Charles Marsh

God’s Long Summer

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God’s Long Summer Summary

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God’s Long Summer (1997), a nonfiction book by Charles Marsh, recounts the stories of five very different historical figures as they engage in the racial issues of the day during the summer of 1964, in Mississippi. Each of them believes, or comes to believe, that their particular viewpoint on racial relations is condoned and supported by God – ultimately, this is what Marsh, a professor of theology, is writing about. His most fundamental concern is the various ways Christian scripture has been used to support extremely divergent stances on race. The book is organized into five major sections, each corresponding to one of its central figures.

Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a sharecropper for more than four decades in the Mississippi Delta, where she was often the target of racist abuse by her white neighbors. After hearing a speech by James Bevel on civil rights, she felt called by Jesus to enter the civil rights movement. Her vision of a New Kingdom led by a resurrected Jesus Christ would inspire her activism, despite various setbacks. Both she and her husband lost their jobs as a result of her activism; and at one point Hamer was severely beaten for her beliefs, after sitting in a “whites-only” restaurant in protest. The beating left her with life-long injuries. Nevertheless, through her tribulations, Hamer clung to her faith, rising to become one of the most famous, contentious, and effective activists of her time.

Marsh describes Sunday school teacher Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, as pivotal to the anti-civil rights movement, calling him the movement’s “high priest.” Bowers was implicated in many racist crimes: seventy-five church bombings, over three hundred assaults, and nine murders. And yet, as Marsh takes pains to show, Bowers as much as Hamer believes that his work is godly work: characterizing civil rights activists as heretics, he feels a religious duty to persecute them. Consequently, his racist rhetoric is filled with biblical allusions and imagery that Marsh identifies and parses.

In contrast to the two previous figures, Douglas Hudgins’s story is characterized by his refusal to take a public stand of any meaningful kind. As a white pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, Hudgins certainly had the platform and influence to speak out on racial issues in his community; instead, he insisted that scripture did not comment on modern “social movements or realities beyond the church” – including racism – and that ultimately, salvation was individual. Marsh argues that Hudgins’s silence helped facilitate the violence of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (and men like Bowers) by refusing to condemn them.

As an adolescent, Ed King witnessed the unequal devastation laid to black and white neighborhoods in Vicksburg after the area was hit by a tornado. Poverty-stricken, the black areas lacked the infrastructure of the white neighborhoods. This left a lasting impression on King, who realized that as a white man he is in a unique position to further racial integration. King went on to study theology at Boston University, where he became involved in various social activist groups that introduced him to the religiously-inflected arms of the civil rights movement. Eventually, his attempts to bring his ideal of social reform to the Methodist church led him to become an influential social activist.

Cleveland Sellers was a middle-class black student whose initial commitment to nonviolent protest gave way to more radical activism. Under the influence of Stokely Carmichael, Sellers embraced a burgeoning militant Black Power movement that sought to remove white participation from its organizations. Eventually, Sellers’s path took him, albeit wrongly, to jail in the wake of the Orangeburg massacre. After his release, he rediscovered Episcopal Christianity, which changed his view of the kind of community that civil rights activism must attempt, and also how to achieve it.

Marsh’s book is a uniquely conceived and well-researched, if non-exhaustive study of the role that Christianity played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Using five different case studies, he illustrates how Christian scripture and ideals can be bent to serve various political goals. His aim is to show that understanding how this has been done in the past can better inform future attempts to use Christianity as a rallying point for social movements. However, Marsh stops short of extrapolating a single unifying theory of religion’s role in social activism from his case studies. Instead, and borrowing an agricultural term from Mississippi farming culture, he offers his text as a “clearburning”: in late winter, he tells us, Mississippi farmers burn their fields “so they can see the ground for what it is,” and prepare for the next sowing. His book, he posits, is also a kind of clearburning – a clearburning of Christianity’s uneasy relationship to the civil rights movement meant to “give us clarity for the work ahead.”