The Past Isn’t Always in the Past: Covington Catholic and the Politics of Race and Gender at Southern Private Schools

Nathan Phillips (center) leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March. Image (detail): Joe Flood

It was hard to miss the video that went viral on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

On January 20, footage of a white high school student, flanked by his classmates as he stood in front of a Native American elder, took the news and social media by storm. The student stood at a close distance, wearing an apparent smirk below his “Make America Great Again” hat. The Native elder stood calmly but firmly, beating a small hand drum and singing over the noise from the student’s classmates, many of whom also sported the iconic red baseball caps of Trump supporters. One classmate appeared to taunt the Native elder with a gesture mocking a “tomahawk chop.”

The March for Life incident is a troubling reminder of a history that links segregated private schools to the anti-abortion movement.

The scene was from Washington, D.C., where students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, were attending the anti-abortion March for Life. It was an event that coincided with an Indigenous Peoples March, a grassroots gathering of community leaders, celebrities, and activists to address the environmental and human rights issues facing Native American, First Nations, and other indigenous people.

The incident drew conflicting narratives as more footage was pieced together to show how Nick Sandmann, the Covington student, came face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, veteran, and activist. What gained general agreement was that tensions had first been elevated by verbal exchanges with another, smaller group identifying themselves as the Black Hebrew Israelites. A few members of that group could be seen subjecting the Covington students to inflammatory language and insults. Thereafter, people have been divided, often along partisan lines, on whether Sandmann or Phillips was the instigator of the face-off.

Each gave their own accounts of the event. According to Phillips, a “mob mentality” started developing among the Covington students as they responded to the Black Hebrew Israelites, prompting him and other members of the Indigenous Peoples March to walk between the two groups to defuse the situation.

Sandmann, after retaining a public relations firm co-founded by former Mitch McConnell aide Scott Jennings, claimed he and his classmates were passive victims in the situation. According to his prepared statement, he and his classmates, in response to “being loudly attacked and taunted in public,” asked their chaperones if they could begin their school spirit chant, at which point Phillips arrived, “invading the personal space of others.”

The March for Life incident might remain the subject of debate for weeks to come. Pundits who aimed for middle ground argued that it’s impossible to know with certainty what was going through Sandmann’s head. Whatever his motivations were, the behavior of the Covington contingent as a whole is a reflection of their school, and that behavior included loud chanting at Phillips — including, according to him, shouts of “Build that wall.” Readers might find it a rich irony that a Native American was subjected to that chant — and described as “invading” in Sandmann’s statement.

The Diocese of Covington immediately apologized for the incident, but what changes will take place in the long term remain to be seen. Decisive and concrete steps will likely be needed if Covington wants to escape its association not just with this incident but with a longer, problematic history of private Christian schools in the American South. Those schools were once the safe houses for retrograde racial attitudes — a place to preserve the system of segregation that was no longer viable in public schools because of court rulings — and, in a strange twist, they played a big role in creating the war on abortion that Sandmann and his classmates joined decades later in D.C.

Peculiar Institutions

Covington Catholic High School shares something in common with a lot of private Christian schools of the past: It is largely white. In Park Hills, Kentucky, where Covington is located, black people make up 8 percent of the population. At Covington, though, the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics shows only one black student among a total of more than 600.

The underrepresentation of students of color shows the underwhelming progress since school desegregation first began. At its outset, the idea of colorblind school enrollment was met with fierce opposition from Southern conservatives. For them, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a flashpoint that sparked debates about closing public schools so that they would never have to be integrated. The palpable ire wasn’t just limited to the Deep South. As far north as Virginia, conservatives gave serious consideration to the idea of shuttering public schools in the wake of Brown.

Amid this furor, private Christian schools grew in popularity, providing alternatives for white Southerners who wanted to keep sending their children to segregated schools. For years these private academies flew under the radar as the last bastions of an old racial order, but by the 1970s, they came under the scrutiny of the IRS and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both agencies challenged the schools’ admissions and hiring policies that barred students, staff, and faculty of color.

The agencies got their marching orders from Green v. Kennedy, a case that went before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the 1970s. Green looked at schools like Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian Academy, questioning whether their tax-exempt status should be upheld if they openly practiced racial discrimination. Long before his crusades against abortion and the LGBTQ community, Falwell had branded himself a fierce segregationist, someone who held that “[school] facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

The court decided against the schools, and in due course, the IRS set its sights on Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Founder Bob Jones Jr., like Falwell, argued that the Bible mandated segregation. Though the university had finally started admitting African Americans in the early 1970s, it still upheld discrimination by banning interracial dating among its students (a ban it finally lifted in 2000).

Feeling embattled, the defenders of segregated Christian academies decided they needed the nation’s highest office on their side — or at least not working against them. By the late 1970s, that meant replacing President Jimmy Carter in the next presidential election, pegging their hopes on the possibility that a conservative executive branch would create a gentler and tamer IRS. To rally the troops, though, the segregationists felt that being transparent about their cause would be self-defeating, painting themselves as people many would see as law-breakers and bigots.

Eventually, the segregationists found a mastermind for their anti-Carter campaign in the conservative activist Paul Weyrich. Following Weyrich’s cues, they left Green v. Kennedy out of the public conversation and replaced it with rhetoric around another, unrelated case — Roe v. Wade.

From today’s vantage point, when reproductive rights are under constant threat, it may be hard to believe that Weyrich’s idea — that abortion could be the issue that galvanizes a conservative base — was anything less than obvious. As Weyrich would later recount, though, many religious conservatives reacted to Roe v. Wade by concluding they should withdraw to their own realm of moral dictates instead of engaging with a political system that responded to more worldly ethics and imperatives. He met with numerous religious conservatives, and, as he put it, “they were all arguing that that decision was one more reason why Christians had to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.”

Weyrich, though, had the opposite view, that abortion could be the issue that makes religious conservatives a formidable political force. It wasn’t until he met a group of evangelical leaders who were mobilizing to defend Bob Jones University that he finally found a receptive audience. The abortion issue would serve their purposes perfectly, replacing angry invective against forced integration with lofty proclamations about the sanctity of life. Their messages resonated with the Republican nominee for the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan, who became an unwavering voice for a Republican platform that now included support for a constitutional ban on abortion, an end to taxpayer funding of abortion, and a commitment to appointing anti-abortion judicial nominees.

The abortion issue turned out to be the lightning bolt they needed. In a landslide victory, Reagan beat Carter in the 1980 election. While the outcome was straightforward, the abortion debate played a complex role in Carter’s defeat. At the time of the election, voters didn’t rank abortion high on their list of key issues, and the positions they took on abortion didn’t fall neatly along party lines like they do today. Moreover, many voters weren’t even sure where either candidate stood on the issue. The latter, perhaps, was for good reason, since Reagan and Carter both had mixed records on abortion.

Irate parents meet with Rep. Jake Pickle, D-Texas, over school integration efforts, January 21, 1980. Image: Austin Citizen Collection, Austin Public Library

For Reagan, Roe often served as shorthand for a runaway judicial system he hoped to bring under control, making abortion not so much a stand-alone issue but a centerpiece of the broader judicial liberalism he and his base opposed. At that time, judicial liberalism was associated with many federal court orders, subsequent to the Brown decision, that mandated busing initiatives to speed up the pace of school integration, bringing more students of color to predominantly white public schools.

To be sure, supporters of whites-only Christian schools didn’t completely abandon their public defenses of segregation, but they did abandon their direct, racially inflammatory language, opting instead for vaguer rhetoric about meddlesome bureaucrats interfering with religious liberty. That, too, found resonance in Reagan’s expressed contempt for big government. And when they weren’t speaking in coded terms about segregation, they could speak loudly and passionately about abortion — and organize around the issue.

Lasting Legacies

Among the many people who have now viewed the videos of Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips, many saw an incident isolated in time, a single and independent moment when activists from two different marches crossed paths. For others, though, it looked like the all-too-familiar photos of civil rights activists who sat amid sneering onlookers at segregated lunch counters. The MAGA hats and all that’s associated with them — from border walls to Muslim bans to torch-bearing white pride rallies — make the comparison inescapable for some. Others noted the long history of encounters between Native Americans and Catholic schools — and the role the latter played in the loss of Native culture during colonization, as they converted and Westernized Native students, often in hostile environments that were rife with physical and sexual abuse.

Covington Catholic High School’s vision statement, as published on its website, includes “respect for others,” “service to the community,” and “personal excellence.” Those words have appealed to parents and donors, but now they will need to satisfy a lot of skeptics as well.

Reassurances are more than due when other videos have surfaced that reportedly show the Covington boys harassing women at the March for Life, shortly before their encounter with Phillips. One of them can be heard yelling to the women, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.” Yet another video shows Covington students at a 2012 basketball game, a few of them in what appears to be blackface. Explanations have since been offered that the face and body painting is a school tradition, but to call the tradition racially insensitive would be an understatement.

The history of how the anti-abortion movement became what it is today, at one time weaponizing opposition to abortion in a backlash against a new era of integration, stitched together the disparate elements of Christian schools, racial antipathy, and opposition to reproductive rights. That those three elements converged again in Washington, D.C., on January 20 could be shrugged off as coincidence by some. But as the observers of social change often lament, history tends to take two steps forward and one step back.

The world will be watching what steps Covington Catholic takes.