On this Martin Luther King Day the Church Lady would like to write about her experience with integration in the southern churches. In 1960 Dr. King said, “I have to think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”
Almost fifty-three years later I have to ask, “Why is Sunday morning still the most segregated day of the week?”
Last Sunday I attended church as usual. The usher who handed me a bulletin was an African American lady, one of maybe three African Americans in our entire church of about 300 people. Maybe I am prejudiced, but I like her a lot. She reminds me of the black friends I know from the South, even though she is from California.
I’ve been going to church for over sixty years now, and I have yet to attend a truly blended church of any sort. Oh, there are token blacks in white churches, usually for some special reason. Sometimes there are whites in black churches, maybe because they like the soul music. One church I attended had an African American minister. He was married to a lovely strawberry blonde lady, and he was preaching at an all white church. Years ago I knew a black lady who turned Roman Catholic because it was the only integrated church in our small southern town. But most of the rest of that congregation were white northerners who had moved south when their factory moved south. One church I went to had one token black man singing in the choir. I guess he was a good classical singer.
Segregation is not just black or white. If you visit an area with lots of Asians or Hispanics, they seem to have special churches just for their ethnic group. We live in a senior community and attend a church in our neck of the woods. Sixty percent of us are over sixty. I miss the young people, but not their music or the crying babies. Who will visit me when I am old? Am I getting old faster without the young folks? What are all of us missing by keeping ourselves isolated in one way or another? Maybe segregation happens because we feel more comfortable with our own kind. But that doesn’t mean it is the best way to live. How do we go about getting black and white together?
I grew up in Pennsylvania, home of the abolitionists. My mom taught a Bible club on the black side of town, but no blacks came to our church out in the white countryside, that is no blacks came until a black music group came to sing. My mom kept the group in our home over the weekend. I remember looking at the ladies’ dresses hanging in my bedroom closet. They were black silky fabric and even seemed to smell different from my clothes. These ladies seemed to be from Mars. I had never known anyone black. We called them “colored” back then and thought that was polite and respectful.
By the time I started my first year of college in South Carolina forced integration had begun. But privately owned restaurants and churches did not have to integrate as did the public schools. One evening a bunch of us college kids were out on the town and got hungry. We walked in a fast food store to grab a burger. Above the counter there was a huge sign which said, “No coloreds allowed.” I stared at that sign in shock and grabbed my friends by the arm. “Look at that sign,” I said. “I don’t want to eat here. That’s wrong.” I was talking really loud.
My friends just shrugged, shrunk down a little into their coats, and said, “We’re hungry.” Mind you, we were kids planning to be missionaries to places like Africa. I took a step back and made my personal “emancipation proclamation.” In a loud, clear, Yankee voice I said, “I am not eating in any restaurant that refuses to serve colored people.” Needless to say, my proclamation didn’t get colored people in the door that night anymore than Lincoln’s proclamation freed any slaves. I guess it was a learning experience for me though.
The next four years we taught Bible clubs in black communities, the public schools were forced to integrate, a lot of white, segregated private schools got started, and the gas stations had to take down the “colored” and “white” bathroom signs. I’ve always wondered what they did with that third bathroom. I guess they turned the colored bathrooms into handicapped. It might have been helpful if they turned them into two ladies’ bathrooms. We ladies could have used that.
Did the churches integrate when they took down the “colored” bathroom signs? No. I must add, in fairness to the south, that churches up north didn’t integrate either. It was like the blacks and whites didn’t speak the same language. They certainly didn’t play the same music. I find it bizarre that soul music crossed over to the white culture via, jazz, Motown and folks like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, not to mention Ray Charles, but it took decades before such music entered a white church.
Years later when I moved back to my college town in South Carolina we sang a Duke Ellington concert with a jazz band on the platform and a singer dancing in the aisles.
David up and danced.
He danced before the Lord.
He danced before the Lord with all his might.
For an upper middle class all white church in the south this was about as strange as the king of Israel dancing in the streets wearing only his underpants. For another concert we invited some African American singers to teach us how tosing soul music. We had professional opera singers in our choir, but we sure had trouble singin’ and dancin’ that day. It all felt strangely inappropriate.
I am having flashbacks now to 1968 in Tennessee. Martin Luther King had been assasinated, the public schools had been integrated, the riots calmed. Our church’s neighborhood was changing color. Middle class blacks were getting good jobs and buying houses. Our white church attendance in this neighborhood was on the wane, partly because the whites were moving to the suburbs. So we decided to start neighborhood visitation to invite new folks to our church, as long as they were not the black folks who lived in the ‘hood. In fact we were not even going to visit any homes within a couple of miles of the church. Had we Christians learned nothing since the “no coloreds allowed” signs in the restaurants? My husband and I had been active in that church five years. We had our wedding there. But we walked out. There had to be a church where all people were welcome.
Here is the rest of the story. In the next ten years that church dwindled away to nothing. The building was sold and now there is a thriving, integrated church there. I suspect, as churches continue to integrate – African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians – music will play a big role in drawing us together. So will friendship. Can you reach out, have lunch, call, visit someone today?
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
From Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert (Clearwater Concert), Madison Square Garden, 5/3/09. Featuring: Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Billy Bragg, Keller Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ruby Dee, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, New York City Labor Choir.