“Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution,” by John Archibald (Knopf)
A rhetorical, almost visual thread runs though John Archibald’s family memoir. The thread is silence. Silence in a noisy and violent time. Safe silence. Complicit silence. This silence haunts the author, a Pultizer Prize winning columnist for The Birmingham News and AL.com.
Archibald follows in the frustrated tradition of white Southern writers — W. J. Cash, Clarence Cason, Jonathan Daniels — and writers who are children of Birmingham — Diane McWhorter, Paul Hemphill, Howell Raines — who try to understand and explain the South and what happens there.
“Shaking the Gates of Hell” is Archibald’s attempt at a conversation about historical silence with his deceased father, with his younger self, with his home state and region. The author’s father, Robert L. Archibald, Jr., was a Methodist minister who served at churches in Birmingham and north Alabama.
Reading through a filing cabinet of his father’s sermons, many delivered at the height of the civil rights movement, Archibald looks for signs of understanding and courage, signs that his father did and said the right things on racial justice. He looks at sermons delivered after bombings, lynchings, civil rights protests, and he finds that his father was as timid on race as many white clergymen of his time. Speaking out, as so few whites did, brought consequences. For a minister, he could lose his church, his home, chances of future employment. He could find a cross burning on his lawn. And it could seem to be, in the moment, a losing battle.
But not trying is not acceptable. While acknowledging that applying our standards to people of another time can be unfair, Archibald writes, “It is not just hatred that kills. Not just leaders who capitalize on fear and incite mobs to violence. It is the silence. None of the demagogues or racists could thrive without silence.” Staying silent in the face of racism and violence, Archibald finds, was his father’s great failing, and it was the failing of the Methodist Church and white people generally.
Like all good memoirs with a strong sense of place, “Shaking the Gates of Hell” will bring smiles of recognition for readers of a certain ago. Archibald shares memories of riding make-shift sleds in a rare southern snow, fishing Alabama’s rivers, spending summers at church camp and shopping at Big B Drugs (where the author did a bad thing).
But memories, fond or otherwise, are not the point. “Shaking the Gates of Hell” is a powerful reckoning with the failures of our past and our present. It is a come-to-the-altar-and-explain-yourself demand for accountability, even from those long dead. Those long gone have blessed us with a haunting example of their failure to speak. For the living, Archibald writes, “it is never too late” to find your voice and the courage to use it. When we see injustice, we should speak, even when it’s easier not to. Someone uses the N-word, speak. Someone disparages trans people, speak. Insults Muslims, speak. Degrades women, speak. It’s a hard thing to do. And that’s the point.
Shaking the Gates of Hell is an important book that lays bare the damage that occurs when people who know better stay silent, then and now.
James L. Baggett is an archivist and historian in Birmingham. He can be reached at email@example.com.