The American Protestant tradition is one with a mixed history on race relations without question. The Presbyterian tradition, in particular, is one that has had to face its own failure of being on the wrong side of racial justice for much of American history. Even with that history, we are encouraged that the gospel really does change people and has the power drive racial healing and build racial solidarity. In The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign For Southern Church Desegregation, by Rhodes College religious studies professor Stephen R. Haynes, readers get an example of gospel transformation in the powerful story of the “kneel-in” desegregation in Memphis in the 1960s. Like most histories, we find the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Resisting Racial Integration
The book opens recounting the story of a series of nonviolent church desegregation protests across the South to test the limits of white Christian denial of their baptism by prohibiting African Americans from joining in corporate Sunday worship. Haynes explains that kneel-ins became the official name of the protests “not because kneeling was a regular feature of the visits (which it wasn’t), but because attempts to break the ecclesiastical color line were viewed as part of a larger campaign of ‘sit-ins,’ ‘sleep-ins’ and ‘wade-ins’ that was sweeping the South at the time.” The denominations barring African Americans in the South ranged from Assemblies of God to Methodist to Presbyterian churches and beyond.
The bulk of the book focuses on the events of 1964 at Second Presbyterian Church (SPC) in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Southern Presbyterian struggle with racial integration during the mid-1960s in general. What is additionally helpful in the narrative is the observation that for these white churches, the only thing feared more than racial integration was interracial marriage. Miscegenation was to be avoided at all cost and would serve as the catalyst for racial tension decades later.
What readers will find startling are the events leading to the formation of Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) in Memphis. According to Haynes, IPC was planted as a protest against racial integration and in resistance to what was considered unbiblical involvement of the Presbyterian Church in social issues in ways that weakened the church’s core calling to evangelism and discipleship. In March 1965, right after SPC voted to embrace racial integration, over 300 people left SPC to form IPC. Because of this history, IPC has had challenges building unity with the black community in Memphis. However, after a number of painful years, IPC has publicly confessed the sins of their fathers, sought forgiveness, and is actively working toward racial reconciliation and racial solidarity.
A Model of Confession and Repentance
Several years ago SPC initiated the challenging process of confession and repentance as it dealt with its own history in Memphis, and it has successfully pursued several racial reconciliation initiatives with the black community in the city today. It is now IPC’s turn. Under the leadership of its current pastor, the Rev. Richie Sessions, IPC is putting the gospel on display before a watching world. On Sunday May 13, 2012, one of the elders of the IPC read this statement of repentance and confession before the congregation:
We profess, acknowledge and confess before God, before one another, and before the watching world, that tolerance of forced or institutional segregation based on race, and declarations of the inferiority of certain races, such as once were practiced and supported by our church and many other voices in the Presbyterian tradition, were wrong and cannot and will not be accepted within our church today or ever again. The Lord calls us to repent of the sin of prejudice; to turn from it and to treat all persons with justice, mercy, and love. As a church, we will strive to be more intentional and proactive with ministry opportunities for the congregation to serve the city of Memphis as redemptive, Gospel-driven agents seeking the peace and prosperity of ALL of Memphis.
On that same day, Sessions preached a powerful sermon on the gospel and race. Haynes tells the story of how IPC arrived at this day of confession over several years of discussions building on the work of previous pastors in this direction. It is a wonderful story of church struggling through the implications of what it means to love God and neighbor while taking both baptism and the Lord’s Supper seriously. Sessions has emerged as one of America’s most dynamic pastors as a result.
The Deep Roots of White Supremacy
Within the context of the IPC repentance story, Haynes also covers a troubling story from just a few years ago. In 2005, IPC hired the Rev. John Hardie to serve as pastor. Hardie had done graduate work at Yale University and was completing a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. In November 2006, Hardie made a tangential comment that the Bible does not speak against interracial marriage while giving an illustration about a close friend of his. What Hardie did not realize is that while many conservative Presbyterians in the South were open to different races occupying the same public space, interracial marriage is still considered unbiblical and impermissible by many Southerners to this day. It turns out that in our era if you want to get a sense of where a person stands on race issues, do not ask about integration or racial reconciliation; ask whether or not God smiles upon interracial marriage.
Several members of IPC found the sermon comment offensive. According to Haynes, the Rev. Tom Elkin, a former adjunct pastor at IPC and now on pastoral staff at The First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, taught a Sunday school class two weeks later at IPC where Elkin “misleadingly implied that Hardie was not only defending interracial marriage” but “encouraging its practice.” Elkin objected, in part, because Hardie’s view appeared to condemn Southern Presbyterians’ spiritual ancestors. In his admonishment of Hardie, Elkin even went so far as to defend pro-slavery Presbyterians like R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell and their acceptance of American slavery on what Elkin interpreted as non-racists grounds. After a few months of questions and turmoil, Hardie found himself “resigning” by May of 2007. Haynes concludes that however Hardie’s abrupt departure is officially described “there is no question that his decision to invoke interracial marriage as an acid test for white racism was a fateful turn in his brief tenure at the church.”
The Hard Road of Reconciliation
Independent Presbyterian Church and is a member church of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. In recent years several, other books and articles have raised troubling questions about individual churches and the resistance to desegregation. Books such as Joel Alvis’ Race and Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983, Peter Slades’ Open Friendship in a Closed Society, and an article by R. Milton Winter titled “Division & Reunion in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.” stand out as prime examples. The PCA has taken important steps toward acknowledging its past as a denomination through repentance and racial reconciliation statements (2002) and statements condemning the sin of racism (2004). However, consistent with its Southern Presbyterian roots, those statements are non-binding and only make a difference in congregation life if individual churches take action in response. As a result, according to Haynes, IPC is the only church in the PCA that has ever taken the courageous step to confess and repent of the sins of their own local church fathers.
Given the number of Presbyterian congregations in the Southeast with histories dating back to slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, it might seem amazing to some that, although the denomination embraced a repentance statement over a decade ago, only one of the nearly 1,800 churches has publicly confessed and repented of the past locally. Some argue that this has much to with a Southern cultural norm that discourages people from discussing the failures of previous generations. This perspective can only be called idolatry. Richie Sessions and IPC reject this idolatry. IPC understands the biblical model of confessing the sins of our fathers and instead of turning a blind eye, to honor them in their death for the good they did (Ezra 9:6-15, Neh. 1:6-7, 9:2).
To date, IPC remains a model of what true racial reconciliation looks like. Without confession and repentance in Southern cities by individual churches, reconciliation will be cheap and ineffective. What cities in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina need are pastors with the vision and fortitude of men in leadership at IPC. Confessing and repenting of their father’s sins puts the gospel on display to a watching world and reminds members of their need of the grace of God, lest they return to beliefs and practices that deny their baptism. As I noted in my official endorsement for this book, Haynes presents a story based in Memphis that is paradigmatic for the entire South.