In 1994, Loyola College theologian Charles Marsh left Baltimore to return to his childhood home in Mississippi. It was a trip made, at least initially, as a scholarly enterprise.
Marsh was journeying back to the Deep South to write a book about different images of God that once battled beneath the surface of the civil rights movement. His focus was 1964, the year the first Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of Ku Klux Klan was crowned and the civil rights movement saw one of its deadliest summers.
For three months, the then 36-year-old, Harvard-educated professor used Laurel, Miss., as a base while he traveled around the state with only the simplest of implements -- a notebook, a pen, a pack of cigarettes. As it turned out, Marsh's enterprise was not merely academic. He found himself facing more personal demons, and attacking the most significant, most mind-boggling puzzle of his life.
"I needed to settle the question of why fair-minded, white evangelicals in the South who nurtured me in the faith, in ways that I'm deeply indebted for, at the same time remained indifferent to, if not hostile to, the suffering of blacks in the Jim Crow South," says Marsh. "That to me was a theological question that had become more pressing than any big philosophical/historical problems. ... I very much wanted to make sense of that."
Last fall, the results of that important journey home appeared in Marsh's book, "God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights."
The book has been well-received, but for Marsh, the journey has not ended. He may soon be going home again, this time to testify before a grand jury investigating a 32-year-old murder.
Last month, portions of Marsh's interviews from 1994 took on new significance, as secret files from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were unsealed, revealing how Mississippi officials used spy tactics, intimidation, false imprisonment and jury tampering to try to halt civil rights activities during the '60s. The revelations have increased pressure on state prosecutors to review unresolved murder cases.
That where Marsh's interviews with a long-forgotten Klan leader, Sam Bowers, come in. They offer chilling insight into the theological foundations of the Ku Klux Klan and its impetus for murder and terrorism. A federal judge has told Marsh it is likely he will now be subpoenaed to testify about his discussions with Bowers, who has long been suspected in the 1966 murder of black civil rights advocate Vernon Dahmer.
(Should Marsh be called, his recollections of Bowers will take their place alongside the former Klansman's own. Yesterday, a Mississippi court ordered sealed interviews Bowers did for a state oral history project turned over to prosecutors in the Dahmer case.)
In a strange region that once allowed racial violence and terrorism to rule, a place novelist William Faulkner called the "Christ-haunted South," such things still do happen: A progressive theologian will hear the confessions of a twisted, self-proclaimed Christian mystic, and one day betray him.
Some might suggest that Marsh and Bowers were destined to meet. A far-fetched notion, perhaps -- unless, like a theologian or a Christian racist, you happen to believe that God will sometimes take a hand in human history.
Finding the Klansman
For his book, Marsh focused on a small assortment of Mississippians, including black activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Cleveland Sellers. These were men and women who emerged as leading segregationists, civil rights proponents and influential Christian racists.
Mississippians, he believed, had entered the civil rights struggle in 1964 bearing images of God with vastly different, sometimes violently conflicting, traits. He wanted to understand how passions for one God could have risen out of the souls of both white and black folks with the force of a tempest, setting neighbor against neighbor, empowering civil rights activists as well as staunch segregationists and rabid racists.
One of the hardest tasks was trying to scare up the ghost of a man some might still think of as the devil himself, an advocate of rage and violence named Sam Bowers. To round out his portraits, Marsh felt it was important to talk to the old Klansman about Jesus, his mystical visions and the false prophets he had found in the civil rights movement.
Although Bowers had refused repeatedly over the previous year to talk to him, the theologian was sure the Klansman had something he needed to discuss.
As he reviewed his files one night, Marsh stopped and suddenly saw spread around him on the floor photographs of church fires, unearthed corpses, praying Klansmen and weeping mothers. Images of horror left by Sam Bowers' divine ruminations lay gathered at his feet, a trail of victims leading into the heart of darkness.