It’s true, but misleading, to excuse contemporary evangelical Christianity’s ill-mannered reconstructionism with the claim that churches led the civil rights movement. Some churches — churches with black congregations, primarily — were active in the civil rights movement; most were not and, in fact, were overtly hostile to it.

Henry Buchanan was 29-years old when, in 1951, he became pastor of the Shellman, Georgia, Baptist Church. Three years later, after endorsing the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, making of himself an oddity whose name was wired from one end of the country to the other by The Associated Press, Buchanan was hanged in effigy by his neighbors and fired by his congregation even as Martin Luther King, Jr., was soliciting him for a leadership position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The Shellman Story is Buchanan’s account of those events, interspersed with tales of his southern childhood and the background that led him to his unpopular stand. It is written not with the dispassionate, narrative voice of journalism, but the rocking-chair voice of oral history. The meanderings and dialect occasionally get in the way, but the story is rich with sharp, evocative detail of the time and place.

  • The committee that first interviewed Buchanan had one no-nonsense condition against which he would be measured: He would not be hired if he brought his wife along to look over the prospective new hometown, because it might signify that he was not the head of his house.
  • A neighbor who worried that it might be a sin to permit his daughter to attend Shellman Baptist Church’s Sunday school, since he disagreed with Buchanan’s stance on integration.
  • The stranger who came to Buchanan’s door to tell him to be careful, because the talk around town was turning violent.
  • The letter to the Atlanta Journal & Constitution editor that enraged his neighbors — even though the editor cut it sharply. When Buchanan complained that the letter had been “emasculated,” the editor responded, “I might have save you from being badly hurt, even getting shot.”
  • The clerics who shunned him, offering support neither publicly nor, even, privately.

Buchanan’s book is a welcome, honorable addition to the literature of the civil rights movement, and a needed antidote to the sentimental rewrite of history now underway at the hands of evangelicals. Well done.

$19.99 at Amazon; ISBN: 978-1-4259-8490-8.

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