A Brush with Evil in Arby's: Race and Religion in the Modern South

Bob Elder received his PhD from Emory University, and writes about religion and the American South. His current project is a book manuscript, Sacred Communities: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Modern Identity in the American South, 1790-1860, under contract with UNC Press. For the last two years, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellow Program at Valparaiso University. He is currently Assistant Professor of History at Tabor College in Kansas.  

Bob Elder 

This past summer my family and I flew into Atlanta, rented a car, and headed for the South Carolina coast where my wife’s family lives. Along the way, taking the back roads through rural South Carolina from Columbia to Georgetown on the coast, we passed one of my favorite landmarks, a tiny, wood-frame church in the Sandhills region of the state that bears a sign proclaiming it a “Fire Consecrated, Free Will Baptist Church.” I’ve never been sure whether the sign indicated Pentecostal influence, a past fire in which the building burned down, or just an irresistible turn of phrase. On our way back to Atlanta two weeks later after a wonderful visit with family and friends we made a quick stop to see my wife’s old college roommate and her husband, I’ll call him Kirk, who I’d never met. By that point in the trip we were tired, the kids were cranky, and my mind was already on Atlanta and the flight home, but we couldn’t pass up the chance. We agreed to meet them at an exit off I-85 on the Georgia/South Carolina border. The only landmark we could find on Google Maps was an Arby’s.

It ended up being one of those fast-food-restaurants-housed-in-a-gas-station kind of places, but there weren’t any alternatives close at hand. We unloaded, ordered our roast beef sandwiches, and waited for our friends to arrive. The place was packed. 

When they showed up, Kirk was a big guy with a quick smile and strong upcountry accent. After small talk, we quickly hit upon a common interest: the ongoing debate in the Southern Baptist Convention over what some perceive as the growing influence of Calvinism in their seminaries and churches. As a Presbyterian who studies a lot of Calvinistic Baptists in the early 19th century South, I’m intrigued by this resurgence, and Kirk proved a knowledgeable source (I don’t want to out him as a closet Calvinist, but he seemed pretty sympathetic to the French point of view). 

At some point my wife mentioned that Kirk was bringing something for me, a gift of some sort. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had forgotten about the rumored gift until, during a pause in the conversation, Kirk reached into a backpack he was carrying and pulled out what looked like a book, wrapped in plain brown packing paper. He said something like: “I don’t know if you’ll want this, but when I heard you were a history professor, I thought you might want to at least see it.” He seemed a little worried, and kept assuring me as I unwrapped the book that I didn’t have to keep it if I didn’t want it. I kept going, fearing at every fold that I would uncover the front flap of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, or something like it, which I would then have to keep.

When I finally reached the worn, red cover of Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots, the first book in the author’s notoriously racist Reconstruction trilogy that also included The Clansman (1905), on which D.W. Griffith based his epic Birth of a Nation (1915), I had two reactions in quick succession. The first was to feel like somebody had just handed me a Playboy magazine instead of a hymnal at church—I looked around the restaurant for knowing glances or disapproving stares, especially from the African-American patrons (yes, I realize this was irrational). Next, I checked the inside cover for the publication date, where I saw 1902, a first edition. 

It was clear that Kirk knew exactly what he had given me, and that he thought I would be interested in the book as an artifact, not as an enlightening “true story” of Reconstruction. He had gotten the book, he explained, from the office of a retiring theology professor at the small Baptist college where he went as an undergraduate. He knew its historical value but, as he explained, he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to keep the book himself, lest someone see it on the local youth minister’s bookshelf and misunderstand its presence, if they knew what it was. As he put it, “Somebody who sounds like me probably ought not to keep a book like that around.” It would be too easy for people to make assumptions.

And make assumptions they would, especially if they opened the book and read just about any page, or looked at one of the many high quality illustrations throughout the book (see picture). Later, after we got home, I opened the book randomly and read a passage in which Hose Norman, a poor (but virtuous) white man from the North Carolina mountains, marries sixteen-year-old Annie Camp (the following passage can be found on p.123-126 of the 1902 edition, or here, courtesy of UNC’s Documenting the American South project). As the ceremony ends, several “negro troopers” burst into the house, knock Hose Norman senseless, and abduct the new bride, carrying her out towards the woods. Several of Hose Norman’s friends crowd around Annie’s father Tom, a Confederate veteran and a deacon in the local Baptist church, asking “‘What shall we do, Tom? If we shoot we may kill Annie.’” Tom replies, “‘Shoot, men! My God, shoot! There are things worse than death!’”

I naively assumed at this point that Hose Norman’s “mountain boys” would narrowly rescue Annie from the clutches of the sex-crazed black soldiers. However, I underestimated Dixon’s willingness to tax his readers’ suspension of disbelief. (I also forgot the fate of Flora Cameron in Griffith’s movie, which has the young white girl fall (jump?) off a cliff rather than be ravished by the black soldier Gus). After the shooting stops the mountain boys bring Annie’s senseless body back into the house, where her mother discovers a “round hole” in her temple, from which “a scarlet stream was running down her white throat.” In their attempt to rescue Annie, the mountain boys had killed her. Tom Camp then proceeds to comfort his sobbing wife, confusingly also named Annie.

"Don't, don't cry so Annie! It might have been worse. Let us thank God she was saved from them brutes." 

Hose's friends crowded round Tom now with tear stained faces.

"Tom, you don't know how broke up we all are over this. Poor child, we did the best we could."

"It's all right, boys. You've been my friends to-night, You've saved my little gal. I want to shake hands with you and thank you. If you hadn't been here--My God, I can't think of what would 'a happened! Now it's all right. She's safe in God's hands."

This, in the writing profession, is what we call a little heavy-handed, but the point is clear. Despite passages like this, Dixon included a “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book in which he claims that “the only serious liberty I have taken with history is to tone down the facts to make them credible in fiction…I tried to write this book with the utmost restraint.”

Readers at the time took Dixon seriously, and here I should note that the retired theology professor at the small Baptist college was not my book’s first owner. On the cover page of the book is the inscription “Roger Lamar Clark, 1902.” Doing a little informal googling, I found an obituary for a Roger Lamar Clark who had been born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1872, and died in Martin, Tennessee, 1948. According to the obituary, Clark was a Baptist minister who “held pastorates throughout the South during his half-century of service.” Although I can’t be sure, it seems possible that this long-dead Baptist minister was the original purchaser of my copy of The Leopard’s Spots, which he would have bought when he was thirty years old, a few years into his “half-century of service.”

As I’ve mulled over what the book has meant to its various owners, its provenance has emerged in my thinking as a kind of metaphor for the fraught relationship between religion and race in the modern South and modern America. Dixon himself, of course, was a onetime Baptist minister, and although his writing is nearly uniformly bad throughout the book, his description of the Rev. John Durham, the local Baptist minister, comes tantalizingly close to being good (39-40). In defiance of the historical record, Dixon wrote that Durham never preached on politics. “War was declared, and fought for four terrible years. Lee surrendered, the slaves were freed, and society was torn from the foundations of centuries, but you would never have known it from the lips of the Rev. John Durham in his pulpit,” wrote Dixon. Of Durham’s grasp of the Bible, Dixon wrote, “Its literature, its poetic fire, the epic sweep of the Old Testament record of life, were in-wrought into the very fibre of his soul…He was narrow and dogmatic in his interpretations of the Bible, but his very narrowness and dogmatism were of his flesh and blood, elements of his power…He simply announced the Truth. The wise received it. The fools rejected it and were damned. That was all there was to it” (39-40).

When he wrote this passage, Dixon may have been thinking of himself, but he might also have been thinking of his brother A.C. Dixon, a famous Baptist minister who helped to edit The Fundamentals and give a new religious movement its name at about the same time that D.W. Griffith was making The Clansman into an epic film. 

I wondered how closely the book’s original owner identified with the Rev. Durham, who becomes the unofficial chaplain to the Klan and in one part of the book tells a female carpetbagger from Boston who is trying to start a school for the freedmen that he would like to “box you up in a glass cage, such as are used for rattlesnakes, and ship you back to Boston” (46-47). It’s impossible to say exactly what was Roger Lamar Clark’s relationship to Dixon’s book, but it seems safe to say that the majority of white Baptist ministers in the South in 1902 would have embraced Dixon’s depiction of a Baptist minister who served the Lost Cause as well as the risen Lord. 

How the book then made its way into the hand of the theology professor at the small Baptist college, and what his relationship to the book may have been is even more uncertain, but he lived through a time when Dixon’s interpretation of Reconstruction, as well as doctrines like the spirituality of the church, originally used in the antebellum era to silence anti-slavery arguments in the mouths of northern clergy, became potent ideological barriers that prevented the white southern church from taking part in the Civil Rights movement.

The last part of the book’s story seems the most hopeful, especially the awareness on the part of a young Baptist youth minister that the history of race and religion in the South might make it inappropriate for him to own or display certain parts of that history. In this sense, his gift of the book to me represents a symbolic end to its influence, the end of its long transition from an active and influential force in its own cultural milieu to an artifact of that era, discredited and defanged by history and scholarship. 

And yet, as recent books by the likes of Peter Slade, Ed Blum, and Paul Harvey have reminded us, we would do well to remember how this history still silently influences the relationship between race and religion in America today. Slade’s book, Open Friendship in a Closed Society (2009), details how an organization that aims to promote racial reconciliation and cooperation between white and black churches in Mississippi is still hampered by the old spirituality of the church doctrine voiced by Dixon in his description of the Rev. Durham, a doctrine that historically supported ends that most present-day white church members would abhor. In The Color of Christ (2012), Blum and Harvey show how the history of race and religion in America has left us with the pervasive image of a white Christ whose historical origins have been largely ignored but who nevertheless continues to be a powerful presence among religious folk who would quickly reject Dixon’s blatant racism. 

All this is why I will keep the book, and why I’m grateful for the gift. I will keep it because we need to remember and be constantly reminded, as I was sitting in Arby’s, that there are no hard lines or sharp breaks that separate the past from the present. That in spite of our best efforts, we can never completely free ourselves from the past, and so we would do well to be conscious of it. Sitting on my shelf, the book reminds me.   


Edward J. Blum said…
get this man in the general rotation! he's a starter
This comment has been removed by the author.
That all of this happened at Arby's is perhaps the best part of the story. And, well, the entire reflection part too. Well in. And you didn't even shamelessly promote me (unlike Ed, above) so I can say this with clear conscience!

Popular Posts