Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Book Reviews

A New Civic Vision

Gregory Thompson

March on Washington, 1963; National Archives; flickr.

In many ways the last segregated hour endures.

It’s a great story. On a Sunday morning in 1964, a small, mixed-race group of well-dressed college students approached the entrance of the historic Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Before them—barring the way to the door—stood an all-white line of church officers. Some were embarrassed by the spectacle. Others were indignant about the challenge. But their crossed arms showed that all were resolute. Each group knew that the other would not yield, and after an exchange of cathartic but futile words, they simply faced one another in despondent if volatile silence. Behind the officers—in the sanctuary—the congregation began its opening hymn. In front of the officers—on the church lawn—the students knelt to pray. And around them all—in the culture—American democracy struggled to find its future.

The story of the civil rights–era “kneel-in campaigns,” which targeted prominent white southern churches with the stated aim of integrating worship, is the story Stephen R. Haynes tells in The Last Segregated Hour (2012). A professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Haynes begins with a general introduction to the origin of the “kneel-in protests,” noting not only the uniqueness of a campaign focused on religious institutions, but also some of campaign’s central themes: the centrality of the sacred, the fear of difference, the power of spectacle, and the trauma of personal and institutional change. He devotes much of the rest of his book to a careful analysis of this campaigns most significant episode: the 1964 kneel-in campaign in Memphis. Through archival research and participant interviews, Haynes constructs a moving account of both sides of the conflict: the convictions that set them against each other, the protests that bound them together, the costs all of them paid. Finally, he provides an account of the aftermath of the protests, and of how those involved continue to come to terms with what happened that year.

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