Forty-one years ago this month, Samford University mailed out the invitations for its annual staff Christmas party. A young history prof named Dr. Wayne Flynt RSVP’d a “No” for himself and his wife, adding that they could not, in good conscience, attend a gathering that continued to be racially segregated.
This protest cut no ice with the university administration, and the whites-only banquet proceeded as scheduled. But the following year, the gatherings for white and black employees were quietly merged.
The incident is a recurring theme in Flynt’s new memoir, Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. During his career-long battle with Alabama’s powerful status quo—nicknamed the Big Mules—he’s most often gained ground via slow-motion, rather than dramatic election-night victories.
The ongoing endeavor has also won him countless enemies in both high and low places, a fact he takes in stride:
“I’ve been considered a trouble-maker, but not an outcast,” Flynt says now, after his retirement from a turbulent tenure at Auburn University. “And there’s an important distinction. I’ve found that if you have a long track record of affection for Alabama and the South, a great deal of involvement with its institutions and churches, and if you’ve cast your whole life for those things, then when it comes to political differences most reasonable people will cut you some slack.”
A native of Pontotoc, Miss., Flynt got his Ph.D. from Florida State, then taught for eight years at Samford before joining Auburn’s faculty in 1977. Keeping the Faith is Flynt’s 12th book, but his first memoir. The titles of earlier volumes reflect his area of specialization in American history, including 1990’s Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites. He’s a two-time winner of the Alabama Library Association Award for nonfiction.
Keeping the Faith is not just a metaphor. Flynt has been active in the church throughout his career, from the days when he first joined Vestavia Hills Baptist and a rumor circulated around Birmingham that he was a Communist infiltrator, trained in Cuba to spread civil rights. Today his home church, First Baptist of Auburn, is a cooperative fellowship not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The group has ordained more than 30 female deacons and welcomes gays and lesbians as members.
Flynt’s two main political causes over the decades have been reform of the state’s constitution and increased funding for education, neither of which has yet come to fruition. In his memoir, he says of a 2001 push to hold a public referendum on the Alabama constitution, “I knew we were making progress when the lunatic fringe reappeared, as it had in the education reform debate.”
Opponents of the constitution issue claimed it was a plot to remove the words “under God” from the 1901 document and would pave the way for a United Nations takeover of Alabama’s government. (“With all the problems in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East,” Flynt writes, “I was unclear on why the U.N. would want to add Alabama to its list of dependent states.”)
Demonstrating Christian love toward violent and irrational opponents is difficult but possible, Flynt maintains: “The main thing is that we should respect our enemies,” he says. “But at the same time, we have to forcefully go after them in the public arena, because we can’t continue living in a society where opinion trumps information. I don’t want to see Alabama governed by the Paul Finebaum Show.
“Much of what these opposing groups say is so clearly absurd that no rational person can accept it. But as irrational and paranoid as they are, it behooves us to realize that this rhetoric is coming from a great deal of anger in their lives, and from a deep well of fear about the future. Many of them are not well-educated, or their jobs have been outsourced to other countries, and they don’t have the skills to cope with the new world a-borning.
“So as Christians, we need to have sympathy for the people raising these kinds of issues.”
In Flynt’s view, the current state constitution is as absurd as the wildest arguments against changing it: “In the first 75 years after the constitution was passed, there were about 4-1/2 amendments per year. In the 1990s, that increased to 12 a year. Nowadays it’s requiring between 20 and 25 amendments per year just to keep the document from strangling the state’s economic infrastructure.
“Jefferson County is a model of this dysfunctionality, with the county legislative delegation essentially serving as the County Commission. I saw an opinion poll that said the U.S. Congress is now less popular than Paris Hilton. As our counties here get more and more dysfunctional, will we see a day when the Alabama legislature is less popular than Lindsay Lohan?”
Flynt writes that there’s a particular literary passage that helps him stay centered in such times of stress, one from the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, who spent three years at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute:
I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest, or when I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied, not even I. On the other hand, I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs; or when I’ve tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear. In my presence they could talk and agree with themselves, the world nailed down, and they loved it…But here was the rub: Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind. Oh, yes, it made them happy and it made me sick. So I became ill of affirmation, of saying “Yes.”
Flynt says the Ellison paragraph is also a fair summation of his own time at Auburn University. Three of the memoir’s 15 chapters recount in detail the political battles that raged within the system between 1977 and his resignation in 2005. The chief antagonist is trustee Bobby Lowder, so fixated on control that even the conservative Birmingham News depicted him in an editorial cartoon as the character Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Lowder is shown dressed in a breech-clout, perched on a high crag of rock, speaking the phrase “My precious-s-s-s…” What’s cupped in his hands is not the ring, but an Auburn logo.
In a different arena, one of the proudest moments Flynt describes in his book is when he was appointed Lee County (home of Auburn) organizer of the get-out-the-vote effort for Amendment One, which would have provided an additional $1.2 billion funding each year for the state’s schools. After a tireless grassroots information campaign, the citizens of Auburn and Lee County voted in favor of the new funding, though the amendment was defeated in Alabama as a whole.
Flynt writes about the experience, “I took comfort in my simple theology: God doesn’t hold me accountable for the decisions of Alabama, only for those places where my personal influence can make a difference.”
The concluding chapter of Keeping the Faith is about a concept Flynt calls “Third Places,” based on sociologist Ray Oldenberg’s book The Great Good Place. Such entities are refuges in the world, apart from one’s work and family, where an individual can find peace and nurturing outside the swirl of current events.
Barbecue joints rank high on Flynt’s list of sanctuaries, in that regard. His lyrical, heartfelt paean to them is alone worth the price of the book. Ironically, another of his “Third Places” is the Internet, where he’s editor-in-chief of a site called Encyclopedia of Alabama (encyclopediaofalabama.org).
The database, compiled by scholars and others, bills itself as providing “A balanced, fact-based view” in which “Alabama’s problems are not glossed over, nor are its accomplishments and successes overlooked. Rich and poor; educated and illiterate; Confederate and Unionist; planter and slave; man and woman–Alabamians of all stripes have contributed to the development of the state, and EOA endeavors to present all these stories.”
When asked to name the most hopeful sign on the horizon for Alabama’s future, Flynt doesn’t hesitate: some of the once-intractable Big Mules who pull the state’s strings from behind the scenes have changed:
“Once upon a time, the alliance of Black Belt planters and Big Mules worked together on the social control of labor—keeping out unions, de-funding education. Not just for black kids, but for poor whites as well.
“But in my lifetime, the Big Mules are no longer automatically allies of the planter-aristocracy. They look at the global economy and they realize that what labor knows is more important than what labor costs. Today, a business owner or CEO from north Alabama is far more willing to go out on a limb on behalf of tax reform, education reform — which the Alabama Education Association never liked — or constitutional reform.
“As a result, they’ve gotten crossways with some of their former allies, and have allied with people they’d normally consider pariahs. So more and more, they have their fingers on the levers of power. They haven’t been able yet to influence most white voters, and they’re not able to control the legislature on things such as the anti-immigration bill.
“But at least they’re up at the plate taking their swings now, and that could mean a lot.”
Dale Short is a journalist, teacher, fiction writer and media producer. His weekly radio show, Music From Home, is archived on his web site, carrolldaleshort.com.