Reviewed by Ryon Price
In September 1967, Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi was bombed by local Ku Klux Klan members. Two months later, the home of its rabbi and civil rights advocate Perry Nussbaum was also bombed. That very night, Rabbi Nussbaum called the pastor of the First Baptist Church Jackson, Rev. Dr. Douglas Hudgins, and the next morning Hudgins and Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson, Jr. stood with the rabbi outside his destroyed home. With an NBC tv camera crew filming, Rabbi Nussbaum turned to Rev. Hudgins, shook his finger, and charged, “If you had spoken out from your pulpit after the synagogue was bombed and told your people it was wrong to have done that, this wouldn’t have happened.”
I’ve learned a lot about what Rev. Hudgins did and did not do after he was prominently featured in Robert P. Jones’ book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. I’ve learned that Hudgins was a sympathetic pastor to many of the most prominent anti-integrationists in Mississippi in the 1960s. I’ve learned he was the so-called “chaplain to the closed society” in the American South. And I’ve learned he was the pastor whose church it was that Medgar Evers tried to integrate just days before he was assassinated. Most recently, I learned that in 1939 Hudgins was pastoring a church just blocks from where a white mob burned the home of a black family which had tried to integrate a neighborhood here in Fort Worth. A child in that family was a young Ms. Opal Lee, who was just honored by President Joe Biden as the “the Grandmother of Juneteenth.” The church Hudgins was pastoring was the church I pastor now, Broadway Baptist Church. There is no evidence that he spoke out from its pulpit against the racial violence at that time either.
This is a book review, and I admit I am not yet telling you a great deal about the book, except to say how deeply it has impacted my understanding of my own congregation and context. So much so that after reading White Too Long in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and amidst last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, I wrote a lengthy letter to the Broadway membership, calling us to take a serious look at our church’s racialized history and recognize and dismantle the continuing legacies of White Supremacy within our own congregation. A year later what has come out of that is a church-wide initiative called ACT: Acknowledge, Confess, and Transform, a newly-established Justice Committee, and several stated desired outcomes, including a commitment to future reparations for past harm. I am telling you, the book was a source of inspiration—and conviction.
Part memoir, part history, and part sociology, the core message of White Too Long tells us that white supremacy is deeply embedded in the DNA of many historically white churches—including many so-called “moderate” white churches. In fact, Dr. Jones’ data shows that a significant predictor of whether or not a white person harbors racist attitudes is their level of participation in church. And the shocking thing is Dr. Jones’ research says it’s the regular church goers who are the most racist in America.
This is a moral shame, and a hard truth. Yet I commend Dr. Jones for having the courage to speak it with obvious love for the church and sincere hope for its future. As significant conversations are taking place around this country about Critical Race Theory in particular, and the teaching of American history more generally, White Too Long is exactly the kind of moral, truth-telling we need in the church and in society. It could not be more timely.
And with a post-January 6th insurrection post-script, the new paperback version of White Too Long takes on even more urgency given how many white people with Christian flags and other Christian symbols we witnessed storming the U.S. Capitol.
The title of the book is provocative and taken from a James Baldwin quote in which he said that much of America’s white population had been “white too long.” I think what Baldwin meant by that was too many white people had been taught to think and act in white supremacist ways for too long. That would have included a lot of white church folk.
White Too Long is best read as a mirror. It is a book through which to look at one’s own congregation and context. I commend it to you to take and read and consider whether your church ever had its own Rev. Hudgins, or worse, and what legacies of theirs may still be in place. Has your church been white too long? Is it time for you to ACT?
Monday, July 19 at 12 noon EDT, join Robert Jones, Ryon Price, Carol McEntyre, Gerardo Marti and Alliance leaders in a conversation about ways your church may benefit from the study of the book in your setting. Learn more here.
Rev. Ryon Price is Senior Pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Broadway will host the 2022 Alliance of Baptists Annual Gathering.