The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation by Stephen Haynes

Summary: A broad overview of the church desegregation protests, and then a deep dive into one particular church with extensive interviews and history.

I think that many people do have historically accurate views on how the church has traditionally related to racism, segregation, and the Civil Rights Era. An excellent introductory book for the subject is Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise. But no introduction can adequately address every issue in a long history.

The Last Segregated Hour works through the kneel-in campaigns that started in the mid 195s, alongside the lunch counter protests, the freedom rides, and other similar desegregation campaigns. The initial section that details the national perspective of the Kneel-ins feels repetitive because the history was repetitive. Teams of mixed race worshipers would visit a church, usually coordinated with a larger group so that several churches were visited at the same time. Some churches would welcome the groups, or at least not prevent them from being seated. Some churches would allow them in the sanctuaries but segregate them into a particular area. Some churches would ban them from entering, occasionally resulting in violence or police presence.

These Kneel-in campaigns happened over and over throughout the country for years. Churches that banned the mixed-race worshipers usually were visited over and over again, until they were allowed in. Some individual churches had groups of mixed race worshipers attempt to enter the congregation weekly for over a year before they were allowed to be seated.

According to Haynes, there was not a consistent denominational or church tradition that across geography was either more welcoming or more segregated, although in general Baptist churches were a bit more likely to be segregated, and Catholic was the most unlikely. But there were examples of almost every type of church being both segregated and welcoming.

Once the book moves to the particular example of the city of Memphis Kneel-ins starting in 1964 and then the specific campaign at Second Presbyterian Church, the book becomes more engaging. It is not that the national history and context is not essential; it is. But the particular does give a close understanding that I think makes this book worth reading. Part of the importance of the book is the interviews. Four chapters focus on memories of members at Second Presbyterian, the protestors themselves (separate sections looking at the different experiences of both White and Black protestors), and then a chapter on the perception of the member children and youth.

The history gets circled a number of times from different perspectives to pay attention to how the protests were viewed and experienced differently from pastoral, lay leaders, general members, the outside community, and the protestors. And the book does not stop with the actual protests and resolutions. There are three chapters on the long term results and implications. A church split happened as a result of the protests. Both the original and the new church have had 50 years to deal with the consequences of the kneel-in protests. And there is a section on repentance and corporate wrestling with the history.

I have read a couple of books by Haynes, the most recent is the Battle for Bonhoeffer. What I appreciate is that Haynes is interested in not just recounting history but using history as ‘the usable past’. In both Battle for Bonhoeffer and The Last Segregated Hour, Haynes posits modern parallels, while being careful to not go beyond the historical data or his professional limitations. The part that seems most relevant to me is the connection between ideological and racial issues.

“At the time, in fact, many Southerners were convinced that racial integration was part of a communist plot to destabilize American society. And since communists were notoriously ‘godless,’ it follows that anyone fighting to end segregation was an atheist or a dupe of atheists. (Page 165)

Today there is a similar movement that is attempting to push back against social justice politically and theologically. In the civil rights era, the ideology being fought was communism. Today is a ‘cultural marxism’ or socialism. I have interacted with several people that claim to be against racism, but also believe that anti-racism is a Godless ideology that is incompatible with Christianity. Others in a more secular space, are willing to flirt with racism as a means to ‘own the libs.’ Some of these people I believe are genuinely opposed to racism inside and outside the church. But some have been significantly influenced theologically by a political position, primarily an extreme form of libertarianism or individualism that does not believe that cooperative action can (or should) exist.

This genuine opposition to both racism and objection to racism does not make sense to me. It feels ahistorical in approach. And it feels theologically problematic since justice is a clear theme of scripture. The best responses are objecting, not to justice as a goal, but the means of achieving that justice. And there is an argument there.

I participated in a church-based community organizing effort about 20 years ago. I walked away from the effort when there was a hanging in effigy as part of one of the rallies. As a church-based effort, any organizing that is dehumanizing needs to be questioned. But there also needs to be reasonable efforts to work toward solutions, not just refuse to participate in any activist movement. All activist movements have extremes. Part of the role of Christians in activism is to push back against the extremes that ideologically are similar to you.

The Last Segregated Hour is important read not just because of the history, but because it grapples well with the long term result, the methods of protest, the theological implications, the resolutions of the protests and the attempts at reconciliation and resolution (admitting the weaknesses that resulted. Unfortunately, this book appears to be out of print outside of digital (audiobook or ebook) options. You can still get physical copies, but they are relatively expensive.

The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation by Stephen Haynes Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

2 Comments

Great review! Now I want to pick up a copy!

My thoughts are that the church *can* be redemptive and redeemed, but boy howdy how messy and uncertain the process is. I am grateful to the saints and sinners who used their bodies to effect change even when it seemed that no changes could be effected.

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