An author emerges from days of doubt Prize: Theologian shed light on hatred and religion.

June 30, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

As Loyola University professor Charles Marsh labored on his book about religious faith and the civil rights struggle in the Mississippi of 1964, he sometimes wondered whom he was kidding.

"There were times when I was writing the book, when I thought, 'This is crazy. I'm not a historian. I don't do this. I'm a theologian.' "

This year's judges of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion did not worry about such distinctions. They deemed Marsh's 1997 book, "God's Long Summer" (Princeton Press), not only a superior scholarly work, but one that "helps make the world a better place." The award, given jointly by the University of Louisville and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, makes Marsh's bank account a better place, too. The Grawemeyer comes with $150,000.

"I'm still kind of shocked," Marsh, 40, said yesterday.

Marsh just returned yesterday to his home in Mount Washington from a two-week vacation in Mississippi, his childhood home and the locale of "God's Long Summer." In the book, he focuses on five Mississippians who were active on one side or the other during the civil rights battles. His book is an exploration of how those individuals reconciled their actions during the tumultuous summer of 1964 with their religious convictions.

Marsh says he was drawn to Mississippi because of his upbringing there. "I was so haunted by this whole question, why my church, why fairly decent, white Christians could have been so indifferent, if not hostile, to the welfare of black Southerners, purportedly, our brothers in Jesus."

For six years, from ages 9 to 15, Marsh lived in the town of Laurel, Miss., which he describes as "the epicenter of Mississippi terrorism."

Laurel held that distinction, Marsh says, because it was the headquarters of the White Knights of Ku Klux Klan. The Imperial Wizard, a man named Sam Bowers, operated out of a business not far from the Baptist church where Marsh's father, a liberal by Southern standards at the time, preached.

Bowers, whom authorities believe led a campaign of terror against civil rights workers, agreed to sit for a 10-hour interview with Marsh to explain his religious beliefs. He is one of the five people whose religious convictions Marsh explores in "God's Long Summer."

During the interview, Bowers suggested that he had been chosen by God for a special mission, to eliminate those who violate the racial order.

Bowers has been tried four times related to arson and murders, including the killing of black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. Each trial ended in mistrial. This spring, he was indicted again for Dahmer's murder. Marsh, because of his interview with Bowers, may be called to testify in that case later this summer. Although Marsh says he is not eager to testify, he says, "if the truth brings to justice this man who is alleged to have killed Vernon Dahmer, then I have no ambivalence about that."

On the other hand, Marsh adds, "I think it would be unhealthy to go through the trial, convict him and send him away and still not understand the cause of his militancy."

Marsh is at work now on two other books, including a memoir of his upbringing in the deep South. His publisher is also encouraging him to do a sequel to "God's Long Summer." The Grawemeyer money may help finance those projects. Or, says Marsh, the father of two with a third on the way, the award money may go toward an even "loftier" enterprise.

"I have a leaky roof on my house," he says.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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