A Powerful Blessing
The Life of Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Sr.
By Douglas M. Carpenter. TransAmerica Printing. Pp. 335. $24.99
Review by Gary G. Yerkey
Venturing into the Deep South to participate in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, for a white college student from the North like me, was a harrowing experience. People were being killed and beaten up. Homes and churches were being burned. A joke making the rounds at the time had a nervous northerner heading south and asking God for protection. After a long pause, a deep voice replied from above: “Okay. But I’ll only go as far as Memphis.”
The place with the worst reputation for violence was the gritty city of Birmingham, Alabama, a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was born there in 1954, has spoken of a city steeped in racism. It was “a very scary place,” she wrote in Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family. Her father, who did not believe in practicing nonviolence in the face of violence, would sit on the front porch at night with a loaded gun in his lap.
“What I can remember most from this time,” Rice has said, “is the sound of bombs going off in neighborhoods, including our own.”
Now comes a book telling another side to the story. Its author is the Rev. Douglas M. Carpenter, retired, whose father was the long-serving (1938-68) Bishop of Alabama, the Rt. Rev. C.C.J. Carpenter, who told Episcopalians from outside the South to stay away — not because it was too dangerous but because they would only stir up trouble.
I chose to ignore the bishop’s advice, along with an estimated 500 other Episcopalians, including Presiding Bishop John E. Hines, who heeded the call of Martin Luther King, Jr., to participate in the March 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
“This ‘march,’” Bishop Carpenter was quoted as saying, “is a foolish business and sad waste of time [reflecting] a childish instinct to parade at great cost to our state.”
His son argues that Bishop Carpenter and the city of Birmingham, while flawed, were not as bad as they have been made out to be. He paints a picture of a large and passionate man with a thunderous voice who strengthened the church and was loved and admired by most, including many African Americans. He mostly stood in the middle, according to his son, “trying to move civil rights along without causing bloodshed.” He was a “gradualist.”
Perhaps the sharpest critique of the elder Carpenter’s role in shaping race relations in the South has come from the Rev. Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., who has written (in Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights, 2000) that the Alabama bishop, unlike those who favored integration, “hoped that by preserving the old order, based on the strict subordination of one race under another, all people would learn to accept their proper place within a benevolent but stratified society.”
Douglas Carpenter, who grew up in Birmingham and lived in Alabama for 41 of his 45 years as vicar or rector of Episcopal parishes, says his father played an important part in calming tensions between the races, noting that some of the pro-integration decisions he took as bishop put him on the hit list of the White Citizens’ Council and the KKK.
The younger Carpenter argues that his father spent countless hours in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s “trying to reason with people about their approach to race relations” — eventually becoming, in 1963, the chairman of the 25-member Group Relations Committee charged with “keeping civil rights progress moving.”
It wasn’t until January 1963, however, that the bishop thought it was time to take a strong public stand against those who would disobey the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision striking down segregation in public schools.
At a meeting in Birmingham that month, with racial tensions running high, Bishop Carpenter and several other clergy decided to issue a statement urging those who oppose desegregation to abide peacefully by the anticipated court decisions integrating certain schools and colleges in Alabama. The statement also said that “as southerners” they understood that many sincere people were opposed to this change and were “deeply troubled by it.”
But the statement, arguing that “defiance [of the court decisions] is neither the right answer nor the solution,” was soon overshadowed by another statement issued by Carpenter and seven other religious leaders three months later, which called on Birmingham’s African-American community to withdraw its support for the King-supported program of “nonviolent direction action” aimed at ending racial discrimination through daily sit-ins and mass marches throughout the city. It said that the demonstrations were being led “in part by outsiders.”
“We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” said the statement, published in the Birmingham News on April 12, 1965. “But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” Racial matters, it said, should properly be pursued in the courts.
In response, while biding time in a Birmingham jail cell for violating a court injunction against street protests, King wrote what would become perhaps the most important written document of the civil rights era: “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The letter set out the case for pursuing non-violent civil disobedience as a means of addressing racial injustice. It also offered a blistering critique of “white moderates” who, King said, “paternalistically” believe they can set a timetable for another man’s freedom.
King said in the 20-page letter, dated April 16, that, yes, he was not from Alabama but that he had come to Birmingham “because injustice is here.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in one of his most widely quoted sentences. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
King said, moreover, that he was disappointed with the behavior of what he called the “white moderate” — alluding to Carpenter and his fellow religious leaders.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate,” King wrote, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; [and] who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Bishop Carpenter’s son argues that his father was afraid that the “collateral damage” that would be caused by continuing the King-led campaign of nonviolent protest (known as “Project C,” for confrontation) would fall most heavily on the people it was seeking to help.
“He took this gradual or moderate position not because he feared for his own safety,” Carpenter writes. “It was because he knew what destruction the kind of people who threatened him over the phone were capable and willing to bring against [African-Americans]. … Dad was still hoping that good progress could be made in a more reasonable and orderly manner.”
Carpenter writes that his father, in fact, had cordial relations with many African-Americans in Birmingham, also known as “Bombingham,” including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the initiator of “Project C,” which was beat back brutally by law enforcement forces under the command of Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.
But the two men, according to the bishop’s son, also had longstanding and irreconcilable differences over strategy, with Shuttlesworth preferring that Carpenter “take part in more direct confrontation with those who supported Jim Crow customs and laws. … This difference between immediate confrontation and making haste slowly became their major disagreement.”
Carpenter writes that he agrees with King and Shuttlesworth that his father, “like the vast majority of white Americans,” was slow to make a place for the “new order” of integration. “[W]ithin the confines of every generation we find wonderful human beings leading very worthwhile lives,” he writes, “while limited by the powerful customs of their times.”
I was struck by the lengths to which the bishop’s son went to highlight the role that Project C had played in advancing racial justice in this country.
He writes, for example, that it might have been better for Birmingham if progress had been made more moderately and peacefully. “But it was violent confrontation that got the attention of the entire nation,” he writes, noting that it led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Images of police brutality against African-Americans that were broadcast across the country “worked for the good in waking up the entire nation from a sleep of many decades that had allowed the neglect and abuse of millions of our citizens throughout the land.”
“I think we needed both Shuttlesworth and Carpenter,” Carpenter concludes, saying that both men played a role in seeking to eradicate the scourge of racism, even though they differed sharply over strategy.
This is an important book written not by some “dispassionate third person,” as the author puts it, but by a loving son. It will not succeed in convincing everyone that “making haste slowly” is preferable to forcing change through nonviolent direct action. But it helps in an endearingly personal way to explain the complexities of an era fraught with passion, and of a passionate man.
Bishop Carpenter died in Birmingham in 1969 at the age of 69. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth died, also in Birmingham, in 2011. He was 89.
Gary G. Yerkey is the author of Still Time to Live: A Biography of Jack Belden (2011). His next book, a memoir of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965, is due later this year.