Stories of Faith and Civil Rights
By Charles Marsh
Princeton University Press. 276 pp. $24.95

Go to the first chapter of "God's Long Summer"

Go to Chapter One


Doing the Lord's Work

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 2, 1997; Page X03
The Washington Post

This original and uncommonly thoughtful book is a study of four men and one woman who played important roles in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. That was when black Mississippians, joined by black and white outsiders -- "outside agitators," as they were known among white Mississippians -- made a direct challenge to the state's infamous "closed society." It was a time when the very foundations of the known world seemed about to fall away, a time of heart-stopping confrontations and terrible violence.

It was also, argues Charles Marsh, a theologian at Loyola College in Baltimore, a time when "God was -- in some perplexing and hitherto undelineated way -- present," when "white conservatives and civil-rights activists, black militants and white liberals, black moderates and Klansmen, all staked their particular claims for racial justice and social order on the premise that God was on their side." It is hard to remember today, even for those of us old enough to remember, how fervently the most bigoted as well as the most charitable attitudes were couched in terms of God-ordained certitude; it is even harder to comprehend that this was often done out of genuine religious conviction. But Marsh asks us to face this complex reality squarely:

"Obviously, an accurate picture of how religion shaped the civil-rights movement cannot be drawn from a crude juxtaposition of good social gospel guys on the one hand and Bible-thumping racists on the other . . . There are no easy patterns for predicting the way religious ideas govern particular courses of action. Yet there is in each case a theological sense or inner logic in these embodied theologies, and thus there exist patterns specific to the complex interaction of faith and lived experience. I invite the reader to contemplate the inner sense of these religious worlds, to seek an understanding of how the social order looks from the various perspectives of faith, both to broaden our knowledge of the civil-rights movement and better to discern how images of God continue to inform differing visions of civic life and responsibility."

To put it another way -- borrowing an old truism -- the Bible can be read in as many different ways as there are people to read it. Given the human capacity to find what one is looking for even if it is not there, the word of God as transmitted through the Bible can be interpreted in endless ways in order to serve endless purposes. The five case studies that Marsh brings under his microscope provide fruitful evidence of this.

The names and stories of three of these five people will still be familiar to some readers: Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of Ku Klux Klan, who "ruled over a four-year campaign of pervasive white terrorism, during which he was suspected of orchestrating at least nine murders, 75 bombings of black churches and 300 assaults, bombings and beatings"; Cleveland Sellers, program director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who made a painful transition from nonviolence to Black Power that summer and who was subsequently convicted for crimes he did not commit during racial violence in the South Carolina college town of Orangeburg; and Fannie Lou Hamer, the saintly black Mississippian who "heard the call of Jesus . . . a call demanding sacrifice, but a call also promising freedom and empowerment," who overcame discrimination and torture to lead a genuinely exemplary life.

The two others are now less widely known, though they got their share of press coverage at the time. Both were white, both were men of the cloth. Douglas Hudgins was the preacher at First Baptist Church in Jackson, "the single most powerful religious institution in Mississippi during the civil-rights years." He was the "premier theologian of the closed society" who "articulated in his sermons, Bible studies and occasional writings and embodied in his church leadership an austere piety that remained impervious to the sufferings of black people, as well as to the repressive tactics of the guardians of orthodoxy, many of whom were lodged in his own congregation." Ed King, by contrast, was a Mississippian who found in Methodism "unsettling questions . . . about the faith of his fathers and the theological presuppositions of the closed society"; he became the chief exponent of "church testings," in which blacks and their white supporters attempted to worship at white churches, employing a style that was "elusive, unpredictable and agitating, presenting himself as a kind of aggravating parable, an unmistakable reminder that all was not well in the house of the Lord."

Marsh's greater sympathy with the religious faith and practices of Hamer, Sellers and King hardly needs explanation; he is a believer in what he calls "the beloved community," a "reconciled brotherhood and sisterhood, sharing a common cause, celebrating shared and sacred hopes," so it is understandable that he finds the faith of his fellow believers most persuasive and congenial. But he makes a serious effort to present the faith of Bowers and Hudgins fairly and sympathetically. Thus Bowers "linked the invading hordes of civil-rights activists -- and all those local people who were taken up with the spirit of the moment -- with the enemies of Christ," though he cannot see precisely "how, or exactly why," he did so. Marsh finds something oddly poignant about Bowers, and treats him with more compassion than any chronicle of his life would suggest he deserves.

There is little compassion here, though, for Douglas Hudgins and the white Christianity of which he was so prim and proper a representative. "The white church that sanctified and blessed the Southern Way of Life preached a gospel of comfort," Marsh writes, and few can have preached it with deeper conviction than Douglas Hudgins. His mean, narrow theology saw "racial homogeneity" as "ordained by God as part of his design for the created order" and retreated "to a piety that disconnected language from reality, which fashioned a serene, self-enclosed world, undisturbed by the sufferings of blacks and Jews." By "calling the faithful away from civil rights and social existence," Marsh says, "Hudgins was able to preserve the purity of the closed church and the closed society for the sake of the closed gospel." Marsh then points to the essential, inescapable truth:

"There are meaningful differences between the revered and genteel minister to Jackson's political and social elites and the seething Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, the success of Bowers's violent mission depended on the kind of gospel Hudgins eloquently preached to white Christians in the spacious sanctuary of the First Baptist Church and over the airwaves of the state and throughout the South. If you were a Klan militant searching the night for the civil-rights heretics, you would count it fortunate that the pure souls had turned their sight inward."

As that passage makes clear, there are moments in God's Long Summer when Marsh's prose achieves real passion. There are others when it slows down in the jargon of theology, which should come as no surprise considering that he is, in fact, a theologian. But there are relatively few of these moments, and their effects are hardly fatal. What matters is that this is a comprehensive, imaginative, fair-minded and perceptive book, a significant contribution to our understanding of those men and women who fought those terrible wars in what seems so long ago but was, in fact, only yesterday.

Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is yardleyj@clark.net.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.
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