Review: Richmond's Priests and Prophets

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon teaches at St. Mary's Episcopal School, Memphis, Tennessee.

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Carter Dalton Lyon, "Review: Richmond's Priests and Prophets," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Douglas E. Thompson. Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017. 189 pages. ISBN 9780817319175.

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Richmond’s Priests and Prophets explores Richmond’s white Christian community’s responses to the struggle for school and denominational desegregation in the 1940s and 1950s. In situating his analysis prior to the direct action phase of the civil rights movement, Douglas Thompson uncovers a vigorous debate among Richmond’s clergymen that ranged from priests, who tended to defend their religious institutions and segregation, to prophets, who challenged the status quo and pushed Christians toward an egalitarian society that realized God’s will for people to love one another. The various public declarations by Richmond’s prophets during this era ensured that segregationists found little theological comfort in their efforts, especially their crusades for massive resistance, but Thompson argues that these debates between priests and prophets left church people without a clear, coherent direction. Where some historians might see failure on the part of white church leaders to exact change at the time, Thompson emphasizes the groundwork laid by Richmond’s prophets before the 1960s.

As in much of the rest of the country, church membership in Richmond soared in the 1950s, and local ministers achieved a level of authority in the community that provided the space to engage in public—and distinctly political—discourse. Some denounced segregation before the 1950s, but the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision forced the entire religious community to confront the issue because of the inherent interconnections between schools and churches. Any desegregation order or shift in the placement of students necessarily impacted neighborhood congregations. Ministers tackled the problem of racial segregation before the backdrop of the larger political debate, and in this respect, Richmond played a singular role. Richmond was not only the seat of power for the arch-segregationist governor and legislature that successfully passed a series of massive resistance laws in the 1950s. It also was home to the editor James J. Kilpatrick, a leading national voice for segregation and one of the chief salesmen for massive resistance.

Thompson traces the reactions of the white Christian community to civil rights over five chronologically arranged chapters. He begins by introducing some of the key figures and organizations, such as the interracial Richmond Ministers’ Association (RMA), that provided the foundational basis for desegregation prior to Brown. No pastors loom larger than John H. Marion Jr., one of Richmond’s key prophets who was a Presbyterian minister and ecumenical leader before being given the task of articulating his denomination’s statements on race in his capacity as the director of the Committee on Christian Relations of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Thompson analyzes Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma to demonstrate how Marion and others were heeding Myrdal’s call to “go on record” and help lead their congregations in the struggle for racial equality in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Thompson then examines various local reactions to the Brown decision. Protestant and Catholic editors wrote articles that ranged from the priestly to prophetic, demonstrating the lack of unity that complicated hopes for desegregation. Though one might be inclined to equate prophets with progressives, Thompson explains that these prophetic voices “were calling the churches back to what they believed was a purer understanding of the gospel message than white Christians’ support of southern racial oppression” (68; italics in original).

As Virginia’s political leaders considered what legal form massive resistance would take, ministers and laypeople worked through the RMA and a new group, the Virginia Council on Human Relations (VCHR), to fashion what Thompson calls “alternative understandings” of God’s vision for humanity that went beyond simply “going on record.” The VCHR called for school desegregation and drafted a step-by-step plan to carry this out. In early 1957, the RMA published a Statement of Conviction that communicated an expressly moral case against segregation. Though they fell short of articulating a specific policy, Thompson points out that by establishing an “alternative understanding” apart from the segregationists, they helped to ensure the eventual defeat of massive resistance.

Thompson’s final section examines the internal divides over segregation within two denominations in the late 1950s that help explain the constraints of the prophets while illuminating one of the essential dilemmas of the era: that a minister could challenge segregation and massive resistance at the same moment that he led white-only worship services. Most of Richmond’s Methodist ministers were more in line with their denomination’s own Discipline, which called for integration in society and in the church, than their own bishop and Methodist newspaper editor, who propagated paternalistic and sometimes overtly racist rationales in rejecting desegregation. Richmond’s Presbyterians were divided internally as well, but they benefited from the strong leadership of ministers, a Richmond-based Presbyterian editor, and especially the presence of Union Theological Seminary, which had a rich heritage of students and professors combating racism. One of the key changes was the move in 1957 to desegregate their summer camp. The decision was fraught with controversy because of the possibilities for intimate black-white relations, but was ultimately sustained by a vote of the full presbytery. Fitting within the overall argument for the book, local Presbyterians could be publicly prophetic within the context of massive resistance but limited in scope because of disunity and resistance in the pews.

This local history will appeal to Virginians, but those interested in civil rights, the school desegregation battles, and how white Christians navigated this era also should take notice of this book. Thompson offers useful insight into how one religious community confronted the problem of racial segregation in the years before 1960 and should serve as an invitation for others to do likewise. Richmond’s Priests and Prophets should remind scholars that assessing historical change that is slow or incomplete is still crucial to understanding what comes next.