Last 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.
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. 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?