From the Christian Recorder Online, May 2, 2014
TWO MEMPHIS CONGREGATIONS REPENT FOR SEGREGATION OF PAST
As people filed in to the beautiful, imposing Second Presbyterian Church that March morning, it was pretty quiet. Both the sacredness of the space and the uncertainty of the occasion contributed to the hesitance to speak. As I took my seat in the pew, I introduced myself to a woman near me. “Have you ever been here before?” I whispered, after she told me she was a Memphian. A smart smile started across her lovely face, “Well,” she said, “I’ve been here exactly once.”
What became clear as we spoke was that this woman had been part of the very event we had gathered to commemorate: the Memphis kneel-in movement of 1964. The notion of a kneel-in may sound odd. While sit-ins are as familiar to schoolchildren as they are to scholars, the notion of a kneel-in usually draws raised eyebrows and dismissive shrugs. But kneel-ins constituted a major form of civil rights protest, one that was morally and religiously confrontational. But what exactly is a kneel-in? As religious scholar Steve Haynes defines them kneel-ins constituted “attempts by blacks or integrated groups to occupy segregated ecclesiastical space.” These groups, men and women, often black and white, would seek entrance to churches. If admitted they would go in to worship; if denied they would kneel in prayer as protest. The kneelers were usually impeccably dressed and largely silent, respecting the solemnity of Sunday worship. The kneel-in movement began in Atlanta in 1960 when a group of young students decided to test segregation in six Protestant churches in the city. As a group of young women from Spelman declared, “What better place for men to integrate than in the House of God where the doctrine of brotherly love is taught?” What seemed simple theology to these young students was a crisis for the segregated Protestant churches of the South, one that would haunt them for years. From Atlanta these religious protests fanned out across the South in the early 1960s, occurring in churches in Rock Hill, Augusta, Tallahassee, Durham, Savannah, Jackson, Birmingham, Albany, and, in 1964, in Memphis, Tennessee.
In March, a group of young people from Memphis’ local civil rights groups, religious groups, and colleges, decided to test segregation in Memphis’ churches. Initially, two students, one black, Joe Purdy, and the other white, Jim Bullock, attempted to enter Second Presbyterian one Sunday. Because of Joe’s skin, the friends were rebuffed and turned away. This set off a series of protests in which students, black and white, visited at the prominent church for several weeks, brandishing signs and marching in front of the doors. The episode was painful and scarring to all involved. Fifty years passed, with many people simply trying to forget the entire event.
But this past March, 2014, Memphis decided to remember, and an amazing healing was wrought. With the support and diligence of Dr. Stephen Haynes, the Rev. Sandy Willson of Second Presbyterian Church and Rev. Richie Sessions of Independent Presbyterian Church, a commemorative event was held on the anniversary of the kneel-ins, to consider the past, to repent, and to move forward. At the end of the program, those who had been involved on both sides gathered at the pulpit and clasped hands. People who had been refused entrance grasped hands with those who had rejected them, with prayers offered for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Fifty years later, the kneel-in movement has wrought what it hoped: Christians, black and white, together coming before God in unity. Though there is a long way to go, moments like these in Memphis reveal the continuing possibilities for Christianity to bring people together and remind us of the power of God’s love.