Review: The Last Segregated Hour
Stephen R. Haynes. The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 314 pp. 978-0-19-539505-1.
Editor’s Note: Prior to her appointment as book review editor with JSR, Carolyn Dupont had been assigned Stephen Haynes’s The Last Segregated Hour to review. Her own work on white Christians in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era made her a good choice for Art Remillard, who served as our book review editor. Since Haynes had been slated to review Dupont’s Mississippi Praying prior to her arrival at the JSR, we have followed a different protocol for these two reviews. The Editor handled all publication decisions regarding these reviews, which is typically left to the book review editor’s discretion.
On Palm Sunday 1964, leaders at the prestigious and prosperous all-white Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee turned away a black worshipper. When more African Americans returned on subsequent Sundays, the church refused them as well. In a nation rapidly growing disgusted with blatant and apparently gratuitous expressions of white supremacy, Second Presbyterian’s closed doors sent tremors in multiple directions. Christians nationwide heaped shame upon the congregation, denominational authorities censured it, and internal conflict ultimately fractured the church. The splinter communion, Independent Presbyterian, proudly consecrated itself to the most conservative expressions of Christianity, even as its constitution embraced an explicit whites-only policy.
In the fifty years since, Memphians and Presbyterians occasionally have whispered about this unsavory history, but its exact lineaments remained murky. Recently, however, Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes has skillfully laid out the story in The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation. His work joins a rash of new and forthcoming scholarship that explains how southern white evangelicals met the challenge of black equality.
Haynes sets his story in its multiple contexts. The kneel-in campaign in Memphis mimicked others already underway in the South; indeed, between 1960 and 1965, activists highlighted the moral dimensions of their struggle in visits to white congregations in Atlanta, Savannah, Tallahassee, Americus, Jacksonville, and Birmingham. Even as the Memphis effort took flight, white churches in Jackson, Mississippi, refused black activists Sunday after Sunday in a drama that endured some ten-months, culminating when a downtown Methodist church refused two bishops of its own denomination. Though many congregations appeared to outsiders as unyielding fortresses of segregation, the activists’ visits actually deeply divided these bodies and sent reverberations through their local and denominational networks. Often, it took years to settle the fall-out that ensued from these simple but socially subversive episodes of church-going.
Special circumstances raised the stakes in the Memphis case, elevating Second Presbyterian to a primary locus of the denomination’s struggles over black equality. Most significantly, the church planned to host the denomination’s 1965 General Assembly—a great honor for any congregation. But throughout the denomination, progressives objected that convening this all-important gathering at a committed bastion of segregation would reward a body that, in their minds, instead deserved censure. Personal relationships added yet more dramatic elements: the decision about whether to discipline the church by cancelling the General Assembly’s meeting there lay in the hands of the denomination’s moderator, Dr. Felix Gear, who had previously pastored that very congregation. Perhaps more intriguing, the church’s current pastor, Dr. Jeb Russell, brother of leading segregationist and ardent civil rights opponent Georgia Senator Richard Russell, remained thunderously silent about the activity on the church steps until very late in the affair. Finally, even while the deacons rejected black worshippers on a January morning ten months after these episodes began, Russell preached a sermon that revealed both his lack of sympathy with the Session’s (the church’s governing body) decision to exclude black worshippers and his unequivocal support for a non-discriminatory worship policy.
Further complicating matters at Second Presbyterian, the kneel-in campaign featured the strong presence and leadership of white students from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), a denominational college that received strong financial backing from area congregations like Second. Segregationists who strove to halt the weekly visits threatened to cut off contributions to the college. Some also wrote letters to activist students’ parents, suggesting that the white and black students had formed interracial romantic relationships.
The pressure of the kneel-in campaign drove deep wedges between members of the congregation, as evidenced by the public rift between the pastor and the Session. Yet once the pastor and the denomination had made their own convictions clear and mounting displeasure from the congregation forced changes in Session personnel, about 340 members of Second Presbyterian defected to a create a new congregation, Independent Presbyterian. Denying that they had left Second over racial policies, the new congregation declared only its devotion to “old fashioned religion.” Describing the Southern Presbyterian Church as a theologically apostate body that had forsaken its historic roots, members of the new church claimed their desire to be “a Bible church, a prayer church, and a mission church.” Though the new congregation adopted no formal policy of racial segregation as such, its new constitution did require that “its members and those visiting the Church . . . shall be compatible with the congregation.” (230)
Haynes skillfully weaves the many strands of this story together with a fine attention to detail and nuance. His narrative lets many voices speak, a major strength of the work made possible by his use of over 150 interviews with participants and observers, including white students from Southwestern, black student activists, and church members who often sat silent but bewildered by the activity on the front portico. For many of these, the Memphis kneel-in campaign served as a catalyst for life work in socially active forms of ministry or other kinds of activism. Both Second Presbyterian and its splinter congregation, Independent Presbyterian, struggle as they try to come to terms with a past intimately connected to America’s racial hierarchy. Yet many more congregations no doubt have similar stories waiting to be told.