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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 770-771
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When the Church Bell Rang Racist: The Methodist Church and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama
When the Church Bell Rang Racist: The Methodist Church and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. By Donald Collins. (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press. 1998. Pp. xi, 177. $29.95.)
When the Church Bell Rang Racist is the story of the Alabama-West Florida Methodist Conference and its activities during the civil-rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's. It is also the personal memoir of the author, who was a Methodist minister between 1952 and 1969, holding pastorates in this particular conference. From the very beginning of his study, Collins, now a retired banker in Seattle, Washington, makes it clear that the Methodist Church did not respond to the civil-rights movement. In fact, anyone who did show any sympathy, especially among its ministers, was punished, threatened, transferred, or intimidated by his own white congregation and by pro-segregationist groups within the Methodist Church. Collins argues that the Methodist Church limited its welcome "to its own kind" and supported the segregated status quo (p. ix).
Realizing the gravity of what he is telling, Collins takes the reader through a very meticulous, almost year-by-year portrayal of what actually happened in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, what specific civil-rights incidents occurred, how specific ministers reacted, and the results of their support of black activists. After explaining the make-up of the Methodist conference and the role of bishops within any given conference, the author explains that forty-two ministers left their callings as a result of what happened during these turbulent years. Without question, Collins points out that many Methodist ministers actually supported the White Citizens Councils in Alabama, the pro-segregation Association of Methodist Ministers and Laymen, and even the annual conferences and its bishops.
As early as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the Methodist Church opposed the civil-rights leaders' calls for integration, whether it was in the Tuskegee boycott of white merchants or the Mobile bus desegregation petition. Ministers who showed any support or sympathy for the plight of black people were harassed by their congregations as in the case of John Parker, A. S. Turnipseed, Bob Zellner, or Charles Prestwood. More distressing for Collins was the Methodist Church's actually voting support to sustain segregation or the growing influence of the pro-segregationist Methodist Layman's Union. Collins also details how the bishops of the Alabama-West Florida Conference supported these activities by their refusal to do or say anything to stop the barring of black people from Methodist services of worship. Here, the author singles out Bishop Bachman G. Hodge, who was weak and non-committal to such a point that his actions actually supported the racist views of the Methodist conference. By 1963 some ministers did speak out and support integration, all to no avail. It was not until Bishop W. Kenneth Goodson was appointed that the Methodist Conference did something to end segregation and support those ministers who were fighting to open church doors to all people. By 1968 the segregated Central Jurisdiction was finally eliminated, but the price was high as many Methodist ministers left the church. Even as late as 1992, Collins points out that the [End Page 770] Methodists still have racial problems in that black membership is small, black ministers are few in number, and no black minister heads a white congregation. In terms of his own ministry, Collins decided to leave the pastorate and the Conference altogether. With a wife and four children, he moved on to Seattle, where he eventually became a banker and retired. Still, the memories and the price that was paid by those courageous ministers who spoke out against racism still are with him today.
Evaluating this work is quite easy. It is an excellent book. It provides an insider's account of what really happened during a very turbulent period not...