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“A” is for Archive: The Politics of Research in the Southern Archive

When Stephen Stein, my History of American Religion Professor at Indiana University, took us grad students to the Special Collections of the Lilly Library, we were dazzled. It was the perfect representation of the Ivory Tower. Period furniture, rooms named the “Lincoln Room,” soft lighting, book-lined walls, the giant walnut conference table, and manuscripts barely legible all made us all feel like real historians. We were protected and isolated, just book nerds who loved the smell of mildewed paper and feel of mechanical pencils. We sat and talked about the French Catholics. The present was two centuries away.

Most of the time, however, we grad students were relegated to the basement of the Main Library, squinting at dimming microfilm machines, and the only smell in the air was the old Chick-Fil-A grease sneaking in from next door.

It was still bliss. Both experiences in archival research seem somewhat idyllic now. Both are still Ivory Towers.

I am a Northerner, having lived long enough in Greenville that my friends say I am allowed to consider myself a native. And I’m still trying to understand this New South Greenville.

I have explained Southern civic life like this: the rules are like a rhetorical code duello, with sparing partners of equal power facing-off under vigilante justice and with maintaining good form as the supreme virtue. The critic is assigned a role in that drama (I’m a Burkean) as an invisible scenic element, simply documenting the players and events with photographic details alone. No interpretation or intervention is expected or permitted. Any critical action is met with threats, both coded and overt, because that action may threaten the secrecy and the sanctity of the duel.

If that critic happens to be a Northern-born woman, those threats get nasty. If she dares to act outside of the Southern silence, the female scholar is branded a kind of Hester Prynne. Wearing a Scarlet “A” for her archival research, she is marked as impious and promiscuous.

As an independent scholar, I am researching the intersection of conservative politics, revivalism, and white supremacy in Southern higher education. I have now been to archives in Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina, of course. I just received 1000 pages from the FBI last Saturday, and yesterday I obtained a fifty-year-old police report. This project in the Southern archives has resulted in my getting banned from one local archive, my job threatened, and my family targeted at school and church. When I went to report this intimidation to local law enforcement, the police officer called these tactics “perfectly respectable.”

So what am I uncovering that is so threatening?

Here’s just one example. On Easter Sunday morning, 1960, Greenville’s own local crank, Bob Jones Sr. broadcast what would become his most infamous sermon in our lifetime, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” So important was this statement to Bob that he had his staff transcribe the sermon and distribute it to every student enrolled in his school until 1986. So from 1960 through 1986, this sermon was their official statement defending their racism.

This text is important for Greenville history and for Southern scholars as a glimpse at how religion and politics combine into one powerful cudgel. It’s important to religious historians because Jones was offering a counter-statement to Billy Graham’s Good Friday plea to Evangelicals, telling them that “Jim Crow must Go!

As important as this statement is, no library in the world catalogs it. In 2010, if you went down the street here to BJU’s archives and asked for it, the archivists would have told you that it is “restricted access,” and you would not be permitted to copy its pages. You may transcribe the words in pencil, but no photocopies or photographs. The document that was so important to their racist apologia, they want hidden. It must, it seems to me, reveal their duel with Billy Graham

In May 2011, I scrounged. I begged. And among three people, one who joked that I was “a holy troublemaker,” I was able to quilt together a complete copy of that 1960 sermon. I have uploaded the text and a pdf of the pamphlet on my website, so now it is fully public. This summer the Washington Post cited my website in their exposé on religious bigotry in Arizona.

So now if you go up to those same BJU archives and ask for the sermon? The staff will shrug and actually admit, “Well, Camille Lewis has it on her website. You can just go there and see it.”

In 2012, I received my letter banning me from Bob Jones University which includes the official archives, of course. In February of this year, the BJU Public Relations director – not the archivist, not a historian, not any academic officer, but their ad mancalled the administration of my employer, North Greenville University, to tell them to silence my critical academic voice. In my disciplinary interview, one of the pieces of evidence against me was a peer-reviewed publication. My husband had been a full professor in music at NGU. If we still worked at NGU, my participating in this panel would not be permitted. But as of May 5th both of us resigned from that institution.

I am far from the Ivory Tower here.

If I’m going to use my theory of the rhetorical code duello, the actors want me to be invisible – they want Hester Prynne to waste away quietly in exile. They cannot imagine me as their equal or even as a human being. For their myth to stand, I must disappear so that their vigilante justice can go undetected. As long as their duel is secret, their “good form” is maintained and their virtue and power is secure.

So when I stand over a library table, wearing my scarlet “A for Archive,” holding a hand-scrawled document from 1924 signed by “a few white men,” I realize that it sounds an awful lot like emails I’ve received. For my research in the Southern archives at least, I’m not really researching the past. As long as my subject sees their Cause as not Lost, I am documenting the present. So I do what I can. I expose the duel.

Presented as a panelist at the Carolina Communication Association Annual Convention, October 3, 2014