The Common Good

Crossing the Lines: A White Reporter's View of the Civil Rights Movement

091106-crossing-the-linesIn Crossing the Lines: A Novel, author Richard Doster enabled me to enter the world of Jack Hall, an idealistic white reporter based in the South during the late 1950s who struggled between his need to report the truth with his concerns for his family's safety. As evidenced by the Committee to Protect Journalists' reports, such internal battles continue to be waged by those who seek to uncover the stories that must be told. Intrigued by Doster's approach to this subject, I decided to explore with him how he was able to craft a believable historical fiction about the American Civil Rights Movement.

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Why did you choose to fictionalize a part of history where one finds so many nonfiction accounts readily available?

Novels, even historical ones, aren't primarily about what happened in history. They're about what happens to us. They're about what happens when we find ourselves facing inevitable change. They examine how we -- creatures with emotions, convictions, and attitudes -- respond when we're confronted with uncomfortable ideas. They describe how we change, slowly and awkwardly, when those ideas seem to have merit. Novels are about how we react when the comfortable status quo is pulled out from under us.

The history in the book is accurate, but the story is, as Faulkner once said, about "the human heart in conflict with itself."

What insights did you learn about the Civil Rights struggle that you didn't know prior to researching this book?

I came away from the project with enormous gratitude for the way Martin Luther King changed the hearts of America's white population.

Most people, I suspect, think of "the movement" as being about rights for black people. I was surprised to learn that it was, from the very beginning, about justice for everyone. King's concern was for a society in which every human could flourish. He recognized, in a thoroughly biblical way, the need for cross-cultural fellowship, and he recognized that whites were just as impoverished as blacks by a segregated society.

There's a point in the story where King explains 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.

Toward the end of the book we see that jailed black protesters refuse to pay bail. Diane Nash, a black leader, explains that their goal wasn't to get out of jail; it was to transform society. To pay bail, she pointed out, would be to participate in, and thereby perpetuate, an inherently evil system. Here again, the objective was to create a righteous society for all.

There was something Christ-like about the whole campaign. These people suffered on behalf of those who persecuted them. They were beaten, arrested, and verbally abused for the sake of their enemies.

How did you handle creating characters such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that would be true to their legacies?

I'm fortunate to live in Martin Luther King's hometown. I've been to his boyhood home, as well as to the Civil Rights museum that's right down the road. I've roamed around Ebenezer Baptist Church; I've been to Dexter Avenue Baptist and to the manse on South Jackson Street in Montgomery.

We have access to King's published speeches, sermons, and books. With a couple of clicks on YouTube, you can hear him speak, study his mannerisms, and be re-captivated by the rhythm of his oratory.

So many of the people involved in this story left a thorough and very personal record. We have the columns and books written by Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore -- their first-hand testimony through which we sense the tension of the times.

I live within a few miles of the research library at Emory University where, it seems, every article, speech, and essay ever written on the subject is at your fingertips.

I was careful in creating fictitious conversations to never create a fictitious idea. Any concept expressed by real people is an idea that he or she articulated during their lifetime.

What traits does your white Presbyterian pastor share with Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where do they differ?

They're both sincere, they both believe the Bible, they both care about the spiritual well-being of their congregations, and they both view the world through the dual lenses of scripture and the culture that shaped them.

They're different, primarily, in their interpretations. Carson Powers, the white pastor, sees the need -- and finds the justification -- to protect the status-quo. King sees the need -- and the justification -- to reform, repent, and renew.

Elaborate on the role that the churches played in your story.

In the black communities the church is a gathering place; it's where instruction is given -- both practical and spiritual. And it's where the movement gets its spiritual underpinning. King and others located the whole campaign within scripture's teaching about fellowship (King's idea of the "beloved community"), about loving neighbors and enemies, and about what a redeemed society looks like.

Can you talk about the juxtaposition of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Harper Lee with the radical stereotypes present in the South during this era?

In the era when Faulkner was crafting timeless novels, Martin Luther King was pleading for racial reconciliation. When Sam Phillips was producing the music of B.B. King and Elvis Presley, black students were being jailed for ordering coffee at the Woolworth's lunch counter. As Flannery O'Connor penned short stories, the governor of Georgia vowed to stop the 1956 Sugar Bowl, to prevent Georgia Tech from playing a Pittsburgh team that fielded one "Negro" player.

This was an era when Southerners were creating the best of the world's culture, and the worst. And we'd have never had the one without the other. We now realize that:

  • It is because of our once segregated society that we now know the thoughts and theology of Martin Luther King.
  • It was a history of racial oppression that gave birth to the blues.
  • Without racial strife, we're never enriched by the "Christ-haunted" fiction of so many great Southern writers.

In many ways, the worst of Southern culture spawned the best. This is the paradox that sends Jack Hall down a career path he never envisioned.

portrait-becky-garrisonBecky Garrison is featured in the documentaries The Ordinary Radicals and Nailin' it to the Church.

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