- Justification, Reformation:Wayne Flynt’s Keeping the Faith
Full–Fledged Memoirs are Precious Sources. We Read them because we need organic, contemporary views of the before-times. At its best, the memoir can be an iconic thing. Take Booker T. Washington’s century–old Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901), which is both a tale of striving and a triumph of image–making.1 Wayne Flynt’s Keeping the Faith is similar to Up from Slavery in at least a few ways. Each is a success story and a work of self–definition; each is disarmingly straightforward about what it wants to achieve. Yet in terms of narrative style, Up from Slavery seeks to simplify tragically complex issues, while Keeping the Faith revels in complexity and multi–layered discussion. Like Washington, perhaps, Flynt wrote a tract for his time. But also like Washington, Flynt has written an iconic source of Alabama history.
Keeping the Faith divides itself into chronological and/or topical sections. The first is a group of four chapters (1–122) covering Flynt’s ancestry and family, his upbringing and education, his ministerial vocation and his teaching career at Samford University (1965–1977), concluding with his move to Auburn University as chairman of the history department. Flynt’s account of his early years is a bittersweet tribute to the love and nurture that often abides in working class families and evangelical Christian churches—despite the trouble and [End Page 301] unfairness that haunt plain folks’ lives. These stories are told with a depth of genealogical research and a well–informed knowledge of folkways. Clearly Flynt has long been fascinated with the mechanisms of ordinary existence.2
This reviewer’s favorite chapters of Keeping the Faith are those concerning Flynt’s high school, undergraduate, and graduate school years—for the 1950s and 1960s were indeed a “time of limitless possibilities” (60). During the Baby Boomer expansion, nothing (not communism; not the possibility of nuclear annihilation) could stop us from feeling that the world was changing for the better. To be sure, the path to tomorrow might be difficult—especially, in the South, for African Americans. Flynt, like other white Christians, faced wrenching decisions as he sought to reconcile segregationist mores with scripture. In the end he was forced “to pry the teachings of Christ from the tentacles of culture” (78). Or as he puts it elsewhere, he perceived “tensions … between the teaching of Jesus and the teachings of John Patterson and George Wallace. Somebody was wrong. And it wasn’t Jesus” (64–65).
Flynt’s horizons broadened thanks to his intelligence, several inspiring teachers, and later, the challenges of his teaching career. Always he immersed himself in extra-curricular activities, giving unquenchable energy to church groups and camps, non–athletic teams (note his discussion of debate, 68–71), and many outreach, civic, and community organizations. An overworked faculty member at Samford, Flynt led students in a tutoring program for underprivileged children (114); he also pushed President Leslie Wright toward racial integration of the campus. Toward the end of his Samford years, Flynt was a key figure in starting a chapter of the American Association of University Professors (119–21). By the time Auburn came calling, he and his Samford administrators (not fans of the AAUP) were ready for him to change jobs.
Flynt covers his Auburn career as department head, professor, and scholar, and the beginnings of his broader activism in a second [End Page 302] section (123–239) that takes us through the early 1990s. In these pages we read of the AU history department’s transformation into a diverse and productive unit (124–32). Equally important, during this period Flynt helped to create the Auburn University Center for the Arts and Humanities. Headed by Auburn’s first history Ph.D., Leah Rawls Atkins, the center (known as Pebble Hill after the antebellum structure that is its physical home) began a significant cultural extension program (198–208). Furthermore, Flynt was conspicuous among the faculty who resisted the...