A Time for Burning: (ir)Religion, Race, and Civil Rights in Omaha

Paul Putz

In 1966, Lutheran Film Associates did something surprising. They commissioned and publicly released A Time for Burning, a documentary film that laid bare the harsh reality that racism was alive and well within Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. The film, directed by Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell, documented the efforts by Augustana's new pastor Bill Youngdahl to get his all-white congregation to reach out to neighboring black churchgoers in the interest of racial reconciliation and integration. The cameras rolled as leaders within Augustana discussed the pros and cons of launching a voluntary "couples exchange" program, in which white Lutheran families would have dinner with black Lutheran and Presbyterian families (spoiler alert: the cons outweighed the pros). The cameras also captured Youngdahl's attempts to reach out to Omaha's black community, and grabbed footage of a number of lively discussions between African American teenagers, Youngdahl's reluctant congregants, Omaha's mayor, and more. The film was widely praised at the time of its release, receiving an Academy Award nomination in 1967 for Best Documentary Feature. Nearly fifty years later the movie is still intensely fascinating. This is a film that should be seriously considered for use in any class that covers the Civil Rights Movement. 

There are many ways to analyze the place of religion in A Time for Burning, not least of which might be to consider the present state of segregation with Christian churches. However, I've set up this blog post to tackle the film from two other distinct angles. In part 1, I'll briefly discuss the way religion is used by the movie's nonreligious black provocateur and unquestioned (if unstated) star, Ernie Chambers (on the DVD cover above, Chambers is the man pictured in the top left and bottom left). For part 2 I've dragooned Tim Grundmeier, a Lutheran and fellow PhD student at Baylor, to situate the film within its Lutheran context.  As Tim will point out, Lutheranism is a tradition that is often overlooked in the study of American religious history, despite the fact that some of the giants in the previous generation of religious historians (Martin Marty, Sydney Ahlstrom) came from a Lutheran background.

Part One - Ernie Chambers (Paul Putz)

When A Time For Burning was filmed Ernie Chambers had lived in Omaha for nearly thirty years. He owned a barbershop in north Omaha and had gained a reputation as a militant advocate for black rights. By 1966 he was important enough in Omaha's black community that Bill Youngdahl felt the need to give Ernie a visit as part of his racial outreach project. The scenes with Ernie (watch one for yourself here) are arguably the most powerful in the film. Although his statewide fame and notoriety came in the years after his appearance in Burning, it's easy to see from the movie why Ernie became such a compelling (and/or loathed) figure.

In the 1960s most blacks lived in northeast Omaha, and the same pattern exists today (see below for a racial/ethnic map of 2010 Omaha, created by Eric Fisher). That part of the city, Nebraska's 11th District, has usually provided Nebraska's unicameral legislature with its lone African American representative. Chambers took over as the 11th District's representative in 1970 and held the spot until 2008, when a newly-implemented term-limit law finally forced Ernie to the sidelines. After a four year break, he ran again and won his spot back in 2012 at the age of seventy-five. Chambers truly is an Omaha (and Nebraska) institution.
Each dot = 25 residents. Red dots = white, blue dots = black, orange dots = Hispanic
Both then and now, Christians are among Ernie's favorite targets. "If Christians could keep your nose out of other people's crotches," he said in a 2005 interview, "If you could spend more time practicing what your religion teaches you, you'd have less time meddling in other people's business." That barb—practice what your religion teaches you—is a go-to move in Ernie's arsenal. When Ernie "retired" in 2008, a fellow legislator admitted that even though Ernie could be frustrating, Ernie caused him "to question whether or not we have practiced what we preach.”

For a nonbeliever like Chambers, organized religion does not provide much personal appeal. But the rhetoric of religious hypocrisy is a powerful weapon for Chambers, and you see it over and over again in Burning. As he tells Bill Youngdahl:
"We've studied your history. You did not take over this country by singing 'We Shall Overcome.' You did not take over the world like you have it now by dealing fairly with a man and keeping your word. You're treaty breakers. You're liars, you're thieves. You rape entire continents of people...your religion is a farce and you demonstrate it everyday...As far as we're concerned, your Jesus is contaminated just like everything else you've tried to force on us is contaminated. I wish you would follow Jesus like we followed him. Cause if you did that, we'd be in charge tomorrow." 
Later in the film Chambers confronts a member of the white Lutheran church. "Are you a Christian?" Chambers asks repeatedly. "And you're Christian because you believe in Christ, and you know he never hesitated to take a position on moral issues no matter who might oppose him."

Earlier this year, Chambers sat down for an interview with Fred Knapp of NET News. At the 4:25 mark, the question of religion was brought up. Knapp noted that during Ernie's speech in support of extending Medicaid benefits, Ernie had quoted from the prophet Elijah. Knapp wanted to know why a nonbeliever like Chambers would quote from the Bible. "I use the standards that they set when I judge somebody," Ernie said, "Their own standards condemn them."

Of course, anti-Christian rhetoric, particularly in the form of pointing out the hypocrisy of white Christians, was used to great effect by other civil rights activists who did identify with a religion and believe in God. But Chambers' criticism of Christian hypocrisy comes from outside the canopy of a religious institution or personal belief in God. This begs the question: what forces have shaped Chambers' idea of what "true" Christianity looks like? Was he perhaps influenced by the "radical Jesus" tradition that has been discussed before at this blog?

A few months ago Lincoln Mullen asked "Where are the histories of American irreligion?" I thought of that question as I re-watched Burning this month. Scholars like Michael Lackey have already broached this subject within African American history. Here's hoping that someday a scholar sees fit to analyze and explore the persistent presence of religion in the politics of the irreligious Ernie Chambers.

Part Two - Lutherans (Tim Grundmeier)

I can’t fault my friend Paul for not knowing much about Lutherans. They are conspicuously underrepresented in the historiography of U.S. religion and culture. There are, I think, two chief explanations for this. First, those who study American Lutherans—most of whom also happen to be Lutherans themselves (like me)—have expended much of their scholarly energy on topics of parochial interest rather than on incorporating Lutherans into the larger narratives of American history. (There are, of course, a few notable exceptions to this; for example, see here, here, and here.) Second, most historians have had neither the patience nor the inclination to study Lutherans. I can understand the lack of patience. As of 1900, there were over twenty independent Lutheran denominations, divided by ethnicity, region, and theology. Why would a religious historian devote his or her time working through several languages to study a bewilderingly fractious faith tradition that has had little (seeming) influence on the development of American politics, culture, and religion? Along with the lack of patience, I can also understand the lack of inclination. As esteemed historian Martin Marty has written, “Lutherans are not exotic enough to inspire mere curiosity on the part of non-Lutherans.” (After a few months of knowing me, I’m sure Paul can attest to the veracity of that statement.) Put another way, Lutherans’ distinctive beliefs and practices simply do not rouse the curiosity of historians. The result is, as one Lutheran scholar wryly notes, “[E]very year numerous works appear on the Shakers, a virtually extinct group that probably numbered no more than six thousand members at its height, while works on the nine million American Lutherans remain scarce.”

Yet upon closer examination, “the history of Lutherans in the United States is a dramatic story with several remarkable twists,” as Mark Noll has argued. There is not the space here to recount the numerous contours of this history, but a brief summary is necessary to help give context to the Lutheran angle of the film. Twice in their American history, Lutherans have emerged from their ethno-religious enclaves in order to stake their claim as important contributors to U.S. religious culture. The first appearance came in the antebellum era when Americanized Lutherans, whose roots stretched back to the colonial period, sought to graft themselves into the nation’s predominant evangelical Protestantism. However, waves of Northern European immigrants, the political and cultural crises of the Civil War, and numerous theological controversies led most Lutherans to abandon this ecumenical project. (Incidentally, this is my intended dissertation topic.) American Lutheranism entered the twentieth century relatively isolated from the larger currents of U.S. public life and religious culture.

After World War II, however, Lutherans were beginning to assert themselves once again as a dynamic, significant and American religious group. In 1965, when A Time for Burning was filmed, Lutherans had indeed established their presence, at least numerically. That year, the total number of Lutherans reached just under nine million. This figure was nearly double that of Presbyterians, triple that of Episcopalians, and quadruple that of Congregationalists. Only Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists outnumbered Lutherans in the United States. These members were divided principally between three denominations: the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). At the risk of oversimplification, the political-religious orientation of the leadership, though not necessarily the membership, of these church bodies can be summarized in this way:
LCA:  left, member of the National Council of Churches (NCC)
ALC: center-left, member of the World Council of Churches (WCC), but not the NCC
LCMS: center-right, member of neither the WCC or NCC; but also possessed a vocal progressive minority who would leave the denomination in the 1970s. In 1988, the LCA, ALC, and the small break-off from the LCMS would merge to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

But enough background; let’s get to the subject at hand: Lutherans, race, and civil rights. There are a few fine works that explore the subject (see here, here, for example), but we are still waiting for a definitive account, similar to John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (1996). For this post, I’ll list three things that I have discovered in my own research that seem to make the Lutheran response worthy of further study.

First, the region where Lutherans were most prominent was the Midwest. Despite several fine works on cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago, this region’s civil rights history continues to be understudied. During the early 1960s, some Lutherans felt that their example and political activism could turn the tide of American race relations. One 1963 editorial, entitled “Midwest Lutherans Have a Duty,” argued that, since the success of the Civil Rights Act rested in the hands of politicians from heavily Lutheran states in the Midwest, “what positions Lutheran citizens take may well decide whatever action Congress takes.”

Second, many Lutheran leaders took seriously Martin Luther King Jr.’s challenge for a “liberalism in the North which… firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the Deep South.” Many refused to single out the South as exceptionally racist and believed that the most pressing issue for Lutherans was to confront discrimination in their own communities. To be sure, there were Lutherans who participated in Civil Rights demonstrations in the South. But, as this article by a Freedom Ride participant illustrates, many Lutherans’ concerns extended beyond the South: “[S]egregation is not a Southern problem. It is not a Northern problem. It is a human problem. Therefore, it must be opposed, wherever it is found, by anyone who feels it to be wrong…. I wish some Southern Christians would take a Freedom Ride north and point out some of our remaining sore spots. We need their help.”

Finally, Lutherans attempted to apply both spiritual and political solutions to the problem of race. This was a major shift for a Christian tradition that for most of its American history had been rather quietistic in its approach to societal problems. Yet during the Civil Rights era, many Lutheran writers were just as likely to highlight the power of the gospel to transform spiritual lives, as they were to point out that “the Gospel of Christ has clear social implications,” as one editor wrote.

As a documentary on Augustana Lutheran Church, an LCA congregation, A Time For Burning illuminates these trends. It takes place in Omaha, one of many Midwestern cities with a Civil Rights history that needs more scholarly exploration. The very premise of the movie demonstrates the recognition by many Lutherans that prejudice and discrimination were not just Southern problems but national problems. Pastor Youngdahl’s approach to prejudice and segregation illustrates a growing uneasiness among many American Lutherans about their heritage of political quietism. Finally, the hostile and ambivalent reactions of his congregation and fellow pastors show that these concerns may not have extended to most Lutherans.

How far have Lutherans in general, and Augustana Lutheran Church in particular, come since A Time for Burning? Writing about twenty years ago, Jeff Johnson in his Black Christians: The Untold Lutheran Story wrote that the Lutheran Church still possesses the attitude that “black people may come into the church if they will hear the Gospel, speak the Gospel and live by the Gospel as Euro-Americans do.” Augustana Lutheran Church’s website offers this description of the congregation today: “An open and affirming congregation… We value grace, justice and faith in action.” In their section on the church’s history, there is no mention of the documentary filmed there nearly fifty years ago.


Tom Van Dyke said…
Finally, the hostile and ambivalent reactions of his congregation and fellow pastors show that these concerns may not have extended to most Lutherans.

This illustrates the difficulty of what amounts to doing forensic sociology by anecdote rather than with some statistical ammo in one's bag.

As tempting as "religious hypocrisy" is as a narrative, the real story may be not be as interesting, not that their religion and faith was strong, but not strong enough. If we write religion out of the Nebraska Lutheran equation, as Paul's map shows, nothing much has changed.


Rich People Love Diversity, Until They Have Kids

Great post, Paul.

While the focus is on the midwest, I wonder about how Karl Lutze's memoir Awakening to Equality fits into the story? (I believe he was a LCMS minister in OK during the mid-twentieth century.)

Also, given the history of Lutherans and race (and the evangelical movement generally), it is interesting to note that African American evangelical scholar Anthony Bradley recently proposed an evangelical solution to racial injustice by invoking the 1994 LCMS statement "Racism and the Church: Overcoming the Idolatry." It is an Appendix in his 2013 volume titled Aliens in the Promised Land.
Maffly-Kipp said…
Thanks for this. Bill Youngdahl was the minister at my church when I was a teen. By then he had left the Lutherans and joined the UCC, where he was a crusader for equality of all sorts, including for gays and lesbians (at a time when that issue was hardly on the radar screens of most churches). And he was rightly admired for his work on Civil Rights. A deeply loving man, who just passed away last year. See obit athttp://www.legacy.com/obituaries/startribune/obituary.aspx?pid=159291270.
Paul Putz said…
Thanks for the comments!

Phillip, you bring up an interesting point regarding Karl Lutze. I may have to read his memoir with an eye towards connection with the people involved in A Time for Burning.

It's clear that within some important broadly Lutheran organizations (like Lutheran Film Associates), there was a conscious decision to push for civil rights advocacy despite awareness of hesitancy on the part of some Lutherans. After the filming of A Time for Burning, LFA discussed the fact that it made Augustana look bad, and yet decided that releasing the film and sparking conversation was worth the possible blowback.
Unknown said…
Paul, You mention my work in your post--I'm assuming that it's a reference to my book on African American Atheists. In any event, I just came out with an essay that relates to your topic on Lutheranism, which you might find of some interest. It is, perhaps, my most controversial essay to date. Here's the link: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cultural_critique/v084/84.lackey.html

If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.

All Best,
Paul Putz said…
Michael, I was indeed referring to your "African American Atheists and Political Liberation" book.

Thanks for passing along your essay. I've only been able to read the brief excerpt so far, but it looks intriguing. My initial thought was that it reminds me somewhat of what Kelly Baker did in her book "Gospel According to the Klan." Of course, I'll have to read it through before I'm able to make any well-grounded comparisons.
Unknown said…
I'll check that work out, Paul. And if you read the essay, let me know what you think. When writing it, I had people like you in mind: honest, open-minded believers. It was an attempt to expose some hard truths without alienating honest believers.

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