KOH2RVA: Day 160

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1850s_jpgOne of the things that keeps the Kingdom of heaven from coming to Richmond, Virginia, is the old animosity between the races. White people used to buy and sell black people on the auction block in this town. That’s not something you get over right away.

It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but you can sometimes still feel the old guilt and fear and hurt that hangs in the air between the races. If the Kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, we’ve got to clear the air. We’ve got to recognize that we are children of the same Father, and start treating each other like members of the same family.

To that end let me share a story about my father.

I’m planning to drive to West Virginia to see him today because my brother Scott, who lives nearby, thinks he may be down to his last few days. I’m at peace about that, and my dad isn’t in any pain, but because of that he’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I woke up this morning thinking about this story. I think I’ve shared it with you before, but let me share it again in honor of my dad and in the hope of someday achieving true and lasting reconciliation between the races.


I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama. 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 Citizen’s Council. “What is the White Citizen’s 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 Citizen’s 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. 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 in Lowndes County 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?

7 thoughts on “KOH2RVA: Day 160

  1. Jim! What a lovely tribute to your Mother and Father. Give them my love when you see them! Over and Out….Vaughn Earl Hartsell

  2. A “what would Jesus do” original…
    Who knows….Years from now as you enter your twilight, folks may reflect on your less-than- traditional approach to “that old time religion” and realize you were on to something too…..if the Kingdom doesn’t come before then.. 😉

  3. Jim, another thing we have in common! When I was 14, my family moved to Richmond from Warrenton, VA for my father to be the Director of Race Relations for the Virginia Council of Churches — Warrenton wasn’t like Alabama, but Dad felt strongly about doing what he could to improve what he called “Human Relations” — and from him and my mother (both of whom had grown up on tobacco farms in Mecklenberg County, VA) who made very sure that each of my two brothers and I understood very clearly that we are all children of the same Father — regardless of skin color and economic circumstance — and need to treat each other definitely as brothers and sisters. The family was here for 5 years, and then he went to New York to be the Co-Director of Race Relations for the National Council of Churches until 1952 when he came back to Richmond to serve on the Divinity School faculty at Virginia Union University until he retired. There were many times he wasn’t popular with members of his own extended family, but he never let it deter him from speaking out against whatever injustices he saw wherever he was! He taught the Cofer-Decker Bible Study class here along with several others and always valued his relationship with his church family at First Baptist.

  4. God does not preach discrimination. He is a God of love. Your dear Father knew that even as a young man and stood up to that evil. What a beautiful story. It takes alot of courage to stand up to evil, especially with five mouths to feed. Your Dad deserves a Medal—A Purple Heart for doing the right thing! May your visit with your Dad be blessed.

  5. We discriminate because we are afraid. When we are afraid we pull back which is an normal reaction. But as responsible people we must look ay our fear and determine if it is rational. As Patricia says God is love to ALL people not just people who believe what we do. We discriminate in so many ways and over so many issue. In the same way that we did the Physician Within on health care issues maybe we can do a series on social issues that separate us from those God wants us to love.

  6. Jim,

    Thank you for again sharing this story. Even though I have heard or read it before, it remains very inspiring. You have every reason to be proud of your father and I wish only the very best for him. As your father’s days wind down, I hope that he will know peace and that you and the rest of your family will be able to spend blessed time with him. Take care and best wishes to all of you.

    Ron Smith

  7. This past summer I was bedside with my father Irvin at Mercy Hospital in Iowa prior to heart surgery. It is good you go Jim. Irvin Netcott shaped this 4th generation mason`s view on this issue.

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