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

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

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

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

Synopsis

On Palm Sunday 1964, at the Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, a group of black and white students began a "kneel-in" to protest the church's policy of segregation, a protest that would continue in one form or another for more than a year and eventually force the church to open its doors to black worshippers.

In The Last Segregated Hour, Stephen Haynes tells the story of this dramatic yet little studied tactic which was the strategy of choice for bringing attention to segregationist policies in Southern churches. "Kneel-ins" involved surprise visits to targeted churches, usually during Easter season, and often resulted in physical standoffs with resistant church people. The spectacle of kneeling worshippers barred from entering churches made for a powerful image that invited both local and national media attention. The Memphis kneel-ins of 1964-65 were unique in that the protesters included white students from the local Presbyterian college (Southwestern, now Rhodes). And because the protesting students presented themselves in groups that were "mixed" by race and gender, white church members saw the visitations as a hostile provocation and responded with unprecedented efforts to end them. But when Church officials pressured Southwestern president Peyton Rhodes to "call off" his students or risk financial reprisals, he responded that "Southwestern is not for sale."

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including extensive interviews with the students who led the kneel-ins, Haynes tells an inspiring story that will appeal not only to scholars of religion and history, but also to pastors and church people concerned about fostering racially diverse congregations.

Excerpt

The origins of this book are to be found in a class I taught at Rhodes College in 1997 titled “Religion and Racism.” Two ambitious students—Amy Riddle and David McCollum—collaborated on a research project dealing with students at Rhodes (then Southwestern) who had engaged in efforts to integrate Memphis’s Second Presbyterian Church in 1964. Two years later, student Kelly Gill made the Memphis “kneel-ins” (as attempts to integrate churches were called at the time) the topic of her Senior Paper in Rhodes’s History Department, for which I was privileged to serve as a reader. Amy and David married, attended medical school together, joined Baylor College of Medicine’s Pediatrics aids Corps, and went off to Swaziland to care for HIV-infected children. Kelly worked as a missionary in Berlin for several years before returning home to attend law school. Before they left Memphis, however, these remarkable young people laid the groundwork for a project that would occupy their professor in one way or another for the next fifteen years.

My own study of the Memphis kneel-ins began in 2003 when, with assistance from a Rhodes Faculty Development Endowment Grant, I began tracking down and interviewing those who had been involved in the church desegregation campaign that commenced in Memphis in the spring of 1964. I was assisted in this effort by Megan Murphy, a Georgetown University student from Memphis who proved to be extremely adept at locating potential interviewees and convincing them to tell their stories. in 2004, I hosted a symposium at which several of the protesting students returned to the Rhodes campus to discuss their experiences. I was so intrigued by these former Southwestern students (then in their sixties) and the ways the events of 1964 had shaped their lives that I began to look more deeply into the Memphis kneel-ins and their impact on local people and institutions.

Between 2003 and 2012 I conducted nearly 150 interviews with church members, pastors, protestors, reporters, denominational representatives, and . . .

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