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“A Time for Burning” – The 1966 Lutheran Church Documentary on Racism

A Time for Burning explores race relations through the experiences of a church community in Omaha, Nebraska in 1966. In the documentary, Lutheran minister, Reverend L. William Youngdahl, attempts to inspire his White parishioners to reach out and make a connection with members of a Black Lutheran church in their community.

Description by Paul Gaita

“An extremely passionate and moving documentary, William C. Jersey’s A Time for Burning explores the civil rights issue from one of the least likely of vantage points–a white, middle-class congregation in Nebraska–and reveals some of the more powerful observations about race and equality to come out of the ’60s. Jersey’s focal point is the Reverend L. William Youngdahl, who attempts to inspire his parishioners–all white and Lutheran–to reach out and make a connection with black Lutherans in the state. Youngdahl quickly finds himself at the center of a conflict that mirrors the nationwide struggle, with representatives from the church, community, and protest movements speaking for and against his desire to unite those of a common faith. Rejected by all three networks, Burning’s unflinching exploration of the state of race relations in the United States and the human heart earned it an Academy Award nomination in 1968, and a place on the National Film Registry in 2005. The DVD includes commentary by and a biography on Jersey, as well as an update on activist Ernie Chambers, who is featured in the film.” ~ Paul Gaita

Film Date

The film is frequently mentioned as having aired in 1966, and that is likely when it was filmed, but no specific release date is provided. At one point in the film, someone mentions an event that happened in 1965. The only specific date for the film is provided by the Internet Movie Database and that date is 23 Feb 1967. So, that is the post date being used for this website article, although the article was posted on 6 Jun 2020 which is the context below for what is written about the film about 50 years later.

Ernie Chambers

The film features Ernie Chambers , a graduate of Creighton University School of Law, who at the time was working in a barber shop, but today is a Nebraska Legislator. The comments by Chambers in the film are quoted in the book Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball At the ’68 Racial Divide and excerpts from the film with Chambers talking have been turned into viral video clip memes, particularly his comments during a barbershop visit at 3m 23s into the video. Here is an excerpt of what he says.

“The problem exists because White people think they are better than Black people and they want to oppress us and they want us to allow ourselves to be oppressed. … I can’t solve the problem. You guys pull the strings that close schools. You guys draw the bounds that keep our kids restricted to the ghetto. You guys write up the restrictive covenants that keep us out of houses. So it’s up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility. We have assumed ours for over 400 years and we’re tired of this kind of stuff now. We’re not going to suffer patiently any more. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies. No more praying for those who despitefully use us. We’re going to show you that we’ve learned the lessons you’ve taught us. We’ve studied your history and you did not take over this country by singing we shall overcome. You did not gain control of the world like you have it now by dealing fairly with a man and keeping your word. You are treaty breakers. You are liars. You are thieves. You rape entire continents and races of people and then you wonder why these very people don’t have any confidence or trust in you. Your religion means nothing. Your law is a farce and we see it every day. You demonstrated it in Alabama, and I can say ‘you’ because you are part of the whole system. You profit from it. In fact, you make your living from it.”

Ernie Chambers in A Time for Burning, 1966 [Source]

Context of the Film

The 1960s saw the birth of the Black Power movement, and part of the context for the film includes groups like the Black Panther Party which was founded on teachings similar to present day groups like Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, and the Green Party. While the teachings are similar, the methods are different. Sean Elder expands on this comparison in the article, “Does Black Lives Matter Pick Up Where The Black Panthers Left Off?”

Naming of the Film

The name of the film could be a general reference to the fires that result from riots, but it is more likely a reference to the 1962 speech by Malcom X where he states about the racism of White people and the society that they have created: “If he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.” Below is a video clip from that speech.

In that speech, Malcom X also says, “Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad, does he teach hate, you should ask yourselves who taught you” – which is to say that Western Civilization has many examples of hate and violence that pre-date teachings of Mr. Muhammad. Presumably referring to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam at that time. The current leader is Louis Farrakhan. The organization’s motto is “Justice or Else” which conveys the premise that justice and equality should not be politely asked for, but forcefully demanded.

Film Production

The film was directed by San Francisco filmmaker William C. Jersey and was nominated as Best Documentary Feature in the 1967 Academy Awards. The film was commissioned by the Lutheran Church in America. Below is a short video about the production of the film.

More About the Film

  • Amazon [View]
  • Internet Movie Database – IMDb [View]
  • Wikipedia [View]

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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