The Most Segregated Hour

Three new books examine the racial divide in our worship.

BY: Michael Fuquay


"The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural South"

By Paul Hemphill

Free Press, 235 pp.

"Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights"

Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.

University of Kentucky Press, 312 pp.

"Science, Race and Religion in the American South"

By Lester D. Stephens

The University of North Carolina Press, 344 pp.

In his sermons, Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quipping that "eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week." By pointing out the conflict between racism and Christian ideals, King hoped to shame white church leaders into supporting the campaign against segregation in the South and racism in the rest of the country.

Forty years later, Jim Crow segregation is a memory, and racism has become America's most popular metaphor for evil. Yet King's description of Sunday services remains largely unaltered.

Three recently published books focus on the relationship between Christianity and race. With King's larger point well on its way to being answered, these books answer him on a more particular level about how race has shaped our understandings of spirituality and theology.

Paul Hemphill's "Ballad of Little River" tells the story of a church burning in a rural Alabama community where he spent a year on a journalistic safari. Hemphill, whose previous books have ranged from truckers to Cherokee Indians to mayoral politics, traces the complex history of the Little River community and tells the often heartbreaking personal stories of its members. In so doing, he illuminates how the burning of St. Joe Baptist church came to pass and how it affected the black and white people of Little River.

A group of local white teens, several of whom had recently attended a local Klan rally, committed the arson of St. Joe's. In the midst of an all-night alcoholic binge, one of the kids suggested that they go "burn the nigger church." When prosecutors used this statement to exercise the new hate-crime law, outraged local whites maintained that the crime was not racist, and that in any case St. Joe's wasn't a real church anyway. Hemphill uses the trial to illuminate the differing worldviews of white and black residents.

Hemphill is a veteran observer of the blue-collar South, and he is at his best in portraying the world of the arsonists. He sympathetically portrays the tragic lives of the arsonists by showing the ways that poverty, hopelessness, and indifferent parentage contributed to their crimes. At the same time, he highlights the deep self-delusions of racism within the white community that blinds them to the humanity of their black neighbors.

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