A literary journalist and publicist since 2003, Dee Stewart's writings have appeared in Precious Times, Romantic Times Magazines, Spirit Led Woman and on The Master's Artist Blog. Her work focuses on fiction, popular culture, media and their relationship to people who live according to a Christian worldview. Dee Stewart is the owner of DeeGospel PR, a Christian entertainment PR boutique located in Atlanta, GA where she lives. Visit her Christian Fiction Blog, which turned 5 years old in July at http://christianfiction.blogspot.com, keep up with her current projects at http://www.deestewart.com, talk to in real-time on Twitter at @deegospel.
The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself
Part II: A conversation with award-winning author Richard Doster
Crossing the Lines is the story of Jack Hall, a sportswriter for the Atlanta Constitution, who was once a contented Southerner—until September 1957 when he sees an image in a small newspaper of a white girl screaming insults at her black classmate, which ignites a new mission. Jack, so thoroughly grieved by the now famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan (on the right), is determined to show the world the South he loves. But along the way, he can’t escape plain truth. The region Jack loves is creating the best of the world’s culture—and the worst. And it’s that paradox that sends Jack’s life down unexpected paths, one of which is an encounter with Martin Luther King Jr.
Last month we chatted with Richard about his second novel, Crossing the Lines (David C. Cook). This is part two of that conversation.
Why is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. important to American Christianity?
The short answer is that King fundamentally changed our view of Christian community and of what it means to be the “body of Christ.” He changed our view of the kingdom of God, so that today, when we read about every tribe, nation, and tongue, we have a flesh-and-blood idea of what that means.
He taught us, as Christians, how to love our neighbors. And on segregated buses and at “white only” lunch counters, he and others showed us how to love our enemies—for their sakes and for their good, so that both the oppressed and the oppressor could live in a more righteous society.
How did you research this era?
Well, I live in Martin Luther King’s hometown. I’ve been to his boyhood home several times, as well as to the Civil Rights museum that’s right down the road. I’ve roamed around Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father were copastors. I’ve been to Dexter Avenue Baptist and to the manse on South Jackson Street in Montgomery. These places are full of books, papers, documentary presentations, and important artifacts from the era.
We have access to King’s speeches, sermons, and books. With a couple of clicks on YouTube, you can hear him speak, study his mannerisms, and be captivated by the rhythm of his oratory.
Many of the people involved in this story left thorough and very personal records. We have the columns and books written by Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore—their first-hand testimonies through which we sense the tension of the times.
This is one of the most thoroughly documented periods of our history, and I live within a few miles of the research library at Emory University where, it seems, every article ever written is at your fingertips.
What have you learned about your readers after writing this book?
I learned that some were grateful for the reminder of what we’ve come through. And that others, while appreciative of the engaging story, were thankful for a look at an era they’d never seen before. I learned that a lot of people—smart, educated, involved, and caring people—never knew that black churches were bombed or that high school kids were threatened or that athletes were banned from the South’s playing fields; some people never knew that black people were beaten for sitting at lunch counters. And because they didn’t know, they’ve taken our current status for granted. Because they didn’t know, they
didn’t appreciate the price that was paid. Nor have they appreciated how men’s hearts have changed and softened.
I would like for my readers—black and white—to appreciate the way Martin Luther King Jr. changed the hearts and minds of America’s white population. Here are a couple episodes that illustrate what I mean:
Early in the book, when Jack (the protagonist of the story) asks King about the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott, King tells him that he hopes to awaken a sense of moral shame. He explains that the effort is ultimately about fellowship. The aftermath of it, he tells Jack, is redemption and reconciliation—a redeeming good will for all men.
Most people, I suspect, think of “the movement” as being about rights for black people. I was surprised to learn that it was—thoroughly and from the very beginning—about justice for everyone. King’s concern was for a society in which every human could flourish. This twenty-six-year-old pastor recognized, in a thoroughly biblical way, the need for cross-cultural fellowship. He recognized that whites were just as impoverished as blacks by a segregated society. King saw that white people—especially those in power—needed to be freed from the restraints of a segregated society.
There’s a point in the story where King tells Chris Hall (Jack’s son) that he’s not interested in ending segregation. The goal, he says, is integration—the creation of a “beloved community” of all God’s children. King was always mindful that no one could thrive until everyone had equal opportunity.
Toward the end of the book, in Nashville, we see black protesters refuse to pay bail, even after it’s been lowered to a token five dollars. Diane Nash, one of the leaders, explains to Jack that their goal isn’t to get out of jail, it is to transform an unjust society. To pay bail, she points out, would be to participate in—and thereby perpetuate—an inherently evil system.
Here again, the objective was all encompassing. It was never about winning rights for a few, but rather, creating a righteous society for all.
I was surprised by the nobility of the movement, and by the courage of the people who took part. Looking back, I see something very Christlike about the whole campaign. These people suffered in an intentional way on behalf of those who persecuted them. They were beaten, arrested, and verbally abused for the sake of their enemies. To win freedom for everyone, they strove to enrich the lives of those who hated them.
It’s interesting, this movement so thoroughly transformed American society, and yet it never insisted on a single, fundamental change. Rather, it called on the country to embrace the principles of freedom and equality that it had “always” proclaimed. It simply asked Americans to be fully American. It didn’t demand that the church change; rather, it called on the church to embody the truths of Christ-centered community that it already preached. In other words, it asked the Christian church to become more Christian.
To the extent that we still view this in black and white terms, it’s clear that white people, perhaps as much as black people—are its beneficiaries. While the movement changed conditions for black people, it changed the hearts and minds of white people, which gives us plenty to celebrate and be grateful for.
Visit Richard at www.richarddoster.com.