Charting the Great Divide

When The New York Times grappled with the issue of our times, its readers were reminded of the enduring challenges of integration.

There is an interlude during each Sunday-morning service at the Assembly of God Tabernacle when the pastor invites his parishioners to roam around the sanctuary, welcoming visitors and greeting each other. I suppose it was at that moment on the day I first attended that I realized I had come to the right place.

I had not come to join, though I would be gently nudged in that direction any number of times during the year I spent at the Tabernacle. Rather, I had come to observe, and what I saw that Sunday, and on dozens of subsequent Sundays, was a revelation.

Here, seemingly, was a perfectly integrated church situated in suburban Decatur, Georgia, only a few miles from the site on Stone Mountain where the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan had been born. When I counted heads, the congregation was almost evenly split between blacks and whites, with many families sharing pews with those of another race.

Praise and thanksgiving: Members of the Assembly of God Tabernacle in Decatur, Georgia, worship togetherDuring those five minutes of mid-service fellowship, blacks and whites slapped backs and exchanged tidbits of gossip in the aisles. A tall black man in his forties bent over to hug an octogenarian white lady. He would later tell me that he understood that forty years earlier he might have been hanged for doing so. It was touching. And in my experience, having written about race in the South for many of my twenty years in journalism, it was virtually unprecedented. This place, I told myself as I drove happily home, must have one hell of a story.

That first trip to the church in the spring of 1999 came a week or two after a daylong meeting in an Upper East Side brownstone owned by one of my editors at The New York Times. After years of discussion and planning, the paper’s management had convened a large group of reporters and editors to discuss the contours of a project that, ideally, would present a new way to think and write about race relations in America.

Like many Americans, editors at The Times had been taken aback in 1995 by the racially polarized responses to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in his sensational murder trial. Even in our newsroom on West 43rd Street, as just outside in Times Square, whites had reacted with disdain while blacks could barely contain their glee.

Two high-level editors had already been mulling the possibility of a series on race, and the Simpson verdict got them talking about what the discordant reactions might signify about the state of race relations some three decades after the demise of legalized segregation. It was clear, they concluded, that blacks and whites still had little concept of each other’s worlds, even when they interacted civilly in the workplace and the community.

Two high-level editors—Gerald Boyd, who is black, and Soma Golden Behr, who is white—began grappling with how the paper could best examine the topic without being bound by the traditional journalistic approaches to writing about race. Over the years, newspapers had printed hundreds of statistical analyses about income gaps and housing patterns, usually concluding that we had come far but still had far to go. Millions more words had been devoted to the racial policy debates of the day, like affirmative action and racial profiling.

While often important, those stories had become stale, predictable, and not particularly insightful. They provided only the most superficial sense of how people of different races actually got along when they were thrust together, as was increasingly the case. In a country where many seemed fatigued by the mere mention of race, the editors concluded that perhaps the best way to assess the current state of affairs was to trade a macroscopic view for a microscopic one, to write about people and relationships rather than about policy and statistics.

That notion became the guiding principle behind “How Race is Lived in America,” a series of fifteen lengthy stories that appeared in The Times in the summer of 2000. Fourteen reporters and I scoured the country for settings and characters that would reveal something interesting about the role of race in today’s America. Afforded a luxury rarely enjoyed by print journalists, each of us devoted the better part of a year to researching and writing a single story, often 7,000 or 8,000 words long. As we progressed, photographers parachuted in to illustrate our words, many shooting thousands of frames in search of the half-dozen images that ultimately would be published.  

To the extent that the series succeeded, it did so because of the variety of characters, settings, and relationships that we discovered. Some of us came to that first meeting in New York with vague notions of the subjects we wanted to explore. Others searched for months and only found their stories after any number of wrong turns.

My piece about the life of an integrated church kicked off the series, followed by tales of Cuban immigrants in Miami, drill sergeants at Fort Knox, the creative team behind an HBO series, partners in an Internet start-up in Atlanta, and politicians in Seattle. Charlie LeDuff, a correspondent on the metropolitan staff, worked undercover in a hog processing plant in North Carolina to learn about the racial and ethnic striation of the workforce. There were stories about the inexorable force that breaks apart biracial schoolyard friendships and about the tensions between the white owner of a Louisiana plantation and the black National Park Service ranger dispatched to interpret its history. We wrote about rival newspaper columnists, a white quarterback on an otherwise all-black college team, a white hip-hop aficionado, a police anti-drug squad in Harlem, and three Houston businessmen forced together by affirmative action. Don Terry finished the series, in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, with a first-person piece about his own struggle to accept his place as the son of a black father and a white mother.

By the end, the project accounted for the greatest expenditure of resources that The Times has ever devoted to a single series—even more than the publication of the Pentagon Papers. And when it was published, the response was gratifying. In addition to our paid circulation, which ranges from 1.1 million on weekdays to nearly 1.7 million on Sundays, more than half a million people read at least part of the series on our website. More than 12,000 comments were posted to special website forums about the series. Three thousand readers filled out website questionnaires about their racial views and experiences. Earlier this year, the series was reprinted in book form by Times Books. There were television appearances, radio
interviews, a special forum broadcast by Charlie Rose ’64, J.D. ’68, and panels of reporters and editors at universities from Berkeley to Ann Arbor.

Friendly greetings: Ruben Burch, right, speaks to Madge Mayo during a Sunday service at the Tabernacle

The stories diverted from journalistic convention not only in their length and the time devoted to them, but also in their structure. Each was written as narrative, usually focused on the interactions of a small number of characters. And from the outset, we decided to omit what we in print journalism refer to as the “nut graf,” the grand summary, usually placed high in the story, that tells readers what to make of it all. Instead, we chose to let readers decide for themselves what each individual story signified, and what the series as a whole had discovered.

“If our basic concept was valid,” wrote Joseph Lelyveld, our recently retired executive editor, in his introduction to the book, “the meaning of the articles would not be found simply in each narrative as the reader went along but in the resonance among all the narratives—in their overlay, each one on top of all those that came before, striking a richer chord because of the progression from one situation or sphere to the next.”

Clearly, the series was not reading for the subway ride home. But the profession, at least, seemed to appreciate the innovation. Last spring, the project was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and a special George Polk Award, another prestigious journalism prize. In May, I joined a number of colleagues at a luncheon in a cavernous hall at Columbia University to watch Gerald, Soma, and another project editor, Michael Winerip, accept our Pulitzer certificate. (The second biggest thrill of the day was meeting Alan Diaz, the humble photojournalist for the Associated Press who won a prize for his amazing picture of the seizure of Elián Gonzalez.)

Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to summarize the common themes that coursed through the series’ stories. As Joe pointed out in his introduction, there were clear signs of racial progress. The simple fact that we found so much interaction between the races—in church, on the job, on the playing field—was evidence of that. But each of the stories also found disturbing evidence of a persistent separateness, of a disconnect, really, of blacks who still felt the sting of racism almost daily and of whites who were tired of hearing about it all. In story after story, they talked past each other, when they were talking at all.

For me, the project was a dream assignment. My greatest professional regret had been being born twenty-five years too late to cover the civil-rights movement in my native South. Born in 1959, I had grown up in the suburbs of Jacksonville, Florida, a white kid utterly oblivious to both the segregation and racial turmoil that was everywhere around me. I had no black friends or classmates, and the first time I remember hearing the name of Martin Luther King Jr. was on the day in 1968 when I watched my grandmother weep at the news of his assassination.

But over time, I concluded that covering the aftermath of the movement could be just as intriguing. Over the years, I sought out stories that told of the region’s struggle to get comfortable with its new racial clothing, of its incremental progress, often taken in baby steps, sometimes one back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. I loved writing about the black south Georgia congressman who managed to win the support of craggy white peanut farmers by delivering black congressional votes for price supports. And about the white Ole Miss president, a star place-kicker in the segregated Oxford of 1959, who like Nixon to China finally persuaded his students and alumni to stop waving the Confederate battle flag at football games.

I felt the same enthusiasm, only more so, for what was happening at the Tabernacle. I came to the story, oddly enough, with the help of Pat Buchanan. While covering his presidential campaign for a few days in 1996, I followed Buchanan on a Wednesday night as he made the rounds of three Pentecostal churches in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Each, to my amazement, was integrated to some degree and, before long, I found myself far more interested in the racial dynamics of the churches than in Buchanan’s declaration that he would wage “a cultural war for the soul of this country.”

Clearly, something was happening in these churches that we should look into. The demands of daily journalism being what they are, it would take me three years to get around to it.

My first interview was with an Emory University professor, an authority on Pentecostalism, who explained to me the fascinating racial history of the faith that started as a radical biracial movement in turn-of-the-century California before dividing quickly along racial lines. She also made me understand how Pentecostalism’s most fundamental tenet, that anyone regardless of background or standing can have direct experience with the Holy Spirit, had imbued the faith with an egalitarian streak.

Then she directed me to several integrated churches in the Atlanta area. Some were too big and unwieldy for my purposes. At others, the pastors rubbed me the wrong way. But the Tabernacle had all the elements. It was of moderate size, about 800 members. Its pastor, Roger W. Brumbalow, was smart, funny, talented, and inspirational. He seemed like the real thing. And the congregation, I would soon discover, consisted of the warmest and most welcoming people, both black and white, that I had ever met.

Practicing what he preaches: Pastor Roger Brumbalow gives a sermon at the Tabernacle

  I came to the church with the preconceived notion that I would find a congregation that was integrated in the pews but divided outside of the church walls. I could not have been more wrong. The members were absolutely devoted to each other. Blacks and whites attended pot-luck dinners and house-blessings at each other’s homes. They visited each other in the hospital and shared rooms at church retreats. Their social lives revolved around each other. Every Sunday, it seemed, someone was slipping a party invitation in my pocket. The integration of the place was sincere, and it was exhilarating.

It also was only part of the story. The more time I spent at the church, and the more corners I poked around in, the more I came to appreciate the power of race to sow division, even in a seemingly utopian setting. On an early visit, a garrulous white usher named Howard Pugh told me about one elderly white member who insisted on leaving the service whenever a black soloist sang. I began to hear grumbling from black members about the racial imbalance in the church leadership, which had only one black among its eight pastors. The church, though insular, reflected the outside world. Blacks were being brought into the mainstream, but whites were in charge.

As I interviewed members—I ultimately would talk at length to more than a hundred of them—I heard blacks object to the rigid structure and length of the service and the relative tameness of the music. Whites, meanwhile, looked askance at the spirit-filled outbursts of their black brethren during services.

I noticed how the youth self-segregated at their Wednesday-evening services, how the black kids seemed bored with the Christian rock favored by the band, and how a new youth minister struggled to break down the barriers by designing a new seating plan.

I sat in on a Bible study for couples that began to lose white membership as soon as a black couple was appointed to lead it. And I had a ringside seat when the blacks in the class revolted after being informed one Sunday that the church was creating a new couples class, aimed at younger members and led by a white couple. Already sensitive to the seeming unwillingness of whites to submit to black leadership, they instantly assumed that the real purpose was to create racially divided classes, and it took Pastor Brumbalow several weeks of diplomacy to calm their outrage.

As the year moved along, I found a middle-aged white mother who had developed meaningful friendships in the choir with black members but who objected strongly to her daughter’s decision to date a black teenager in the youth group. The music minister revealed to me—over a lunch of matzoh ball soup at a kosher deli, oddly enough—that he wanted to break the church’s tradition of casting only whites in the roles of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus in the annual Christmas pageant. He was concerned, however, that older white members would object if the parts were played by dark-skinned blacks, and so he decided to ease the congregation into the transformation by casting a light-skinned multiracial couple.

Because the structure of the series demanded that we focus our stories on a handful of characters, I selected one white family and one black family who illustrated some of the challenges of integration.

Living by the word: Tabernacle member Lula Turner's Bible is well studied.

Howard Pugh and his wife, Janice, were white country folk from the Florida Panhandle who had managed to set aside many of their racial prejudices but who were clearly works in progress. Among other things, Howard still referred to blacks as “coloreds,” often to their faces. The Pughs were emblematic of the whites who had, with some trepidation, accepted the integration of their church but who had tired of hearing guilt-inducing talk about race. When Pastor Brumbalow preached one too many sermons about race, the Pughs began talking about leaving.

Ruben and Vanessa Burch had problems of a different kind. The black couple loved the biracial feel of the Tabernacle and believed that their membership would help their young daughters learn to negotiate their way through a white world. But they faced ribbing and insults from their relatives, who accused them bluntly of being “wannabe” whites.

What I, like most of my colleagues, came away with at the end of the project was a stark understanding of both the continuing complexity and the enduring power of race. Unlike the civil-rights movement I had longed to cover, there are no longer white hats and black hats. Today’s racial realities are far subtler, and not always obvious at first glance. But even within the warm embrace of the Tabernacle, the influence was pervasive. Suffice it to say that blacks at the church generally liked my story because it aired issues that made whites uncomfortable, while some whites disliked it for the same reason.

The series, I believe, had one substantial flaw. Despite considerable debate, the editors chose not to assign a forward-looking story that assessed the quality of race relations in a truly polyglot society, the kind of place that much of America is now becoming. Our overarching focus was on the biracial relationship that has left its mark on so much of our history. While Asians and Latinos moved through several of our stories, none of the pieces really addressed the racial dynamic seen in New York and California, and even here in Georgia, where four distinct racial groups must now learn to coexist.

That failing provides a challenge, both for The New York Times and for other newspapers, to continue to think creatively about how to convey the realities of race in ways that add color and texture to black-and-white type. 

Sack ’81 lives in Atlanta, where he is the Southern bureau chief for The New York Times. He wrote this at the magazine’s invitation.

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