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Beyond the Burning Bus Reviewed in Presbyterian Outlook

Beyond the Burning Bus by Rev. J. Phillips Noble has been reviewed in the Presbyterian Outlook magazine. Reviewer Chris Joiner calls the book “timely yet again for those of us who struggle to call attention to the Kingdom of God in a culture that continues to be divided along racial, economic, and religious lines.” From the review:

Noble was pastor of First Church in the picturesque town of Anniston, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. He had been pastor of the church for nearly five years when Mother’s Day dawned on 14 May 1961. It would be a defining day for the nation, the state of Alabama, and, most especially, the town of Anniston. As the nation awoke and people turned on their television sets, they were confronted with what can only be described as apocalyptic images of a Greyhound bus burning on the outskirts of Anniston. And, like all apocalyptic images, it lifted a veil for the whole country on the depth of violence brewing in the south, and invited a response.

This book is the story of one such response. It comes from an unlikely place, given the times, which makes the response all the more courageous. Noble writes in spare prose, detailing events with a keen eye and an ability to capture the larger issues at work in even the most mundane events. For example, early in the book he details the first five years of his ministry preceding the bus burnings. In those five years, the church moved from one location to another, and the bonds of trust between pastor and people were built. It is all rather boilerplate stuff, until Noble, without breaking stride, makes a devastating observation. It is an observation about him, to be sure, but also about mainline white ministers and church folk as a rule in those days and far too often these days as well: “I found it remarkable that I did not know any black ministers during my early years in Anniston. Not a single one.”

The burning bus changes this reality for Noble and he responds by seeking to build bridges across the violent chasm existing between him and his AfricanAmerican colleagues. He has an initial meeting with Bob McClain, an AfricanAmerican Methodist minister, where the contours of the crisis are discussed. This leads to a larger meeting with Nimrod Reynolds at an African- American church. Noble is surprised to discover that he does not even know the exact location of this church facility, even though he has lived in the community for over five years, again shining a light on the state of things at that time. But, in addition to learning new maps that included African-American parts of town, this small group of ministers was determined to learn how to love one another and engage in social action in Anniston.

The result of these actions was the formation of the Human Relations Council, a biracial group determined to create a vehicle for racial justice in the Deep South. Noble was elected its first chairperson. The creation of this council immediately brought to the forefront the festering hostility in the white community. This conflict was never more apparent and dangerous than in what came to be called “The Library Incident.”

The public library in Anniston was desegregated, thanks to the work of the Human Relations Council, with the support of the city government. On the day when the first African-American patrons were to go to the library and check out books, members of the KKK and their supporters arrived, and violence ensued. Nimrod Reynolds and Bob McClain were attacked by a mob and beaten with sticks and chains.

The attack drew national headlines, once again placing the racial tension in Anniston on display across the country. By now, however, the media attention was beginning to help propel the city toward more substantive changes, with Noble and the Human Relations Council at the forefront. Noble describes it as slow progress, but progress all the same. In his understated style, Noble sums up the work, ‚ÄúAnniston during these two years had gone through some changes, and these changes were in the right direction. For all of that, I was grateful to God.”

Read the full review at the Presbyterian Outlook.

Beyond the Burning Bus is available from NewSouth Books,, or your favorite local or online book retailer.