Dixie heretic : the civil rights odyssey of Renwick C. Kennedy / Tennant McWilliams.

McWilliams, Tennant S., 1943- [Browse]
Tuscaloosa, Alabama : University of Alabama Press, [2023]
xii, 512 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.


Library of Congress genre(s)
Summary note
"Dixie Heretic is a life-and-times biography of the minister and social reformer Renwick C. Kennedy (1900-1985), an impassioned, tortured man who strove ardently to make his white Alabama congregants 'more Christian' by acknowledging their own racism and greed, and who not only lived but chronicled carefully many of the forces culminating in the right-wing conservative movement today. As McWilliams relates, Kennedy came from 'upcountry' South Carolina, a place rife with Scotch-Irish Associate Reformed Presbyterians. They lived by biblical infallibility and a strain of individual piety and salvation focused on the hereafter. In the early 1920s, however, his ministerial studies took him to Princeton Theological Seminary. There, he encountered the 'Presbyterian Conflict' over science, fundamentalism, and the social gospel, and he emerged a radical Christian socialist. Like a few other articulate practitioners of 'Neo-orthodoxy,' young Kennedy stayed true to the literalist Bible, and the salvation and piety allegiances of his youth. But he embraced not only the Social Gospel's mandate to solve earthly problems of poverty and prejudice but many cardinal tenets of modern science, as well. To Kennedy, this posed no contradiction. In 1927 Kennedy moved to Camden, Alabama, the seat of Wilcox County, where he soon married and started a family. Meanwhile, his ministry for social change dominated his Wilcox pastorates, filled with the very people from whom he derived: the Scotch-Irish. Quietly, he came to believe that God had a mandate for him: to confront and change the behaviors and beliefs of his congregations, notably their attitudes about race and poverty. And to do this, he found, he had to attack what he considered traditionalist Christian hypocrisy - 'half Christianity,' or non-social gospel Christianity - some of which he came to see as a form of proto-fascism, if not fascism itself. He soon turned to penning confrontational short stories, many published in Christian Century and some in the New Republic and set in his fictitious 'Yaupon County.' In some of these stories he overtly revealed his allegiances as a Social Gospel Christian and as an adamant supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic party. He spared no one, not even members of his own congregation. He also abandoned his pacifism and urged US intervention in World War II: he hoped that the defeat of racial fascism abroad might somehow grow white hearts at home. Ultimately, to help eliminate 'the anti-Christ, the mad dog, Hitler,' Kennedy joined the U.S. Army. As a chaplain with the famed 102nd Evacuation Hospital, he experienced some of the most horrific chapters of the conflict - Saint Lo, the Battle of the Bulge - and arrived at Dachau a mere week after German soldiers fled. The postwar world gave Kennedy periods of optimism and hope. He returned from the war believing America might deal with its own racial issues the way it had treated Europe and Japan's. His own children grew into educated, enlightened, and thriving adults. And new developments in his professional life brought considerable increases to his family income, easing his wife's long financial insecurities. Yet these years also offered a great many frustrations. Even by 1948 he knew his Social Gospel hopes about racism, fascism, and white entitlement, especially among his fellow Scotch-Irish, were naïve at best. The rise of the Dixiecrat movement (a key Dixiecrat leader, Alabama State senator J. Miller Bonner, was a member of his own congregation), only deepened his sense of personal defeat. Even so, the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and occasional developments in state and national politics rekindled at least some of his old Neo-orthodox hope and drive. He played a significant role in desegregating Troy State University, for instance, but the gratifications of even small victories proved fleeting, dashed by the assassinations of Dr. King, JFK, and RFK, and the growing numbers of southern white Republicans and Wallaceites. In Kennedy's increasing 'down' times he was privately the self-professed 'Christian and a Democrat' seeing national Republicans as 'sinners' for their growing embrace of white southern racial conservatives. A long-term 'functional alcoholic,' this privately persistent Neo-orthodox Christian never ceased agonizing over the growing 'half-Christianity' around him. Indeed, he died worrying about what it portended for the role of white supremist, proto-fascists in modern America, aware of having made few inroads on God's mandate and what he considered white Christian wrongs in Alabama. While Renwick Kennedy was front-loaded for the failure he indeed found, still - in the values and social norms he pondered and challenged at every stage of his life, and today so badly in need of recommitment - he stands as a 'good' citizen, a non-hypocritical Christian, and an emblem of hope"-- Provided by publisher.
Bibliographic references
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • They were two
  • Origins
  • Evolution
  • The Wilcox move
  • Dual mandates
  • At bay
  • Attack
  • More attack
  • All-out war
  • "Home, again"
  • Somewhere to go
  • The limits of ascent
  • Wallace's Troy
  • Breakfast at Ren's
  • What he was.
  • 9780817321611 (hardcover)
  • 0817321616 (hardcover)
  • 9780817360887 (paperback)
  • 0817360883 (paperback)
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