Dixie Heretic: The Civil Rights Odyssey of Renwick C. Kennedy
Published by: University Of Alabama Press
Imprint: University of Alabama Press
Sales Date: 2023-09-22
Published: September 2023
528 Pages, 152.00 x 228.00 x 35.50 mm, 19 B&W FIGURES - 3 MAPS
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Drawn from some 5,000 letters, six decades of daily-diary writings, and extensive interviews, Dixie Heretic: The Civil Rights Odyssey of Renwick C. Kennedy offers a life-and-times biography of the Alabama Black Belt minister, Renwick C. Kennedy (1900-1985). Here, Tennant McWilliams gives an unvarnished account of Kennedy's tortuous efforts to make his congregants and other southern whites "better Christians."
Kennedy came from "upcountry" South Carolina, a place rife with Scotch-Irish Associate Reformed Presbyterians-people of biblical infallibility and individual piety and salvation. In 1927, after a life-changing theology education at Princeton, he moved to Camden, Alabama, county seat of Wilcox County. There, he came to believe that God had a mandate for him: to change the "Half Christian" conservative, and the often violent, racial behaviors around him. As a neo-orthodox Protestant, Kennedy never rejected literal approaches to the Bible. Still, out of the "Full Christian" Social Gospel, he urged changed racial behavior. Ultimately this led him to publish confrontational short stories and essays in Christian Century and New Republic-most set in fictitious "Yaupon County."
In World War II, Kennedy served as a chaplain with the famed 102nd Evacuation Hospital. He came home hoping the Allied victory would spur Americans to fight racial segregation just as they had fought racial fascism in Europe. The 1948 Dixiecrat movement dashed these hopes, turning much of his neo-orthodox optimism to cynicism. His hope found fleeting resurgence in the civil rights movement, and saw Kennedy quietly leading desegregation of Troy University, where he was an administrator. But the era's assassinations, combined with George Wallace and the rise of southern white Republicans, regularly returned him to the frustrated hopes of 1948 and fostered a pessimism about truly changed hearts that he took to his grave in 1985.
"Renwick Kennedy was a significant intellectual of Depression-era and postwar Alabama, and the author makes clear his relevance for a variety of issues in the South and the nation. Kennedy's name has long been associated with the Black Belt, and he shows up in most studies of the region. No one before has given the sustained and smart attention as the author here has done."
-Charles Reagan Wilson author of Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause and Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis
"Dixie Heretic presents a passionate but flawed man-much like all of us-who could have left both his divine calling and a people and place that never measured up to his idealism, a place and people he could not "reform" or "transform", but people he could love and respect. The locale may seem quaint, local, and provincial. But the narrative transcends all that."
-Wayne Flint is professor emeritus in the department of history at Auburn University. He is author of Afternoons with Harper Lee and many others.
"This meticulous biography of a Black Belt preacher has the feel of a Faulknerian moral fable. As a young idealist, Ren Kennedy assigned himself the paradoxical task of preaching the gospel to adamant segregationists in Camden, Alabama. Despite his inner conflicts, his sympathetic articles in Christian magazines helped inform a national audience about the history and culture of the important African American community in Gee's Bend, Alabama. This is a significant addition to the scholarship about white liberals in the Jim Crown South."
-Howell Hiram Raines is an American journalist, editor, and writer. He has published several books including Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis and My Soul is Rested
"Renwick Kennedy's theology, what he called "whole Christianity," compelled him to work bravely and tirelessly, both as cleric and as author, for social and economic justice in the Black Belt of Alabama during tumultuous times in the twentieth century. Tennant McWilliams's magnificent biography delves into the complicated mix of influences-personal, social, and intellectual-that shaped Kennedy into one of the white South's most outspoken critics of Southern racism and authoritarianism. A stellar work that does justice to the man and his culture."
-Robert Brinkmeyer is professor emeritus of Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.
"In this remarkable biography and social history, Tennant S. McWilliams unpacks the fascinating career of Renwick Kennedy, minister, war observer, and segregation critic. Using Kennedy's rich papers and scouring the documentary record, McWilliams explores the achievements and contradictions of Kennedy's religious liberalism in the deeply conservative setting of small-town Alabama. This is a must-read for students of the American South."
-William A. Link is the Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Florida. He has written extensively on the history of the South and is the author of several books, most recently The Last Fire-Eater: Roger A. Pryor and the Search for a Southern Identity.
"Dixie Heretic gives a rare glimpse into the heart and soul of a minister in the deep South struggling to address and navigate a profound socio-economic change thrust upon the region in the post Reconstruction era. Tennant McWilliams successfully weaves together a compelling story from almost six decades of personal journals and writings of 'Ren' Kennedy. His prose transports the reader back into this turbulent time"
-Marian Perdue Furman