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Bishop Carpenter and civil rights in Alabama

By Brandt L. Montgomery

It took me awhile, but I recently finished reading A Powerful Blessing: The Life of Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Sr., 1899-1969, written by Douglas M. Carpenter, Bishop Carpenter’s son and a retired priest of the Diocese of Alabama. Having written my masters thesis on Bishop Carpenter five years ago,[1] Douglas’s biography was of particular interest to me.

A proud son, Douglas describes his father as one whose personality was inherently warm, friendly, and extremely magnetic. The people of Alabama saw him as a Christian pastor who truly loved them with all his heart, making their love for him easy to return. As Birmingham’s Church of the Advent said of its departing rector during its 1938 annual meeting, shortly before his consecration:

He brought a mind well furnished with knowledge gained from study of books and of men, and a spirit that is lovely and lovable. Immediately and indelibly he impressed on our hearts and minds the force of his vibrant personality. He stirred us deeply in every department of our work.[2]

Douglas’s primary purpose is to highlight the circumstances that formed his father — the Christian man, the bishop, the tireless child of God. Another purpose is to tell of the good that Bishop Carpenter tried to accomplish during the years of the civil rights movement. “Some seem to rejoice in telling all the bad about Birmingham—and there was a lot of bad. But there was a lot more to it than that.” Instead of solely focusing on his father’s role in the civil rights movement, Douglas seeks to provide the larger picture, believing that Bishop Carpenter’s actions during those years cannot be fully understood without an explanation of the events and circumstances of his life leading up to them.[3]

Concerning civil rights, Bishop Carpenter’s reputation is divided. There are those who insist that he held positive civil rights views, citing examples such as his chairing of the Birmingham Group Relations Committee in the 1960s and the integration of Camp McDowell, Alabama’s diocesan camp, during his episcopal administration. But there are others who feel that Bishop Carpenter was a “paternalistic segregationist,” calling preposterous his supposed middle ground view between the extremes of diehard segregationists and militant integrationists.[4] 48 years after his death, Bishop Carpenter’s memory remains fondly present within the minds and hearts of many, yet accompanied with what is often seen as his failure to grasp fully the scope of the racial injustices occurring around him, putting him at odds with reality and making his moderate civil rights stance well-intentioned, but unrealistic. His son’s biography complicates this picture yet more, as we would expect, but does not wholly address some of the underlying issues.

(Note: Gary G. Yerkey’s review of A Powerful Blessing first appeared in The Living Church in 2013: “A Son’s Defense.”)

Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter was born on Sept. 2, 1899, in Augusta, Georgia, to Samuel, the rector of that city’s Episcopal Church of the Atonement and to Ruth Berrien neé Jones, a descendant of the well-known Jones family of Liberty County. His maternal great-grandfather, Charles Colcock Jones, Sr., was a mid-19th-century coastal Georgia slave owner and Presbyterian minister who saw African-American slaves as providing an opportunity for the spread of the Christian gospel. Toward his slaves, he was stern yet compassionate, firm yet benevolent, just yet merciful. Jones’s paternalism and devotion to African-American slave evangelization caused him to be known throughout the Georgia coast as “the Apostle to the Blacks.”

Bishop Carpenter’s grandfather, also Charles Colcock Jones, was, during the late 19th century, one of the South’s most prominent eulogists of the Lost Cause. His memorials spoke eloquently of the Old South having fought the good fight against Northern aggression and for the right for states to govern themselves. The junior Jones’s praise of the Old South kept fresh in the mind memories of a uniquely distinct land of cultural promise and agrarian fruition, saddened that Southern industrialization “insulted the graves of the Confederate dead,” marking the end of “true civilization in favor of barbarism.”[5]

As a descendant of two of coastal Georgia’s most prominent 19th-century citizens, Carpenter provided a connection to the past that many Georgians greatly valued. It was a connection that he at times felt smothered by. This is not to say that Carpenter was, in any way, ashamed of his ancestral roots, but he may have felt an understandable desire to be identified by who he was, not by who his ancestors were.

Hence, in 1936, Carpenter left both his native state and Diocese of Georgia for Alabama to become the rector of Birmingham’s Church of the Advent. Alabama provided him the chance to focus fully on the present, instead of being constantly called upon to represent the past. But just like his great-grandfather and grandfather before, Carpenter would find himself caught in the middle of Alabama’s struggles, having to deal with the radical changes forced upon the South’s social order. He came to Alabama to escape a smothering identification with the past. Yet, in the area of civil rights, Carpenter would experience the opposite result, all his own doing.

From June 24, 1938, through December 31, 1968, Carpenter served as the sixth Bishop of Alabama. Many still regard the Carpenter episcopate as the golden age of the Diocese of Alabama. But of all the good that was accomplished during the Carpenter years — the most important being the establishment of Camp McDowell, which made Alabama a standard bearer in youth and Christian summer camp ministry —it was accompanied by the challenges of social change.

In working for integration and African-American civil rights, Carpenter believed that a gradual approach was the best path, believing that integration’s achievement in a deliberately calm, slow, and discreet process would bring about racial progress in the most effective way. This would explain why he resisted civil rights demonstrations and objected to Episcopalians coming into Alabama to aid in activities that he felt did more harm to the cause than good. Carpenter saw these activities as hardening the ill will of Alabama’s racial majority toward the civil rights movement, and he did not want the ill will to grow any worse. He felt that order and time would be most effective in changing the hearts and minds of Alabama’s racial majority and, in his view, the public demonstrations occurring within his diocese were severe setbacks to his quest of bringing about positive change.

Considering the times, Carpenter’s gradualist position was more positive. His Jan. 17, 1963, “Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” written with 10 other white Alabama religious leaders in reaction to Gov. George Wallace’s proclamation of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” is an example of the bishop’s philosophy: devoid of racist intentions, the appeal stated that  “every human being is created in the image of God and is entitled to respect as a fellow human being with all basic rights, privileges, and responsibilities which belong to humanity.”[6] Furthermore, later that same year, it was Carpenter who was selected to serve as chairman of Birmingham’s Group Relations Committee, which he described in a letter to his eldest son and namesake:

What is known as the Citizens Advisory Committee, made up of about two hundred and fifty men and women, was appointed in the early Summer to deal with many facets of our local situation …. One of the committees, made up of about twenty-four members, forty percent Negro and sixty percent White to fit in with the general percentage of the area, is called the “Group Relations” committee. I am chairman.

I am getting a thorough lesson in “patience.” Our Negroes have been put off on this, that, and the other for a long time and there is a tremendous amount of suspicion and sensitiveness, and I have to watch every word I say. Our meetings generally last for about three hours, and it is rather slow going, but I do believe we are developing a measure of “communication” which is of value .… Just how much we have accomplished I don’t know, but I just want you to know that your old man is in there doing his best in this situation.[7]

Douglas Carpenter offers this explanation regarding his father’s philosophy and actions.

During most of my father’s ministry, he, along with the vast majority of the people of the South (and indeed of the whole country), couldn’t see how to quickly change the system of segregation so, not seeing another way yet, he worked within the segregation laws to improve the lives of African-Americans.

I agree with Martin Luther King and with Fred Shuttlesworth that Dad, like the vast majority of white Americans, was slow in yielding place for the “new order” of integration …. One of the points of this biography is that within the confines of every generation we find wonderful human beings, leading very worthwhile lives, while limited by the powerful customs of their times …. The thwarting customs of one’s own day can be so pervasive that they are only dimly perceived. Not one of us is entirely free from these restraints as we seek to relieve poverty, stop warfare, and, yes, to end the suffering brought by prejudice and discrimination in our time.[8]

Unfortunately, it was the argument Yes, but with time — resisting not integration and civil rights for African-Americans, but public demonstrations to achieve them — that rendered Carpenter unable to realize the need to be on the visible frontlines for change. In the end, it was Carpenter’s gradualist civil rights philosophy, however more positive it was from that of Alabama’s racial majority, that rendered him wrong on the question of race and, still in the minds of many, on the negative side of civil rights history.

Carpenter may have been a man of the present in most things, but in the area of civil rights he came across to many as one stuck in the mindset of the Old South. His words, spoken and written, about the civil rights movement made many feel that he was struggling with the reality of social change, wishing that the South had gone along with the old segregation system for just a little bit longer. Carpenter was a good man whose resistance to actively march on the front lines contributed nothing to the rights of a people long denied, allowing the time’s social ills to linger a little bit longer. Instead of being part of a solution, he became an unintended factor in an immoral problem.

Carpenter’s story reminds me that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world who proclaims God’s favor for all people, with Paul speaking of God’s favor being acceptable now (2 Cor. 6:2). Not only is Jesus a man of words, but one of action. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says (Matt. 16:24; cf. Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” says Paul (Gal. 3:28). To be a Christian is to subscribe to the truth of each human person’s complete equality.

Whatever human differences we affix upon ourselves and others here on earth, none of them separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). The Episcopal Church has come a long way throughout the years in recognizing this literal truth. We have come a long way, yet still have a long way to go. For us to get to where we need to be, we should actively live that which we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In this we see the reality of what God’s kingdom actually is, both now and how it shall always be.

Full recognition of every person’s equality is a non-negotiable of Christian evangelism. It is a prime factor of Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a). It encompasses the centrality of the gospel message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Any sort of talk about patience and time with respect to recognizing any human’s equality runs counterintuitive to the gospel. Such talk blinds us from the fullness of our world in which all are our neighbors — doctors, shepherdesses, soldiers, teachers, factory workers, and countless others. To fail to see our neighbors as Jesus sees them renders our evangelistic efforts short of their full potential.

As a bishop charged with the responsibility of proclaiming Jesus’ gospel to the people in his care, Carpenter should have been a man proclaiming God’s favor for all people, not only through sound writing and articulate speech, but also in physical action. His gradual civil rights philosophy made the fight even harder and some within his flock feel that their chief pastor’s back was turned against them.

Why could Carpenter not see that the time for social change was then and immediate, not gradual and worked out over time? I wish that he had done so.


[1] “Time’s Prisoner: The Right Reverend Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter and the Civil Rights Movement in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama” (Unpublished masters thesis, General Theological Seminary, 2012).

[2] Vestry of the Episcopal Church of the Advent. “C.C.J. Carpenter,” from the minutes of the 1938 annual parish meeting, Charles C.J. Carpenter Papers (Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama).

[3] Kay Campbell. “Son and Biographer of Bishop Charles Carpenter to Speak About Life of Civil Rights Pioneer,” Al.com, accessed June 27, 2017.

[4] Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights (The University of Kentucky Press, 2000), p. 104.

[5] S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), p. 31.

[6] J.T. Beale, et al., “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Post-Herald (January 17, 1963).

[7] Carpenter, A Powerful Blessing, pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., pp. 256-57.


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