Shortly before 11 a.m. one Sunday morning, a group of college students gathered quietly on the steps of Second Presbyterian Church in East Memphis. The year was 1964, and the students — black and white — were hoping to enter the sanctuary for that morning's service. But male members of the church were also there on the church's front steps. They blocked the students from entering, as they did on 13 more Sundays over a 10-month period.
Second Presbyterian wasn't the only site of a "kneel-in" in Memphis. Several took place at churches throughout the city and the South. But Second Presbyterian is the focus of Stephen R. Haynes' The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (Oxford University Press). Of equal interest in Haynes' absorbing account: Southwestern at Memphis, the Presbyterian-affiliated college later renamed Rhodes.
In his introduction to the book, Haynes — professor of religious studies at Rhodes — points out that "church desegregation campaigns have received very short shrift in the historiography of the American civil rights movement." Is this because the kneel-ins rarely erupted in violence, entailed few arrests, and had few economic consequences? Or does it go deeper than that? To a discomfort among scholars over church-based nonviolent protests during the 1960s?
Haynes, a Presbyterian himself, shows no such discomfort in The Last Segregated Hour, but he is aware of the sensitive subject even decades after the facts and especially these facts: the prominence of Memphis' Second Presbyterian Church and the parts played in this story by Southwestern students and the school's administration.
There is more to this story, though. There is the local chapter of the NAACP and Memphis civil rights activists. There are the students of LeMoyne College and Memphis State University, in addition to Southwestern, who initiated the protests at Second Presbyterian. There is the media: the African-American Memphis World and Tri-State Defender, which reported on the kneel-ins from the beginning, and The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar, which maintained a wait-and-see attitude, until reports on the Sunday-morning protesters at Second Presbyterian started receiving national attention. And there is Memphis as a whole, a city that had had a relatively peaceful history of integration but whose churches held fast to the "last segregated hour."
Second Presbyterian was a special case, however. Its historic downtown location at the corner of Pontotoc and Hernando — a church building later rechristened Clayborn Temple, site of Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop" speech — was from its founding a church favored by white, Protestant business and civic leaders. But the church's move to a "sylvan retreat" at the corner of Poplar and Goodlett in the late 1940s signaled a disengagement from the inner city. The denomination's official organ, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, may have been calling for integration, but elders at Second Presbyterian were for a multitude of reasons standing their ground.
That ground was the church's steps in 1964 and '65. Younger adult members of the congregation agreed in principle, kept quiet, or (and this is true of many of the women of Second Presbyterian) looked on in embarrassment. The student protesters were tested too and walked a difficult line between individual conscience and society norms.
Haynes charts the often difficult progress made at Second Presbyterian as well. Nor does he overlook the outreach efforts of Independent Presbyterian Church, founded in the wake of the controversies stirred by the student kneel-ins.
He also follows the protesters into later adulthood and, in one instance, the combined lives — one woman (black), one man (white) — in the closing paragraphs of The Last Segregated Hour, an excellent book that rescues one of the least reported chapters in Memphis civil rights history.
Stephen Haynes will be discussing and signing copies of The Last Segregated Hour at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Tuesday, January 22nd, beginning at 6 p.m.