Friday, October 23, 2009

God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh

Over forty years after the events of the Civil Rights Movement, it is difficult to imagine Mississippi of the 1960s. We still have extremists in our country who would use violence to impose their social order if they could, but we believe that we have them cornered and that our fair-minded majority would never allow them to dominate a town, much less a region of our country. God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh is a reminder that the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups terrorized a part of our country in the recent past. It is also an examination of the religious beliefs of five prominent figures from both sides of the battle for Mississippi.

Marsh shocks the reader with the brutality of local Mississippi police in the first chapter, which focuses the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, an elder black woman who was beaten for trying to register to vote. The severity of the case and the acquital by an all-white jury of the four police officers that beat Hamer were eventually splashed across national news. Hamer was irrepressible, believing that she was chosen by God to be a witness to the gospel and a champion of civil rights. She even became a noteworthy challenger to the seating of delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hers is the one inspiring story in the book.

The most troubling story is that of Sam Bowen, Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. About thirty years after the events, Marsh interviewed Bowen, the man that many believed to be behind many church burnings and who was convicted of conspiring in the death of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Bowen was unapologetic, believing that God commanded him to eliminate anyone who threatened the supremacy of white power. Marsh examines Bowen's life, looking for the sources of his prejudice and anger and explaining KKK theology.

Other chapters profile prominent Baptist minister Douglas Hudgins, who seemed appathetic when blacks were jailed for trying to attend his church; Methodist minister Ed King, whose enthusiasm for civil rights protest seemed to annoy both his allies and his enemies; and Cleveland Sellers, a well-intentioned religious black who helped found but lost control of the Black Power Movement. In each profile, Marsh recounts the subject's faith journey and role religion played in the civil rights struggle.

Mixing history and religious studies, God's Long Summer has been used as a college textbook since its first publication in 1997. It was reissued with a new preface in 2008. It will interest serious history readers.

Marsh, Charles. God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Princeton University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780691130675

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