‘Preaching to Meddling,’ An Autobiography of Desegregation

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

NewSouth Books recently released Sewanee resident Francis X. Walter’s “From Preaching to Meddling: A White Minister in the Civil Rights Movement.” In this memoir the national and personal mirror intersect. The reader sees both the nation and man struggling under the mantle of racial bias that spawned the 1960s era desegregation movement.

Walter’s fourth grade teacher blamed the Civil War on northern sea captains’ wives angry because their slaves died from the cold. “If we can’t have ‘em, they can’t either,” the wives reportedly complained sparking the war. Children’s literature popular in Walter’s childhood recounted happy relations between master and slave and the sad plight of disenfranchised plantation owners. Two factors shake the foundation of the cultural racism of which Walter grew up in the midst. From the Creole people he lived among in his preschool years Walter learned, “There is no such thing as pure black or pure white.” From his mother Martha Marsh Walter, he learned to be guided by what he calls her “sense of simple justice.”

When Walter’s mother discovered deep seated racism within the Episcopal church community of Mobile, Ala., she vowed “to never again be part of it.” Walter followed in his mother’s footsteps. The reader sees Walter pushing back against the racial divide. Glimpsing a few illustrations shows a pattern.

When Walter invites Mobile’s black Episcopal chaplain Father Cole to speak to his church youth group, the vestry demands Walter uninvite him. A few years later, the white Mobile Episcopal church women plan a luncheon to celebrate Walter’s ordination and graduation from the University of the South School of Theology. Walter’s insistence Father Cole be invited earns the reply, “Francis, you’re going to have communion with him; do you need to eat with him, too?”

When Father Cole leaves Mobile, Walter requests and receives permission from the bishop to serve as the chaplain of Mobile’s black church. But Walter’s sister’s father-in-law intervenes. He promises to bankrupt Walter’s father’s business and has the power to make good on the threat.

Walter withdraws his request, and the bishop sends him to serve as rector of St. James Church in Eufaula. The church fires him. Among his sins, teaching the confirmation class the “body of believers…includes all sorts of people.” When Walter asks the class if they would use the N-word in talking to a person of color, one youth replies, “What would I talk to one about?”

Walter found his true calling as director of the Selma Inter-Religious Project (SIP). The inter-faith organization worked against the backdrop of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Black Belt counties in and around Selma, Ala. White landlords punished African-Americans who registered to vote with eviction, recalling loans, and physical threats. Uncounted homeless took refuge in a tent city.

SIP’s efforts included interviewing punished would-be voters to collect evidence for possible legal recourse. On one interview expedition, Walter observed a stunning homemade quilt on a clothesline. The woman who lived at the ramshackle house hid from him. Later he managed to make her acquaintance and that of other area African-American quilters. With Walter’s encouragement and the assistance of a New York City friend who found buyers, the Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative formed, bringing income and pride to women who lived in destitute poverty.

In another victory, SIP helped organize pulp wood industry wood cutters to take action. Impoverished blacks and whites joined forces in one of the first interracial strikes in the country. They won a more equitable sales unit standard.

Then there were the insane asylum detainees in SIP’s orbit, white people held under court order for observation at Bryce Hospital. Their crime: socially interacting with blacks.

Generous with his praise for the many who joined him in the desegregation struggle, Walter tells his story with humility. Among his confessions, “I can’t type.” His wife Faye Walter and Sewanee resident Kathy Hammond typed the book manuscript.

Walter “spent most of his life” writing the book, according to his wife. He said of current voter suppression efforts, “It’s sickening. [Those who] can’t win any other way, don’t want people to vote.” He pointed to proposed legislation making it illegal to give water to people standing in line waiting to cast their ballot.”

“Raise your children to not be racist and not be class oriented,” Walter advises. Bringing that advice home, he said, “My mother was what compelled me to write this book.”

Reading “From Preaching to Meddling” prompts gut-level learning, learning with an emotional core.