A Time for Burning

In early 1967, the presciently titled documentary A Time for Burning appeared in theaters, months before race riots erupted in cities across the U.S. Originally aired on public television, the unassuming 58-minute piece of verité reportage follows a white Omaha pastor in his attempt to bridge the racial divide in his segregated community. But even his seemingly moderate initiative towards integration—a baby step, really—ends up wracking his church with discord: congregants defect, elders quarrel, and the high-minded pastor is humbled. On its own, the story may seem insignificant, but in light of what was on the horizon, this small-scale view on the intractable race situation offers a microcosm of the combustible conditions prevailing around the country, primed to spark into a national conflagration.

Bill Youngdahl, a clean-cut Lutheran minister with a flattop and a sense of social justice, is the film’s man on a mission, out to improve race relations. As a first step in challenging his congregation’s hidebound attitudes toward race, he works with black clergymen in Omaha to launch a series of house visits between couples at his all-white church and those at nearby African-American churches. He faces stiff resistance at every turn, both from offended congregants and the intransigent leaders of his church.

Lutheran Film Associates, the film arm of the Lutheran Church in America, commissioned director-editors Barbara Connell and Bill Jersey to document the church’s response to the ongoing Civil Rights movement, and gave the duo creative control over the project that would become A Time for Burning. Jersey, an early verité filmmaker who started out as an art director, keeps the camera hovering purposefully—zooming in on anxiety-creased faces and sticking with long conversations to catch the little slips and shifts in cadence that reveal what the speakers never say explicitly.

A Time for Burning

Sequences often play out as vignettes, ably revealing new shades of the racial picture rather than adhering to a tightly focused, linear story. Through tense church committee sessions, heated arguments between Lutheran leaders, racially fraught encounters, church services, speeches, and home visits, we get a sense of the personal and social forces that sustain segregation. Youngdahl’s interracial efforts initially unite the film’s action, but Connell and Jersey soon find other compelling characters and developments to follow along the way, such as the outspoken black advocate Ernie Chambers, and Ray Christensen, a mild-mannered white man whose conversion from an integration skeptic into Youngdahl’s fervent ally gives the filmmakers a perfect foil to expose the hypocrisy of other church leaders.

The decision to focus on a mainline church in Nebraska expands the geography of the mid-Sixties Civil Rights struggle beyond the usual, and dramatic, focus on the South, where events were often organized and staged with media impact in mind. What did the nice, decent middle-class white folk who made up the majority of the country at the time think about what was happening? Well, they weren’t all that enlightened, as the film presents them. Apart from a handful of progressive outliers, they abet or excuse various types of discrimination and segregation. After a group of young black teenagers from a nearby church attend one of Youngdahl’s services, some incensed congregants sever their ties to the church in protest. White teens on a similar exchange to an African-American church come off like spoiled brats, scared of black people and huddling with their own to avoid any genuine contact with other people. A white reverend shares the story of a woman who told him she has nothing against black people and wishes them the best; she just wants nothing to do with them.

The leaders of the Lutheran church’s council, a clique of white men in dark suits, are more politic when discussing race issues, embellishing their demurrals with sanctimony and obfuscation. Allow blacks to buy homes in white neighborhoods? But that would depress property values. Permit visits by African-Americans to the white church? That would make some members uncomfortable, and we can’t force change on congregants who aren’t ready for it. They’re trying to preserve harmony in the church, and fear that by “harping on the idea of civil rights,” as one church elder puts it, they will alienate congregation members. When he’s told by a church leader, “You’re trying to go too fast here, Bill,” even the ever-patient Youngdahl can’t help but grumble. “I don’t see how we could go any slower than this.”

A Time for Burning

Meanwhile, black clergymen gently convey their frustration at the slow pace of progress to Youngdahl, puzzled that a proposal for voluntary meetings between black and white people is proving so controversial to his church. A meeting of local black Christian youth presents students who are thoughtful, reflective, and articulate. They struggle to grasp the larger situation, understand their white peers, and find a way to move forward. Youngdahl shows considerable fortitude and resilience throughout the ordeal. He’s a heroic figure of sorts, a virtuous man driven by noble goals, going up against entrenched forces of reaction and putting his own neck (or at least his clerical collar) on the line. But he also plays a tragic figure, as he takes criticism from all sides: his parishioners, black clergymen, leaders of his church, and black activists.

Out on a visit to a predominantly black neighborhood, Youngdahl meets Ernie Chambers, a young barber. As he cuts a customer’s hair, Chambers calmly delivers an eviscerating rebuke of white society (“You’re treaty breakers, you’re liars, you’re thieves, you rape entire continents and races of people”). Youngdahl listens to the invective with his arms crossed, sweat streaming down his face. Presented as a random if remarkably articulate barber, Chambers—a law student who would go on to become a member of the Nebraska legislature—was known within the community as a whip-smart firebrand. Jersey has told of how he asked around to find somebody to engage Youngdahl and was led to Chambers, and then set up an encounter between the two. The effect is potent, though the means are a departure from the assumed norms of cinema verité.

A quietly haunting final sequence delivers a potent parting shot, as the film adapts the formal trappings of spiritual uplift—the faithful joined in prayer, singing joyous hymns to God, their faces filled with earthly rapture—to convey a bleak outcome. Its vision of enduring segregation may seem pessimistic, if partly prophetic.

A Time for Burning

Other contemporary profiles of racial friction in America tend to assume a retrospective cast. They appraise events after the fact and rely on re-enactments and voice-over narration to tell traditional stories that impart the lessons learned on the slow yet inevitable march to progress. In 1964’s Nine from Little Rock, Jefferson Thomas—one of the students who integrated Little Rock Central High School—narrates the story of the school’s desegregation and its aftermath from a solemn, at-times ponderous script by director Charles Guggenheim, punctuated by recurring shots of Thomas’s thoughtful stares into the distance. Just a few years later, A Time for Burning presents a less choreographed, if more meandering, portrait of the situation, free of script, score and narration. Perhaps more notably, here there are no pat answers, and no feel-good Kumbaya ending. This approach would find an echo in Edward Pincus and David Neuman’s Black Natchez, another 1967 verité civil-rights profile that foregrounds the fault lines within a seemingly monolithic group (black activists organizing voters in the deep South).

A Time for Burning prompted the broader religious world at the time to take some notice. A review in the Catholic weekly America praised it as “the finest and most honest attempt we have yet seen to portray the dilemma facing the nation’s churches on the subject of integration.” But even beyond that, the film—which has been used at Harvard Business School as a case study of social change—captures the enduring inflexibility of traditional institutions, and the sustained struggle and personal risk involved in transforming them.