Ansley L. Quiros is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Alabama. This interview is based on her new book God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942–1976 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976?
AQ: As I pressed into the racial issues at the heart of American history, I began to think more about the South, particularly about the befuddling relationship between race and religion. These were issues that had long dogged at the corners of my consciousness as a child of the South, raised in Atlanta, but now I brought to them a historian’s perspective as well as native’s inquisitiveness. I wanted to see how exactly theological commitments animated not only the pursuit of racial justice but the opposition to it. And Americus was a perfect place to set this case study—notable for the presence of Koinonia Farm (an interracial Christian farming community founded in the 1940s), SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Freedom Project, the brutal, violent opposition to civil rights, and the deep religious commitments on all sides. I wanted to see how theological ideas took on flesh and blood, how they were incarnated in American life.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976?
AQ: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.
JF: Why do we need to read God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976?
AQ: In the past few years, it has become impossible to ignore the ways in which those who claim Christianity have also buttressed systems that uphold white supremacy. And this has been, for many evangelicals, shocking and dismaying. But it has a long history. This book contributes to understanding how these alliances came to be in the mid-twentieth century, how racism hides within certain theologies, sometimes in plain sight. But the book also, I think, offers hope. The courage of black and white activists for freedom and justice, the way that they refused to believe heresy but insisted on truth, is truly moving. And it may yet stir us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AQ: I suppose I had always been interested in big questions, and I had engaging, bright history teachers in high school who made me want to major in history when I went to college. At Furman University, I got to take a wide array of courses. My professors there encouraged me to consider graduate school and I ended up at Vanderbilt after I graduated. At Vandy, I had wonderful mentors and advisors, people who really taught me how to read and write history, how to harness my historical curiosity. And though I was interested in lots of different fields, I kept returning to questions about the American past, that compelling drama of freedom and exclusion. Even after all this time, I find the story of American history completely enthralling. I always tell my students, ‘I couldn’t make this up!’
JF: What is your next project?
AQ: I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!
JF: Thanks, Ansley!