The Last Days

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2001-03-01
  • Publisher: Basic Books

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Seeking to come to terms with the haunting memories of his childhood in the deep South-Charles Marsh has crafted a memoir of small-town Southern life caught up in the whirlwind of the Civil Rights movement. As minister of the First Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi, Charles Marsh's father Bob Marsh, was a prominent man who was beloved by the community. But Laurel was also home to Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK and the director of their daily, unchallenged installments of terror and misery. Bowers was known and tolerated by the entire white community of Laurel. This included Bob Marsh, who struggled to do the right thing while reeling between righteous indignation and moral torpor, only slowly awakening to fear, suffering, and guilt over his unwillingness to take a public stand against Bowers. At the same time, The Last Days examines the collision of worlds once divided-white Protestant conservatism, the African American struggle for civil rights, and late 1960s counter culture-that propelled the dramatic changes in everyday life in a small Southern town.

Author Biography

Charles Marsh is a professor of religion at the University of Virginia and Director of the Project on Lived Theology.

Table of Contents

Going Down to Laurel
The Magnolia Jungle
One Preacher's Beginnings
Invisible Empires
The Joy of Fundamentalist Sex
Fun and Success in the Closed Society
Church Boy
Birds of a Feather
Onward Christian Terrorists
Breather in the Big Easy
Local Assassin Makes Good
Swimming Pools, Movie Stars, and Jesus Freaks
Are We in the Promised Land Yet?
Once You Go Black
Notes 273(10)
Acknowledgments 283(2)
Index 285(10)
A Note About the Author 295(1)
A Note on the Type 296


Chapter One

Going Down to Laurel

One spring afternoon in 1967, when the warm Alabama air was perfumed with honeysuckle and scuppernong, my father and I were walking along a dirt path through fields of green wire grass. With his hand brushing lightly against my shoulders, he told me the Lord was calling us to Mississippi, to blessings more abundant than we could ever imagine. He assured me I'd grow fond of the new town. "You might feel a little sad for a while about leaving your friends, but that'll pass," he said. He told me my mother had cried when the final decision was made, and that was a normal reaction. But everything was going to work out just fine. My grandparents lived only an hour and a half away in Jackson, much better than the current eight-hour drive. He also told me he'd been given season tickets to the Southeastern Conference football games at Memorial Stadium, and then he promised me the bike of my dreams, a blue Stingray with flared handlebars and metallic silver banana seat. This helped make the Lord's call a lot more attractive.

Not that I wouldn't have believed him anyway. My father, Bob Marsh, was a Man of God, revered by everyone who knew him for his preaching and teaching and spiritual insight. On top of that, he was built like a linebacker and sported killer good looks. I remember once when a Sunday School teacher described Jesus to my class as being haggard and tired. I objected with indignation that left her speechless. "You are wrong about that, ma'am! Jesus had rippling muscles. He was a carpenter who banged nails in the blazing sun all day long, lifted heavy beams of wood as if they were toothpicks. There's nothin' sissylike about our Lord Jesus Christ!" I was thinking of my father.

In the late afternoons, he lifted barbells in a makeshift weight room in the garage. He wore red sweatpants even in the summer and a BAMA jersey cut off at the shoulders to expose the chiseled perfection of his biceps. He did curls, squats, jerks, and dead lifts, while I kept records in a spiralbound notebook. He bought a bench press to improve his pectorals, adding the upper-body routine to his workout. He sweated and groaned through the pumps and presses and shouted a defiant "Hah!" when he completed a set. He strapped a piece of rubber foam around his forehead to cushion the deadweights that reinforced the muscles in his neck. When he finished in the garage, he seized the typed pages of his Sunday sermon from the kitchen table and set off on his jog.

This was the late 1960s, before jogging was cool, if not simply unremarkable. There were no running suits with the territorial slashes and waves, no spandex leggings, no scientifically designed running shoes (or if there were, you couldn't find them in the Deep South), no accoutrements of exercise that now make up the billion-dollar industry. For my father there was only a pair of low-top canvas Converses, sweatpants and jersey washed so seldom they had a life of their own, and a towel draped around his neck in a vain effort to absorb the sweat pouring from his scalp and face. I'd sometimes ride my bicycle alongside him, the two of us moving in tandem down Old Bay Springs Road, his feet pounding the pavement, beads of water shooting off his body like bullets, while he occasionally glanced down in his hands at the manuscript as he softly rehearsed the sermon.

When the day arrived, we followed the moving vans as far as Grove Hill, a town built on the eastern bluffs of the James River, and stopped for lunch at Deaver's. The three of us ate silently in the air-conditioned restaurant, my father studying the sports pages of the Montgomery Advertiser , my mother sipping her coffee. We had stopped before in Grove Hill on trips to see our relatives in Jackson. Today felt different. When we pulled away from the gravel parking lot in our loaded-down Impala, crossed the one-lane suspension bridge, and headed due west on Highway 84 toward the state line, it seemed the whole world had shrunk to lonesome highway and hillside and forest. The welcome sign announced, "Mississippi: The Magnolia State." It may as well have said, "A Fallen Paradise: No Going Back."

My father's new parish, the First Baptist Church of Laurel, Mississippi, occupied an entire city block between the town's historic residential district and a small but thriving downtown. The church grounds were demarcated by 6th Avenue to the east, 7th Avenue to the west, Hudson Street to the south, and a three-acre parking lot on the north side that held several hundred automobiles. An alley ran from the middle of the parking lot through the backyards of the spacious homes lining the two avenues, connecting First Baptist with the historic district. The church owned an empty lot halfway down the alley across from the district attorney's home. There the Royal Ambassadors, a Bible club for boys, played football on Wednesday evenings with my father quarterbacking both sides, his starched white shirt soaked in sweat by game's end.

North of the church lay elegant neighborhoods with turn-of-the-century mansions intersected by worn brick streets and walkways. Most of the homes were surrounded by gardens of azaleas, English ivy, rhododendron, and Asiatic jasmine. Two blocks east of the church, the county courthouse squatted in limestone splendor, behind a tiny lawn shaded with post oaks and magnolias and a monument honoring the Confederate dead. The Pinehurst Hotel, the First Methodist Church and the First Presbyterian Church, the Busy Bee Newsstand, the Arabian Theater, and the Manhattan Cafe formed the beginnings of Central Avenue and its dozen blocks of retail stores, coffee shops, dinettes, and office buildings. St. John's Episcopal Church was a block off the square on cobblestoned 5th Avenue. Designed by New York architect Frank Colby and built in 1914, the understated Norman chapel, with the red tile roof and terra cotta dogwood blossoms, gave locals a feeling of gentility and good breeding, even if they did tell jokes about salvation by good taste alone and disapproved of communion wine. Knesseth Israel Synagogue maintained a declining but influential congregation a few blocks away at the corner of 5th Avenue and 8th Street. For their part, the Catholics worshiped in a Romanesque structure flanked by a Vatican II concrete and steel addition near the blue-collar neighborhoods of west Laurel, marginal like the Jews, to the downtown monopoly of Protestant power and prestige, though everyone was polite to them.

In the late 1800s, when timberland in the Midwest was being tapped out, mill barons looked for opportunities to setup operations in the pine-rich regions of the South. The construction of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad provided such an opportunity. When the last track had been laid in 1882, people could travel by train all the way from Boston to New Orleans on one line. That same year, a Yankee lumberman working the dense forests eight miles north of the hamlet of Ellisville named a new settlement for the abundance of laurel bush growing wild. By the turn of the century, the lumberyards of Kamper and Gardiner-Eastman (Northerners all) had created the core of a booming and prosperous town. The three mills that were built in the next few decades--Gilchrist-Fordney in 1906, Wausau-Southern in 1911, Marathon in 1914--made Laurel the sawmill capital of the world, shipping out more yellow pine timber than any place on the globe.

With its roots in Yankee thrift and prosperity, Laurel seemed comfortable with its Northern progenitors, at least as long as times were good and money abounded. Native son James Street, whose novels O Promised Land, Tap Roots , and Tomorrow We Reap had been national best-sellers in the 1940s, described Laurel as "a melting pot that didn't melt, an unusual little Southern town that had missed the blight of Reconstruction, proud of its growing pains; clean and fresh, a bit cocky." Unlike other lumber barons who disappeared when the forests were gone, the Gardiners and the Eastmans came and stayed, bringing along a commitment to civic flourishing and a fondness for the City Beautiful movement in vogue among urban visionaries. All parts of the city should be graceful and enjoyable, with plenty of green spaces, pleasing architecture, and cultural opportunities for all.

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art was the young town's most impressive achievement. Lauren Eastman Rogers was the only child of Wallace Brown Rogers and Nina Eastman and the only grandchild of Elizabeth Gardiner and Lauren Chase Eastman. After graduating from Princeton in 1920 with a degree in business, he married his classmate Lelia Payne Hodson of Hoboken, New Jersey, and the couple returned to Laurel. Rogers would assume control of the family company following a year's apprenticeship. Construction of a twelve-bedroom estate began just weeks before the young heir died of a failed appendectomy. He was twenty-three years old.

After Lauren's death, the family authorized plans for a museum to be built in his honor on the foundations of the unfinished mansion. Rathbone deBuys, the architect of many of the original homes in Laurel and a former Princeton classmate of Rogers, was hired to design the building that would soon be praised throughout Eastern architectural circles. With an interior lobby constructed of quarter-sawn golden oak paneling and cork floors, and elegant, double-hung sash windows that opened onto an English garden, the museum was the showcase of Laurel's many architectural innovations. It was also the signature work of deBuys's Georgian revival architecture in the South. Leon Hermant, commissioned as master craftsman, used naturalistic motifs in plaster to design a vast ceiling of constellations and planets encircling a chandelier. The hand-wrought iron gates, hardware, and railings of the original museum building were created by Philadelphian Samuel Yellin. The exterior walls were made of local brick with Indiana limestone. The Laurel Machine and Foundry Company provided materials for the slender, attenuated metal columns painted cream with streamlined pillars.

When the museum was completed, the family filled the rooms with artworks from their private collection--Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, Jean Millet, and Winslow Homer--and later purchased pieces by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Louis-Edouard Dubuffe, and the Gulf Coast's Walter Anderson. There was also a large collection of Japanese woodblock prints, a half dozen European expressionist paintings, and holdings of Native American basketry featuring the museum's most popular attraction, the smallest basket in the world. Class trips to the museum always finished up around the fabulous Pomo basket, woven in the 1890s from a single blade of grass, sealed in a glass jar a quarter inch deep.

In 1926, the Browsing Room was created and furnished in a spacious addition to the main structure with floor-length tapestries, oriental rugs, and solid-oak tables. The Browsing Room--which became the city library the next year--housed the region's best collection of art history, Mississippiana, genealogy, and contemporary letters. In the early 1960s, under pressure from crusading preachers in the county, the library instituted a "red dot" policy to warn readers of fictional works containing mature subject matter. (A librarian once asked my father a little too loudly if he really wanted to check out Couples even though it bore the red dot.) Otherwise, the marbled halls of the library and museum paid homage to our refinement. Laurel was cultured and proud.

People in Laurel paid attention to fashion too. Back in Andalusia, our Alabama hamlet near the Florida line, most of the parishioners were hard-working country folk who made their living in meatpacking plants and bought their clothes at the factory outlet. But Laurelites traveled and patronized the arts and read John Updike and sent their children to Tulane and Vanderbilt, many miles removed from the hardscrabble South, not to mention the Snopeses and the Presleys. And New Orleans lay just two backsliding hours away, and whether you frequented the place or not, twitched on the periphery of the town's consciousness like a harlot. Interstate 55 cut right through Laurel and would carry you all the way down to sin city anytime you liked, making the possibilities of carnal excess less remote than they otherwise may have been.

My mother's new best friend flew to New York apparel marts three times a year to buy merchandise for her boutique. Before we moved, mother had ordered patterns for her dresses from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Sometimes she bought fabric at the dollar store downtown and sewed her own outfits. But now she purchased clothes from Harper's Incorporated in the Garden Hills Shopping Center or the House of Cache downtown. She subscribed to McCalls, Redbook , and The Ladies Home Journal and did her best to get reacquainted with Mississippi haute couture. A Laurel Leader-Call article praised her appearance at a Garden Club gathering, where she wore a "multi-color tent-style dress with long full sleeves, having a fitted cuff which buttoned at the wrist." The society section routinely got more ink than all the world news put together, which comprised a below-the-fold sidebar on page two. "The ladies were served delicious punch and individual cakes along, with nuts from a handsomely decorated table covered with a lace cloth and graced by a lovely arrangement of yellow gladiolus and mums combined with clusters of small white flowers." My mother took fitness classes at the YWCA and made a space in our guest room where she exercised with wrist weights, flexorcisers, hip vibrators, and black rubber stretchers. One morning a week she outfitted herself in a white tennis suit for a set or casual volley at the Mason Park courts.

My mother came to believe that if God expected our best, that meant dressing our best in addition to all the rest. "Dress right," said Clyde M. Narramore, Ed.D, in his influential book on Christian etiquette, Secrets of Fun and Success , which my mother, like her church friends, read and discussed. "Dress to suit the occasion. Sport clothes for outings--but dress-up clothes for church. And don't make the mistake that some do. In their effort to be `casual' they really are just plain sloppy." My mother and her church friends never made the mistake. On Sunday mornings, women moved across aqua-carpeted floors in a parade of sartorial splendor. "Savoir-faire" was the word my dad used. "Looking our best for God," was how my mother put it. Until I started sitting on the last rows of the balcony with the other kids, Sunday mornings usually meant ferocious bouts of sneezing and wheezing, as thick clouds of perfume swarmed like bees throughout the lower pews, where ladies sat with their husbands and children, looking their best in the house of the Lord.

In 1944, beneath the town and its outlying areas, beneath the rich alluvial soil of the piney woods, petroleum surveyors discovered a serpentine layer of crude oil. The Ecutta and Heidelberg oil fields instantly made Laurel the headquarters of the Jasper Wayne Petroleum Company and the location of numerous refineries. By 1957, more than a billion dollars pumped through the state economy--$32 million into Laurel pockets alone--from the 2,000 oil wells operating in Jones and neighboring counties. Everyone had a favorite story of a farmer or vacuum-cleaner salesman who had struck it rich, traded his Chevy for a Cadillac, and moved uptown. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, oil wells clunked out their happy tune, on school playgrounds, in churchyards and fair grounds, and beside redbrick ranch-style homes in suburban tracts.

When we arrived in the summer of 1967, Laurel showed every sign of remaining a prosperous town. A country club had recently been built on three hundred acres of woodlands, with an Olympic pool, a golf course carved into rolling green hills by the Scotsman Seymore Dunn, and a chandeliered ballroom where smiling black men in tuxedos stood at the beck and call of club members. The Masonite plant was still going strong, belching sweet-smelling emissions from its smokestacks in a daily display of industrial prowess. The production of the synthetic siding was surging in response to increased national demand and a popular fascination with synthetic wood. By 1967, Masonite had a workforce of over 3,000, boosting Laurelites' purchasing income to a level $240 higher than the state's average. Laurel was a prosperous town, and First Baptist a friendly congregation with unlimited potential" (my father said); and we worked hard to keep our happy world free of the outside forces that daily threatened the life we loved.

Copyright 2001 Charles Marsh. All rights reserved.

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