- History and Hope in the Heart of Dixie: Scholarship, Activism, and Wayne Flynt
In 2006 Wayne Flynt retired from Auburn University after teaching history for more than forty years. Born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, Flynt grew up in rural and [End Page 98] small-town Alabama. By the time he graduated from Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham in 1961, he was an ordained Baptist minister, had served as student body president, and had coordinated southern college students for Richard Nixon in 1960. Already a critic of segregation, Flynt rejected a career as a southern minister for graduate study in history at Florida State University. After a decade teaching at Howard College, he moved in 1977 to Auburn. In addition to teaching thousands of undergraduates, he directed more than forty doctoral dissertations. His historical scholarship in more than a dozen books deals with southern politics, religion, and poverty, often focused on Alabama, and has earned many prizes, including the 1990 Lillian Smith Award for non-fiction. He also won teaching awards, served as department chairman, and was a Distinguished University Professor.
Flynt was no ordinary university professor. As a scholar and as a Christian, he advocated reform of Alabama's regressive tax system, helped found Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, supported better and equal funding for public schools, served on the board of directors of the Alabama Poverty Project, and spoke out against powerful special interests.
To recognize his many contributions both as a historian and as an activist, three of his former graduate students collected eleven essays from Flynt's students and colleagues. History and Hope in the Heart of Dixie follows a line of Festschriften that have saluted eminent southern historians. Edited in 1965 by Arthur S. Link and Rembert Patrick, the essays in Writing Southern History: Essays in Historiography in Honor of Fletcher M. Green have had perhaps the greatest influence in the field. Twenty-five years later John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen edited Interpreting Southern History: Historiographical Essays in Honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham, the long-time editor of the Journal of Southern History. Other prominent Festschriften with more traditional monographic or narrative contributions have honored C. Vann Woodward, David Herbert Donald, and George Brown Tindall.
Four essays emphasizing Flynt's activities outside the classroom distinguish History and Hope in the Heart of Dixie from similar volumes. Though one coherent and comprehensive assessment would have served the reader better than the four repetitive ones, the contributions by John Shelton Reed, Dewayne Key, Bailey Thomson, and Dan T. Carter each describe Flynt's Christian civic activism and provide examples of his importance for modern Alabama. Sociologist Reed praises him as a public intellectual whose "social thought comes not from Karl Marx or The Nation but straight from the Sermon on the Mount." Thomson, a longtime journalist and professor at the University of Alabama, both observed Flynt and worked with him in reform efforts. Seeing in Flynt an "evangelist's zeal for attacking injustice," Thomson describes him as combining "a writer's sensibility with a scholar's curiosity and an activist's passion." Key, an Alabama public school leader, describes his colleague in educational reform as "a spiritual man who is [End Page 99] guided by timeless principles of compassion and fairness and justice and who has become a sort of modern prophet to his region and state. He is a patient man who perseveres as he pursues the acceptance and incorporation of these principles in the formation of public policy in this state." Comparing his fellow historian to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Carter calls him "the conscience" of Alabama and finds in Flynt "a remarkable blend of academic excellence and public service."
Between these remarkable tributes to Wayne Flynt, seven of his former students present scholarly essays in his honor. All but one deal with the twentieth-century South, and most stress the impact of race in southern history. Bruce Blevins's...