The Tragedy of Prince Edward: The Religious Turn and the Destabilization of One Parish's Resistance to Integration, 1963-1965

Article excerpt

An September 1963, D. Maurice Allan proclaimed in The Presbyterian Outlook that "the tragedy of Prince Edward County where Negro children have been deprived of even a basic education for four years is a divided Christian witness."1 One might rather that Allan, longtime professor of philosophy and psychology at Hampden-Sydney College, had argued diät die divided Christian witness was die insult to die injury of die abolition of free, public education in die heart of rural, Soudiside Virginia. However, die previous summer had brought religion to die fore among white citizens of die county. Allan's editorial was in part a response to die 27 July "kneel-ins," attempts by black activists and students to integrate white churches in Farmville, die county seat. The kneels-ins became die first in a series of public events diat shifted die terms of debate over segregation for Prince Edwardians, exposing a religious dimension to the political contest and forcing white, civic leaders to think of themselves as church leaders. Indeed, Allan observed in a typically disarming statement that "the present civic leaders who closed the public schools in 1959 rather than integrate are officers of their respective churches, devout Christians and kind-hearted men as individuals." His ultimate conclusion, however, left no doubt that the failure of Prince Edward was not only civic but also religious:

It is important to realize that this decision [to close the schools] was motivated by altruism, by a concern for the best interests of both races, but the churchmen who dominate the Board of Supervisors failed to realize that altruism is never enough. Equal justice, tempered by compassion for the underdog, is not only profoundly Biblical; it is the soil in which liberty and all its great virtues must grow and be nourished.2

Therefore, according to Allan, white segregationists in Prince Edward failed on both American and biblical grounds. This new, white religious consciousness, or what I call a "religious turn," in the segregation debate in die county, forced white, civic leaders, who also served as church leaders, to contend uncomfortably with their coreligionists on religious rather dian on purely political and social grounds. As Allan saw it "even at die time when we feel that rational persuasion is futile, the Spirit of God is at work on die hearts of men."3

If Prince Edward County, Virginia "is the neglected chapter in American Civil rights history," as Christopher Bonastia has rightly observed, the significant role that churches played in this story, particularly white churches, is the neglected part of a significant story only recently rediscovered by scholars.4 The religious story of Prince Edward County between 1959 and 1965 in many ways affirms the general observation of David Chappell that "segregationists had popular opinion behind diem but not popular conviction."5 In other words, "white churches were unwilling to make sacrifices to preserve segregation. . . . They could not make segregation the unifying principle of tileir culture."6 Chappell's study, however, implies diat Southern white political leadership and church leadership not only had different priorities and goals but consisted of different constituencies. The Prince Edward story, located as it was in Soudiside Virginia, is slighdy more complex: segregationist political and lay church leadership overlapped, all die while insisting, in a long white soudiern tradition, that churches should not enter into politics. Further, church membership and participation, so long as such identification appeared insulated from the politics of segregation, provided a refuge of moral legitimacy for segregationists. Therefore, rather dian trying to co-opt die moral audiority of religious leadership, committed segregationists tried to avoid or blunt any religious turn in die debates over race and segregation, a turn which diey increasingly believed undermined dieir own local political and social position. …


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