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 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.
Though interesting and thought provoking, these books paint a gloomy portrait of the relationship between religion and race in our society. Time and again they show individuals turning a blind eye to articles of religious faith when theology runs afoul of racial presuppositions. Even Shattuck's earnest and well-meaning liberal clergy stumble over personal racial demons, even as they struggle against larger societal ones. These books remind us that while the Reverend King's fight for ballot boxes and schoolhouse doors has been achieved, his quest for hearts, minds, steeples, and pews remains unfulfilled.