Review: Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement
Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon, eds. Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement,1954-1965, Volume 2. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014. 511 pp. ISBN 978-1-60258-965-0.
In 2006, Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon published this work’s first volume, a collection of 130 speeches by community leaders, clergy, civil rights advocates, and others, to illustrate their belief that “rhetoric and religion have conspired to cocreate reality” (Vol. 1, 1), especially in this twelve-year portion of the black freedom struggle. Both volumes aim to demonstrate the centrality of Jewish and Christian perspectives in the language of the movement by recovering many of its “heretofore lost voices and texts” (Vol. 1, 7). Additionally, both volumes highlight the complexities of civil rights movement history by attending to regional and local stories as revealed in these speeches and brief biographies. Notable material in both volumes includes pieces by southern white clergymen who broke characteristic non-segregationist white silence by “trying to lead typically recalcitrant all-white congregations to a more enlightened understanding of race relations” (Vol. 1, 10).
This second volume offers fifty additional speeches and sermons delivered in twenty-three states (plus France) in churches and synagogues, movement rallies, and race relations conferences by whites and blacks, both clergy and laity from a range of religious traditions (Jewish, Catholic, and several Protestant denominations), as well as journalists, academicians, and political leaders. Some speakers were quite famous (e.g., Thurgood Marshall, Sargent Shriver, Ralph Bunche, William Sloane Coffin), but many were less well known and thus receive justified attention.
The two volumes represent remarkable labor, as Houck and Dixon have combed a wide range of public and private archival collections (including audiotapes) to unearth and share words offered in public settings half a century ago. This volume’s introduction reviews the achievements of the first book, but the editors also share important insights they have gleaned through subsequent research and reflection. They now see more clearly the “hermeneutical battle that was waged in pulpits and congregations around the country” (6) and they understand how their work on these books has illuminated one side of that argument. Deeper awareness of the interpretive fight also helped them to recognize the complex dialogue taking place in those years and to perceive how often the featured speeches directly repudiated segregationist views expressed in their own congregation or community. Among the excellent examples of this phenomenon is the January 1963 sermon by Roy C. Clark at Capitol Street Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. That sermon also serves (with several other texts) as evidence for the ways individuals “translated their theology as Baptists or Jews or Methodists into a contemporary and theologically fitting response” (10) to the dilemmas faced by religious institutions in intense social upheaval.
The speeches in this volume range from lofty idealism to trenchant social critique. Reading them provides a fascinating tour of the period’s ideological territory; the chosen texts offer “a more robust and full-throated declaration for interracial freedom” (13). Those declarations include the 1955 address of T. B. Maston, who told Southern Baptist ministers at a Christian Life Conference that they should not join the Citizens’ Council and should also encourage their church members not to do so, and a remarkably brave sermon in the same year at First Baptist Church of Poplarville, Mississippi, by pastor Clyde Gordon, who refuted the typical segregationist “Curse of Ham” argument, suggested a plan for gradual school integration, and insisted that segregationists who “yell about the agitation of the NAACP” were themselves engaging in “senseless agitation” (60). Also in 1955, Rabbi Herbert W. Baumgard of Miami pointed to “the conspiracy of silence about the Negro question” in most Southern communities (64), and in an attempt to explain white prejudice, offered astute ethical analysis of the way regular practice of segregation ultimately became belief in inequality.
Three texts respond directly to the September 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls: a fascinating radio conversation between James Baldwin and Reinhold Niebuhr (moderated by black Baptist pastor Thomas Kilgore, Jr.), a powerful speech in California by white Birmingham exile John Beecher, and an anguished address by Rabbi Milton L. Grafman, one of the eight clergymen whose earlier public statement drew Martin Luther King’s famous response in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Of historical import is Grafman’s brief defensive and angry response to King, but more central to this Rosh Hashanah address is his plea to sympathetic yet silent whites to “stop being liberals in your parlors… . [I]f you want [to] change this, you are going to have to start standing up and being counted” (335). Of particular interest in this Selma anniversary year is Ralph Bunche’s speech in Montgomery to marchers at the end of their journey. Responding to Governor George Wallace’s public criticism of the marchers, Bunche declared, “I am here as an American; …no American can ever be an ‘outsider’ anywhere in this country” (456).
Houck and Dixon lament the significant under-representation of women (eight total in both volumes; only one here). They dealt with that concern in part by publishing addresses by thirty-nine women (Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965 [University Press of Mississippi, 2009]), but the relative dearth of written or audio records of speeches by many important female movement leaders also hampered their efforts. The requirement of a full transcript meant the exclusion of other worthy efforts, including Clay F. Lee’s “Herod Was in Christmas,” preached at First Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in December 1964, just after the FBI arrested 19 suspects for the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The New York Times relates the story of the sermon and Houck’s efforts to include it in this collection (NYT, March 7, 2014), but Lee could not find the text of the sermon.
A lingering question is the value of the spoken word when compared to the actions of many movement workers who took great risks on a daily basis. The book’s brief biographies testify repeatedly to the unity of speech and action in the lives of the speakers, and most of their oratory is clearly more than “mere words.” Students of this era owe a debt to Houck and Davis for salvaging and sharing more of “the multisided and messy story” (22) of the role of religious faith in the civil rights movement.