In 1963 when I was 13, my dad was pastor of the Southside Baptist Church in Millington, Tennessee. Many in our congregation were employed at or lived on the nearby Memphis Naval Air Station. Our little church was a plain brick building with white trim set amid acres of soybeans, cotton and Johnson grass 10 miles east of the broad brown waters of the Mississippi River.
Outside our little church the "race question" was exploding across the South. Civil rights activists marched, rallied, and conducted sit-ins at lunch counters and department stores and bus stations. Klan members retaliated with a church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls. Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot in the back by a shadowy assassin just 50 miles south of my front door.
On a transcendently beautiful Sunday morning in October, a black sailor from the Navy base walked in the front door of our church with three white sailor friends and occupied a wooden pew in the center of the sanctuary. My dad glanced at them but continued preaching his sermon. Our lead deacon, a chief petty officer named Mel Hogan, also in his Navy dress uniform, conferred with his fellow deacons and then strode up onto the platform for a public and urgent, yet whispered conversation. My dad shook his head a few times, and continued preaching.
Deacon Hogan hopped off the platform to gather his troops, and then he and his family, and all the other deacons and their families, marched out of our church building rather than spend a minute in the company of a black man on a Sunday morning. My dad did not want to stop the service for a confrontation with the sailor. However, after the service my dad informed the young man that he could not attend our church, but should find a Negro church where he would be more welcome.
Within months, the deacons fired my dad. Soon he had a new job as pastor of a little Baptist church in Wisconsin. I was stunned, and my faith shaken to its very roots. If our church was the body of Christ, was Christianity a religion of petty hypocrites? Or were those deacons merely misguided Christians who believed, incredibly, that Jesus did not want them to associate with Negroes?
Did God hate black people? Or was he offended by the hateful behavior of Mel Hogan and his fellow deacons? Why did my granddad preach that God was opposed to the civil rights movement and the struggle against racial segregation? How could it be that Martin Luther King Jr., a fellow Baptist preacher, was a modernist and socialist, not a true Christian, and therefore going to hell?
Why did no one in my church or family speak out against the Alabama church bombings or the murders of activists? Why did I know almost nothing about the lives of my black neighbors, a majority of the population in Shelby County, Tennessee? These were troublesome questions, but I didn't know how to bring them up. No one in my family or church seemed to want to talk about them either. So they festered, and began to eat away at my faith.
I had come face to face with a core issue for white Southern conservatives: race.