Review: Sanctuaries of Segregation

Ansley Quiros

Ansley Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama.

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Ansley Quiros, "Review: Sanctuaries of Segregation," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017): jsreligion.org/vol19/quiros.

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Carter Dalton Lyon. Sanctuaries of Segregation:  The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign. Jackson, MS:  University Press of Mississippi, 2017.  384 pp.  ISBN 978-1496810748.

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For decades now, scholars of the civil rights struggle have turned their attention to specific locales, adding detail and complexity to national narratives of racial change. But recent political and racial developments in America have made these questions seem more pressing, as historians and readers wonder anew how change does or doesn’t actually occur in real places. As ever, Mississippi is a good place to look. Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation examines change and its limits through the church visit campaign of 1963–1964 in Jackson, Mississippi. Though limited in scope, the depth and detail of Lyon’s study offers not only an invaluable portrait of mid-century Jackson, but also insight into those still vexing questions of power and progress.

Also sometimes called kneel-ins, church visits comprised a significant part of the civil rights struggle in the Deep South, seeking to convict the consciences of southern Christians or expose the church as a site of hypocrisy. In Jackson, they seem to have done both, causing a crisis in the city, in denominations, in congregations, and even in individuals. Painstakingly researched, Sanctuaries of Segregation tells the story of the one-year church visit campaign chronologically and in great detail. Though the account largely mirrors existing narratives of the Jackson campaign, familiar places and characters—Galloway Methodist Church, Tougaloo College, Dr. Selah, Ed King—are rendered new by Lyon’s depth. Church visits emerge not as dramatic spectacle photo ops, but as part of a sustained campaign with fissures, tactics, and strategies, some more successful than others. Sanctuaries of Segregation chronicles all of this in a play-by-play, meeting-by-meeting, day-by-day account.

Though an impressive work of historical research, the larger argument does bog down at points, overwhelmed by specifics. At moments, the reader is left wondering about the broader implications of the Jackson church visits, both in the rest of the state and also over time. Was the campaign ultimately successful? Could it be? Lyon asserts that the church visits ended due to the “failure of the white church to be a relevant force in helping to address the momentous problem facing Mississippi” (5). The church did not, Lyon argues, take a leading role, leaving the responsibility of dealing with race to others—the state, the police, the courts, as well as activists and racist vigilantes. The campaign exposed the “fallacy of gradualism” (237). But, one wonders, could it be that the visits failed not because white churches were irrelevant but because many congregations powerfully sanctified segregation, even if passively? What might that mean for the limits of theological protest? And the nature of southern Christianity?

Lyon claims that the church visits were an opportunity for moral suasion before the political campaigns of SNCC and Bob Moses (252). This is an interesting notion, pointing rightly to the white churches’ forsaken chance for moral leadership. But that chance didn’t come in a political or theological vacuum. Much of the churches’ obstinacy stemmed from political events, fears summoned, he notes, by James Meredith in particular. Throughout the church visits, secular and spiritual powers intersected, colluded, and clashed. In some ways, this is the most compelling aspect of Lyon’s work. Churches occupied important political space as they claimed theological authority. For instance, Lyon notes the frequent presence of police “at most churches” during the kneel-in campaign. This presence not only comprises an intimidating reminder of state violence but also introduced the possibility of arrest, which, though rare, was significant in the delicate interplay between obstinate congregations and baiting activists. What might it mean that police sometimes enforced segregationist church policy? What does that indicate about local power and the difficulty of activism?

Activists hoped the church visits would “spark discussion and debates” over “whether or not segregation was consistent with their faith.” It seems they did, sometimes on a denominational or congregational level, sometimes on a personal one. Conclusions varied widely. But Lyon’s meticulous account of the maneuverings of church and state and organization beg questions of local politics just as much as theological conviction.

An important work of history, Sanctuaries of Segregation reveals much about the church visit campaign, about Jackson, Mississippi, and also about the complex interactions of church and state, faith and power. It is a book, at its core, about how change comes or doesn’t come, a question that remains as insistent now as in 1963.

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