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.
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. 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. Hemphill is a veteran observer of the blue-collar South, and he is at hisbest in portraying the world of the arsonists. He sympatheticallyportrays the tragic lives of the arsonists by showing the ways thatpoverty, hopelessness, and indifferent parentage contributed to theircrimes. At the same time, he highlights the deep self-delusions ofracism within the white community that blinds them to the humanity oftheir black neighbors.
Though interesting and thought provoking, these books paint a gloomyportrait of the relationship between religion and race in our society. Time and again they show individuals turning a blind eye to articles ofreligious faith when theology runs afoul of racial presuppositions. Even Shattuck's earnest and well-meaning liberal clergy stumble overpersonal racial demons, even as they struggle against larger societalones. These books remind us that while the Reverend King's fight for ballotboxes and schoolhouse doors has been achieved, his quest for hearts,minds, steeples, and pews remains unfulfilled.