RACISM, it has been said, is America’s “original sin”. From the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution that counted slaves as partial humans to the Civil War, Jim Crow, segregation, and now #BlackLivesMatter, race has been a central scar in the American body politic. But, if racism is a sin, then it can also be, to use the word in the sub-title of this book, a site of redemption.
Courtney Hargrave tells the story of Michael Burden, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and David Kennedy, an African-American pastor in Laurens, South Carolina. In 1996, Laurens flashed into the news when Burden and others were involved in opening a museum celebrating the KKK in the centre of the town. In the convulsion that followed, Kennedy became a leading opponent of the museum. The twist in the story is Burden, who leaves the Klan and finds that his only refuge is provided by Kennedy and his church.
Their unlikely relationship forms the centre of this book. Kennedy provides for him, helps disentangle him from his relationships with the KKK, and tries to set him on a more stable path. Ultimately, that work doesn’t succeed. Burden is jailed for theft, and it becomes clear that Kennedy himself is not universally beloved in Laurens.
The story has a compelling core, but the book struggles to do it justice. It draws heavily on interviews with Kennedy, even while hinting at the complexity of the part that he played in Laurens — a complexity that isn’t sufficiently illuminated by interviewing other people in the community.
For a book that is about America’s racial past and present, it doesn’t answer what might be the central question: why is it that stories of redemption so often involve sacrificial giving and the turning of the cheek by African-Americans, the people who have been most wronged by America’s sinfulness? The book focuses on redeemed relationships between two individuals. But the larger work of overturning sinful racist structures is only hinted at.
None the less, at a time when race remains front and centre in the American consciousness, Burden is a reminder of the country’s great flaws — as well as the moments of grace which have long worked in that land.
The Revd Dr Jesse Zink is Principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College. He is the author of Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan (Baylor University Press, 2018).
Burden: A preacher, a klansman and a true story of redemption in the modern South
Church Times Bookshop £15.30