marster, he come out with his gun and shot at mother, but she run down the ravine and gits away with me.”

Cummins’ story is one of more than 2,300 recorded in the Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. The 17-volume collection, compiled in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, has been used by historians worldwide to research pre-Civil War slavery in the United States.

Moscow Christ Church pastor Doug Wilson and Louisiana pastor Steve Wilkins include selected narratives in their booklet, Southern Slavery, As It Was. They use the passages to support their position that slavery in the South “produced a genuine affection between the races that . . . has never existed in any nation before the War or after.” Historians from several universities around the country see the pastors’ views on slavery as uninformed.

University of Idaho history professors Sean Quinlan and William Ramsey recently completed their own booklet on slavery, Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t: Professional Historians Respond to Neo-Confederate Misinformation. The paper cites several factual errors in Wilson’s and Wilkins’ work.

The question of context
Ira Berlin, an award-winning author and professor at the University of Maryland, said anyone with an opinion can find scraps of supporting evidence in historical documents. He said a good historian is compelled to examine things in the larger context. “I would say this understanding of slavery is extremely anachronistic,” Berlin said of the pastors’ booklet. “All of the evidence that we have is that the slaves were extremely unhappy. The vast majority of the slaves wanted out and when they had the chance they got out. Slaveholders put forth this argument that slaves were the happiest people in the world.”

Wilson said abolitionists like Berlin take history out of context to paint the South as an evil empire and show that 100 percent of the slaves were beaten. “What we say is that there were examples of gross mistreatment of slaves, but that there were also slaves who thought back on their time as slaves with affection for the people that they knew and loved,” Wilson said. “The point was not that those quotes represented 100 percent of the slave experience.”

Berlin has found ample evidence to prove slavery was a brutal system of control. He said there is far less documentation to support Wilson and Wilkins’ theory that slavery was benign, and slave owners were mostly good Christians. Known for such works as Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South and Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America, Berlin has received the Bancroft Prize for the best book in American history from Columbia University. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, which Berlin directed through the Freedom and Southern Society Project, twice received the Thomas Jefferson Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government, the J. Franklin Jamison Prize of the American Historical Association, and The Abraham Lincoln Prize for excellence in Civil War studies.

“(Wilson and Wilkins) haven’t done the fundamental work of historians,” Berlin said. “It’s not a question of what sources to use. You should use all the sources you can. If they wanted to reference confederates and plantation owners, they could have cited the planters’ defense of slavery, the plantation records . . . receipts from the sales of slaves. Instead they found one scrap of evidence to support their opinion. That tells us a lot about what they’re defending.”

Quinlan and Ramsey claim the information contained in Southern Slavery, As It Was, sets the civil rights clock back decades. “So, if their work is so hackneyed and flawed, why bother responding?” the UI history professors ask in their rebuttal. “First, (Wilson and Wilkins) have attempted to cloak their agenda in the mantle of academic legitimacy, and, second, the booklet has circulated in that guise unopposed for seven years . . . We are fascinated to observe how they formally deny any racist sympathies but then seem totally oblivious to the actual content of their work.”

Wilson, Wilkins not held to same standard
Duke University history professor Peter Wood said people like Wilson and Wilkins aren’t held to the same standards as legitimate historians. “Anybody is free to spout any nonsense of the past,” he said. “The general filter that prevails is publication. If you publish it yourself you can say whatever you want . . . It’s ridiculous to even ask whether slavery was a harmful institution, but these issues still arise from time to time, despite the evidence. The holocaust deniers are a similar situation.”

It’s easy to go through historical collections as large as the Slave Narratives and find any number of opposing stories and viewpoints on a particular subject, Wood said. In the case of the Slave Narratives, there are some stories that speak to the horrors of slavery. There are some stories that suggest slaves were ambivalent to the institution. In some cases, the former slaves said they enjoyed their captivity.

Wilson and Wilkins used former Alabama slave Clara Davis’ narrative to support their position. “‘Dem was de good ole days. How I long to be back dar wid my ole folks an’ a playin’ wid de chillun down by de creek. ’Taint nothin’ lak it today, nawsuh . . . Dey tells me dat when a pusson crosses dat ribber, de Lawd gives him what he wants,’” Davis said.

Saidiya Hartman, an English professor at the University of California Berkeley, said Wilson and Wilkins fail to point out that Davis’ story was one of the first collected by the WPA. Hartman, who wrote a book about the Slave Narratives, Scenes of Subjection, said research has discredited a number of the early slave stories because many of the interviews were conducted by former slave owners.

Research discredits many early stories
Many former slaves changed the stories they told the WPA decades later when interviewed by black writers and historians. Martin Jackson, a former slave from Texas, said as much in his interview with the WPA. “Lots of old slaves close the door before they tell the truth about the days of slavery,” Jackson said in the “Slave Narratives.” “When the door is open they tell you how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was . . . I can tell you, the life of the average slave was not so rosy . . . Even with my good treatment, I spent most of my time planning and thinking of running away.”

Hartman said information like that included in Southern Slavery, As It Was, doesn’t provide a critical examination of history. “To examine just a few of the how many thousands of interviews and conclude that slavery was a good thing is ridiculous. Quite frankly, it’s obscene,” she said.

Wilson said he stands by his booklet and the stance he and Wilkins take on slavery. The controversial nature of the topic was one of the reasons he co-wrote the book. The Civil War ended with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Wilson said his argument in no way supports slavery. Rather, his argument is that slavery should not have been ended by war. “There were slaves that were mistreated, that horrible things were done to. There were things that could not be defended. The slave trade was an abomination. All of that’s true, but we’re saying it’s just not that simple,” he said. “We’re not taking anything back. It’s our position that war was enormously complicated and not that simple. That’s our position.”

Southern Slavery, As It Was, relies on famous confederates, such as R.L. Dabney and Presbyterian pastor William White, who allege slaves were only occasionally mistreated. The publication asserts that slaves lived better lives than most impoverished white people at the time. “It was far more in the master’s interest to motivate the slaves by positive means. Far more important than whipping in managing the slaves was figuring out how to motivate,” according to an article from the Journal of Confederate History quoted in Wilson and Wilkins’ booklet.

Stanford University history professor Clayborne Carson questioned why anyone would suggest that pre-Civil War slaves were happy. “I haven’t heard of this argument since the pre-Civil War period when people actually believed the slaves were really happy with their lives,” said Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford. “Of course after the emancipation it is interesting to see that slaves left once they were freed and they didn’t go back. Why would anyone want to waste their time with this argument? It’s incomprehensible.”

In their rebuttal, the UI’s Quinlan and Ramsey also point to factual errors in Wilson and Wilkins’ work. “Throughout their booklet, Wilson and Wilkins play repeatedly upon the pervasive racist image of the ‘happy darky,’ that obedient ‘Sambo’ type who happily bore his subjudication precisely because he knew it was good for him,” Quinlan and Ramsey wrote. “For the sake of fairness, objective readers should be aware that other groups share Wilson’s and Wilkins’ arguments. Those interested in these alternative perspectives may want to consult, for instance, the history of Southern slavery offered by the Ku Klux Klan. Virtually any Klan Web site will offer confirmation of Wilson’s thesis that slavery wasn’t all that bad.”

Wilson said the professors’ attempt to link him to the KKK is a stretch. “Follow that argument out. Suppose someone could go to the Web page of the Communist party and find a similar analysis of the war between the states as presented by these gentlemen. Does that make them Communists? No,” Wilson said. “If you think we are reciting certain stories out of the narratives to make a universal claim about all slavery, that’s false. I would object to that method to put a happy face on all slavery, just as I object to abolitionists’ method of taking some horror story and making it representative of all slavery. The real picture is far more complicated.”

Wood: Slavery is wrong
Wood, from Duke University, disagreed. He said there’s nothing complicated about it. Slavery is wrong, no matter how the slaves are treated by their masters. For years, he has taught history and written books on slavery and African-American culture. His research and resulting publications have won awards — the Albert J. Beveridge Award and the James Harvey Robinson Prize of the American Historical Association. “I have seen the evidence and written about the kinds of cruelty inflicted upon slaves — whipping, mutilation, fingers were cut off, slaves were castrated . . . just striking brutality,” he said. “Even with all of that there is something more cruel in denial of freedom, freedom to get an education, freedom to marry who you wish — all the things that are so basic.”

John Fields’ memories of slavery paint a similar picture — a young man forced to work more than 12 hours a day. Fields, quoted in the Slave Narratives, said he was beaten because he wanted to learn how to read and write. “In most of us colored folks was a great desire to be able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write,” Fields told the WPA.

“It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to prosecution entailing a fine of fifty dollars and a jail sentence. We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco and whiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then? An offender guilty of this crime was subjected to very harsh punishments.”

Alexis Bacharach can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 234, or by e-mail at

Thank you.