The Most Segregated Hour

Three new books examine the racial divide in our worship.

"The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in theRural 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 Sundayschool is still the most segregated school of the week." By pointingout the conflict between racism and Christian ideals, King hoped toshame white church leaders into supporting the campaign againstsegregation in the South and racism in the rest of the country.

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

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

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Paul Hemphill's "Ballad of Little River" tells the story of a churchburning in a rural Alabama community where he spent a year on ajournalistic safari. Hemphill, whose previous books have ranged fromtruckers to Cherokee Indians to mayoral politics, traces the complexhistory of the Little River community and tells the often heartbreakingpersonal stories of its members. In so doing, he illuminates how theburning of St. Joe Baptist church came to pass and how it affected theblack and white people of Little River.

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

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