The Memphis Kneel-ins and the Desegregation of the Southern Church – By Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere on Stephen R. Haynes’s The Last Segregated Hour

Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation, Oxford University Press, 2012, 336pp., $29.95
Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation, Oxford University Press, 2012, 336pp., $29.95

Recent panel discussions, colloquia, documentaries, and books have been celebrating pivotal moments in the modern Civil Rights Movement at its half-century mark. A 2011 PBS documentary highlighted the Freedom Riders, based on Raymond Arsenault’s stellar study, while a number of events commemorated the dawn of sit-in movements across the nation. Published in time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, African American historian Clayborne Carson recalled his own career in Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2013), a memoir that in many ways locates Carson’s political awakening to August 1963.

Missing from many of these recollections, and from scholarship on the black freedom struggle more generally, are the kneel-ins that students and activists staged across the South in an effort to desegregate Christian places of worship. Stephen Haynes now focuses on this resistance movement in Memphis, Tennessee, chronicling how both individuals and institutions responded in the 1950s and 1960s to a rapidly changing racial and political landscape. Haynes ably narrates how the complicated memories of these momentous years linger to the present, and what a desegregated, interracial Christianity looks like today.

The Last Segregated Hour painstakingly disentangles the history of Memphis’s Second Presbyterian Church; the church’s governing denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS); and the Presbyterian-affiliated Southwestern College (later Rhodes College), from which a large number of kneel-in students came. During 1964 and 1965, kneel-in activism elsewhere in the South in cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, Albany, Houston and Tallahassee inspired some college students from various local schools to attempt to integrate Memphis’s congregations. The legendary civil rights activist James Lawson, Jr. trained the students, and local luminaries Vasco and Maxine Smith offered support; but the desegregation efforts were not entirely successful. Battle lines were quickly drawn with race, religion, politics, and faith firmly at the center.

Students faced some of the staunchest resistance at Second Presbyterian Church. Church deacons standing guard rebuffed them at the door, but the students considered their activism an act of worship and a visible testimony to true Christian unity. Church leaders, convinced that the students were communist, NAACP-influenced agitators, maintained that good order and a separation of races reflected God’s will for Christians as found in the Bible. While the students prayed and marched, photographers snapped pictures that were sent with ominous, critical letters to students’ parents in order to stop the protests and document the supposedly corrupt activities. Despite these efforts, by early 1965 a vortex of circumstances — including intense pressure both locally and nationally from members, denominational officials, and the press — resulted in a split at Second Presbyterian Church. Leaders who were committed to segregation resigned positions, and members invested in the racial status quo broke fellowship to form Independent Presbyterian Church.

In the intervening half-century Second Presbyterian started to come to terms with its history as leaders developed a keen understanding of systemic racism and individual prejudice. They offered public apologies and attempted spiritual and material partnerships with Memphis’s black Christians, although these did not always bear the desired fruit. Independent Presbyterian Church, far less willing to revisit the full scope of its institutional memory, has only in recent years started peeling back the putrid layers of its prejudicial past. In the early 2000s, a reference to interracial marriage from the pulpit led to a firestorm of controversy and a pastoral resignation. Despite a process of denominational reckoning about racialized religion undertaken by the Presbyterian Church in America — which Independent Presbyterian Church joined in 2000 — the congregation continues soul-searching, seeking redemption, reconciliation, and resolution.

The stories Haynes tells in The Last Segregated Hour do not end in glorious triumph, but neither do they remain uncompromisingly locked in the past. As the cases of both congregations demonstrate, the mix of memory, history, and religious faith can be toxins for the troubled as much as they can work as a salve for the injured, weary, and maimed.

The Last Segregated Hour enters the conversation at an important moment in the study of race and religion in American history. Historians, sociologists, and theologians have calculated the interplay of class, gender, race, and biblical interpretation from both quantitative and qualitative angles to document the racialized dimensions of American Christianity. In many ways, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s landmark book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000) led the way in explaining how and why racialized religion happened (and why it persists), while studies such as Colin Kidd’s The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (2006), J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (2008), and Willie James Jennings’s The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010) revealed how Christians have long sanctioned racialized epistemologies from sacred texts. Additional works such as Michael Emerson, et. al.’s United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (2003), Korie Edwards’s The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches (2008), Peter Slade’s Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship (2008), and Peter Heltzel’s Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (2009) subsequently zeroed in on aspects of Christian racial unity, offering a measured but hopeful antidote to depressing and maddening accounts of seemingly intractable racial division rooted in religious claims.

In one sense, The Last Segregated Hour joins current work showing Christianity’s historic complicity in creating and maintaining structures of racial division, while exploring how Christian conviction also provided the inspiration for interracial fellowship and multiracial collaboration in the pursuit of justice. Haynes’s work is an important intervention because it simultaneously highlights the lamentable, biblically-sanctioned structural racism that some Memphis congregations fought to maintain and spotlights the direct action of Christians who staged kneel-ins inspired partly by their interpretations of biblical teachings. This complicated history, and the tangled memories that persist in the present, deserve the nuanced attention Haynes gives to them.

Some readers unfamiliar with mainline Presbyterian polity or averse to denominational histories may get mired in the details of general assembly meeting minutes and ministerial correspondence. Yet The Last Segregated Hour remains an eminently accessible book due to its readability and clear prose. Speaking to the fact that religion remains culturally meaningful and historically significant, Haynes skillfully uncovers an overlooked history of kneel-ins, narrates the complex interplay of race and religion, and documents how memories of the past invariably manifest in the present.