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Honor, Shame, and the Gospel in the American South, Part III

Previous essays in this series have explored the matrix of an honor-shame culture in American Southern history, and how the American church found itself in moral bondage to the peculiar institution of slavery. We can see the consequences of the moral captivity of the church that was a prerequisite for the system of race-based slavery and the racial segregation that followed it, and the dangers to religion — for none of us exists in such a sectarian enclave that’s entirely disconnected from our culture — in the context of the segregationist South. An example of the ways in which this captivity was particularly insidious is the way it is evident even in the work of those committed to progress in the area of race relations.

In 1963, eight white clergy wrote a letter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., counseling a delay in the demonstrations he and others had planned for Birmingham, Alabama. It is of particular importance that these were sympathetic, at least to integration, and not ardent critics of King, nor were they people spewing hate from their pulpits. Quite the opposite. Biographers and journalists have noted how several of them were known to have preached to their congregations in order to support civil rights. All eight had written an open letter to Governor George Wallace the preceding January to chastise him for inflammatory rhetoric. (For more information about these clergy, see this story on AL.com).

A cross section of Birmingham’s white religious leaders, the eight clergy were: Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El, Catholic Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Methodist Bishop Nolan Harmon, Episcopal Bishop Charles C.J. Carpenter, Episcopal Bishop Coadjutor George M. Murray, Methodist Bishop Paul Hardin, and the Rev. Ed Ramage of First Presbyterian Church. A number of these men continued to work in favor of civil rights after the famous exchange of letters. Influenced by King, Durick became a well-known advocate for civil rights who cared for the poor when he was Bishop of  Nashville between 1969 and 1975 (see his obituary here). In regard to Charles Carpenter, the Bishop of Alabama, Brandt Montgomery has written for Covenant about his stance on civil rights.

In the AL.com story, reporter Greg Garrison interviews biographer Doug Carpenter, Bishop Carpenter’s son. Samford University professor Jonathan Bass notes that the eight signers were “widely hailed for being among the most progressive religious leaders in the South. … They got a ton of hate mail from segregationists. All of them were harassed because of that statement [against Wallace].” The fact that the letter writers were supporters of civil rights, or were at least not against desegregation, is helpful to highlight the broader social problem encountered by the church and other religious institutions. The presence of a rabbi among the authors shouldn’t be ignored, in that it demonstrates the hold that the narrative of threatened violence had on well-intentioned white leaders.

While their letter demonstrates this problem, it also inspired the better-known reply of Dr. King in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A superficial reading of this context and King’s reply can make it seem as though the eight clergy were against the goal of integration. They were not. They were, however, concerned with the violence that they believed the demonstrations could spark. As reported by Garrison, “Grafman said the eight clergy were among Birmingham’s moderate leaders who were working for civil rights. But they feared demonstrations would lead to violence and felt the newly elected city government could achieve progress peacefully.”

It is important to acknowledge the reality of the society in which the eight clergy found themselves. Would they have felt the need to counsel caution and a go-slow approach to justice if their institutions had not in significant ways, been held captive to the unjust society for generations? I have been struck by the revealing assessments of the preaching of white clergy at the time by two black clergy and civil rights leaders from Birmingham. “I saw tremendous pain and agony in the white pulpit. The pressure was on them pretty heavily,” said the Rev. John T. Porter, pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church from 1961 to 1999 and a friend of King’s. “I’m sure they never thought they would provoke the reaction they did.” He added: “They were not liberals by anybody’s measurement. … They were moderates; they weren’t liberals. But they were not bigots in the raw term.” Garrison reports further:

White clergy were often trapped by the social pressure to conform to expectations, just as blacks were expected to conform to strict segregation, Porter said. Ultimately it’s clear that King was right, that the demonstrations needed to go forward, he said. “There was no time to waste,” Porter said.

Another leader, who was known to speak in an explicitly prophetic and challenging voice, was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church and a cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also the cofounder and president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which took up the work of the NAACP after Alabama outlawed the group in 1956. Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Andrew Manis, examines Shuttlesworth’s damning evaluation of the white church, quoting his words from 1962, in the year before the exchange of letters between the eight moderate clergy and King. Perhaps the difference in tone is prompted by Porter looking back on that time, while Shuttlesworth’s words were nearly contemporaneous to the two letters. Shuttlesworth writes that “Men who occupy seats of power appear to use passion and madness rather than calmness and reason. They continue to misread history and misjudge the future. … Perhaps the worst part of this madness is that the white church is for the most part an incubator of classism and racism” (Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, 317). Manis adds:

Shuttlesworth especially despised the timidity of the white clergy. “The white pulpit is captive,” he chided, “afraid to stand and speak to men’s hearts on the issues of freedom, justice, equality, and brotherhood.”

These contrasting and complementary assessments of the white pulpits of the day invite reflection. Porter says he saw the pulpits in pain, the clergy wrestling with how best to present the gospel and its demands to a people who may not have been pleased to hear it. But what was the source of the pain? Perhaps it was the captivity that Shuttlesworth saw. Rather than offering divergent observations, Porter and Shuttlesworth were driving to a singular truth: the church had been made subservient to society on the issue of race, and even when the demands of the gospel were recognized, it was a challenge for white clergy to declare them wholeheartedly. The great irony may well be that it was King, rather than the eight moderates, who could most readily articulate the source of their difficulty, even while he chastised them for acquiescing, and for attempting to divert the movement he was championing in their city.

While it was not understood as such at the time — Bishop Durick said in 1969 that “the real message of the letter didn’t hit home until later” — King’s letter has only grown in importance over the years, and it stands as one of the most enduring public challenges to the racially violent culture of the South, and particularly the complicity of white Southern Christians. The letter demonstrates a clear understanding of the ways in which violence was always present and ready to be uncoiled. King recognized the central reality, which seems to have been far less apparent to the clergy he was responding to, that in a society built on injustice and the need for conformity, which enlists its citizens to police its boundaries, violence could be sparked by slow-going movements as easily as rapid ones. The drive to reassert the racial balance would happen either way. And beyond that, the threat of potential violence was consistently being used to support the continuation of current violence. King writes:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out into the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

King’s letter was clear in challenging the arguments of the moderate clergy who continued to counsel patience over confrontation. More than simply challenging them and countering their arguments however, King’s letter effectively shamed the moderates for their position.

It is criticism such as King’s, from Christian to Christian and from faith leader to faith leader, while pointing at the very public and undeniable images of abuse, that allowed white Southern Christians to recognize the shame of not living up to the ideals of their faith. King has strong words of criticism and lament for the church. He attacks the way the people of God have been content not only to do nothing against abuse, but to prop up injustice. “There was a time when the church was very powerful,” he writes. “It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Before closing, King writes:

I am impelled to mention one other point in your statement that troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the Birmingham police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise for the police department.

King’s letter, which was dated April 16, 1963, had, by the end of August, been published under various titles in multiple publications, religious and secular, including the American Friends Service Committee, Liberation, The Christian Century, The New Leader, The Progressive, and The Atlantic Monthly. The media’s chilling images of police turning dogs and fire hoses on protesters pricked the consciences of some citizens, with the effect of shaming as conviction for some white Christian Southerners, and Americans more broadly.

The letter and the subsequent media coverage of abuses were particularly effective to the extent they instigated a shift in the self-regard of white Southerners. Those Southerners could begin to see themselves — the society in which they lived and participated — truthfully, through the eyes of the oppressed, in a way that could no longer be countered or papered over, allowing life to go on as before. “A growing white awareness of the shamefulness of racial shaming signaled a decreasing need to define whiteness through honor and a decreasing need to define honor as collective racial purity” (David Leverenz, Honor Bound, 54). In this letter, which illustrated his efforts to gain equality, King held a mirror before the white religious establishment, showed them what they looked like, and said, “Does this look like Jesus to you?”

To the degree that deep change occurred, it was precisely the shared biblical and Christian language of black and white Southerners, when coupled with the mirror of modern media reflecting the reality of white supremacist brutality, that made the shame and inconsistency of such brutality impossible to avoid, and motivated change. Subsequent years have complicated this narrative. How was it, precisely, that some things had changed and improved — the late congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis was clear on that — but in other areas, the past decade has revealed that far less progress has been made than we assumed. And, to paraphrase Lewis, there are always people and forces that want to reverse course. What accounts for the unevenness and the shallowness of some change? In part, the question comes down to two divergent types of shame — one that might be better called conviction, which I will tackle at some length in the next installment. Another question, related to how Christians can be inspired to reject wicked social practices, concerns how the church can resist evil and form people in a way that they can not only resist evil, but foster the coherence and stability of society for the common good.

In part four we will reflect on the difference between deep-rooted versus superficial change in these challenging areas, and consider what the church can do to foment deeper change within itself and society. The good news is, this will not be the first time Christians have had to work toward a dramatic shift in our society in order to right a wrong for which we ourselves — as members of the church — bear a good deal of responsibility.


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