Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Kneel-Ins and the Last Segregated Hour

Most Americans are familiar with the adage that 11 o'clock on Sunday morning is the week's most segregated hour. Although there is less homogeneity in American churches than when the observation was first popularized in the 1950s, the segregation of Christian worship continues to be analyzed by sociologists and lamented by religious leaders. The perpetuation of racial separation on Sunday mornings may be due to preference, convenience and a highly segmented religious marketplace. But its historical origins are to be found in white desires for segregated congregations.
The most concerted effort to challenge church segregation was launched during the first half of the 1960s, when the same young people who were integrating lunch counters, parks and libraries took aim at white churches. "Kneel-ins," as they became known, were visits by small groups of blacks (often accompanied by sympathetic whites) to prominent white churches in towns and cities across the South. The first kneel-ins took place in Atlanta in August 1960, and they spread throughout the region over the next six years. Kneel-ins were not staged to protest unjust laws, but to test white churches' tolerance for integrated worship. They were intended to illuminate the moral dimensions of segregation by creating compelling spectacles of exclusion or embrace.
As important as they were to the people who engaged in them and endured them, kneel-ins have somehow fallen through the sifting bowl of history. The black church's importance as a venue for organizing and inspiring the soldiers of the civil rights movement is well-attested; but the role of the white church as a moral battle ground has been largely overlooked. It is vividly remembered, however, by many of those who experienced kneel-ins first hand. Particularly in places where racial division and alienation remain prominent features of the social landscape, contested memories of church visitation campaigns linger half a century later.
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