This spring, I put together a list of books I wanted to read. Of course, in a lot of ways, I read for a living; but lately, I’ve been a lot more haphazard than I'd like to be. I wanted a list of books that would stretch my understanding of American religious history, and fill in some old gaps. If I'm not careful, my interest in Congregationalism tends to focus my reading far too much on New England. So I've purposefully reached in a number of disparate directions.
One good stretch was Paul Harvey's Freedom Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War Through the Civil Rights Era, which tells an important "backstory" to the rise of the civil rights movement.
Harvey traces a strain of religious idealism, tempered by the dire realities of life in the South in the century following the end of the Civil War. To be sure, our current understanding of that movement assumes that Martin Luther King and those who followed him were "religious", somehow inspired by ideals imparted both by Gandhi and by Christ; but Harvey adds some backbone to that often vague depiction. He offers a lineage of people, both white and black, who were fundamentally decent and courageous enough to mount a long, slow challenge to the system of racial apartheid that emerged in the wake of the war to end slavery.
Many little-known but important stories emerge, including a regular array of Congregationalists. Henry Hugh Proctor was a graduate of the denomination’s Fisk University, attending alongside W.E.B. DuBois and Margaret Murray, the future wife of Booker T. Washington. As pastor of Atlanta’s First Congregational Church, arriving there in 1894, he somewhat split the difference between DuBois and Washington's strategies for black survival. He encouraged self-help and biracial cooperation efforts through Christian Endeavor societies and Workingmen's Clubs. But in the midst of the Atlanta riot of 1906, which Harvey describes as "the single worst racist pogrom of the era," (60) resulting in the killing of twenty African Americans and the injuring of hundreds more, Proctor demanded that white churches take responsibility for the violence. Denouncing white preachers as "the most cowardly character[s] in the whole Southern situation," he won precious few allies, and perhaps in the end, demonstrated the deep difficulties that any ethic of interracial cooperation encountered during that desperate turn of the century period.
But all in all, Harvey's book is an uplifting read and a vastly interesting one, deepening our understanding of the civil rights movement and providing a few fascinating clues for those looking for the roots of the modern religious right. Harvey argues most provocatively that because the civil rights movement was so effective in squelching public support for overt racism, that incipient strain surfaced in attitudes toward gender. He explains, at least in part, the Southern Baptist tilt toward anti-feminism in the 1980s and beyond, as a different cultural manifestation of an old southern strain of ambivalence toward liberal democracy.
More to follow -- I'm still reading.
---Peggy Bendroth, Library Director