Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, no. 3

Sean Lucas

[For an explanation of the series and the first post, see here; for the second post, see here]

Other churches were not as interested in dialogue. Second Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee, drew national attention for its refusal to admit mixed-race groups to corporate worship services. One of several Memphis churches targeted in early 1964 by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its "kneel-ins," Second Church reacted the most negatively. The groups were refused admittance and church officers patrolled the narthex and the front of the church looking for those who would seek to "integrate" the services. The Second Church kneel-ins drew media attention not only because of their racial component, but also because the congregation was scheduled to host the PCUS General Assembly in 1965. As a result, several presbyteries and synods, along with the liberal Presbyterian Outlook, protested allowing the Memphis church to host the assembly; by February 1965, the assembly's moderator, Felix Gear, a former pastor of Second Church, made the decision to move the coming meeting to the denomination's assembly grounds in Montreat.[1]

Conservatives felt that the situation at Second Church, Memphis, was profoundly unjust. At one point, Aiken Taylor claimed that the reason that this church was receiving such negative attention was merely "to embarrass the pastor's brother, Senator Richard Russell," a noted segregationist who fought Civil Rights legislation. Later, Taylor observed that Second Church was being singled out because it was "a great evangelical congregation with a tremendous...evangelistic and missionary testimony." As a result, young liberals in the PCUS were trying to "alienate and divide, to punish and to destroy" the reputation of this church. It did not help, of course, that the key Second Church ruling elder that opposed the kneel-ins, Horace Hull, was a long-time leader on the Presbyterian Journal board of directors. Others tried to defend Hull and his position. Nelson Bell claimed that Hull was really a racial moderate; his position was that "the question of seating Negroes in the congregation should not be forced." However, Hull's actions were decisive not only in preventing Second Church from admitting members, but also in splitting the church and creating a new congregation, Independent Presbyterian Church.[2]

It was from this sense of being under siege by northern liberals that led Conservative Presbyterians to protest the National Council of Churches' "Delta Project" that started in 1964 and continued through 1967. The Delta Ministry dealt with poverty and racial injustice in the Mississippi Delta; it also focused on voter registration in south Mississippi towns like Hattiesburg and McComb. As conservatives, they disliked the "outside agitators" coming into their areas to stir up the racial situation; as Presbyterians, they did not care for the fact that their own tithes and offerings were being used to support outsiders (through the National Council of Churches) coming into the South to work for racial justice. As the program progressed, the Journal wagged its head at every potential association the Delta Ministry had with Communists and unionizers, signaling the leftward political and racial purposes of the program. When the Delta project leaders encouraged African Americans to stage a "live in" at the deactivated Greenville, Mississippi, Air Force base, it was another sign of the lawless aims of the program.[3]

This fear of liberalization, both socially and theologically, motivated conservative Presbyterians' a deep distrust of Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. When the PCUS Board of Christian Education's Division of Christian Relations invited King to speak to its August 1965 conference at Montreat, racial conservatives sought to rescind the invitation on the floor of the General Assembly. And the Presbyterian Journal gave full coverage to his appearance, highlighting his responses to questions about his involvement with Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which conservatives had connected to Communism, and about whether the Civil Rights movement had Communist connections. For the next three years, whenever King was mentioned, it was always in connection with his supposed Communist-leanings, making in a more subtle fashion the same connections between integration and Communism that were so effective in the previous decade. When King was killed in 1968, Aiken Taylor admitted frankly, "Martin Luther King was not a man we admired" because of his alleged Communist connections as "documented" by the FBI. His death was the result of the principles of civil disobedience that he defended: "Those who have advocated (or excused) civil disobedience share the blame for the death of Dr. King." Justice will not come through injustice, no matter how effective or eloquent the messenger.[4]

And especially when the messenger was unworthy or threatening, church and society should withstand the message. That was Taylor's take on James Forman's "Black Manifesto," first presented at Riverside Church in New York City in May 1969. Throughout the summer of 1969, the manifesto was presented in several congregations; the manner of presentation--with the interruption of services especially in congregations that had television broadcasts--caused churches to take precautions in case black militants should arrive. Meanwhile, the PCUS Council on Church and Society urged the church to take seriously the reparation demands of the black militants and to understand the context from which these demands came. However, Taylor and other southern Presbyterian conservatives saw the manifesto and the PCUS response as largely Marxist--focused on the redistribution of wealth--and unworthy of serious attention. The messenger and the message were too radical to be heard.[5]

[1] A full account of the Memphis kneel-ins can be found in Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] G. Aiken Taylor, "'Young Turks' In Action," PJ (24 June 1964): 12; Taylor, "An Emergency?" PJ (10 February 1965): 12; L. Nelson Bell to J. McDowell Richards, 14 November 1964, J. McDowell Richards Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA; Haynes, Last Segregated Hour, 108-9, 113, 190.

[3] G. Aiken Taylor, "World Missions and the 'Delta,'" PJ (10 February 1965): 12-13; "NCC Names Delta Ministry 'Evaluators,'" PJ (9 February 1966): 4-5; "Delta Project Leader Suggest More US Aid," PJ (23 February 1966): 5; G. Aiken Taylor, "Incident in Mississippi," PJ (9 March 1966): 12-13; "Panel Urges Support of Delta Ministry," PJ (8 February 1967): 4-5. For a telling of the "Delta Ministry," see James F. Findlay, Jr., Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950-1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), and Newman, Divine Agitators.

[4] "Attempt to Block King Defeated by Assembly," PJ (5 May 1965): 8; L. Nelson Bell, "One Commissioner's Reactions," PJ (19 May 1965): 13, 18; "2 Speakers Headline 'Historic' Weekend," PJ (1 September 1965): 4-5; "M. L. King Suggests Red in UN, Cease Fire," PJ (22 September 1965): 5-6; G. Aiken Taylor, "This is the Not the Way to 'Justice,'" PJ (17 April 1968): 12.

[5] "More Services Interrupted by Militants," PJ (28 May 1969): 6; "Church Offices Given Up To 'Manifesto' Militants," PJ (28 May 1969): 6; "Presbyterian US Unit Pronounces on Manifest," PJ (9 July 1969): 7-8; G. Aiken Taylor, "Shall We Capitulate?" PJ (9 July 1969): 12.