Charles Marsh’s The Last Days is a coming-of-age memoir set against the backdrop of the trials of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers in the late 1960’s.
In 1967, when Marsh is eight, his family moves from Alabama to Laurel, Mississippi, where his father, Robert Marsh, takes the job as head pastor at the First Baptist Church. Wildly optimistic in his first months on the job, Robert Marsh eventually has to confront not only the racism in his congregation and the community around him, but within himself.
And therein lies the book’s greatest strength. Most of the history Marsh includes has been told at great length elsewhere. What makes this book special is that it does what traditional history cannot: it conveys a sense of what it must have been like to live through that confusing and terrifying moment.
The strongest chapters in the book are those dealing with Robert Marsh’s failed attempts to speak out against the racism in his divided community. The Last Days effectively presents a man divided against himself. On the one hand is his job and economic security, his family, his place in the community; on the other, what he increasingly understands as a pervasive evil among his parishioners. And the dangers for Marsh are very real, not only from firebombs and cross-burnings, but from church elders, who sacked anti-segregation pastors in great numbers.
Like other white southern Christians, Robert Marsh employs strenuous mental gymnastics to avoid confronting the evil under his nose. One exercise is dis-identification, locating the source of the problem elsewhere, among the “crackers, rednecks, hillbillies, hicks, trailer trash, lint heads, swamp rats, lunatics” and others outside the charmed circle of middle-class respectability.
A second mental exercise popular among southern evangelicals is simply ignoring present-day politics to focus on an eschatological future where all current problems will be resolved. The Last Days evokes some of the weird dissonances between a nation teetering on the brink of racial warfare after the King assassination and southern Christians resolutely ignoring the problem. Particularly powerful is Marsh’s account of a late April 1968 revival at First Baptist, where days after the King assassination (King spoke in Laurel two weeks before he was shot), an evangelist exhorts the faithful to win God’s approval via Bible study, personal soul-winning, and separation from the world.
The Last Days is a fine memoir marred by some unevenness of tone. In the early chapters, it is difficult to get a read on Marsh’s attitude toward his father’s Christianity. Perhaps Marsh, who graduated from Harvard and now teaches Religion at the University of Virginia, feels a need to establish his ironic detachment from the Southern Baptist language and theology of his father, but his approach in the early chapters at times borders on contempt.
Whatever Marsh’s attitude toward his father’s theology, the concept of grace makes an appearance in the memoir. Marsh’s family encounters it in the person of Tommy Lester, the rail-thin actor from Laurel who played “Eb” on “Green Acres.” Lester invites the Marsh family out to California for a mind-blowing week of rubbing elbows with movie stars and preaching to acid-addled hippies at a Jesus Movement retreat. Marsh returns to Laurel inspired to make his Christianity culturally relevant, with predictably comic results.
But Marsh also manages to make himself a positive force in the community as the Laurel schools integrate, manages to take a harder line against Laurel’s racism. The action of grace is an old, old story, but for this reviewer’s money, it’s always worth hearing again. I highly recommend Charles Marsh’s The Last Days.
© 2002, Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved