Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey: The Contested Color of Christ

Roundup: Talking About History

Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University, and Paul Harvey is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. They are the authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, just published by the University of North Carolina Press.

In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes. This was a comforting Jesus, and for decades he had been with this black congregation in Birmingham, Ala. But on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, less than three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream of racial equality, dynamite set by white supremacists exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church, and four little girls who had gone to the basement lounge to freshen up were dead. The face of Jesus shattered into a thousand shards of glass. In the blink of an eye, the prince of peace was a casualty of racism.

The bombing would become a pivotal moment in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. The outrage that grew around the nation helped spur the voting-rights campaign and pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 2004, two days after winning the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, Barack Obama flew to Birmingham to give a speech at the city's Civil Rights Institute. He took the opportunity to cross the street and visit the church, by then a national historic landmark. When he entered, he observed a "still-visible scar" along the wall where the bomb had gone off. He saw portraits of the four young girls and thought about his two little daughters at home. He sat to pray, and above him in stained glass was the Jesus installed in 1965 to commemorate the bombing. This one seems sad, his arms stretched out, crucified. His hair is short, cropped; his face black.

The same year the church's black Jesus was dedicated, Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City resurrected an image of Jesus to present themselves to the nation and the world. The Christus, as the statue is known, was created in the early 19th century by a Dutch artist, but Latter-day Saints made it their own when they placed a replica in a Visitors Center in Temple Square. Jesus stands more than 11 feet high. He is made of all-white marble, and his hair flows below his shoulders. His right arm and pectoral muscle are exposed to reveal his chiseled physique. He could just as easily adorn the cover of a best seller as a Bible storybook....

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