Review: From Reconciliation to Revolution

Andrew McNeill Canady

Andrew McNeill Canady is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Honors Program at Averett University.

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Andrew McNeill Canady, "Review: From Reconciliation to Revolution," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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David P. Cline. From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. xx + 276 pp. ISBN 978-1-4696-3043-4.

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On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University protested the segregated lunch counters at Woolworth’s in Greensboro. In the coming days, this sit-in set off a number of similar ones across the country. In April of that year, a gathering of students and civil rights activists met in Raleigh, NC for a conference that spawned the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While that story is well known to scholars of the civil rights movement, another organization also developed out of that Raleigh meeting. That group was the Student Interracial Ministry (SIM), and its history is the focus of David P. Cline’s From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement. Specialists in American religious history and the civil rights movement will find this a useful addition to the literature of their fields of study.                                                                                 

SIM began largely as the result of efforts by Union Theological Seminary students who had attended the 1960 Raleigh meeting. These young men and women, who came from this “leading ecumenical Protestant seminary” in New York, were looking for a way to participate in the civil rights movement but also had greater religious concerns in mind (ix). As Cline points out, they “wondered if there was something they could do as seminarians that would differ from SNCC’s approach and help foster racial reconciliation within and by the church” (xii). As the author notes, however, SIM had deeper roots in liberal student Christian interracial efforts from the first half of the twentieth century. Thus, this study fits into ongoing scholarship on the long civil rights movement, with Cline’s work highlighting the importance of religion in this process.

Cline ably relates the evolution of SIM’s activities over the course of its eight-year existence (1960–1968). First, the group began with a focus on “reconciliation,” initiating a project that placed white seminary students in black churches and African American seminarians in white congregations for summer internships. Here these interns got to know people of different races by living with them and being involved in their congregations. SIM quickly grew and expanded its work, adding yearlong appointments and enlarging its participation and diversity of gender, race, and home seminaries. By the mid-1960s, SIM also began to move beyond traditional ministry roles, getting involved in community work, educational efforts, voter registration, and urban activities. Thus, Cline argues, SIM evolved from a focus on reconciliation to one of revolution. What “revolution” actually meant varied among these participants, but clearly it applied to such areas as race relations, the meaning of “church,” and how seminary training should be done. Overall, the author insists that during SIM’s existence it played an important, though largely overlooked, part in the civil rights movement and also proved influential in helping to reform seminary training at the time.

This book does a number of things well. Specifically, Cline illuminates the changing nature of seminary training in the 1960s as a result of the turmoil of civil rights, Black Power, and student protests of the Vietnam War and at colleges. SIM participants struggled with the meaning of “church” in these years and sought ways to help it remain “relevant” to the changing times (xii). Over the course of its existence more than 350 students participated in SIM, and it is clear they had an influence in the greater civil rights movement. In particular, Cline’s examination of SIM’s involvement in the Southwest Georgia Project from 1965–1968 shines new light into this aspect of the movement (see chapter four). Albany, the largest city in this region, had been the target of an unsuccessful protest by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his forces in 1962. As a result, scholars have often characterized King’s work there as a “failure,” but Cline complicates this narrative, revealing how civil rights activism continued through a partnership between SNCC and SIM in this region (91). Also notably, Cline renders SIM in very personal terms. Indeed, he successfully incorporates a wide variety of voices, including whites and African Americans, from both male and female participants. This study, in fact, depends heavily on oral histories as a source base, and the author completed dozens of these in his research and consulted others to tell this story. These, along with the records of SIM at Union’s Burke Library, help him to create a lively and interesting read.

In the end, From Reconciliation to Revolution is an important addition to our understanding of the civil rights movement and the connections between it and liberal Christianity. This book also moves beyond an emphasis on the South, which characterizes many works on the civil rights movement. SIM’s impact was important in that region, but its reach also extended to other parts of the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City.