John Archibald seemed destined to write about injustice. He was only 11 days old on April 16, 1963, in the midst of the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his infamous Letter from a Birmingham Jail—23 miles from the hospital where John was born—criticizing moderates who chose not to speak up about racial inequality. King had been arrested for marching in protest without a permit. His letter was a response to the plea for silence from eight Birmingham clergy members who wanted King to stop demonstrating.
In his recent book, “Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement,” he explores how that letter impacted his life and intersected with the beliefs of his family, including those of his father, United Methodist minister Rev. Robert Archibald.
John didn’t learn about King’s letter until his first job as a journalist at The Birmingham News in 1986. But it changed his perceptions of what he thought he knew about his Southern-ness and social justice.
“I came to love that letter,” he writes, “for it was bold and spoke in phrases I could pretend to claim, in the way a white person of privilege might foolishly want to do… But it would take me a long time to find my place in it. And it would not be the way I thought. Because the point of the letter… was, in many ways, the rebuke. For retreat, in the name of peace. For obedience, in the name of the law. For silence, in the voice of God.”
John seized upon that letter to forge his early career in journalism to help those still suffering racial discrimination at the hands of those who hold the most power—ordinary people who say nothing.
He and his three siblings were raised to believe and practice fairness and equality for all people. But when he came across his father’s old sermons after his mother died in 2018, he was shocked to find that Rev. Archibald never preached on the social injustice that surrounded them.
“Right after the Children’s Crusade began in Birmingham and all the kids were arrested, it was children’s Sunday at my dad’s church,” John says. But Rev. Archibald never mentioned anything in his sermon about the injustices of the children right outside their front door.
“And the more I began to question what my dad was not saying in the pulpit [versus] what he said at home, the more I began to find this conspiracy of silence. And looking into the Methodist layman’s union, that rhetoric was used to keep churches segregated,” he explains.
He discovered in researching for the book that ministers were threatened with termination if they vocalized support for their black neighbors and brethren from the pulpit. And he also found parallels with the United Methodist Church’s current struggles with LGBQT disparities.
“In the South, we are so good at not talking about anything—mental illness, sexuality, or things that might be embarrassing,” John says. “When we don’t talk about it, we don’t prepare people to talk about it. When you start talking about things, then suddenly you can develop thoughts about it.”