An Unsettling Silence

A son explores his father’s sermons during the civil rights era

Gail Short

When John Archibald was born in a Birmingham suburb in 1963, the city was in the midst of unrest; the civil rights movement in Birmingham was reaching its peak.

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Shaking the Gates of Hell Book Cover

The son of a Methodist preacher, Birmingham News and columnist John Archibald writes about coming to terms with his father’s silence during the civil rights movement in his new book Shaking the Gates of Hell.

Shaking the Gates of Hell Book Cover
Shaking the Gates of Hell Book Cover

“My dad taught me everything I believe about equality and seeking to love and understanding all people, but I never really heard or couldn’t recall him speaking about issues of race.”

John Archibald, the Pulitzer-prize winning and Birmingham News columnist and self-described “preacher’s kid,” is seated inside the sanctuary at East Lake United Methodist Church in Birmingham, the place where his late father, the Rev. Robert Archibald, once pastored.

When John Archibald was born in the Birmingham suburb of Alabaster, Ala., in April 1963, the nearby city of Birmingham was in the midst of unrest; the civil rights movement in Birmingham was reaching its peak.

That month, the city’s law enforcement officers jailed civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and others for holding demonstrations. The next month, civil rights leaders launched the Children’s Crusade, in which Black children and teens marched through the streets of Birmingham to protest racial segregation.

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John Archibald (right) with his father in the early 1990s at Camp Glisson in North Georgia. Archibald says reading Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” helped inspire him to research his father’s sermons.

Law enforcement responded by attacking the youngsters with police dogs, mowing them down with firehoses, and throwing them in jail. The city even garnered the tragic nickname “Bombingham” because white supremacists bombed so many civil rights leaders’ homes.

The racial violence in Birmingham transfixed the nation as people watched grainy images of the violence on the evening news.

On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered his historic and much celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech at the civil rights March on Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, during the same year, the Rev. Robert Archibald Jr., was pastoring his small Methodist congregation and raising his growing family in Alabaster.

A Single Question

John Archibald, who is white, says that decades later, five years after his father’s death, a single question began to haunt him.

Did his dad ever preach a sermon in support of King or the civil rights movement?

Archibald discusses the search for answers in his latest book, a memoir, titled Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution.

In his book, Archibald looks back at his early years growing up in Alabama and his coming to terms with how his father responded to the civil rights struggle in Birmingham.

I had been thinking about the notion of silence for so long because of the Civil War…because of all of the bombings.

“I had been thinking about the notion of silence for so long because of the Civil War, because of Reconstruction, because of the Constitution, because of Jim Crow, because of Tuskegee, because of all of the bombings,” he says.

“It struck me: How could those exist if people who really believed that it was wrong—or felt in their heart that it was wrong—just stood up and said so?

“And I’m talking about white people, because there’s nothing I can tell Black people about racism,” he says.

“That’s the context in which I started looking to see what my dad said. He had been dead for five years, and maybe it took that long for me to seriously ask the question, ‘What did my dad say?’”

Archibald (center front) grew up the youngest of four children in Alabama. He and his family moved from city to city as the Methodist Church promoted their father. He is pictured here with his siblings (left to right) Mark, Murray, and Mary Beth.

Preacher’s Kid

Archibald grew up the youngest of four children. He writes that his father, his paternal grandfather, and his great-grandfather were all Methodist ministers. He recalls that his dad enjoyed favor with the Methodist church leadership that reassigned him to larger, more prosperous congregations in Gadsden and Birmingham during his career.

Meanwhile, as John Archibald grew older and later became a journalist in Birmingham, he read many accounts of Black ministers in Birmingham such as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who marched and demanded civil rights and endured beatings by police, as well as bombings and death threats from Klansmen.

Even a few white ministers spoke out against discrimination and attempted to welcome Blacks to their church. In return, they endured ostracism and death threats.

Things were happening in Birmingham and around the country, but here…they were just not talked about.

But many of the white people Archibald knew rarely acknowledged the struggle for freedom and racial justice that was going on in Birmingham.

“Things were happening in Birmingham and around the country, but here in the city of Birmingham, even during the years that followed, they were just not talked about,” Archibald says. “They were just simply forgotten. They were pushed along with images of dogs and fire hoses and things that we knew were there but didn’t quite understand.”

Searching for Truth

Consequently, Archibald set out to learn what his father had to say from the pulpit about race. He went to his parents’ home and opened the file cabinet where Rev. Archibald stored his sermons.

The first sermon he came across was one his father delivered in 1963 on what the Methodist church called “Children’s Sunday.” That Sunday just happened to coincide with the Children’s Crusade that was in full swing in Birmingham.

There wasn’t a word about the troubles going on right outside those stained-glass windows.

“But in his sermon, my dad talked about things like all the troubles in the world, in places like Asia and Africa,” Archibald says. “There wasn’t a word about the troubles going on right outside those stained-glass windows.”

Archibald read sermon after sermon, he says, hoping to find one that acknowledged King, race relations, or the civil rights movement. But he found none.

“My dad was one of the best people I ever knew, certainly one of the most principled and well-meaning. And if someone like that couldn’t find the words to say, ‘This is wrong,’ I wanted to find out why,” he says.

In his memoir, Archibald attempts to reconcile his father’s silence on race with the father who taught him and his siblings to be fearless and compassionate.

For instance, he recalls the many times during his youth when his father encouraged him and his siblings to be brave and willing to take risks. He also writes about the morning when Rev. Archibald welcomed a homeless man into their house and invited him to breakfast.

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John Archibald (top right) had always known his father (top left) to be a good man and parent and moral leader in the Methodist Church. Archibald is pictured here with his wife, Alecia (bottom right) and son Drew.

Rev. Archibald served as a Methodist minister in Alabama for nearly six decades.

“I think my dad certainly had moral clarity. He had courage in the traditional sense. He’d walk into a fire to save somebody. So I don’t want to be too hard on him; we all find ourselves in positions sometimes where we don’t know what to say or we don’t know how to say it. But I don’t want to let him off either.”

Archibald says he did discover that his father was more vocal about civil rights in one-on-one conversations and even had a few run-ins with congregants who expressed their desire to keep Blacks out of their church.

“He may have made more progress away from, rather than from, the pulpit,” Archibald says. “He was a better minister than he was a preacher, because he would be there for anybody, and he didn’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable.”

A Platform for Change

Archibald says he still wrestles with the notion that his father could have done more to speak out publicly against racial segregation.

“I think it’s important to speak for those who don’t have as big a pulpit as you do. And when I say pulpit, I don’t mean an ecclesiastical one,” he says. “If you have a podium, I think it’s really important for you to use it and to share it with people who don’t have enough of one, or who’ve been denied one, or those who typically don’t have the means of finding one,” he says.

I think it’s important to speak for those who don’t have as big a pulpit as you do. And when I say pulpit, I don’t mean an ecclesiastical one.

And Archibald compares his platform – his job as an editorial columnist – to the platform his father once held as a minister.

“I have to recognize every day that they pay me to say the stuff that I think, and I suppose, from a practical perspective, they paid him and other preachers to keep people, frankly, putting money in the collection plate and holding a church together,” he says.

“I recognize very clearly that most people don’t live in a world where their living comes from expressing their own opinion,” he says.

“At the same time, if you’re a person of conscience, and you’re in a position where people come to you for spiritual guidance, how can you not say it out loud?”

He also laments how many whites find it difficult to talk about slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the past and the struggle for racial and gender equality today.

“I don’t know why it’s hard to talk about slavery. I’m shocked by the backlash over George Floyd and “The 1619 Project” and the way that has been criticized and turned into feeling that white people shouldn’t feel bad about themselves. It results in legislation and school board rules that say we cannot talk about the things that might make people uncomfortable.”

If we can’t examine history, then we can’t know where we are today or why we’re here today or where we’re going tomorrow.

“That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard in my life, because if we can’t examine history, then we can’t know where we are today or why we’re here today or where we’re going tomorrow,” he says.

And though his father, in his role as a preacher, shied away from talking about race, Archibald says his love and respect for his dad remain strong.

“I know that I can look back in time and say that this is one of the best people I’ve ever known, and yet he had trouble. It’s not about condemning him. It’s about asking what does it mean? What does it mean today and tomorrow with whatever issue we’re facing?

“We can step back and be safe and let it all go by us, or we can take a stand.”

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