In 1963, a group of eight Birmingham clergymen tried to defuse the tension in the city by urging black citizens to stop participating in demonstrations. Martin Luther King responded to this by writing his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which has become one of the most celebrated documents of the period, but drew further critical attention toward the unrest in Birmingham from around the country. One of the clergymen King addressed was Charles C.J. Carpenter, Sr., the Episcopalian bishop of the state from 1938 to 1968, whose son Douglas M. Carpenter, believes his father was unfairly castigated in the aftermath of King’s letter.
The younger Carpenter has written a book that chronicles his father’s life, the 2012 biography A Powerful Blessing.
Weld: Tell us a little about who your father was.
Doug Carpenter: He was the Episcopal bishop of the whole state of Alabama for 30 and a half years. He became well-known in Birmingham because when we first came here from Savannah in 1936, he was the head minister at the Church of the Advent.
About 15 years after he was elected bishop, he built the headquarters for the Episcopal Church on 20th Street, and that became a great meeting place. When Martin Luther King asked Andrew Young to find a place where they could meet [in Birmingham], they found my dad’s office to be the safest. So many people today don’t realize having an integrated meeting in those days was dangerous, but lots of those meetings were held in his office.
Weld: What was the Episcopal Church’s view on integration during the Civil Rights Movement?
DC: The Episcopal Church has always been one of the most liberal denominations in the United States. It kind of led the way as far as integration and women being ordained [as bishops]. We’re a fairly small denomination. When my father was the bishop, there were a little over 30,000 Episcopalians spread throughout Alabama.
You had to move slowly in a lot of ways back then because of the danger that lurked with the Ku Klux Klan. They often were threatening my father. He was one of the big movers and shakers opposed to the Klan. In 1951, he was the head of the only large integrated meeting in Birmingham at the time, the Interracial Division of the Community Chest, and Arthur Shores, that wonderful black lawyer, was the co-chairman of that. They were making some great progress in Birmingham as far as integration and word between the races.
What happened to that committee was that when the 1954 bill integrating the schools passed Congress, the Klan began to be even more active, and started threatening the black members. Pretty soon, the black members were afraid to come to meetings, so it kind of fell by the wayside in 1956. As a consequence, there was not really a large integrated group in Birmingham between about 1956 and 1963. However, there were small groups here and there, and often they would have their meetings at my dad’s office.
Weld: In the book you say your father was a “gradualist,” someone who wants to make social change happen gradually, as opposed to immediately or not at all. Why do you think your father took this approach?
DC: Because he realized that every time we tried to move faster in Birmingham the Klan took it out on the black people, so that the white person taking a strong stand could lead to black people being hurt. It happened over and over again. He was very concerned about the bombings of homes, including Fred Shuttlesworth’s home and his church.
One of the sayings my father repeated a lot in those days was: “If you try anything, you get hit from both sides.” There was so little middle ground there was hardly any place to stand. Compromise, for example, was kind of a dirty word on both sides of the aisle, just like it is today in Congress.
One of the most remarkable things which was said recently, which I really appreciated. At the service where the new Episcopal bishop of Atlanta was consecrated this year, Rev. Andy Young praised my father by saying that he knew how to lead while still staying with his people. His point was that some leaders get so far out ahead of the people that they lose the ones they’re trying to pull along. My dad had to pull along the whole diocese, not just the people in Birmingham.
Weld: In a press release, you write that because of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “the eight clergy King addressed have often been viewed as caricatures of inept, racist Southern preachers.” How did this affect your family?
DC: It didn’t affect my family adversely, and I think the reason is because my father was such a strong person. He could take criticism and not let it bother him too much. By 1963, my father was already in poor health, but I never heard him complain at all about the letter. Life was tougher for my father because of all that criticism, but he didn’t seem to be hurt by it very much. Just kept on with his work.
Weld: In the book, you mention that you could have written a “selling” book by focusing solely on your father’s life during the events of 1963. Why did you decide to present a full biography instead?
DC: If I had gone with the publishers, they would have wanted me to spend the entire book on 1963-65, and they would have wanted me to have a real different title to it. But I wrote that book, first of all, for the people who knew and loved my father. I wanted them to know his whole life. I didn’t want him to be defined by a couple of years or be defined by King’s letter. I wanted the people to see him as a whole person.
The problem is those poor eight people all looked like they’re defined by that one event. The title I took for it, A Powerful Blessing, comes from the fact that people who knew him throughout his ministry always commented on his blessing. When an adult becomes a member of the Episcopal Church, the bishop lays his hands on his head during the service and prays for him, and again and again people come up to me and tell me about the sound of his voice and what it meant to them to be blessed by him. The Birmingham News spoke of his voice when he gave his blessings as sounding like “gently rolling thunder.” When his term as chancellor of Sewanee was over in ’68, they wrote that any university that had been blessed by his deep voice would always remain blessed. There was a lot of love in the way he blessed people.