Charles Marsh: Jordan's was a slow turning composed of a series of numerous early impressions of race framed by high standards of holiness and a sensitivity to the maternal face of poverty.
Born in Talbotton, Georgia on July 29, 1912, Clarence Leonard Jordan was the middle child of seven in a prosperous home. His father, J. W. Jordan, was a hard-working if humorless Baptist who in addition to owning the local bank also ran a general store. His mother, Maude Josey Jordan, was born in Talbotton but was raised in the Pacific Northwest and never felt at home as an adult in the South. Jordan was a likable though solitary child who could often be impatient with others, earning him the nickname “Grump”. Though he lacked natural abilities as an athlete, he was dogged in his determination to excel in basketball and made the varsity team. Jordan was encouraged by his parents to think independently and to aim his sights high.
Like his friend Lillian Smith, Jordan had been perplexed as a child by the strange chemistry of race relations in the South. He once even called his father’s manners into question when he observed him scolding a delivery man for knocking at the front door instead of the side door where Negroes were expected.(1) Jordan wondered how his favorite hymn, "Jesus Loves the Little Children”, squared with the harsh conditions of black life in Talbotton. The song said that God loved all people the same—“red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight”. So why then were the Negro children always “so ragged, so dirty and hungry?” As a boy, Jordan had written in his journal, “Did God have favorite children? The question arose in my mind: ‘Were the little black children precious in God's sight just like the little white children?’” He could not answer the question, but he knew something was wrong with this world. “A little light came when I began to realize that perhaps it wasn't God's doings, but man's. God didn't turn them away from our churches--we did. God didn't pay them low wages--we did. God didn’t make them live in another section of town and in miserable huts--we did. God didn't make ragged, hungry little boys pick rotten oranges and fruit out of the garbage can and eat them--we did.”
The occasion of Jordan's conversion at the age of twelve was an outdoor revival on an August night. During the service, a choir from the nearby jail had sung the old-time hymn, “Love Lifted Me”. Jordan was captivated by the performance, especially by the sight of the burly warden singing bass on the dramatic chorus. Together the white warden and the black inmates had blended their styles and voices in a moving rendition of the Baptist standard, stirring the congregation with the wonderful news that the love of Jesus was stronger than even the most despairing cry, or the deepest sins: "When nothing else could help, love lifted me".
Jordan had always been fascinated by the Talbot County jail. The brick building lay just a hundred yards from his home, and in the afternoons on his way back from school he often walked through the jail yard and greeted the inmates working on the chain gang. Jordan knew many by name. Sometimes the cook gave the boy a piece of cornbread and slice of fatback, and he ate the snack in the yard.
The night after the revival service, Jordan was awakened by an agonizing sound coming from the direction of the jail. He snuck out of the house to investigate and was horrified to see in the chain gang camp an inmate named Ed Russell laid out on the device called “the stretcher”. Operating the lever that controlled the tension of the device was the white warden. “That nearly tore me to pieces," Jordan said. "I identified totally with that man in the stretcher….I really got mad at God. If He was love and the warden was an example of it, I didn't want anything to do with Him." Having gone to bed refreshed by the revival, Jordan was awakened into the grim world of the Jim Crow South.
(1) Dallas Lee, Cotton Patch Evidence, p. 8.