A SON OF THE SOUTH— 150 YEARS ON

Today,  150 years ago exactly, gunshots were heard over Fort Sumter, and the worst war America has ever been involved in began.  We lost 2% of our entire population in that war. Indeed, by one count we lost more men in that war than in all subsequent wars we have fought in—combined.  It was that horrific, and it only lasted four years, not like the interminable war we are embroiled in in Afghanistan now.

As a son of the old South,  my folks took me to battlefields when we went on vacation— I remember seeing  lots of battlefields in Virginia, walking the first battle of Bull Run,  walking the hills at Gettsyburg, you get the picture.   I used to wear a Confederate hat, had a pretend Confederate rifle, and played soldiers with my Jewish friends down the street— both girls.   We had a great time.   I read Bruce Catton’s  big Civil War book and traced the incredible battle map pictures using that old see through paper and a pencil.   I bought a History of the Confederacy with some of the first money I made as a paper boy.   I was proud to be a Southerner growing up.  Only thing I ever remember pilfering from a store as a kid was a Confederate Flag lapel pin, which I then hid under my bed, too ashamed to wear it.

Thirty years later I was still reading about the Civil War, enjoy Shelby Foote’s wonderful three volume narrative,  watching Ken Burn’s incredible documentary, and still pondering the meaning of it all.   I actually remember old Confederate Memorial Day, and seeing on TV the last remaining Confederate soldier marching in the parade.

In my first pastorate in 1981, I went to visit a parishioner who had a picture up on the wall of a Civil War veteran.  I asked Mr. Suggs if that was his grandfather—- he said no,  it was his daddy.   Who had gone to war at about age 13 near the end of the war when they were taking anybody,  and came home and 25 years later married his second wife who had three children— all three of them in my church.   He took me to see the old slave graveyard out behind the church which Francis Asbury’s  circuit rider had founded in the early 19th century.

I remember all the Confederate flags flying and how so many of my folks and friends loved to watch Gone with the Wind over and over and over again, and cried.  A lot was lost in that war—- and that was a good thing in many cases, but not in all cases.   Someone once asked me  why it is that so much of the great American literature was written by Southerners after the Civil War (think Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Walker Percy,  Tennessee Williams and so many more).   The reason is simple— we are the only folks in America other than the Indians who have lost a major war on our own turf, and that large aching sense of loss has been fertile soil for the literarily sensitive and gifted in the old South.

But something else happened to me in the 60s besides all of the above.   It was called not the Civil War,  but the Civil Rights movement, and most of my relatives didn’t like it one bit.   The very first day I went to High Point Central High School was the very first day of the integration of all the schools in High Point.   Years later, in 1974 when I went off to seminary just north of Boston,  I was stunned to discover that integration had not been imposed on Boston yet— just on the old South.   I saw all the volatility and hatred and bigotry come out of the pores of many white southerners in those days.  And actually the black folks in High Point were not really thrilled with the integration either—- they were forced to close their wonderful William Penn high school, lost their marching band they were so proud of, and much more.   The school in High Point that had nurtured the greatest of all time saxophone players into being a musician— John Coltrane,  had been closed against the will of that community.   The matter was complex and the issues were not all that clear or one sided.

One of the things however that changed me forever was making a few African American friends in high school.   Willie Middlebrooks, a fellow Methodist, and in due course a fellow UMC Methodist minister in Western N.C.  was my friend.   And I learned more from him in many ways than I did from any of those history teachers I had.  I got a tiny glimpse of what it was like to grow up black in a strongly white culture and have to adjust to integration.   I barely remember the first time I saw Martin Luther King Jr.’s   famous  ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.   All I really remember is that I cried.

I realized then and there that while there were a few noble things and good things about the old South, racism was not one of them.   It still isn’t.   I am thankful that my parents did not raise me to be racist, they raised me to be Christian, but it took a long time for me to realize that there was something terribly terribly wrong with claiming one was a Christian and harboring prejudice or bigotry in one’s heart.

I decided in high school that If it came down to it, I was going to stand with Martin Luther King and not with Bob Jones,  to stand with Sam Ervin and not with George Wallace.   I was going to believe in the Cotton Patch Gospel of Clarence Jordan and not the Gospel of Lester Maddox or the KKK.

I remember the reaction of some of my church members in High Point when I as the MYF chairman of our youth group invited Willie Middlebrooks on a retreat.   On that retreat a lot of things happened, and I remember  singing with Willie and others the Beatles song— ‘All we need is love’  and ‘I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends’   and oh yes,  ‘Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world,  red and yellow, black and white…..’  You know the rest.   Well there was no going back from that.    And I realized something else as well.    It was not unpatriotic to be against the Vietnam War.   Indeed, it was in fact quite Christian, the more I thought about it.

Now you have to understand my Daddy was a veteran of WWII, and a brave man.  One of the last things he did before he went to be with the Lord was write down his memories of WWII.  I still haven’t had the courage to read it all yet.    Thinking about my Dad and all the sacrifices he made for me and how much he loved me just makes me cry.   He died two and half years ago, and I miss him still….a lot.

But in my eyes, one of the things I loved most about my Dad, is that after he tried hard to talk me out of it and argued with me about it, when he saw it was a matter of conviction, he went with me downtown to pick up those conscientious objector papers.   I was not going to fight for a cause I never believed in.  I was going to stand up for the Prince of Peace not the gods of war, not even the Civil War.    Fortunately for me, it never came to that.   My draft number was 192, and the High Point draft board never got that far in the year I could have been selected.    And so I went off to Carolina, spared that decision.

In many ways, I am still a proud son of the old South.  In some ways,  I am ashamed of a good deal of our heritage and deeply thankful for my Christian faith that taught me that we are all equally created in the image of God, and Jesus died for us all.  God is color blind, and so should we be.  Some of my best memories of ministry have been when I have had the honor of preaching in an African American church, or in Africa itself.    I love the food, the flavors, the accents, the gentility of the old South,  but I have no desire to go back 150 years and glorify not merely a lost cause,  but a wrong cause.  Southerners can say what they want about it being mostly about States rights, but in fact the elephant in the room was slavery, an ugly scar upon the land of the old South, the wounds of which still have not completely healed by any means.

So on this day I choose to remember not the shots fired at Fort Sumter, but the shot heard round the world fired on Aug. 28th 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when I was not yet 12.   Here are the parting shots of that big blast, and here is a Southerner speaking who indeed spoke of ‘change we should believe in’.      It is not Jefferson Davis or even Robert E. Lee that makes me proud to be a son of the South,  it’s another Southerner who said:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Amen to all of that.     We have still not fully lived into that promise and proclamation, and in the 21rst century it is high time we did so.

One last footnote.  I recently learned one of the most influential books that Martin Luther King said shaped his thinking  about non-violent resistance to evil and non-violent means of changing society.   It was the writings of E. Stanley Jones about Gandhi and others that deeply affected him when King was in seminary,     the same E. Stanley Jones for whom Asbury’s  School of World Mission is rightly named.    So it seems that this old Southerner  landed in the right place when he came to Asbury.    In a place where we affirm there is no true spiritual holiness without social holiness,  no true spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel,  and  Gal. 3.28 is given more than lip service in this place.    I am proud to be a pacifist Christian in this southern school—-  and to carry on that legacy.    God bless us every one.

  • bw

    lovely sentiments, dr. witherington. the vision of equality and a new humanity, reconciled and united, is impossible without a savior and is one of the demonstrations of God’s great power and manifold wisdom. and thank you for sharing some of your own background and journey.

    i would ask you to reconsider your statement that God is colorblind. if all you mean is that he values people of all colors equally, i certainly agree with you. but i don’t think colorblind is the right adjective. God made all of those colors, and it would seem that he likes the diversity. i’m pretty sure he sees and loves them; note that we may even take our ethnicity with us into eternity (cf. revelation 7:9, isaiah 25:6-9).

    if i’m correct, the goal is not colorblindness. instead, we are to learn to love across our differences, to see and value them in one another as he does. we are united, not by the obliterating of our differences but by the affirmation of them in the one body.

    i’m an ethnic minority in the u.s., with a personal and corporate history that is different than most majority culture americans. when someone tells me that when they look at me, they don’t see my ethnicity, they just see a human being, i know that they are trying to say that they value me as a full human being, and i appreciate that; my ancestors weren’t so lucky. still, i can’t help feeling that they’re missing something important about me. my ethnicity and heritage don’t define me, and i don’t want to be confined by them. but the reality is that they are a big part of who God has made me, and to not see them is to miss something wonderful, a beautiful part of his creativity and design that in some sense is rooted in who He Himself is.

    well, that’s more than i meant to say. thank you again for remembering and reflecting on dr. king’s prophetic call. we still have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

  • John Adams

    Dr. Witherington, sometimes I don’t believe you’ve lived an unexciting moment in your entire life! Thanks for a great post. :)

  • Winky

    Thanks for sharing that. I’ve been reading your words for some time now and those were some of my favorite. I look forward to meeting you in Meridian this weekend.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Thanks BW, that is exactly what I mean. I meant God doesn’t discriminate on the basis of color or ethnicity, but he certainly loves variety and differences. How true.

    BW3

  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    The elimination of “discrimination”, what is now called racism, is a noble sentiment, and one every Christian is tasked with accomplishing within themselves and encouraging in those around them.

    But I am afraid that it is also quixotic as well, for hardwired within each human is that part which sees and notes the differences in a very parochial way, called the sin nature.

    Where once hard racism was ubiquitous and blatant, such as separate but “equal” facilities, schooling, whites only institutions, etcetera, NOW there is the more subtle racism, one which is used as a lever to gain power, or a charge leveled against others as a method of discounting opinion or ideas. And this racism isn’t found in just the white race, it can be found in ALL races!

    The blatant tribalization encouraged by some in our political class for the purpose of gaining electoral advantage is STILL racism, because it uses the race of a group more as a weapon than an attribute. Because of this tendency I have become very doubtful that we will accomplish Martin Luther King’s dream in my GREAT grand-children’s lifetimes.

    Despite my cynicism there ARE encouraging signs that things may change over time, but only Christ’s return will bring true equality in this world.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Oscar “if any one is in Christ, he or she is a whole new creature, the old has passed away”. There can be no fobbing off of racism on the sin nature if we are talking about a Christian. It’s just Christians behaving badly. But otherwise, I take your point.

    BW3

  • Mac S.

    Wonderful thoughts Dr. Witherington. I can identify with many of the feelings you describe about growing up in the South even though I did it in the 80′s instead of the 60′s. I can vividly remember reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor when I was in the 6th grade and realizing that there was something very very deep and cancerous about my beloved Southern heritage. I still love the South deeply, and I love the study of the Civil War – the nobility and the heroics of brave men on both sides of the battle. But I hope that I love it now without in spite of its flaws rather than pretending like those flaws didn’t (and don’t) exist.

  • Rick C

    I’m not familar at all with the phrase ‘social gospel’ and it is only recently that I’ve heard the phrase for the first time and now you use it here. If and when you have a moment that is free could you define or explain or elaborate if ownly briefly as to its meaning. I think I may understand what it means and if so it is truly a good thing but I’m not so certain I understand. As always thank you for your blog and allowing us to participate.

  • http://Patheos Jennifer

    Thanks for a wonderfully written, thought-provoking post, Dr. Witherington. As a Texan, I remember the government-imposed integration almost exactly the same way you do. The white community was resentful; the black community was wary. Neither side really wanted it because what it really did was divide community, not unite it. It seems that if we had just drawn realistic and fair attendance lines, paying attention to numbers, not race, we would have been better off, but it’s hard to say.

    I am very proud of my Southern heritage and do not believe I have anything to apologize for. Yes, slavery is a horrible blot, but the majority of Southerners did not own slaves. I, too, went North in the late 70′s and saw much more virulent, overt racism there than I ever saw at home. It was outright creepy. I remember seeing on TV the violent riots in Boston as the children were being bussed to schools they did not want to attend.

    I want you to know that I look forward to reading this blog daily now. I’m hooked! While I do not agree with all your views, your reasoned scholarship has enlightened me greatly and I feel as though I am auditing a seminary course.

    Thanks for taking the time!

  • Austin

    Your post hits home for me. When my dad was a PhD student at Northwestern, a black classmate from Meridian, MS died in a car accident. A few months after the 1964 lynching, my dad was driving through Mississippi to visit his girlfriend’s (not my mom) relatives in Florida, so he decided to pay his respects to his friend’s family. He stopped by a gas station to ask for directions, but the people there saw where he was wanting to go (supposedly the “n&^%$#” side of town. They asked him if he was “one of those radicals” (he dressed “weird” and had long hair).

    He asked his girlfriend to go to the car. He said, “Yeah, I’m one of those radicals, and we’re gonna burn this whole &%$# country to the ground.” A big guy picked up a cleaver and went towards my dad. Dad ran out of the gas station and jumped in the car. He eventually found his friend’s family and paid his respects.

    That encounter changed him, since he sought a professorship in Mississippi after a few years of post-doc. I think that he wanted to help repair the state. I feel like “a son of the South”.

  • Luke

    Powerful message, Dr. Witherington.

  • Joel Naranjo

    Dr. Witherington:
    Although i’ve been following your blog for a long time, i think this is the first time i leave a reply. Your post really moved me, and although i’m from Chile, and our reality and history is very different from yours, i couldn’t help think in our own period of political violence, a couple decades ago, and although racism is not a problem here in the same manner is over there, i doubt discrimination is any less a problem. I pray God may use His church to help heal the wounds of your history, and of our history. Thanks, and God bless you.

  • Danny D

    Thanks for this, Dr. Ben!

    I remember growing up and seeing how adults treated minorities where I am from and thinking “I’m so glad kids my age don’t act like that!” My parents were an exception and seemed to come from strongly non-racist backgrounds – my mother once told my very paternalistic step-grandfather we would never visit his house again if he used the n-word in her presence. My father once caught me as a little kid unknowingly using the phrase “n-knocking” (as opposed to ding-dong-ditch) and just kindly told us we were using the wrong phrase. And my grandma basically thinks she was too poor to think lowly of anyone else.

    Gladly, most my age (27) aren’t nearly as racist as our parents/grandparents. However, I know most whites view the situation from a perspective of how far we come, while many minorities remind us of how far we have to go. For those of us who think we are above it all, I think all should be conscious of where we are unwittingly discriminatory (go look at job interview statistical analyses concerning “black sounding names”) as well as by omission (not standing up in the face of others’ racism). We must actively stand up for our brothers and sisters and not settle in our privilege.

  • David

    Being “Southern” ( I was born in Montgomery Alabama in 1949 where I grew up into adulthood pretty much under the Confederate Flag as well as the Stars and Stripes) has such a powerfully emotional wallop. Reading your detailed biography on this subject takes me into something of a mental labrynth which seems to have begun unfolding way back in the 1950′s when I recall as a child listening to adults speak on the subject of “The Bus Boycott in Montgomery and Rosa Parks” at not only the SUnday dinner table but on the lawn outside our Methodist Church ib the time between SS and Preaching. The adult Southern White tempers at that church were controlled in those days but only barely I sensed as a child. Then a few years later while the Civil Rights movement picked up that church had a Civil War Centennial Celebration. Dad grew a beard and dressed up “Colonial” like many. I was getting confused about Sothern Heritage, Southren White variety of tempers from KKK activity to family (not KKK) to city government. The Selma March was a douzy of an event and my awareness of Jesus and his love paradigm for “all people” was strengthened by folk singers I secretly listened to on the tv BUT witnessed my church closing it’s doors to 3 African Americans who came to “test” the “White churches” for their openness to brotherly love. I began attending a Unitarian Church then no church at all and held onto “hypocrisy” like Holden Caulfield. Boy things are complicated with Civil War Southern sentiments unjustly intertwined with racism so thoroughly inside of you and Jesus trying to put that love in there too. Jesus won.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    David, I can only say in response to your testimony— thank God almighty you’re free at last.

    BW3

  • Carlton Mann

    Dr. Witherington, thank you for the courage of your convictions and sharing this personal story with us. I too am a Southerner. In fact, I am a North Carolinian who became an Alabamian by way of Kentucky. I graduated from Asbury college in 1983 and tried to soak in as much history from Doc McKinley as I could. My great great grandfather was a proud Confederate from N.C. as well as Billy Graham’s grandfather who lost a leg at Gettysburg. I stand with Lee who thought slavery was an evil institution and needed to end but in a way that did not cause over 600,000 to die. Which way is more “Christian” to end it in violence or to end it over time? The fact of the matter is that it would have ended over time if the Confederacy had not tried to succeed. Lee was furious with the deep south for doing that but he simply could not lead an effort to destroy his homeland (Virginia) and his relatives. This begs an interesting question as it relates to God’s mysterious providence- the violence of succession caused the violence of the war which ended the violence of slavery which made the United States a more just nation. It also brings to mind the whole idea of just war theory.

    With all due (and tremendous) respect for you Dr. Witherington, I hope your Christian Pacifism does not get in the way of the just use of violence to combat evil. I thank God for the likes of your father and mine who served in WWII for the noble sacrifice they made.

  • Carlton Mann

    And one more thing. One would think that after reading all of the books on the Civil War (or the War Between the States) that I have, I would learn to spell secession!
    I just hope I caught this before you did! :)

  • gary foster

    Well said. I too was a CO. Served as a Corpsman. I did not maintain my CO convictions long however and wanted to drop them. Still, I well remember that decision and the deep rejection of the Vietnam war.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X