Civil rights protests at white churches, dubbed “kneel-ins,” laid bare the racial logic that structured Christianity in the American South. Scholars have investigated segregationist religion, but such studies tend to focus on biblical interpretation rather than religious practice. A series of kneel-ins at Atlanta’s First Baptist Church, the largest Southern Baptist church in the Southeast, shows how religious activities and religious spaces became sites of intense racial conflict. Beginning in 1960, then more forcefully in 1963, African American students attempted to integrate First Baptist’s sanctuary. When they were alternately barred from entering, shown to a basement auditorium, or carried out bodily, their efforts sparked a wide-ranging debate over racial politics and spiritual authenticity, a debate carried on both inside and outside the church. Segregationists tended to avoid a theological defense of Jim Crow, attacking instead the sincerity and comportment of their unwanted visitors. Yet while many church leaders were opposed to open seating, a vibrant student contingent favored it. Meanwhile, mass media—local, national, and international—shaped interpretations of the crisis and possibilities for resolving it. Roy McClain, the congregation’s popular minister, attempted to navigate a middle course but faced criticism from all sides. The conflict came to a head when Ashton Jones, a white minister, was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for protesting outside the church. In the wake of the controversy, the members of First Baptist voted to end segregation in the sanctuary. This action brought formal desegregation—but little meaningful integration—to the congregation.
- © 2013 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture