Many of Alabama’s older Episcopalians remember the late Bishop Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter with great warmth, admiration, and profound respect and classify his 30-year episcopate, from 1938-1968, as having been one of the Diocese of Alabama’s golden eras. Under his leadership, the Diocese of Alabama experienced tremendous membership growth, planted several new mission stations and brought several others from mission to parish status, and established Camp McDowell, firmly marking Alabama’s place in the offering of summer Christian camp opportunities for youth and young adults.
But of all the good that was accomplished during the Carpenter years, it was also accompanied by the challenges of social change. His episcopate were times that included the Second World War, the Second Red Scare, the Korean War, the recession of Jim Crow segregation, and the modern Civil Rights Movement. It was the latter that provided the most challenging experiences of these years, causing Bishop Carpenter to find himself caught in the middle of Alabama’s social struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. He was a clergyman whose “moderate” civil rights position was enigmatic and his ambivalence on the racial question garnered him heat from both sides—as a race traitor and liberal from segregationist whites, and a closeted, affirming segregationist from integrationist blacks. Bishop Carpenter believed that a gradual approach to integration was the best way forward, thinking that integration’s incorporation into Alabama’s social life in calm, slow, and discreet phases would bring about racial progress in a respectable, levelheaded way. His genteel Southern manner made him a prisoner of his time, advocating for racial integration to be accomplished “in time” and not by civil disobedience. The culture into which he was born and reared was radically changing and the effects of the modern Civil Rights Movement wreaked havoc on his love of tradition, calm, and order.
To some extent, I can see the logic behind Bishop Carpenter’s admonitions for order and time in the implementation of racial integration being rooted in a desire to sincerely bring Alabama’s majority “to the light” on a very important issue. This would explain his firm resistance to civil disobedience demonstrations and strong objections to non-Alabamians coming into the state, aiding and abetting in activities that he felt were doing more harm to the cause than good. He saw these activities as contributing to the ill-will that Alabamians already had towards the Civil Rights Movement and did not want to deal with issues that would make the ill-will even worse. Bishop Carpenter felt that order and time would be the most effective approach in changing the hearts and minds of the majority in the area of civil rights and the demonstrations occurring within his Diocese were, to him, severe setbacks in his quest to bring about such change.
Yet I also fully understand the argument made by Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders that the appeal for patience and time emanated from a philosophy that was counterintuitive to the Gospel. Bishop Carpenter, by virtue of his office, was a Defender of the Faith—a Faith that calls for the social unity of all God’s people, regardless of skin color, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or any other form of human difference. Bishop Carpenter’s “in time” rhetoric was seen as complicitous with the evils of segregation.
It is my view that Bishop Carpenter was not a racist, but, rather, in the words of Blessed are the Peacemakers author S. Jonathan Bass, a very “conflicted moderate.” Considering the position that the majority of Alabamians had regarding race, Bishop Carpenter’s moderate position was the more positive for the times. Although his racial gradualism was very frustrating and vexing for many, on the whole, Bishop Carpenter was open to the idea of integration and generally not resistant to it. But it was the argument of “yes, but in time” that did him in, rendering Bishop Carpenter unable fully to be on the front lines for racial change through both word and action. It was in this way that he missed the mark. In the end, it wound up being Bishop Carpenter’s moderate civil rights philosophy, no matter how much more positive it was from the majority opinion, that caused him to be wrong on the issue of race and on the negative side of civil rights history.
I am a recently ordained 28-year-old priest of the Episcopal Church, who happens to be of African-American descent, serving at a parish on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, remembered by many as a parish that was radically on the front lines for integration and helped pave the way for the wider Church to be a future reflection of Paul’s words in Galatians 3.28. As I honor the courageous heroes of yesterday who helped pave the way for the rights of all people of today, how I wish that I could count Bishop Carpenter as one of those heroes. How I wish that Bishop Carpenter could have seen the folly of his thought and inaction, which would have made his civil rights legacy be more positive than it is now. Deep down, Bishop Carpenter was a good man, but one whose decision to avoid the front lines for civil rights allowed the time’s social evils to linger. Instead of being a part of a positive solution, he became an unintentional factor in an immoral problem. His unwillingness actively to be on the front lines produced unfortunate circumstances—both for him and for all involved in the time’s racial struggles. How unfortunate it is that in the area of civil rights, Bishop Carpenter remains a figure left behind in a realm of lamentable controversy.
In this landmark anniversary year for civil rights, let us all be reminded of our call to love our neighbor as ourselves and strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.