We asked John Archibald about his new book, plays + Bham faves—here’s what he said

John Archilbald at Harvard
John Archibald with his book at Harvard. Photo via Rob Frederick

On March 9, 2021, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist John Archibald celebrated the birth of his new book, Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution. To learn more about him and what lessons this book has for today’s world, we decided to ask him questions nobody else was asking. Keep reading to find out what we learned. 

On his new book Shaking the Gates of Hell

John Archibald at Harvard
Shaking the gates of . . . Harvard? Photo via Rob Frederick

“On growing up in the American South of the 1960s–an all-American white boy–son of a long line of Methodist preachers, in the midst of the civil rights revolution, and discovering the culpability of silence within the church.”

Penguin Random House

To prepare for this interview, I watched this conversation hosted by Highlands United Methodist Church, with Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich, one of the owners of Crestwood’s Thank You Books

The main thing that came through was this: John Archibald the writer comes from a long line of Methodist ministers. After his dad died in 2013, Archibald read through all his dad’s sermons and was struck by his father’s silence on major civil rights events. This was in contrast to what he knew of his dad’s views, and it led him to ask a lot of questions about the silence of good people.

Why the book matters today

Rather than delving into the moral questions raised by the book, we decided to go a slightly different route. First, we wanted to know why this book would matter to younger generations who did not live through the civil rights era.

Bham Now: when you talk with your grown kids and their friends about your book, what’s their interest in this work? 

John Archibald and family
John Archibald and family: Mamie, Alecia, Ramsey and Drew. Photo supplied

Archibald: My kids’ interest is family because the book is really about family. It’s also a vehicle to get into the civil rights movement, which is the focus of the first half of the book. 

The second half of the book is all about how my dad, who was a preacher at First Methodist Church in Decatur, responded when when my brother came out in the 70s. It’s about how the church and our family dealt with LGBTQ issues.

The language that was so often used to deny integration and equal rights in churches mirrors a lot of the things used to deny rights to LGBTQ people today. 

People say “it’s a book about your dad,” and in a way it is, but to me, it’s a vehicle. My dad is a vehicle to talk about us. And to look at those moments when we are silent.

Since you finished writing the book, we’ve lived through a couple of very contentious years. A lot of people have been wrestling with issues of “When and where do I speak out? When do I just keep my mouth shut?”

John Archibald
A young John Archibald back in the day. Photo supplied

Archibald: The how, I guess, is an important issue as well. Because as we know from Twitter, you can never convince anybody of anything by calling them an idiot. As loudly as you yell at them, it doesn’t change their mind. It just reinforces their views. 

We all have to speak in the voices that we we have, within our own personalities, and it changes with the moment. 

The things that bother me the most are not things I did or didn’t say publicly. It’s things I did or didn’t say to my friends or family members or in laws. Or when I didn’t embrace somebody fully or say anything out loud when somebody said things that were inappropriate.

Hopefully we don’t have to take an abrasive stance; we just have to let people know where we are.

In previous generations, you didn’t let anybody know anything. People hid everything, because they didn’t want to be embarrassed, or they didn’t want to be different. 

That’s really the whole point of this book of mine—to let people into my family and see these struggles. And seeing how, essentially, there’s great disappointment in the beginning, but it’s all about the love and the disappointment, because those two things naturally go together. 

Bham Now: Archibald’s dad died in 2013 and I wondered if he’d imagined being able to ask him the questions in the book and what he thought his dad might say. 

Have you imagined a conversation where you could go to your dad now and say, “Hey, Dad, I went back and read through all your sermons. I noticed all these things in civil rights were happening and…you were talking about other things.” 

John Archibald and his dad
A young John Archibald and his dad. Photo supplied

Archibald: This book was finished in May of 2019. So I’ve had a lot of time to sit and lie in bed and have that conversation with my dad: 

“On the Sunday  after the Children’s Crusade in Alabama, when thousands of kids were in jail, you talked about trouble around the world. Why? Because I know what you thought; I know what you believed.

Was the pressure that great? Was it the fear for us? Was it just because the church didn’t want you to say anything?”

I would have that conversation. 

My dad still is the best man I’ve ever known in my life, which is why I was surprised by his silence. 

It’s just so important for us to let our opinions be known, and for good people to say, you know, this isn’t right. Not necessarily directed at someone, but directed to someone.

And now, for something completely different

John Archibald's dogs
Because a person can only write for so long before needing to go out for a walk. (l-r) Betsy, Benny + Barney. Photo supplied

Bham Now: How long have you been in Boston and what are you doing there? 

Archibald: Since August 1, 2020. I’m doing a Nieman fellowship at Harvard where I get to do some amazing things, like writing plays. It’s fun, and oddly, I never knew that’s what I wanted to do. 

One of my main goals I came up here with was to learn different ways to tell stories. 

Bham Now: Now that you’re in Boston, do you have any new perspectives on Birmingham? 

Archibald: I love Birmingham and being in Birmingham looks good to me from a distance. 

Bham Now: What are some of your Birmingham favorites? If you could pop down here for a weekend and go do five of your favorite things, where would you go?

  1. Niki’s West
  2. The Fish Market
  3. Dog park in Glen Iris
  4. The Bright Star 
  5. Highlands Bar & Grill

Bham Now: When you’re not writing, what do you like to do for fun?

Once, when he first got into blacksmithing, John Archibald got this 150-pound anvil in the mail. Photo supplied

Archibald: I cook, I eat and I hang out with my dogs. And I look forward to when I get back to Birmingham so I can do blacksmithing again.

Now tell us, Birmingham, when have you struggled with knowing when to speak up and when to keep silent? Tag us on social @bhamnow and let us know.

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Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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