Review: God With Us

Stephen R. Haynes

Stephen R. Haynes is Albert Bruce Curry Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

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Stephen R. Haynes, "Review: God With Us," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020): jsreligion.org/vol22/haynes.

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Ansley L. Quiros. God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 292pp. 978-1-4696-4676-3.

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Ansley Quiros’s God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976 is a multi-layered exploration of the ways “lived theology” manifested in Southwest Georgia between the end of World War II and the election of Jimmy Carter as the 39th president of the United States. The book provides voluminous evidence that the civil rights movement and the reactions it produced comprised a theological conflict played out “in the traditional sanctuaries of the major white Protestant denominations, in the mass meetings in black churches, or in Christian expressions of interracialism” (2).

Like other recent studies, God with Us argues that historiography of the civil rights movement has underemphasized ordinary people’s religious convictions, thus diluting “the theological nature of the struggle for human equality” (3). Quiros corrects the record by attending to the varieties of “lived theology” in Sumter County, Georgia—that is, by listening to the stories “people tell themselves and others about what God is doing in the world and how they are participating in that divine action” (6). These stories comprise a conversation between competing versions of Christian orthodoxy, which in Southwest Georgia as elsewhere in the South included “both profound Christian interracialiam and vehement Christian segregation” (9).

God with Us begins with Koininia Farm, “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” established in 1942 by Southern Baptist minister, farmer, native Georgian, and “radical visionary” Clarence Jordan (15). According to Quiros, Koininia’s principles of “redemptive agriculture,” “racial reconciliation,” and “Christian community” (23-25) were not “progressive” ideals in Jordan’s mind, but biblical principles. During its heyday in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Koininia Farm welcomed between eight and ten thousand annual visitors and operated an interracial children’s summer program called Camp Koininia. However, in the post-Brown era the Farm drew verbal, physical, legal and economic fire from neighbors and various authorities. Jordan met these attacks with characteristic courage and good humor: “I tried to explain to them the difference between Christ and Marx,” he said of one discussion, “but soon it became clear that they didn’t know anything about either one of them” (32).

Quiros details responses to the local civil rights movement at First Baptist Church of Americus, which in 1963 adopted a “closed door” policy that described FBC as “not an integrated church” and instructed ushers to direct Negro visitors to a “colored Baptist church of their choice” (42). Quiros places this policy in the context of commitments to congregational autonomy and segregationist biblical interpretation, which tended to focus on traditional readings of Genesis 9-11.

Quiros contrasts this white, segregationist version of “lived theology” with the Christians who led the black freedom struggle in Southwest Georgia, particularly Rev. J. R. Campbell and Rev. R. L. Freeman and the leaders of SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Freedom Project and SCLC’s Albany Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists were jailed there, and SNCC held a series of mass meetings that were covered by the New York Times and Atlanta Constitution. A photograph of black women and girls who had been arrested and imprisoned in an abandoned Civil-War era stockade drew further national attention to Americus in July 1963.

Sumter County’s civil rights narratives were woven in part from individual tragedies. In 1965, a white man was gunned down outside a gas station by two black youths in a case of mistaken identity. As Quiros notes, “a murder was something civil rights opponents could work with” (120). And work with it they did, reassuring the “good Negroes” of Sumter County that their white neighbors simply wanted a return to “law and order” and an end to unrest and violence imported by greedy and publicity-hungry “outside agitators.”

A chapter on church kneel-ins in Southwest Georgia supplements recent research on similar movements in Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi. Quiros notes that, despite scholarly claims that Southern whites were unwilling or unable to mount a theological defense of segregation, the kneel-ins provoked a consistent “defense based on notions of orthodoxy and the sanctity of the church” (147). In fact, Quiros shows that white Georgians used the same arguments and biblical proof-texts being advanced by white Christians in other states.

An August, 1965 attempt to integrate First Methodist Church yielded an iconic photograph that cast a distinctly unfavorable light on Americus’s white Christians. The photo appeared in newspapers around the world, depicting steely faced ushers arrayed against a kneeling, racially mixed group of young people. The Los Angeles Times responded with a cartoon that featured a family dressed in KKK robes emerging from “First Segregationist Church, Americus, GA.” Though the widely viewed photograph showed the would-be visitors dressed in their Sunday best and kneeling prayerfully, a distressed Americus resident decried the “paid agitators” and “beatniks, prostitutes and derelicts” (163).

Quiros concludes by exploring the lives of a few other well-known residents of Southwest Georgia, including Millard Fuller (Koininia Farm resident and founder of Habitat for Humanity) and Jimmy Carter, whose political career began with an appointment to the Sumter County School Board in 1955. As Carter ran for president in October 1976, his home church canceled Sunday services when a black man attempted to worship there.

Both a compelling read and a valuable resource, God with Us is well-researched, well-written, and voluminously documented. The intersections it describes—between Koininia Farm and the surrounding community, between the SNCC and SCLC and the freedom movements in Americus and Albany, between non-violent direct action and random murder, between Clarence Jordan and Martin Luther King, Jr.,--make this book a signal contribution to our understanding of the lived theologies that animated both the civil rights movement and those who rejected it.

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