"Right Here on Earth"
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 3, "On Jordan's Stormy Banks: Religion in the South." Find more from that issue here.
We found Rev. James Corder on his tractor at the far end of an Alabama cotton field. It was the first day without rain for quite a white, but anxious as he was to get the earth turned, he graciously spent two hours talking with us about his life in Pickens County.
Rev. Corder pastors four Primitive Baptist churches within a fifty-mile radius of his home near Aliceville, Alabama. Moved by the events of Selma in 1965, he became an active member in the Selma Project, a statewide civil rights organization.
Selma, Albany, Jackson, Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Nashville were all well known for the drama of the civil rights struggles. Aliceville, Alabama, and numerous other small towns across the region were hardly noticed, and sometimes their very isolation made the struggle much more dangerous.
The most blatant forms of discrimination are no longer as apparent as they once were in Aliceville, Alabama, thanks to Rev. Corder and his organization of sinners. As we left, however, we got the impression that the good Reverend was keeping a watchful eye.
At the time of the Selma March, it was quite dangerous to organize because Pickens County hadn't had no type of demonstration, and they was doing things that was keeping people from taking a part or standing up talking to anybody that appeared to identify themselves in a civil rights way. Therefore I used strategy. I organized under the name of Rural Farm and Development Council. I let them know that they just had to stand up and take some chances, that some of us might get hurt, but even getting hurt was going to help somebody. And if I was brave enough to stand there and tell them what was necessary to be done, and not begging nobody not to tell it, they ought to be brave enough to be a member of the organization 'cause it was good for everybody.
After I got that organized, I got a group together and we decided that we would group around the city hall of Aliceville. I knew if I could get a group standing to hear what I had to say, I would get the message over to the administrators of the town. Course they all came with billy clubs and shotguns and everything. I let them know that we was tired of the way that the county and the elected officers was taking all the taxpayers money and turning all the evil against the black and protecting the white. I pointed out that whenever a big day come, any officer that had any lawful rights at all would be out on the road stopping all the blacks and waving to whites to pass. I said that if they had any reason to be checking, we would be very interested in their checking everybody or nobody. We won't have it no more! And I didn't go into detail to say what would be the results, and really I hadn't figured out what would be the results, but it was just in me to say. There wasn't no fear there.
When we started off, most people that was religious at all was altogether agin it. I had one friend. We're in different fields—when I say fields, I mean different denominations— he's a Missionary and I'm a Primitive. But we works together.
The people that belonged to the church were set in their ways—just old religious practices that they got out from under the slave master was all they would accept. The type of activity that went on in the black church was about the type of activity that the slave masters would allow them to practice.
See, church work is like any other kind of work; what people were trained to think was church work, that is all they would accept for church work. But if they don't fight against wrong, who will? And so I started, and we had a church fight. That's one of the biggest fights I believe I had. The deacons at the church would get so mad, they would want to put me out. I just kept approaching it in many ways until I got some to see what I was talking about—that justice has got to come from a person that has justice in him. When a person who is not just, do just, he do something that he didn't aim to do.
And I reached the conclusion that that was one of the chief reasons for Christ setting up a church here on earth—to establish His will, to change the minds of wicked people into righteousness. And it was going to take the preachers to do it, and if he wasn't going to do that, he wasn't a preacher for God, he was the devil's preacher. You know, the devil's got some good preachers, too. Sure! Any man who fights against the cause of God and thinks how to prevent the will of God, he is working for the devil.
I preached that for six or eight years as much or more than I did anything 'cause that was more on my mind than anything. It was more urgently current that I had to show the people. I couldn't show them heaven and couldn't show them the way out of trouble here. I be like the man who was preaching and tore his pants, and he had a habit when he got in his high keys of hold-ing his hands high and pointing to heaven and mentioning to the people about heaven. And a little boy was there and he said he couldn't see heaven for looking at Africa.
What I am saying is, if I couldn't show the people what was right here, I don't believe I could do a good job showing them something that was out of sight. And if I couldn't change them to benefit themselves to do something right here, why point them to heaven? Here is sweetmilk and honey—cows giving milk, and bees making honey—and why am I going to wait till heaven to get it? When God told Moses to lead the people into a land that flowed with milk and honey, he wasn't talking about heaven no-way. He was talking about a land of plenty, and that land is right here on earth. He was leading them out from under their slave master to a land where they would be free and a land that produced.
Finally, the members of my church, they didn't join the organization, but they gave me the privilege of holding the meeting in the church. And I built the organization more out of sinners, people that didn't belong to the church. I had them acting more religious than the people that belonged to the church.
Sue Thrasher is coordinator for residential education at Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee. She is a co-founder and member of the board of directors of the Institute for Southern Studies. (1984)
Sue Thrasher works for the Highlander Research and Education Center. She is a former staff member of Southern Exposure. (1981)