Saturday, September 08, 2007

Back from Little Rock

I got back last night from Little Rock, Arkansas, where I was presenting a paper at an international conference on "The Little Rock Crisis: Fifty Years Later." This past week was the 50th anniversary of the attempt by the Little Rock 9 to integrate Little Rock Central High in 1957. The conference was arranged to focus on issues of Civil Rights, both as narrowly applied to the Little Rock Crisis and more broadly.

As it so happened, my paper was slated for a plenary session and represents one of the chapters in the book that I've been working on forever (at least, it feels that way; I started researching in 2002). The book is tentatively titled, For a Continuing Church: Fundamentalism in the Presbyterian South, 1934-74 (I keep fiddling with that subtitle); the chapter and paper was titled, "'Red and Yellow, Black and White': Southern Presbyterian Conservaties and the Crises of Postwar America." In the essay, I look at how PCUS conservatives developed an anti-progressive ideology that used biblical and theological warrants to link anti-integration, anti-Communism, and anti-centralization.

As such, these leaders serve as an important signpost on the road from the Old Christian Right (1910-1930) and the New Christian Right (1970-present) as well as a bellwether in the South's movement from the Democratic to Republican Parties. After all, Corwin Smidt has demonstrated in Pulpit and Politics that 93% of PCA clergy voted Republican in the 2000 Presidential election; I think the story I'm telling is important for understanding how this happened. Needless to say, told in its entirety and truthfully, it is always not a pretty story, especially our abysmal and unbiblical positions on race and segregation in the 1940s and 1950s--and yet, it needs to be told in order to continue to foster the truth and reconcilation that our denomination began in 2002 (with the passage of overture 20, apologizing for Presbyterians' covenantal role in slavery and segregation) and 2003 (with the adoption of the pastoral letter on racism).

The other thing I did while I was there was go to the Clinton Presidential Library, which was about a mile from my hotel. Since I am a presidential library junkie (surprise, surprise--I've been to Nixon, Carter, and Reagan as well; next summer we plan to go to Truman and maybe Ike), I was interested in seeing what they did with it.

Observations: 1) The building, which was hailed in 2004 when it opened, felt very sterile; while it was supposed to represent a bridge, connecting with the railroad bridge next to it, it reminded me of a double-wide trailer. 2) There was a ton of staff and police there; especially when compared to the number of tourists (no school kids the day I went), it seemed like overkill. 3) For the size of building, there weren't that many displays, especially compared to Reagan and Nixon's libraries. 4) The most enjoyable displays were the ones that showed Bill Clinton's essential humanity--the guided tours of the White House in which you touched a monitor and Clinton would appear to talk about various artifacts in a given room; and the video of Clinton's talks at the White House Press Dinner (which were very funny). Regardless of your politics or how you feel about Clinton's presidency, I thought the visit was worth it, especially if you are in Little Rock anyway.

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