Review: Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement

Gary Agee

Gary Agee is Professor of Church History in the School of Theology at Anderson University.

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Gary Agee, "Review: Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Elaine Allen Lechtreck. Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. 326pp. 978-1-49681-753-2.

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The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools illegal inflamed racial passions across the states formerly allied with the Confederacy. The campaign for the civil rights of African Americans entered a critical period. Previous studies of southern Christianity during the Civil Rights era have established the Christian church’s culpability in the maintenance, and at times active promotion, of a racially oppressive status quo. Elaine Lechtreck’s Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement builds on this previous body of research by highlighting white church leaders who dared to take a stand against racial injustice.

This book casts light on the problematic interpretations of the gospel message that allowed southern church-goers to continue to meet together, pray, read Scripture, and receive the Lord’s Supper, without having their consciences unduly exercised over racial oppression. Many southern church leaders promoted a spiritualized gospel that concentrated on winning souls while giving little or no attention to racial violence and other pressing social justice issues.

More importantly, Lechtreck’s helpful study introduces the reader to white church leaders who bucked segregationist culture, promoting instead a more inclusive interpretation of the gospel. As a result, these same ministers suffered, often at the hands of their own congregants. William Wallace Finlator, one of the church leaders highlighted in this work, described the difficulties he and his contemporaries faced:

It is not easy to be a minister in the South today. When a minister interprets the will of God in race relations, his attitude may be regarded as little short of treason. The ostracism he faces, whether economic or otherwise, is not a slight thing (169).

The breadth of this study is one of the book’s strong features. The number of church leaders introduced in this volume is significant. Featured in this work are Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans as well as ministers affiliated with the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ. Though a small number of these principled pastors' stories may be familiar to students of southern religious history—for example, Ed King’s struggle in Mississippi—many will be new.  Lechtreck’s work will no doubt inspire future scholars to delve more deeply into the accounts of the individuals catalogued in this study.

Despite the comprehensive character of the work, some otherwise deserving church leaders are not included. The author’s somewhat narrow definition of “minister,” combined with the delimiting focus on the above-mentioned denominations, account for these omissions. In this study one will not read of Catholic Bishop Vincent Waters of Raleigh, North Carolina, who in May of 1953 starred down an angry mob and forced the integration of a white parish and black parish in the community of Newton Grove. Nor will one find an account of Church of God (Anderson) pastor Horace Germany who was nearly beaten to death by thirty members of a White Citizens Council group in Union City, Mississippi, in August 1960 for attempting to establish a school for black ministers. The groundbreaking work of the brave nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis who worked in Meridian, Mississippi, also falls outside the scope of Lechtreck’s study.

For students of the history of Christianity in the U.S. and for church members alike, Lechtreck’s offering is, nonetheless, a valuable resource. Indeed, it may serve an unexpected purpose as a schematic for future scholars who will attempt to catalogue the prophetic witnesses among contemporary church leaders who are even now taking a courageous stand against the promotion of a distorted gospel--one bereft of compassion for the most vulnerable among us.