Will Willimon: Reflecting on Bishop Goodson - New Book Review, "Go And Be Reconciled"


The most formative afternoon I spent in Alabama was the afternoon I worked through the papers of Bishop Kenneth Goodson.  That afternoon consecrated me as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church and gave me my marching orders.  I kept a portrait of Bishop Goodson in my office in Birmingham to remind me of my responsibilities, particularly in regard to racial reconciliation.

One reason why I felt privileged to serve in Alabama was because it was the site of some of America's most significant history: the Montgomery bus boycott, the attacks on the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma's "Bloody Sunday."

I was honored to serve in a place where Alabama Methodists had to come to terms with their own racial history and take action to address their past racial sin.

Now William E. Nicholas, professor emeritus at United Methodist-affiliated Birmingham-Southern College, and an active member of the conference Archives and History Committee, provides a wonderful treatment of Alabama Methodist racial history in his new book Go and Be Reconciled: Alabama Methodists Confront Racial Injustice: 1954-1974, published by NewSouth Books.

Bishop Goodson (1912-1991), unlike his cautious predecessors, stepped up to the task of merging the long segregated Methodist conferences in Alabama.  Nicholas makes Ken the hero of his story.  Goodson rallied the handful of white Methodist whom God had led to struggle with integration in the 1950s.  A number, like the legendary Dan Whitsett of Sylacauga First Methodist, had crosses burned in their yards by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.  Andrew Turnipseed was among a number of pastors who were run out of the state.  His daughter, Marti Turnipseed, was expelled from Birmingham-Southern after joining a lunch counter desegregation sit-in. Rev. John Rutland courageously preached on racial reconciliation, only to have sheriff "Bull" Connor (who ran the Birmingham police state), one of his parishioners at Birmingham's Woodlawn Methodist Church, stand up in the pews and shout him down.

Goodson arrived in 1964 to oversee both the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences who were in swirling controversy with strong resistance to racial integration. Dr. Nicholas describes Goodson not only as a person with remarkable skills as a preacher and overall communicator but also as a most effective administrator of change.  One of the best parts of being bishop in Alabama was hearing some wonderful Ken Goodson stories.  We got to live in the house that was purchased as the episcopal manse for the Goodsons, the same house where clergy remembered searching for bombs in the shrubbery some evenings after one of Ken's preaching visits in churches.

On March 7, 1965, Goodson was in Selma for the dedication of a new church. While he was speaking, the "Bloody Sunday" attack by state troopers on voting rights marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge occurred just a few blocks away from the church. Goodson recognized the magnitude of the event and quickly arranged a Methodist-to-Methodist meeting with Gov. Wallace. Wallace had been adamant about keeping the bridge closed to demonstrators, but now asked Goodson for advice.

Goodson met with racist Methodist Governor George Wallace and urged him to show restraint against protestors and, after Selma's "Bloody Sunday," issued a pastoral letter to be read from all pulpits on April 4, 1965.  In the letter Goodson asked Methodists to commit themselves to the "elimination of those injustices that bar any of our people from full participation in all rights of citizenship."

In a session of the 1971 Annual Conference, with Goodson preaching and presiding, the North Alabama Conference approved merger by a vote of 429 to 428.


The photo of Ken Goodson that I kept on my office wall in Birmingham.

I particularly appreciated that Nicholas' book is honest in its assessment that many black Alabama Methodists felt that the merger was more of an absorption, mere "tokenism."  And yet Nicholas believes Goodson's accomplishments were remarkable and would have been built upon had he remained in Alabama another term rather than moved to Virginia to be bishop there.

Bill Nicholas' book has done us a great service.  I blurbed the book as remembering, "A time when Alabama Methodists did the right thing in regard to race, sort of."  Reading Go and Be Reconciled led me to fondly remember Ken Goodson who preached the sermon at my installation as Dean at Duke Chapel, whose robe I wear (gift of Martha Goodson), and whose presence I feel whenever I preach in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School.

Bishops can make a difference in addressing the racial divide in the American church, but only when we are willing to be courageous, to push for what's right.  Let Ken Goodson be a model for all of us.

-Will Willimon, from His Blog

Go and Be Reconciled

Foreword by ** G. Ward Hubbs**

In looking at the civil rights movement, we have become accustomed to the grand histories that focus on the leadership of a Martin Luther King Jr. or the simple courage of a Rosa Parks. And we have heard over and again about the decisive changes that followed dramatic events like Freedom Summer or such legislation as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The effects of these people, laws, and protests are still being played out today. From the usual perspective, looking down from Mount Olympus, the events of the 1950s and '60s seem part of America's inexorable march from darkness to light. But when viewed from the ground up, we find another story: richer, more complex, and less certain.

Thus William Nicholas chose wisely in deciding to look at how Alabama Methodists, particularly those in north Alabama, weathered those times. Alabama was, of course, the site of many of the most important events of the civil rights movement-including the Freedom Riders, the Birmingham protests, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, and the Selma to Montgomery march. Alabama Methodists were thus forced to face the racism in their midst more directly than nearly all other Americans.

Nicholas's look at these Methodists is also a look at what happens when individuals and local associations react to mandates issued from afar. The General Conference of the Methodist Church declared that its segregated structure would end, yet it was many years before the process to do so was implemented in Alabama. Through his extensive interviews with the participants, Nicholas reconstructs the delicate and sometimes tortuous path that desegregation took.

And his choice is particularly wise because as Christians, white Alabama Methodists were forced to come to terms with the contradictions between the comfortable segregated world in which they lived and the Biblical teachings in which they believed. Nicholas shows these contradictions playing out in jails, newspapers, camps, and pulpits. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, for example, who was largely responsible for many of the worst attacks on black protesters, was known to challenge his minster at Woodlawn Methodist Church during sermons preaching against segregation. Others talked of secession from the Methodist Church.

It required walking a ne line to dismantle the church's segregated structure while keeping in the fold many who still favored segregation. e process required the arrival of a new bishop, Bishop Kenneth Goodson who-through personal persuasion and appointive prerogatives-was largely responsible for collapsing segregated Methodism in Alabama.

In the end, Confronting Racial Injustice in the Deep South tells us more than just how some Alabama Methodists made it through a turbulent era. It tells us something about patience, the importance of the right people in the right places, and of unflagging commitment.

G. Ward Hubbs, professor emeritus of Birmingham-Southern College, is the ar- chivist for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and has published extensively on nineteenth-century Alabamians' thought and values.


Reprinted with permission from Go and Be Reconciled: Alabama Methodists Confront Racial Injustice, 1954-1974 (NewSouth Books, 2018).



Go and Be Reconciled recounts the struggle of Alabama Methodists to implement racial integration within the denomination during the 1960s

"Here's history with contemporary relevance as Nicholas recounts the bravery of ordinary saints, of bishops behaving well and badly, and of how a church being pushed by God toward dealing with the 'color line' still cuts through the Body of Christ."

- Will Willimon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, United Methodist Church (2004-2012), Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School

During the climactic years of the civil rights movement in the Deep South, a closely related struggle was going on within the United Methodist Church. That denomination, second only in membership in the region to the Southern Baptists, was slowly moving toward integration under mandate from its national governing body, the Methodist General Conference. But in Alabama, external institutional pressures and even internal constituencies were not strong enough to break down the segregated church structure: doing that would require a significant shift in leadership.

A new book, titled Go and Be Reconciled, by William Nicholas with a foreword by G. Ward Hubbs, tells the inside story of the struggle within the North Alabama Conference for the first time. It utilizes the publications and official archives of the church. As important, its sources include interviews with a wide spectrum of Methodists, including those who served in roles of leadership and those who were simply faithful churchgoers. Their accounts are compelling and go far beyond the sometimes vague and uninformative official conference documents.

In the end, integration of the church was finally realized as a result of the daring leadership of a single bishop, Kenneth Goodson, who challenged the prevailing white segregationist laity. But along the way there were many other persons who risked their careers and even personal safety on behalf of racial justice. This is their story as well.

William E. Nicholas is Professor Emeritus at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was James R. Wood Professor and taught recent American history and Latin American history for forty years.

Go and Be Reconciled is available through your favorite local or online retailer.