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Integrating First Methodist Church

On Sunday, August 1, 1965, an interracial group of six persons attempt to worship at First Methodist Church in Americus. They are testing the influence of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, gender, and national origin, and outlawed discrimination in places of employment.  Willie Bolden, a member of the SCLC, is the gentleman leading the group.  After a sceen from another protest in Americus, this WSB clip shows the integrators approach the church and the twelve white church members who cluster on the stairs in an attempt to prevent them from entering. The activists tell these church officials that they want to worship and pray. The men turn the demonstrators away, with the words, “We don’t have room for you.”1 The integrators march down the church steps and hold a brief prayer before departing. 

Although this scene is not in featured in this WSB clip, a second incident occurred across the street at the First Baptist Church. The activists at First Baptist encountered hostility from church members, including the Americus Fire Chief, H. K. Henderson, who yelled “You have your own churches,”2 as the group attempted to enter for worship.  Church members cautioned the group to leave, and threatened to forcibly remove them if they did not. 

The saying that “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week” highlights the urgency that accompanied activists' efforts to integrate American churches.  Ironically, places of worship proved one of the most difficult institutions to desegregate.  Because of its Christian foundation, and the participation of many ministers and religious in the group, the SCLC targeted churches for desegregation.  Segregated churches symbolized the hypocrisy of many Americans who supported racial equality except on Sundays.  However, the Civil Rights Movement countered this hypocrisy by organizing as an interfaith effort, and deliberately bringing Jews, Christians, Moslems, and people of other religious faiths together to create social change.   

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1. The segregation of American churches has its roots in slavery.  Read the documents describing religion in slave communities on the web site of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (Part VII) .  How might these tensions surrounding religion during slavery have contributed to the segregation of black and white churches in the twentieth century?  

2. How willing were African Americans to integrate white churches during the civil rights era?  What was at stake in maintaining separate black and white churches?

3. What ideas and principles did non-Christian activists bring to the Civil Rights Movement? 

4. How did Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and compassion intersect with Christian principles of brotherly love and altruism?

Take it to the Streets!

African American Protestant churches share many unique characteristics that scholars describe as the vernacular tradition: for example, gospel music,  call-and-response interaction between preachers and congregation, and passionate expression of feelings. Discuss how these religious traditions have influenced black orators, from the Reverend Dr. King, to Shirley Franklin, to Barack Obama.

Writer: Lauren Chambers    
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Deborah Stanley, and Diane Trap
Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill   
Web Site Designer: William Weems 

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