Reflecting on Bishop Goodson

The most formative afternoon I spent in Alabama was the afternoon I worked through the papers of Bishop Kenneth Goodson.  That afternoon consecrated me as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church and gave me my marching orders.  I kept a portrait of Bishop Goodson in my office in Birmingham to remind me of my responsibilities, particularly in regard to racial reconciliation.

One reason why I felt privileged to serve in Alabama was because it was the site of some of America’s most significant history: the Montgomery bus boycott, the attacks on the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma’s “Bloody Sunday.”

I was honored to serve in a place where Alabama Methodists had to come to terms with their own racial history and take action to address their past racial sin.

Now William E. Nicholas, professor emeritus at United Methodist-affiliated Birmingham-Southern College, and an active member of the conference Archives and History Committee, provides a wonderful treatment of Alabama Methodist racial history in his new book Go and Be Reconciled: Alabama Methodists Confront Racial Injustice: 1954-1974, published by NewSouth Books.

Bishop Goodson (1912-1991), unlike his cautious predecessors, stepped up to the task of merging the long segregated Methodist conferences in Alabama.  Nicholas makes Ken the hero of his story.  Goodson rallied the handful of white Methodist whom God had led to struggle with integration in the 1950s.  A number, like the legendary Dan Whitsett of Sylacauga First Methodist, had crosses burned in their yards by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.  Andrew Turnipseed was among a number of pastors who were run out of the state.  His daughter, Marti Turnipseed, was expelled from Birmingham-Southern after joining a lunch counter desegregation sit-in. Rev. John Rutland courageously preached on racial reconciliation, only to have sheriff “Bull” Connor (who ran the Birmingham police state), one of his parishioners at Birmingham’s Woodlawn Methodist Church, stand up in the pews and shout him down.

Goodson arrived in 1964 to oversee both the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences who were in swirling controversy with strong resistance to racial integration. Dr. Nicholas describes Goodson not only as a person with remarkable skills as a preacher and overall communicator but also as a most effective administrator of change.  One of the best parts of being bishop in Alabama was hearing some wonderful Ken Goodson stories.  We got to live in the house that was purchased as the episcopal manse for the Goodsons, the same house where clergy remembered searching for bombs in the shrubbery some evenings after one of Ken’s preaching visits in churches.

On March 7, 1965, Goodson was in Selma for the dedication of a new church. While he was speaking, the “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers on voting rights marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge occurred just a few blocks away from the church. Goodson recognized the magnitude of the event and quickly arranged a Methodist-to-Methodist meeting with Gov. Wallace. Wallace had been adamant about keeping the bridge closed to demonstrators, but now asked Goodson for advice.

The photo of Ken Goodson that I kept on my office wall in Birmingham.

Goodson met with racist Methodist Governor George Wallace and urged him to show restraint against protestors and, after Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” issued a pastoral letter to be read from all pulpits on April 4, 1965.  In the letter Goodson asked Methodists to commit themselves to the “elimination of those injustices that bar any of our people from full participation in all rights of citizenship.”

In a session of the 1971 Annual Conference, with Goodson preaching and presiding, the North Alabama Conference approved merger by a vote of 429 to 428.

I particularly appreciated that Nicholas’ book is honest in its assessment that many black Alabama Methodists felt that the merger was more of an absorption, mere “tokenism.”  And yet Nicholas believes Goodson’s accomplishments were remarkable and would have been built upon had he remained in Alabama another term rather than moved to Virginia to be bishop there.

Bill Nicholas’ book has done us a great service.  I blurbed the book as remembering, “A time when Alabama Methodists did the right thing in regard to race, sort of.”  Reading Go and Be Reconciled led me to fondly remember Ken Goodson who preached the sermon at my installation as Dean at Duke Chapel, whose robe I wear (gift of Martha Goodson), and whose presence I feel whenever I preach in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School.

Bishops can make a difference in addressing the racial divide in the American church, but only when we are willing to be courageous, to push for what’s right.  Let Ken Goodson be a model for all of us.

Will Willimon

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