Can a good person remain silent in the face discrimination and injustice and still be a good person?
That’s a question that a lot of us have wrestled with over the past few years and one that John Archibald addresses head on in his memoir “Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution.”
John was born in Alabama in the midst of the civil rights movement, just weeks before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” something John wouldn’t read until well into his adulthood. In the letter, King squarely addresses the silence of the white church regarding the horrors of Jim Crow and segregation.
John comes from a long line of Methodist preachers and, as he read through old sermons by his father, Rev. Robert L. Archibald, Jr., he realized that the man he loved and admired as one of the best men in the world had also been far too silent.
This week’s episode of the Reckon Interview was recorded as a live event to celebrate the launch of John Archibald’s book. We were joined by our colleague R.L. Nave, and the celebrated Alabama historian Dr. Wayne Flynt, for a frank discussion about race, sexuality, family and accountability.
It’s, ultimately, a story about love and about finding your voice and the courage to speak out on important topics. It’s a lesson many of us may need these days.
And sign up for The Conversation, a new weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.
Below is a transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: Your book covers, you know, five decades. It covers the civil rights movement, it covers the LGBT rights movement, covers three or four generations of the Archibald family. There are so many stories and tough issues and humor throughout. But it seems like the through line really kind of deals with the need to use your pulpit or your platform, whatever it is, to confront injustice. While reading through your father’s sermons of the civil rights era, what did you learn about him? And what did you learn throughout the process about your own career as a columnist and a journalist?
John Archibald: Well, first of all, before I answer that question, you’ve got to know my dad. And my dad was one of the most principled men I’ve ever met in my life. And I always saw him as the strongest man I’ve ever met in my life and most courageous, which is why, you know, I held him and still hold him on a pretty high platform. So, when I began to really think about this quest, it’s because all my life I’ve wondered, kind of in the back of my head, what he was saying during the civil rights movement from the pulpit. Because he was saying the right stuff at home. But when I found all his sermons, I began to read through them, and they were dated and notated and all these things. When I found them it became about, well, it’s another line from from the letter from a Birmingham Jail, ‘where there’s great disappointment, there has to be great love.’ And I think that’s the through line, really, of the book, not just about him, but about the church sometimes and about about many things that I care deeply about that continue to disappoint me. And that and the issue of silence is what is what took me through it.
Hammontree: When you talk about silence, I mean, there were some major moments where you felt like he was silent and didn’t use his voice in a way that he could have.
Archibald: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that was the disappointment. Because on the vitally important weeks that we know, whether that’s the Children’s Crusade, or whether that’s the Selma to Montgomery March or the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, important pivotal moments in the Civil Rights history in that place we like to think of as the cradle of the civil rights movement, it was missing. And he would talk about issues of trouble in the world, in Asia and Africa and South America. And all these places but not outside the stained glass windows of the churches in Birmingham, Alabama, or Decatur, Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama. And so it took a while for me to understand the sort of conspiracy of silence that was ongoing in the white church at that time, which is exactly what Dr. King was talking about from the jail. And it took a long time for him to grow into his voice and get to a point where he was comfortable saying things, that he would say to us, from the power of his own pulpit. And that’s where I got really frustrated. Because, you know, I say it too much. I say it all the time in reference to this book. But if you’ve got a pulpit and you don’t use it, what good is it? But it’s also about growth. And it’s also about understanding that we have all been silent some time about something important. And God knows I’ve said the wrong things sometimes. I mean, I think any of my readers would tell you that. We don’t always say the right things. But it’s also about growth and learning that because you screw it up once, it doesn’t mean that you have to screw it up again.
R.L. Nave: John, your dad was a principled guy, right? And he modeled the values at home, in the community, what tangible difference, would his espousing these things from the pulpit do you think would have made? How would that have changed things?
Archibald: That’s a very interesting question. But I think that if you go to a church or to a spiritual guide, to someone you go to for advice on life, or spirituality, and they don’t tell you, specifically, the things that are important to make the world around you a better place, for you to be a better person, if you don’t lead your sheep away from the wolves, then you’re doing a disservice. The bottom line is whether it’s slavery, or the problems during Reconstruction, whether it’s the racist Alabama constitution, whether it’s Jim Crow, whether it’s the syphilis experiments, whether it’s voter suppression, whether it’s any of those things, none of it could have been allowed to happen without silence from white people who knew better and who thought it was wrong. And so to stand in the church every Sunday morning and to act as if all of the problems of the world are in faraway places, I find it to be very, very troubling. I’d love to know what Dr. Flynt thinks about that, because he, of course, is a preacher himself, as well as a historian.
Hammontree: Yes, as a historian and a pastor, how do you navigate that line of what John was just talking about? About how the church has been a tool for social good, of course. I mean, Dr. King is obviously a pastor. But it’s been weaponized as a tool of social control a lot throughout Alabama’s and the South’s and the United States’ history. So how do you negotiate those issues?
Dr. Wayne Flynt: Probably the toughest question an historian of Alabama can deal with because, I’ve written so heavily about 20th century Alabama, and my conclusion was that the most morally authentic people who lived in this state and who probably, arguably loved it the most, if they were morally authentic, had to go someplace else. They had to move. If I were to list all the names of all the pastors, preachers, teachers, leaders of the state, who are now in places like North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, even my own son and daughter-in-law in Seattle, they wouldn’t come back to the South, for anything at all. They wouldn’t live in Alabama again. But I’ve got another son, and my son’s various sisters. So the sisters in law are in Seattle and Morris. On matters of race, and justice, all four of them think just alike. Two of them would never live anywhere but Alabama, because they’re authentic people who are willing to take all the stuff that comes with living here. The other two will never come back. And that’s probably the saddest part of writing about Alabama in the 20th century is what happened to your father. He was trying to be morally authentic. And as you point out, John, he had such a difficult time doing it, not because that’s not who he was, but because if that had been what he was in the pulpit, he would have been in North Carolina or Tennessee or some other place. What a choice for your father to have to make.
Archibald: And that’s one of those things that bothers me throughout as well. Because every preacher of his era I asked about that said, ‘well, he was doing it for you, or your family, or to give you a better life.’ It was said in a kind way to try to make me feel better and it doesn’t make me feel better.
Hammontree: What do they mean by that?
Archibald: One of the professors I talked to about it said, you know, the bottom line is, as one of the preachers told him, ‘if I preach about desegregation this week, I got to find a new church next week.’ And that was the belief that, as Dr. Flynt is saying, there’s story after story of preachers getting crosses burned in their backyard getting run out of town, getting, essentially, ostracized to New England because they no longer fit in. And you see it not just in the church, you see it with Charles Morgan is a great example in Birmingham, who, of course, stood up and, too late, after the 16th Street church bombing. Said absolutely what needed to be said in one of the most beautiful speeches I’ve ever heard. Well, I didn’t hear but I’ve read. And he, of course, had to leave as well. But it was, I believe, a conspiracy of silence in the highest levels of the church, the bishop. I mean, it all started, ‘The Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ started, of course, because white clergy said, ‘wait, it’s not time. You don’t need to be doing this right now, settle down here.’ And Dr. King created that beautiful document that not only outlined reasons for and strategies for civil disobedience, but excoriated the white church for its silence, and justifiably so. And most people in this community, who grew up in it, or like me, I was born in 1963, at that very moment, and never knew about that letter until I was grown up and working. And the level of active suppression of what took place here is remarkable. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted to, you know, write this, because Wayne has always been my hero about history, so mine is like a remedial version of history compared to what he’s written. But it’s my take on it.
Nave: Yeah. I mean, amongst the leadership of the civil rights movement itself, we know that women were often not given prominence. We know that folks like Bayard Rustin, were kept at arm’s length because he was gay. They also were not preaching about queerness and sexism from the pulpit. So I mean, not letting anybody off the hook. But what do you think that about the fact that you know, a lot of the same sort of internal conversations in your household, like within your father himself, were also taking place amongst folks that we hold up as icons of the movement?
Archibald: I think that’s really interesting. And it’s a good point. But I also think that that’s one of my main points, which is, if the people who are the most revered by you or me or by society have failings, it doesn’t render those people worthless or useless. It allows you to say, ‘Wow, if they can have these failings, I can easier look at myself, and say, what are mine?’ And if I can see them in somebody I respect then I am more likely, I believe, to say, ‘look, I gotta fix this too.’ And, I think it’s really important for us to look at the people we admire, and to know, they don’t have to be perfect.
Hammontree: Coming up after the break, we hear more from John and Wayne, about the importance of using your voice for change.
To take it out of the realm of history and into the present, you talk about your father’s evolution from civil rights to LGBT rights and your evolution and using your own voice on some of these issues, right now in Alabama, we are seeing a lot of bills and elsewhere in the country targeting trans people, trans youth, especially. How do you think your father would be using this pulpit today? And how should we be using ours?
Archibald: My father, I mean, to begin with he did come from the school that [believes] “keep politics out of the pulpit,” which is kind of funny in talking to the William Nicholas professor who’s kind of studied this, he has studied the Methodist Church, which is really big on that keeping politics out of the pulpit kind of thing. Which he laughs at because when you make a choice to keep politics out of the pulpit, you’re injecting politics into the pulpit. So I think he would still find it difficult to actively talk about those things in sermons. I think he would have a stronger voice than he did. I certainly do. I think he did care tremendously about people individually. And as groups. How would you handle it Wayne?
Flynt: I think that’s a really profound point, John. I think about John Rutland, who you may have been named for, pastor in the Woodlawn Methodist Church, one of whose members was Bull Connor. Put as a Biblicist, a Methodist Biblicist, do you preach about justice for the poor and the oppressed? Which is the second most prominent theme in the Bible behind idolatry. And if you’re going to preach on justice for the poor and oppressed, would you include Blacks in Birmingham? When you’re looking down at Bull Connor’s face in your congregation? And, you know, we cherry pick religion. We all do, not just your father. But we all cherry pick religion, we pull out of it what fits the culture in which we live, not necessarily the culture of our time, but we have a small culture that we make our own. And I can’t think of a better example than the question that was raised a second ago about transgender rights, about your brother, about homosexuality, about all that. Did you know that in the Bible, which people like Bull Connor quoted all the time, Jesus does not have a single reference to homosexuality. Jesus does not have a single reference to abortion. But you know what, he has a lot of reference to? Divorce. Materialism. Adultery. Well, why don’t preachers preach about that anymore? It’s because they’re looking at a congregation full of adulterers, full of people who were divorced. The last time I checked about religious groups, the largest rate of divorce in the United States is independent Pentecostals. And the second highest divorce rate is among Southern Baptists. But what pastor is going to get in front of their congregation now and denounce the sins that Jesus denounced? No, denounce the ones Jesus didn’t denounce, that’s the way of keeping your congregation.
Archibald: You know, one of the things that struck me the most… this book, I mean, it does, it begins in the civil rights movement and ends in a different sort of civil rights movement about LGBTQ rights. And the Methodist Church, of course, right now is facing a schism over that and may very well split by the end of this year. So it would be very much on the minds of any Methodist preacher at this time. And if they don’t, it’s very interesting to me, if they aren’t in the pulpit talking about it, then they are doing a grave disservice to their congregation. And they may not all talk about it in a way I would approve of but that’s that’s a different matter. But what is very curious to me. Not curious, really, I mean, it’s not even surprising. But the language that is being used now in the current schism about funding for gay and lesbian groups, about gay marriage, about all these things, this mirrors the language, and the lack of language sometimes, that was being used in the late 50s and early 60s about civil rights for Black people, and it is uncanny how similar that language is sometimes.
Hammontree: But we have a related question to that John, from Judy Fraser. I hope I’m getting your name right, Judy. Did you research or address how other ministers, especially Methodists, were addressing the civil rights movement during the 60s, as a Methodist preacher’s kid during that time? She says she can’t think of anyone except John Rutland did. Afraid of losing their church and having to move.
Archibald: By and large, and yeah, there’s a good bit about that in the book. There are people who did preach, including John Rutland, who actually is an unusual story because he got through it without too much harm or punishment, although he did have a cross burn in his yard. But there are others who were relegated. What would happen was they would get put on a list by the conservative West Methodist Laymans Union, and they wouldn’t be moved to a lot of the larger churches that wouldn’t accept them. And so some of them languished in small churches in Alabama, and had crosses burned in their yard and that sort of thing. A beautiful story from a preacher in the book, I think, about his efforts to do that and how he came to realize that it didn’t matter to him at this point whether he was a big church or a small church that he had been called to preach. And it wasn’t about climbing what I would call the ladder of Jesus LLC, it was about preaching the gospel. But by and large, most of the preachers did not dare, most of the district superintendents, who are an organizational cabinet over the preachers, did not encourage them and discouraged them from doing so. And so my dad is by no means alone. And I would venture to guess, again, that my dad is, you know, the 99%. He’s better than anybody I know. But it still wasn’t good enough. And that says a lot about who we are. And that gives us warning about what we should do. And again, I mean, you can’t go back in time, you can’t. I keep saying it, you can’t go back in time. But you can look what happened back in time, and you can use it to determine how you’re going to be now. And that’s where we learn from.
Hammontree: I’m painting with a broad brush here and I may tiptoe into blasphemy, so I apologize. But Dr. Flynt, you look back at the long course of Southern history, and you have the slave masters’ religion. And then you have the religion of liberation that was kind of adopted by enslaved people and how church evolved time after time after time whether it was Southern churches deciding that they were in favor of slavery or deciding that they were opposed to civil rights and so many schisms along the way. Do these groups each worship the same God at this point?
Flynt: You’re imprinted by the Bible, by your religious traditions, and by your culture. And the question is always Can you transcend one of those? Because you can’t live in all three of them. You decide which you’re going to live in, what kind of balance you’re going to live in. My favorite story along that line is Ray Whatley, who was from the deepest part of the Black Belt just outside of Monroeville, Alabama, just across the border in Clark County. The town, a little Black Belt town, he was born in was named for his family. He was a Methodist minister. He went away to Birmingham Southern and then to Duke and came back to Monroeville Methodist Church. Where the single most important layman was a guy named–his fictional name is Atticus Finch–Harper Lee’s father was head of the pastors relations committee. Harper Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, was the most beloved person in southwest Alabama and later head of the law firm that her father had founded. And Coley Lee and Alice Lee told Reverend Whatley who was pastor from 1951 to 1953, right out of seminary, that he wasn’t preaching about personal salvation enough that he was talking too much about social justice. And they warned him that if he kept doing this, they were not going to keep him as pastor. Well he kept preaching and he then was removed by the bishop, and given a tiny little church, St. Mark’s, which was just blocks away from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And he founded the Alabama Council on Human Relations, the most liberal organization in the state at the time, and he was elected president and Martin Luther King was elected vice president. Meanwhile, Sam Engelhard, who was a powerful senator from Macon County, one of the most powerful senators, twice blocked him from the bishop appointing him to Black Belt churches because he said, ‘all you’re gonna do is stir up those Black Belt churches and run all the Methodists to the Baptist.’ And I don’t need to tell you the end of this story. He wound up his career in another state, but when he wrote me this letter, it was the most tortured letter. It’s not that he wanted to leave. He wanted to stay in the black belt. Those were his people. That’s where he came from, heart of his heart, soul of his soul. When he wrote that letter, it just broke my heart.
Archibald: I got lots of letters like that too and it’s just tragic. I mean, it’s people doing the right thing and being punished for it time and time and time again. But I want to comment about one of the comments in the chat, Pamela Powell, says Unitarian churches in the South have always preached against racism. And that’s true. And people marched in Selma to Montgomery and were killed. And the Unitarian churches have stood up for decades and been a model that should have been followed. And as you’re talking about, there’s such fear of the Methodists leaving to become Baptists or becoming whatever, that they lose themselves and not say anything at all. You know, I was looking at a study just the other day that was talking about, the big word these days, is the Nones, the people who claim no religion. And the numbers have risen to a level that’s equal now to the evangelical church. As many people in America claim no religion as claim an evangelical religion, which we think of as a huge political power base. And I can’t help but believe a lot of the migration from the church is because it’s easy to stand up and say, be a good samaritan, but it’s really hard to justify doing no more than that. And I think that a lot of people, particularly young people these days, would really like for their churches to represent their beliefs in ways that are tangible. And that actually go about helping people.
Hammontree: We have seen more of a reckoning over the last year, even in the pulpit, on issues of race in America with the killing of George Floyd. And the protests that followed after that. You wrote this book two years ago, John, and you’ve watched the world change a lot in the last year, sometimes from a zoom window. If you were writing this book today as you’ve been rereading it and listening to it, are there things that you would write differently?
Archibald: You know, I don’t think so. I mean, I would put in more references to that. Because I mean, I do believe that it’s… I think you’re right in that people have demonstrated an ability to use voice in the last year, you know, maybe at a faster pace than they have for years to come. And it may be oversimplified, simplistic to say this, but in the wake of the George Ford killing when we looked out and saw pictures of white people kneeling at Mountain Brook elementary school. I mean that’s mind blowing, you know. I don’t know how many would kneel today, but they did it after the event. But I think that there has been a real awakening in terms of realizing that if we want to change and be better people, we have to be able to say it, which is great. It’s absolutely great. But I honestly said the words I wanted to say and I don’t think they change because some people find it easier to have voice. And it’s still I mean, it’s not that the need stops. Because it continues all the time, every Sunday, and every Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday too. Saturday, also, I guess.
Nave: Yeah, I mean, you know, the fact that in a lot of very conservative places you see Black Lives Matters signs outside the churches, which, you know, would have been unthinkable three or four years ago. But does that basically prove your point about why white silence is bad. Because when we saw white folks, especially, stop being silent after George Floyd, things started to happen.
Archibald: Right, and the more you can talk about it, the more you’re able to talk about it. And the more each one of us, you know, I mean… in the book, you know, I talk, about somebody has asked me, there’s a part in the book where I’m seemingly really, really upset with myself and flogging myself because I felt such guilt for not ever telling anybody my brother was gay. Right? And they were like, ‘Why are you beating yourself up over this?’ Because, you know, a lot of people didn’t come out or whatever. And, you know, I think it’s because it wasn’t that I was necessarily hiding it. It’s just that I always found a reason why it shouldn’t happen. But once you start saying it then all of a sudden it becomes easier to say. And, all of a sudden, everything becomes easier to talk about. I mean, there’s sort of a… once you break the seal, then all of a sudden you’re free to talk about it. And I think that’s a big part of it too.
Hammontree: And we’ve seen it lead to some real tangible change whether it’s the toppling of Confederate monuments that that have been up for a century or in some places real police reform, white people lending their voice to Black voices who have been fighting for this for centuries, not forgetting that fact. It does seem to have made a real difference and hopefully that momentum could continue.
Archibald Dr. Flynt, which one of us needs to be the cynic on this one?
Flynt: I think our cynicism is in about equal parts, John.
Archibald: We do talk about progress. We do talk about monuments coming down in Birmingham. And across the state. But we also look at the Alabama legislature, which is what?Considering, again, even more draconian measures to keep them up. I mean, it’s never going to end until enough people feel like it’s important to talk about and to use their pulpits for change. And that’s not anywhere close to happening.
Flynt: John, I had a conversation with an intermediary, who was talking about changing the names of six buildings at the University of Alabama. And what they were doing is running the idea by me. This is the name here. And this is what that person represented, and then over here we have a far more racist person. And so the question they wanted me to answer was, which of these are close enough to moderation to keep the name the same? And which of these are so radical racist that we need to change the name of the building? And I said, “Well, suppose we move away from the monument issue, and the names of the buildings issue, and we take your total endowment, which is $1.9 billion at the University of Alabama. And then we take Auburn’s endowment, which is nearly $1.7 billion dollars. And let’s take .01 percent of your endowment and invest it in historically Black colleges. And then every student at University of Alabama, every student at Auburn, having one semester in his senior year, when he’s a pharmacist, or in the Alabama law school, who will go down and spend a semester being tutored in the world of the Black Belt. Wouldn’t that be a better solution to our problem than changing the names of the buildings or removing the monuments? And I’m not getting any takers on that at all. None. Nobody. And, you know, I think about both the University of Alabama and Auburn are right on the edge of the Black Belt. Well, for more than half the histories of both those universities, no Black student was admissible to those schools. And yet most of that money was either coming from planter families in the Black Belt, whose sons went to those two schools, or else they went to the corpus of money that was created when those Black Belt planters sent their sons to Birmingham, and they became CEOs of the corporations. Now, I won’t be a cynic when somebody tells me we’re really about justice, because I ain’t convinced that changing the names of buildings and removing monuments has much to do with justice. It has to do with sanitizing ourselves and our reputations. Now that’s cynicism, if you can match that, John, go for it.
Archibald: I’ve always argued that there’s a very fine line between cynicism and idealism. But I’m not sure if anybody knows what I’m talking about. But I believe it in my bones. It’s also realism. And so take it. There was a there was a comment there was just, well, you’re asking the questions. I get interested in the comments because there’s some good ones in there.
Hammontree: We have a question from Ruth Cook, does your book touch on what role the Catholic churches in Alabama played and play now and if it doesn’t touch on it, maybe Dr. Flynt can talk on it a little bit.
Archibald: There’s some mention of Catholic action but not much. It’s more in my dad’s. But you know, the Catholic Church I do think, for the most part, did a better job in that period and many periods than the rest with the exception of the Unitarians.
Flynt: The Catholics had a big advantage, John, because they have a pope. I know it’s not right for a Baptist to say that but if you’ve got authority to coming from the Pope, the puny question of what the culture is like inside a state is a lot less important than it is with self governing congregations like Baptists or even bishops, like you Methodists have. And I would just remind everybody that on the last night of the Selma to Montgomery March, in the run up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which the state of Alabama was doing everything it can possibly do to stop and rewind. The last night, the marchers spent the night at the big Catholic Center which has a school which Black kids could attend in Montgomery, Alabama. Can you imagine when Governor Wallace at the governor’s mansion, the reaction to Catholics? The governor was a Methodist, I remind you. The reaction to hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Black and white people on the campus of a Catholic school, which is the only real place they could have been except in the African American community. And that was on the last night before confronting Wallace out in front of the Capitol. And I think you’re absolutely right. I think the Catholic Church was much more active, and Catholic priests and nuns, for obvious reasons. They don’t have wives and children. Think how much easier it is to be a martyr when you’re not thinking about a wife and two or three kids. Well, your dad was thinking about you.
Archibald: Or a husband and two or three kids.
Flynt: Yeah. Correct.
Archibald: You were talking about the Methodists. Bull Connor was a Methodist and George Wallace was a Methodist. And you can go down the list of those people and we were joking earlier, because, well I was joking, you might not have been joking, because I made the joke in the book that Methodists are Baptists that can read, but you might have been getting back at me. But I guess, you did point out that Atticus Finch was a Methodist. And I will point out that Clark Kent was a Methodist.
Hammontree: Superman, that’s who you’re talking about?
Archibald: Superman was Methodist. But it doesn’t make up for Bull Connor.
Flynt: Well at least John Rutland had a bishop between himself and Bull Connor. And if it’d had been a Baptist Church, the pastor would have just been without a job the next day. The first sermon he preached like that there was no bishop to protect him, like Ray Whatley was protected by his bishop.
Hammontree: Well, your Clark Kent joke, John is a good reminder that we’ve talked through a lot of serious topics tonight. But I mean, there are sections of your book that are just plain funny. You’ve got great stories about your dad. You’ve got great stories about your family, you killing off an entire line of snakes at one point. And I think it does kind of help to think about some of those things. look back at the last five years, and I see a lot of my age cohort and my friends wrestling with their relationship with their parents. I struggle with my own ideological differences with my father. And you kind of lay out a template of how to hold your parents accountable, or anyone in your life accountable, whether it’s children or other loved ones, but while also seeing them kind of as the man in full. And recognizing their faults and their foibles. What is your advice to people who are struggling with that right now?
John Archibald: Oh, that’s, that’s, that’s tough. But I think that it’s easy for me to look at my dad because I love him so much. And I think that when you start by realizing how much you love somebody, then you can start to do those things. But it’s easy to say that, but it’s really hard to do. And you know my whole philosophy of writing is a lot like my philosophy of life in that if, you know, I want to make you think and I want to make you feel these things, but I want to make you laugh too. Because if you don’t laugh, then you won’t stay with me and you’ll get mad at me because I’ll say things that will make you mad. But if I can make you laugh, too, then you’ll give me another shot. And I think the same thing is true in dealing with other people. I mean, you know, I make you mad all the time, John, and you make me mad all the time, John. But you can also say something that makes me laugh afterward. And then we can see each other’s humanity, even on those tough days when you’re cursing the Alabama Crimson Tide football team with one of your wild assumptions.
Hammontree: Just my belief in the team.
Archibald: But I don’t know if that makes sense as an answer or not. But I think that the key is finding ways to see each other’s humanity and realizing that someone’s opinion about politics does not define them. Well… seems these days, sometimes it does. But that’s the whole reason I set this book up in what some would consider a weird structure. In that one chapter is a search for what I’m trying to find out. And the next chapter is a lighter chapter or a story, or something that has stories and humor in it, because I want you not only to see this thing that’s bothering me so that I’m trying to track down. But I want you to see my father in the fullness of himself. The way I saw him. The way I still see him. The reason I can question is because I know him so well. And I think that seeing the fullness of people is sort of a lost art. And we have to try to do that more.
Hammontree: Dr. Flynt, we’re seeing some comments. One from Laura Lee Funk that points out that it can be very difficult to challenge your parents and your elders in Southern culture without being dismissed or perceived as dishonoring and disrespecting your elders. Do you have thoughts on how to engage your loved ones and other members of your community in ways that won’t just get you shouted out of the room because of ‘Southern respect.’
Flynt: Well don’t read Harper Lee’s novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ and then have a 200 page profane denunciation of your poppa when you go home. My dad and I had these kinds of arguments when I was growing up, especially in the 60s and 70s. And I think it helps if you have a deep respect for each other. And although I realize it’s considered to be low brow these days, but I don’t think you could do better than the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 7:1. For those of you who’ve dropped out of the church, it reads like this ‘judge not that you be not judged, or with which judgment, you judge, you shall also be judged.’ And I think that is no less true of racist parents, than it is self-righteous daughters, like Jean Louise Fitch in Watchmen. So I think that it’s only from our self-righteousness, that we have these denunciations. People who are not self-righteous but consider themselves sinners in the hands of an angry God and a God of grace, and their fathers and mothers, the same kind of people, then you can have conversations. But if what you’re doing is speaking from a sense of your enlightenment and their stupidity, then it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation.
Hammontree: John, people are demanding it in the comments. And you know, we’ve given some people so much seriousness, so maybe just tell us the snake story. I know they can go read it in the book. But tell us about the moccasin massacre.
Archibald: I see a couple of my kids in the chat. They might be able to tell it better than me. But it’s a long, long story. But it culminates in my wife uttering some pretty serious profanity. So you’ll stay tuned for that, but I killed a water moccasin near our cabin in North Georgia. And I came home and I thought it was fat because I thought it had eaten something and we would skin the snake. Because that was a great idea. And we would, you know, have some kind of biology lesson where we figured out what it had eaten. So I began to, with my little Swiss Army knife, I cut into it, pulled down and this baby snake popped out like a placenta and Alecia, my wife, said, ‘Oh my god, how did you know where that was?’ And I said, ‘Well, I know a lot of things you don’t think I know.’ And then all of a sudden, all these other little baby snakes started pouring out and there were like 10, 11, 12, 15. And I’m cutting their hands off with my Swiss Army knife and my children, and my daughter’s like four years old. She’s like, this far away, just transfixed. And so I ended up killing these 30 snakes. And it’s the most bloody, gruesome thing you’ve ever seen. And Alicea, my wife, and Drew, my oldest son, have left and are in the bushes, vomiting together as mother and son. And the two youngest kids, Ramsey and Mamie are just transfixed. And so we leave and I was really, really concerned that we had, you know, really poisoned their minds with this bloody massacre. I didn’t know what to do. But we got in the car and the first person to speak up was my son Ramsey, who said… Well, first, he named it the moccasin massacre of 1998. And the second thing he said is, ‘can we go to the Wagon Wheel?’ which is a meat & three, just up the street. So I think that we were okay. But Alicia, I won’t tell you what she said.
Hammontree: You’ll have to read the book to find that out. We have a question from Izzy Gould, our colleague at AL.com. Now that you’ve gone through the process, would you write another book? And, if so, what would that one be about?
Archibald: Oh, well the answer is I sure hope so. Because I enjoyed the process. And I think that I learned a lot from the process. Yeah, I would like to do it again. I’m working on a few ideas, but I’m not giving him up, Izzy. I’m not giving him up.
Nave: What would you have done differently? I mean we have talked about the fact that people, congregations are not powerless in moving the leaders of their churches to act and to think differently. What would you have done differently in making a case to your dad about the urgency of the moment, and just what should people who are in those situations now be talking to their leaders about?
Archibald: By the time I was grown, I feel like my dad’s voice was strong. And I feel like he probably did more talking to me, to make me feel more able to speak than I could have done for him by that time. So in a lot of ways, I think that the, and I may have mentioned this before, sorry, if I did, but I do think the most important part of it is, is to learn and grow along the way and be able to say that. What I would do differently, I would have asked him when he was alive. I would have had this conversation with him a long time ago. And I would have been able to talk to him personally about what was going on. His actions along the way are what was so incongruous with… he was adamant about going to public schools and integrated schools and integrating the Scout troops and bringing Black ministers in to work in the community together with each other in unison. So I knew how he felt about these things. And so the only explanation is exactly what Dr. Flynt has said about why the silence existed. But I would love to have gotten that from his mouth. That’s my biggest regret. And there’s a question about maybe he felt like, or a comment, maybe he felt like he was passing truth on to you. And, you know, I believe that. And I believe, you know, one of the last conversations we had before he died, I had just written a story about I can’t remember what exactly the story was, but it was a serious story about racial inequality. And he could barely talk and he’d had strokes and cancer and Parkinson’s and he was lying in hospice, and he reached out and grabbed me and said, “I’m proud of you for taking on” — and he always called it the race question which you know, I debate in the book, but “I’m proud of you for taking on the race question” and it kind of made me uncomfortable because I was writing a story. I’m a columnist. That’s what I do. That’s what they pay me to do. I write opinions. So it’s not that hard. At the same time, I think what he was saying is he appreciated that I had been able to develop a voice that he had not been comfortable. And so I tell myself, you know, I go through moments where I really torture myself about this about him. A) am I being tough enough on him and B) am I being too tough on him? Because he was a special man. And I tell myself that the ultimate goal of this book is something that would be his ultimate goal as well. And I think he would be comfortable with that.
You can purchase John Archibald’s memoir “Shaking the Gates of Hell” here.