The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

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

Stephen R. Haynes

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

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.

Each of these sections make Hayne’s book interesting, but there are three contributions that make it important. First, it illuminates a crisis in American democratic history, adding crucial texture to existing accounts of the civil rights movement. Haynes does this by giving the kneel-in campaigns the kind of focused study they have long begged for but never received. By drawing our attention to what he calls “the forgotten protest,” he enriches our grasp of the multivalent character of the struggle for racial equality. Yet at the same time, he also draws our attention to the deeply sacral character of the civil rights movement. One of the peculiarities of much civil rights scholarship is its oddly atheological character. In many accounts, the movement seems little more than an illustration of the triumph of democratic liberalism. But while this is part of the story, it is by no means the whole. Not only do such accounts diminish the role of the sacred in the ordering of civic life, they also disregard the self-understanding of the participants who shared in the struggle toward civil rights. By contrast, Haynes’s account shows us that the men and women who stood on the lawn of Second Presbyterian Church saw themselves not primarily as political actors but instead as eschatological ones. They were contending not simply for the character of America but for the kingdom of God. By drawing our attention to this distinction, Haynes opens up space for interpreting not simply the kneel-in campaigns in Memphis but the civil rights movement as a whole in more appropriately sacral terms.

Second, Haynes illustrates the character of the American democratic present. One of the constant temptations in civil rights scholarship is to characterize the struggle as a thing of the past. In some respects, this is happily so. But in another respect, our own democratic present is perhaps best understood an ongoing participation in that struggle. Reading Haynes’s account, one is struck by the ways in which the key elements of his story—contest over the sacred, the fear of difference, the power of spectacle, and the trauma of personal and institutional change—continue to mark the American democratic experience at every turn. This suggests that while some of the specific struggles of the civil rights movement have receded, the essential elements of our larger democratic struggle continue. In many ways the last segregated hour endures.

Finally, Haynes offers a vision of an American democratic future. The civil rights movement was, at its heart, a revolution of the American democratic imagination. Its songs, symbols, and suffering sought to evoke a new vision of American civic possibility. Because of this, the very best scholarship on the movement captures this evocative power, giving the reader not only an idea of what has been but also of what yet could be. Haynes captures it, first, in the characters he depicts—in their spiritual and civic aspirations and their efforts to give these aspirations concrete form. Second, it comes through in the arc of story that he tells. Though it begins with a demoralized stalemate on the manicured lawn of a southern church and takes us through the slow and painful details of that stalemate, the story does not end there. Instead, it ends with an account of that same church striving deliberately, if falteringly, toward an integrated future. By following this narrative arc, the reader gains a renewed vision of the real, if fragile, possibilities of democratic life.

Finally, the evocative force of the movement comes through in the ethos Haynes himself models. There are few temptations more common to a scholar of the civil rights movement than that of self-righteous indignation. It is understandable: The moral lines are clear, the stakes are high, and the indignation is gratifying. Yet Haynes resists. His account is notably generous and pointedly fair toward everyone. The subjects of his book—even those with whom he deeply differs—emerge not as cultural tropes but as ordinary people bearing the alternatively beautiful and tragic burdens of civic existence. In this, Haynes models one of the fundamental, but broadly neglected, requirements of democratic life: kindness toward one’s neighbors.

Gregory Thompson, an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is the senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia. His areas of research include theology, social theory, African-American intellectual history, and the American civil rights movement.

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