Leaving Alabama

book121-aLast week, during the Lenten Luncheon series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I told the story of how my family left Alabama.  Some of you have asked that I post it here.  This version is a little longer, with a few more details.  I hope it will inspire your thinking on race relations and make you wonder how your own experience has shaped your views on that issue.  Enjoy.

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I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama (for those of you who are still doing the math I am hanging on to my forties by my fingernails).  My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.

 

He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville.  Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent.  The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you?  You know what it’s like.”  And it’s true.  My father had grown up in South Carolina.  He probably knew exactly what it was like.  But he came anyway.  He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizens’ Council.  “What is the White Citizens’ Council for, exactly?” my father asked.  “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?”  And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!” 

 

Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizens’ Council was for.  According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies.  With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South.  Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities.[1]  If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that.  But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community.  He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two.  “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”

 

It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination.  According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people.  The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it.  And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought.  He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful.  But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us.  It belongs to Jesus Christ.  And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.”  And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”

 

Soon word began to get around that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher.  Church attendance began to fall off.  Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store.  And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again.  One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?”  “Didn’t you know?” said the woman.  “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”

 

Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed.  He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass.  My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?”  And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.”  But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there.  So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.

 

Things were happier there, and friendlier, too.  But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since.  How about you?  Who shaped your views on this issue?


[1] From Wikipedia, “White Citizens’ Council”

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Leaving Alabama

  1. Thank your for sharing your story. I, too, have a story to tell. I’m sure you have heard about the two Nigerian students who came for membership at FBC in the 1960’s. Dr. Adams faced his white congregation with strong convictions similar to those of your father’s, and this church was shaken down to its roots.

    At that time my father, Bill Jessup, was the Youth Minister on Dr. Adams’ staff. I vividly remember one Sunday walking down the hall towards the sanctuary with my Dad when I was about 9 years old, and these two young African men were telling him that they planned to join the church that morning. My father encouraged them, not knowing the storm that would follow for him personally, and for the entire church.

    This began the long and very painful process of opening the doors of Richmond’s First Baptist Church to all people. The fact that FBC did not split or dissolve during this difficult time is an indication of the character of Dr. Adams’ leadership.

    Because of these events, my Dad realized his calling was not to the church ministry, but rather to the ministry of civil rights. He eventually was hired in Georgia following the race riots of 1970 and became the director of the Human Relations Committee there. Later he was president of the National Association of Human Rights Workers, worked with people like Mrs. Martin Luther King and Rev. Jesse Jackson, and continued his career in human rights in North Carolina. To this day when the subject of those two Nigerian students comes up, he still gets tears in his eyes.

    I am proud to see how far we have come. Again, thanks for sharing your story.

  2. There is a parallel in this story and the information referenced in the March 3rd blog. Ironic? Two stories of exclusion. The Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama did not exclude “Negroes” because of the color of their skin. They were excluded because of “Southern boy code”. Their “heritage” was so prominent they couldn’t see the harm in their actions. Of course their “membership requirement” did not compare with FBC Richmond; it was implied, not written in church bylaws.

    Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”. THAT’S a church membership requirement we all hope Baptist churches don’t implement.

    Jesus, forgive us for not meeting your requirements. “Baptize” us with your Holy Spirit today…. and everyday. Amen

    No need to post. Just sharing a thought.

  3. Thanks for the perspective, Jim.

    Our former pastor, now retired, had a similar experience when he became involved in local civil rights activities. As the anonymous hate mail and threats arrived, he worried about the risk by association that was imposed on his wife. One evening, she answered the phone to hear someone ask in a rough voice, “Is the nigga lover there?” Without missing a beat, she responded sweetly, “Speaking.”

    The caller hung up.

  4. Jim,
    Thanks for sharing a page from your past. I was brought up in a similar situation in Alabama. My dad, a bivocational Baptist pastor encountered the racism on a few deacons who objected to his sermon on “Brotherhood” Sunday during which he declared that God calls for us to love everybody. He was told after service: “You can’t preach like that in this church.” Dad replied, “You don’t tell me how to preach.” We didn’t stay at that church long after that.

    I’m still in Alabama – grateful for the change I see – and working to see things change more!

  5. Why is it that…we who are among the members of the human race have such a tendency to focus on our differences rather than our similarities? Does it go all the way back to Adam and Eve and “the fall” and our human depravity and all that?

    Why is it that…“labels” like “African American” and “Irish American” and “Native American” and “English American” and “European heritage” and “Virginian” and “Richmonder” and all the other splintering descriptors exist? Even among Protestants – all who claim to be followers of Christ – we have a plethora of sects.

    Most of us are proud of our heritage. I certainly mean no disparagement to any. Acceptance and appreciation of diversity happens when there is some unifying force.

    Why is it that…we don’t naturally look at the bigger picture rather than the smaller?

    An old saying goes “Wishin’ don’t make it so.” But I wish sometimes that we could/would grow our mindset and think of ourselves…
    · not as Baptists
    · not as Richmonders
    · not as Virginians
    · not as some splintered part of the American experience
    · not as just Americans…
    · not as Christians, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, or any other division of humanity…

    but as CITIZENS OF THE WORLD all living together on this planet…and FIRST from the perspective as CHILDREN OF GOD.

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