On Palm Sunday in 1964, at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn., a group of black and white students protested racial discrimination in a dramatic and powerful way: They held a "kneel-in."
For more than a year, hundreds of such Sunday-morning demonstrations to protest segregated ecclesiastical space were staged across the southern United States, at churches of every major Christian denomination.
Representatives of major civil rights organizations participated in these protests, which movement leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. considered vital. They eventually led Southern evangelical churches to integrate and welcome African-Americans.
Yet, while well documented, the Memphis kneel-ins have attracted little notice from historians until now. Why? Perhaps in part, writes Stephen R. Haynes in "The Last Segregated Hour," because "they rarely turned violent, produced few arrests, and had no discernible economic consequences." Yet the story of the kneel-ins is both fascinating and inspiring.
Nearly 50 years later, it's hard to imagine the segregated Sunday-morning church culture of the South that the protesting students faced.
To illustrate it, Haynes turns to a 1967 article in Atlantic Monthly in which Marshall Frady described how one would frequently open the Monday newspaper to find "a picture of a dozen or so funereal-faced deacons standing shoulder to shoulder on the steps of some small brick church, all of them bareheaded, squinting a little in the Sunday morning sunshine, mouths clamped tightly shut, arms unanimously folded (usually hiding their hands), their black gazes fixed just an inch or two over the heads of a small delegation of Negroes clustered on the sidewalk below them. It was one of the more curious spectacles produced by the most profound domestic moral crisis of our time."
Haynes, a religious studies professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, conducted extensive research for his book, including interviews with nearly 150 witnesses and participants, and it shows on every page. He should be commended for tracking down these now-elderly sources and recording their stories, which are an essential part of the historical record. Even the book's footnotes are well worth reading, as they are packed with rich background and context.
Haynes tells us that the kneel-ins were held at random, but frequently during the Easter season -- and that participants often faced physical resistance from racist worshipers. This "curious spectacle" of kneeling Christians being barred from church services commanded national as well as local media attention. Interestingly, the protesters included students from a local Presbyterian college -- then Southwestern, now Rhodes College.
At one point, church officials told Southwestern's president, Peyton Rhodes, to "call off" the protests or face financial consequences. Rhodes replied in these now-famous words: "Southwestern is not for sale."
Ultimately, Haynes concludes, the effects of the kneel-ins were far-reaching. Not only did they push Southern evangelical churches to integrate, they also had a lasting impact on many of the young people who participated. "White and black students alike," Haynes writes, "developed a genuine respect for colleagues on the other side of the racial divide."
He quotes one African-American student, Elaine Lee Turner, who recounted in an interview her experience of "standing alongside white students": "'This was actually the first time that I had really gotten to know any white students at all. You know, I was in college at that time but I had no opportunities to really interact with white students because everything was very segregated here. ... We were able to see that they were just like us; they're studying, they're going to school, they have ambitions, goals just like we are, so you know, that was really positive. And then they were willing to take a stand, you know, and that was something that was really good to see.'"
Yet, both black and white kneel-in protesters reported to Haynes that "lasting interracial friendships were quite rare." Perhaps this is not surprising, given the segregated climate in which these students had grown up. Still, their ability to work together to pioneer this creative form of protest remains a significant achievement.
In "The Last Segregated Hour," Haynes makes a major contribution to our understanding of how religion figured in the historic civil rights movement. This solid scholarly study is also well enough written and paced to command a wider audience.