Faith and race. Local author secures church’s legacy in new book

Faith and race. Local author secures church’s legacy in new book
‘Faith and Race’ is available now.

By Amy Will |

Melynda Dovel Wilcox never set out to write a book. The long-time Alexandrian and author of the newly released, “Faith and Race: One Church’s Response to the Civil Rights Movement,” fell deep into a dark and complicated hole, however; and the light she discovered, would profoundly change her life.

“I tell people this is sort of an accidental book. And, as I came to appreciate during the course of doing the research, it was a book that I felt like I had no choice but to write. That I had to write this book because the main character was basically speaking to me directly and telling me that I needed to write this book – which is kind of a very surreal kind of experience for me,” she said.

Wilcox grew up in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia. After attending college in North Carolina, she moved to Alexandria and never left.

“I’ve spent my career as a writer and editor, mostly for Kiplinger’s personal finance magazine, where I wrote mostly about retirement and health care issues. Those are sort of my areas of expertise.”

And, while her passion for writing is strong – Wilcox discusses local issues in her blog “Port City Notebook” – so is her faith.

Wilcox found Westminster Presbyterian Church on Cameron Mills Road shortly after settling in the city and immediately felt at home.

“I’ve been a member there for almost 30 years – or actually 35 years. I joined right after I moved to Alexandria just after I graduated from college … I was married there. My children were baptized there.”

Wilcox speaks warmly about Westminster and the role the church has played in her life.

She never imagined that decades of old sermons from a forward-thinking pastor would lead to a personal awakening.

In May 2020, the death of a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis named George Floyd spurred outrage; resulting in a racial justice movement that touched communities every- where – including Westminster’s congregation.

“After the murder of George Floyd, the session of the church – which is the governing body – decided to form a committee or task force really, to look at our church’s response to racism and racial justice. To look at what we should be doing differently as a church in order to advance racial justice. A part of that…a big part of that was to understand our history.”

She went on to explain, “I think there were nine recommendations that came out of that task force. One of them was to prepare a history of the church as it related to race and the civil rights movement.”

Wilcox volunteered to take on the research and write up her findings for members of the church.

“Really, honestly, I didn’t expect to find a lot of information. I was not aware that our church had done any- thing noteworthy.”

Wilcox soon realized that was not the case. She found she had a story to tell. And it started with a man named Cliff Johnson.

Westminster’s congregation was founded in 1939 by the Reverend Frederick W. Haverkamp and the original portion of the colonial-style building was constructed in 1942. The following year a young pastor named Cliff Johnson arrived and immediately began to carve out his corner in the community.

“Cliff Johnson was the first called pastor to Westminster and he was there until 1970. He died of a brain tumor in his fifties. He died pre- maturely. His legacy was really cut short, even though it was a long legacy. It was not as long as it might have been,” Wilcox shared.

“I started reading his sermons. What I found was a human being who was really wrestling with his own up- bringing as a child during the Jim Crow south, in Columbus, Georgia.”

According to Wilcox’s re- port for Westminster, published on the church’s website and titled, “Westminster and the Civil Rights Movement,” Johnson graduated from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina and earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of South Carolina. He then attended Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, eventually settling in Alexandria.

Wilcox described the emotions she experienced combing through pages of vintage documents and listening to sermons recorded on reel-to-reel tapes as Johnson’s words revealed a man grappling with his own feelings of trepidation towards desegregation and the realization that the climate also needed to change.

“His preaching was very honest and personal. Some- times it is honest to a point of feeling raw. And he felt that it was his duty as the pastor of the church to share his convictions about these issues from the pulpit,” Wilcox explained.

“There was a point at which I felt like I had to write this book and that’s when he has a quote in one of his sermons where he says that ‘someday someone is going to go back and look to see where we stood on this issue and I want it to be known that Westminster had one shining page in that book that will be written about it.’ And, you know, I was the person he was talking to and that just really gave me goose- bumps and it was like, ‘yes, this story has to be written and I have to be the one that writes it; so that 50 years from now somebody can go back and see where we stood.’”

The quote Wilcox is referring to is from a sermon delivered on September 7, 1958 and printed both in Wilcox’s report and the book. A portion of the quote reads:

“Somebody will go back and write what was done in this community in this conflict. It is my unabashed aim, as the minister of this church, for Westminster to have one glowing page in that book. I should like for that page which shall be written in history about the conduct of Westminster to run something like this: There was a bitter struggle in that community; there were high feelings, there was anger and there were internal conflicts throughout the community. The bitterness and the feelings ran into one crisis after another, but right on through the battle, there was a church known as Westminster Church which in her unity stood sol- idly as a rock.”

Wilcox continued her research and finished what would become the draft of her book in April 2022.

Along the way, she saw the progression of Johnson’s beliefs and ultimately his support for the integration of schools. She also came across another voice for change within Westminster, named Connie Ring, who later embedded himself in Alexandria’s political scene and committed to the push for equality.

“The book is roughly broken into part one about Cliff Johnson, part two about Connie and then part three about the church itself,” Wilcox noted.

She continued, “You’ve got the pastor and what he was telling people; and, you’ve got a member of the church who was really very quietly – but effectively – working in the realm of local government to make change. The third part is sort of what the church was doing as an organization, as an institution.”

Reflecting on her journey, Wilcox shared, “It felt like a calling that I needed to do. And, it also made me realize how important it is that we all look in our own mirrors at ourselves, our families and our family histories, our church histories, in our community histories and see what roles did people play that were constructive or – or not constructive.”

She hopes the book will give others the courage and motivation to speak out.

“Cliff Johnson was having these really honest and courageous conversations with his congregation back in the fifties and sixties. And if he could do that in the fifties and sixties, well, why can’t we do it today?”

In a full-circle moment, “Faith and Race: One Church’s Response to the Civil Rights Movement,” was published by Cliff Johnson’s granddaughter, Ellen Hamilton. Her company, Yellow Dot Publishing, is based in Alexandria.

“She [Ellen] was amazed that I had uncovered some stuff about her grandfather that she didn’t know. So, it was just natural to have her be the person to do it because it was her grandfather and she did a beautiful job.”

As for another book down the road, Wilcox indicated there is more to be told.

“I recently learned from Cliff Johnson Jr.’s wife that they have printed copies of all of Cliff Johnson’s sermons in their basement in a box. I think there is maybe three and ten odds that there might be a second edition of the book that has more information about Cliff Johnson’s sermons.”