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Different gospels

There stood Parson Jack. Behind him was a velour backdrop with colorful palm trees, a lighted moon and a waterfall with real water. He could mesh God's love and the venom of the Ku Klux Klan into a single sermon.

Wearing a somber black robe, the Rev. Dr. Robert McNeill stood seven blocks away in a dignified pulpit. But the distance between them was greater when he delivered his scholarly messages in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church.

In a generation consumed by race and civil rights, two pastors who never met spent Sunday mornings fighting for the soul of a city. They were debating a divisive issue that still haunts today's generations.

Parson Jack reveled in this struggle. At the Baptist Tabernacle he preached to mill workers telling them man could not serve the Lord and unions. He warned that desegregation would lead to black men working alongside white women and, naturally, that would lead to marriage.

McNeill spoke to the mill owners. First Presbyterian had history and its members had power. They expected their silver-haired minister to deliver an erudite essay that ended by noon. Let someone else rouse the rabble and deal with a world changing much too fast.

Black ministers had their own parameters. Their churches were founded as missions of white churches downtown. Their preachers depended on money dropped in the collection plate. Members depended on paychecks signed by the white mill barons.

They were all on a merry-go-round together. But events would threaten to stop its spinning. In the middle of those events were Parson Jack and Robert McNeill.

Parson Jack

His name was Ezra Johnston, but he called himself Parson Jack.

In 1931, two years after arriving from Alabama, he started the Baptist Tabernacle on Second Avenue, on the grounds of the Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Media savvy at a time other pastors were content to preach only a weekly sermon, Parson Jack secured a Saturday morning show on WRBL radio. Chet Atkins, a 14-year-old picker from Mountain Hill, provided the music. Later, Atkins produced Elvis Presley at RCA, was a world-class guitarist and is in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Parson Jack published two statewide newspapers, starting with "The Trumpet" in 1932, proclaiming it an "orthodox fundamental, premillenial, missionary religious organ." More than anything, it was anti-union and anti-Negro. At one point his weekly had more subscribers than either Columbus daily.

If a union organizer hit town, so did "The Trumpet," reminding workers that unions favored communism and race mixing. That was a switch, for Parson Jack was once on the payroll of the unions. To change his mind, mill owners gave his print shop plenty of business.

Businessman Theo McGee, a member of the Democratic Executive Committee, called Parson Jack a pimp. "Anytime he gets out of line, the boys who pay him off can tell him where to stop and go," he said.

Race was his sword. Parson Jack knew that the mills feared unions and workers feared the Negro. He played one against the other.

Parson Jack used the Klan to keep his own followers in line. In a sermon on adultery, he talked about "pusillanimous, black-hearted, ill-begotten sneaking, bow-legged, cock-eyed, white livered, cowardly curs" who are married but run around.

Somehow, he segued into a tirade against the Negro.

"I warn him now that if he continues his propaganda along this line, if I can find enough pure blooded Anglo-Saxon Christian gentlemen in this town, we will sight him to the fact that he is a menace to our city and a pimp head and a hindrance to the society of America. And if I fail to find enough characters in this town that will stick to me in this fight, I am in favor of summoning every Ku Klux in the surrounding country and running that bunch until their heels are as thin as a dime."

Dr. McNeill

Robert McNeill was as comfortable as the clock that ticked in the First Presbyterian steeple.

A native of Birmingham, he was 37 when he came here in 1952. His previous church had 120 members. His new one had 1,200 members, where per capita giving was greater than the big Atlanta churches.

For McNeill, who played football against Bear Bryant, this was the ecclesiastical big time. "My worldly thoughts were that I was called to a position of prominence. What I couldn't know was that I was called to tragedy."

The conflict between McNeill and Parson Jack erupted in 1956. A few doors down from First Presbyterian, Dr. Thomas Brewer was gunned down. The black physician was the spark behind the local civil rights movement.

Other ministers were cautious when asked to comment. Not McNeill.

"I am primarily concerned with thousands of us who created the spiritual climate that made this act possible and with those who approve it. The issue now is beyond segregation. It is even beyond the contest between anarchy and law. It is deeper, more fundamental and theological."


The world was changing and so was Columbus. On the horizon was a movement that would topple the mores of the South.

First Presbyterian was creating a black Presbyterian church in Carver Heights. In the beginning, it would have a white minister.

When McNeill went to see School Superintendent William Henry Shaw, his request to use a school as a temporary home for the church was turned down. Shaw said he couldn't have integrated meetings on school property.

Before the first service at Carver Heights, the Rev. Bill Clemmons received threats from the Ku Klux Klan. This came only days after the hooded gang marked Brewer's murder by marching down First Avenue.

Easter Sunday 1958, the church was welcoming its first pastor of color. But a celebration became a requiem. Clemmons was dead of a heart attack and McNeill described his friend.

"My only worry is that when Bill strolls through that land that is fairer than day he might catch and beat the hell out of some robed angel, mistaking him for a Klansman."


Look Magazine wanted a Southern pastor to write about race relations in Dixie, and Robert McNeill was called.

By today's standards, his article wouldn't get a second glance. But in 1957, it was dynamite. Locals said he was disloyal to his church and to the South.

Parson Jack chimed in. He said McNeill liked to show off on TV and was a supporter of the NAACP and the Communist Party.

"Dictator McNeill wrote a long article to Look thinking it would assist him in getting a big church with big money. He soon found out that no other church wanted him because he is a troublemaker."

McNeill called Parson Jack "the dirty linen of Columbus."

"He was running out of rhetoric," McNeill said. "He had castigated every adversary and had spewed bigotry in every way he could think of. He badly needed fresh material. I provided it for him."

McNeill was fired in 1959. He was tried and convicted on a Sunday morning in an inquisition that followed the televised service.

Four days later, bowling with his family, he suffered a heart attack. Once he recovered, he relocated to West Virginia.

Parson Jack died two years later.

By then, his swagger had gone and so had most of his clout. The Baptist Tabernacle stood vacant for years. It was torn down to make way for the Second Avenue Bypass.

McNeill died in 1975, buried in a cemetery on a dirt road near Hatchett Creek, Ala. He visited Columbus only once after 1959.

His son Walt, a child on the day of the firing, talked about his father in 1999: "He wasn't content to be a bystander. He wouldn't flinch."

Robert McNeill downplayed his actions. "I had invested my very soul and I had lost. I had lost an ideological decision. I had pleaded for social justice and I had failed to gain even a modicum of it for the Negro people."

Swilley wants to see heaven in the pews

We can't say what his ministerial peers want to see, but we know that most of them see members that look like they do.

Swilley retires as senior pastor at North Highland Assembly of God Church this month. His father preached from Pentecostal pulpits all over Georgia so he has spent his 74 years in the shadow of a steeple.

Like his father, the Church of God minister, Swilley believes that whoever walks in to worship can worship.

That describes North Highland -- safe to say the most diverse church in town. It has been a presence here since 1922, only this isn't your grandfather's North Highland. More than a third of its membership has skin other than white.

Other churches don't block the sanctuary doors to African-Americans with burly deacons as they once did. There are pockets of minority members in other Columbus churches.

But to Swilley, "It's the saddest commentary to the Christian church that it is still the most segregated place in America between 11 and noon on Sunday morning."

For him, this isn't a civil rights issue. "I just have a fear of not blessing God," he says.

Swilley has spread this message for 20 years. As president of the Muscogee Ministerial Association, he was among a group of pastors that wondered why there was one group for whites and one for blacks.

"Why can't we sit together?" he asked.

So they did, merging the organizations into one.

Togetherness isn't always accepted, the Rev. James Swanson remembers. When he was pastor at St. Marys United Methodist Church, Swanson and the late Rev. Tony Thompson suggested to other black ministers that Martin Luther King Jr. Week ought to expand to the entire community.

"Some folks didn't want to integrate," he says. "They said, 'This is our history.' Well, it's not. It's everyone's history."

The Rev. Allen Page of Holsey Chapel Memorial CME Church says people should respect their differences and churches should cross-pollinate, leading to shared ministries.

"God can relate to us where we are," he says. "Each person comes to God with their own experiences."

At times, Page believes, a person needs a pastor who "speaks to their living conditions and speaks not only to their today, but knows their past."

For Swilley, diversity is nonnegotiable. He leaves a North Highland that looks different and sounds different. It has found new ways to sing old hymns, proving "Amazing Grace" can be done in many keys and many rhythms. None are right. None are wrong.

Swilley believes the major difference between the way whites and blacks worship is the energy level.

"We have much to learn from African-Americans and they have much to learn from us."