He had every intention of being a Baptist preacher, but instead he became one of the foremost historians of the South. In 2005, he retired from Auburn University, after working for 28 years as a professor of history.
He has written 11 books, and lectures extensively on religion, politics and poverty. He is also editor-in-chief of the Online Encyclopedia of Alabama.
His memoir, Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, will be published in May by the University of Alabama Press.
“I feel like I’ve spent 50 years writing the history of 4 1/2 million Alabamians,” he said. “It was time to write my own story.”
On Tuesday, he returns home to Anniston and to Parker Memorial to speak at the annual meeting of Interfaith Ministries. He spoke this week with the Star about his years at Anniston High, his first letter to the editor and his post-retirement role as lecturer, contrarian and Sunday school teacher.
Q: You call Anniston home, but weren’t you actually born in Mississippi?
A: I was born in Pontotoc, Miss., but I only lived there six months. My family roots are in Calhoun County. My grandfather was a sharecropper at Shady Glen, just south of Ohatchee, which became part of the artillery range at Fort McClellan. My grandmother was one of 18 children; her father ran a ferry across the Coosa River.
My dad dropped out of high school in Ohatchee in 1938 and went to a steel mill in Birmingham to work. Then followed a series of sales jobs. He worked his entire life in sales, for various companies: insurance companies, coffee companies, meat companies.
We moved 38 times when I was growing up. We were in and out of Anniston four or five times. Of those 38 places where you could stick a pin in a map, I consider Anniston more home than anyplace else.
Q: How do you remember your boyhood Anniston? It was a very different place then, with thousands of GIs at Fort McClellan, pipe factories, movies and shopping on Noble Street.
A: It was the first or sixth largest town in the state. And it was pretty much united. I remember the centennial celebration. I tried to grow a beard for the centennial celebration; I didn’t get very far.
You could go to the courthouse, and there would be old men sitting on the wall, chewing and spitting tobacco. It was still sort of a market town; it was the county seat, where people had to do their legal business.
We thought of Oxford as sort of a pitiful little suburb of Anniston – quite contrary to the way things are now.
Q: Do you get back often?
A: I come back occasionally. I wanted to come back for my 50th high school reunion, but my mother was dying.
I was there for three years at Anniston High School. I graduated in 1958.
You know how kids are; you’re sort of the perpetual outsider if you move to town as a high school student. My circle of friends were mainly Parker Memorial Baptist Church friends.
It sounds like a sort of grim story, but I was a very happy kid. I was never happier than when I was in Anniston.
Q: You wanted to be a preacher when you were just a teenager. How had you come to that conviction?
A: I had started seriously reading the Bible. I had been greatly influenced by a pastor in Dothan, at Calvary Baptist Church, who sort of opened me to the authority of Scripture. The more I read, the more it undermined my Southern identity.
Galatians 3: “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” How can you justify that with segregation?
The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7: It sort of undermines every social distinction. It calls us to a different way of living, away from the conventional wisdom. Christ was preaching there, at least in terms of social organization, about as radical a gospel as you could possibly find.I just had great difficulty following Christ and following Southern culture.
By 1961, I was writing letters to the Anniston Star, about the Adams brothers who had attacked the Freedom Riders’ bus. I was pretty much openly, in the newspaper, at war with the culture.
Q: I’ve read about that letter. You quoted from the Sermon on the Mount. At the very beginning of your public life, you were already arguing politics on religious grounds. Do you remember when you felt the call to preach?
A: It was amazing moment, like a burst of light – this is what I’m supposed to do.
I went off to college to do it. I started preaching in churches. Sometimes I’d preach on the Good Samaritan. I’d ask, what if the Good Samaritan is black, and the guy in the ditch is white? What does that say about people’s relationships to one another? People would think I was meddling.
It because obvious I had no future in the church in the South. No church would call me as pastor because of my views.
I thought I’d just have to wait out this whole period of American history. So I went to graduate school in Tallahassee, not thinking that I’d not be a preacher, just waiting to see what would happen. When I graduated in 1965, that door was still closed. So heck, I decided to teach.
Q: Where do you put yourself on the theological spectrum?
A: I consider myself neo-orthodox. That was the predominate theology of the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s accepting of things like Darwinian science; it sees no contradiction between the bible and Darwinian science. It has no difficultly applying the concert of linguistic analysis and anthropology to the study of the Bible. You don’t have to reject modern science.
But at the same time, the neo-orthodox school takes very seriously the concept of original sin: Humanity is flawed. We’re selfish. We’re narcissistic. People really need a conversion experience, to be born again.
The neo-orthodox school is conservative, evangelical – but also accommodated to modern times. They don’t feel they have to go to war with modern times.
That was the theology at Parker at the time, and the predominant view at Howard College. It’s probably moved from there now. Not unlike people as they age: The neo-orthodoxy of your youth becomes the eccentricity of your old age.
Q: You’ve said in past interviews that you arouse suspicion from both camps in your life: liberal college professors and conservative Baptists.
A: Yes, liberals consider me just as naïve and weird as fundamentalists do.
I see myself as a traditional, orthodox Baptist who actually believes in things like separation of church and state, autonomy of the church, the right of every person under God to decide his or her relationship to God. If women feel called to the ministry, what arrogance is it to say no, to say we’re in a position to judge what God wants?Every person is a priest.
Q: Do you consider what you do to be a form of preaching?
A: Absolutely. But it took me a long time to understand that I never left the ministry.
I was ordained at age 17 at Parker Memorial. At various times over the years, I thought, “Should I go back and ask them to un-ordain me?” Because I never became a preacher.
When I realized that I had indeed been preaching all this time, I let go of a load of guilt. I had been feeling like I’d let God down.
But no, there are many ways to minister.
Q: So what will you be preaching at the Interfaith Ministries annual meeting on Tuesday?
A: I’m going to preach the Bible and poverty. A sociologist would just come in and give a lecture about poverty, which would make religious people say, “Ho-hum, I could have taken a sociology class in college.” That’s what Janet LeFevre taught me: persuasion. To persuade, you start where people are. If you are speaking to religious people in the South, they’re in the Bible. So you have to start in the Bible, with the Biblical idea of how we should relate to poor people.
What does the Bible say about poverty? It’s the second most mentioned theme in the Bible, behind idolatry. Thousands of passages speak to poverty.
In the New Testament, it’s one in 14 passages. In the gospels, it’s one in 10. In Luke, it’s one in 7. In James, it’s one in 5.
Matthew 25, verse 37, asks, “What happens when we die and go to heaven? Will we pass the test?” Jesus actually gives the exam question. Did you feed the hungry, when you saw their hunger? Did you give water to the thirsty? Did you clothe the needy? Did you care for the sick? Did you minister to the widows and orphans?”
Evangelicism has said that salvation is based on what you believe. That chapter of Matthew says that’s not quite right. Salvation is based on how you transform the way you act.
Q: You’re a member of Auburn First Baptist Church. What role do you play in church?
A: I’ve taught a Sunday school class for college students, and a class for single adults. Now I have a Sunday school class for whoever wants to come. I have 100 or so in class.
I have people who are borderline socialists, all the way to libertarians. Contrary to what we think in America now – that every church, institution, club, school or newspaper must be divided into red and blue – I’m very proud that my Sunday school class is red-blue, red-blue.
Q: The Bible is very clear in its admonition that Christians are to take care of the poor, but what happens when the church can’t or won’t do that?
A: There are several answers. Start with the idea of how you interpret that 25th chapter of Matthew. The libertarians in my Sunday school class are deeply kind and generous people, and they interpret it as personal charity. I’m fine with that. It’s just that private charity is not going to provide medical care for 15 million Americans. All the Christians in America, working together, are not going to solve the problem of providing health care.
There’s always a downside to the government doing anything, from corruption to inefficiency. If somebody in my Sunday school class goes out and takes someone to the doctor, that’s best. One person ministering to another person. Medicaid can’t do that; it’s not possible. But one-on-one is not possible, either; it won’t solve the problem.
Social justice is always better than private charity – not because ideally it is, but because functionally it is.
Q: You and your wife have two sons, and several grandchildren now. Are they in Alabama?
A: I have one son and his family in Birmingham. I’ve got another son and his family in Seattle. That son and his wife are of the opinion that nothing much is going to change in Alabama. They didn’t want their kids to grow up here, go to school here, be shaped by this culture. They will never come back. I grieve over that.
I’ve got kids trying to change Alabama, and kids who have given up on it. An awful lot of people have given up on Alabama and gone other places. A lot of people stay here trying to change it. There’s something to be said for knowing a place, loving a place, working to make it better.
But I can understand the Seattle kids, their frustrations. They don’t want to fight anymore. In fact, at one point, that was me. When we moved to Tallahassee for graduat school in 1961, I told my wife we would never go back.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: I read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I thought, good Lord, if somebody from Monroeville can think that way, there’s a future for us.
Wayne Flynt speaksWhat: Interfaith Ministries annual meeting
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Parker Memorial Baptist Church, 1205 Quintard Ave., Anniston.