Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town
Reviewed by David Etheridge
In the April 16, 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure.” In Beyond the Burning Bus, the white Presbyterian pastor of a church in Anniston, Ala. (64 miles east of Birmingham), gives us his account of how he served as just such a channel in the two years immediately after King wrote (and the American Friends Service Committee published) his iconic letter.
Although there is one brief mention of that letter in Pastor Phil Noble’s account, his actions were not in response to it. Instead, as Anniston African American Methodist pastor William McClain sets out in the foreword, he joined with a local African American Baptist pastor in visiting Noble, the white Presbyterian pastor, in search of “some brave white soul who would be willing to talk to us about ‘the problem.’”
Many in the white establishment in Anniston were concerned that their city had become associated in most people’s minds with the photograph of a burning Greyhound bus. That photo was taken on May 14, 1961, when African American and white Freedom Riders sought to make their way through the city. Many in the Anniston white establishment were content with the segregated society in the city, but they did not want the Ku Klux Klan, which had been involved in the burning of the bus, to continue damaging the city’s reputation.
The combination of those concerns of the white establishment and those of African American leaders led to the creation in April 1963 of the Bi-racial Human Relations Council with Noble as chairman. The core of Beyond the Burning Bus addresses events during the two years that Noble chaired the council. In general, African American council members were key to formulating what needed to be done, while the white council members focused on strategies for gaining acceptance for that agenda among the white establishment and for minimizing resistance.
A major example was the effort to integrate the public library. First the council worked to obtain the support of the library board. Then arrangements were made for African American council members to visit the library. The council decided Sunday was the quietest day for that step. They did not take into account that most Klan members had jobs during the week and were more available for Klan activities on weekends. The African American council members who went to check out books suffered serious injuries as a result of that miscalculation. The council persisted, however, and African American library patrons returned on Monday without incident.
Noble also reflects on how the governance of various Christian denominations influenced the willingness of local pastors to become involved. He notes that the most involved African American pastors were from denominations in which pastors could be hired and fired without any involvement of denominational officials outside the community. The only white pastors involved were in denominations where the rules of governance limited the authority of the local congregation to dismiss the pastor. (I found myself curious, however, about how reassured the author was by Presbyterian governance since the moderator of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States had signed the public statement that denounced King and provoked the Letter from Birmingham Jail.)
The earliest version of this memoir was written 40 years after the events described at the urging of Noble’s family. His account sometimes rambles, is occasionally repetitious, and includes a few anecdotes that are only tangential to the topic.
His memoir is valuable, however, for the fascinating insights into the interactions and relationships among members of the white community who have a very wide range of attitudes about their African American neighbors. Also enlightening is the description of how he worked with local African American leaders. Unlike the white ministers to whom King addressed his famous letter, Noble listened respectfully to those leaders and did not ask them to be less confrontational in order to make his job easier.
Shan Cretin, the white woman who is currently general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, recently wrote of the advice she received from a member of the Black Panthers with whom she worked in the 1970s. “I know you mean well,” he told her, “but if you want to do something about the conditions you see in this community, you need to work in your own community. We can take care of ourselves—we black folks can take care of ourselves. The real problem is with the white folk, and I really wish you would go work there.”
By reading Beyond the Burning Bus, we learn how one white Southerner contributed to the Civil Rights Movement by accepting guidance from leaders of the African American community and used his own knowledge and standing within the white community to address “the real problem.”