The American Protestant tradition is one with a mixed history on race relations without question. The Presbyterian tradition, in particular, is one that has had to face its own failure of being on the wrong side of racial justice for much of American history. Even with that history, we are encouraged that the gospel really does change people and has the power drive racial healing and build racial solidarity. In The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign For Southern Church Desegregation, by Rhodes College religious studies professor Stephen R. Haynes, readers get an example of gospel transformation in the powerful story of the “kneel-in” desegregation in Memphis in the 1960s. Like most histories, we find the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Resisting Racial Integration
The book opens recounting the story of a series of nonviolent church desegregation protests across the South to test the limits of white Christian denial of their baptism by prohibiting African Americans from joining in corporate Sunday worship. Haynes explains that kneel-ins became the official name of the protests “not because kneeling was a regular feature of the visits (which it wasn’t), but because attempts to break the ecclesiastical color line were viewed as part of a larger campaign of ‘sit-ins,’ ‘sleep-ins’ and ‘wade-ins’ that was sweeping the South at the time.” The denominations barring African Americans in the South ranged from Assemblies of God to Methodist to Presbyterian churches and beyond.
The bulk of the book focuses on the events of 1964 at Second Presbyterian Church (SPC) in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Southern Presbyterian struggle with racial integration during the mid-1960s in general. What is additionally helpful in the narrative is the observation that for these white churches, the only thing feared more than racial integration was interracial marriage. Miscegenation was to be avoided at all cost and would serve as the catalyst for racial tension decades later.
What readers will find startling are the events leading to the formation of Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) in Memphis. According to Haynes, IPC was planted as a protest against racial integration and in resistance to what was considered unbiblical involvement of the Presbyterian Church in social issues in ways that weakened the church’s core calling to evangelism and discipleship. In March 1965, right after SPC voted to embrace racial integration, over 300 people left SPC to form IPC. Because of this history, IPC has had challenges building unity with the black community in Memphis. However, after a number of painful years, IPC has publicly confessed the sins of their fathers, sought forgiveness, and is actively working toward racial reconciliation and racial solidarity.
A Model of Confession and Repentance
Several years ago SPC initiated the challenging process of confession and repentance as it dealt with its own history in Memphis, and it has successfully pursued several racial reconciliation initiatives with the black community in the city today. It is now IPC’s turn. Under the leadership of its current pastor, the Rev. Richie Sessions, IPC is putting the gospel on display before a watching world. On Sunday May 13, 2012, one of the elders of the IPC read this statement of repentance and confession before the congregation:
We profess, acknowledge and confess before God, before one another, and before the watching world, that tolerance of forced or institutional segregation based on race, and declarations of the inferiority of certain races, such as once were practiced and supported by our church and many other voices in the Presbyterian tradition, were wrong and cannot and will not be accepted within our church today or ever again. The Lord calls us to repent of the sin of prejudice; to turn from it and to treat all persons with justice, mercy, and love. As a church, we will strive to be more intentional and proactive with ministry opportunities for the congregation to serve the city of Memphis as redemptive, Gospel-driven agents seeking the peace and prosperity of ALL of Memphis.
On that same day, Sessions preached a powerful sermon on the gospel and race. Haynes tells the story of how IPC arrived at this day of confession over several years of discussions building on the work of previous pastors in this direction. It is a wonderful story of church struggling through the implications of what it means to love God and neighbor while taking both baptism and the Lord’s Supper seriously. Sessions has emerged as one of America’s most dynamic pastors as a result.
The Deep Roots of White Supremacy
Within the context of the IPC repentance story, Haynes also covers a troubling story from just a few years ago. In 2005, IPC hired the Rev. John Hardie to serve as pastor. Hardie had done graduate work at Yale University and was completing a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. In November 2006, Hardie made a tangential comment that the Bible does not speak against interracial marriage while giving an illustration about a close friend of his. What Hardie did not realize is that while many conservative Presbyterians in the South were open to different races occupying the same public space, interracial marriage is still considered unbiblical and impermissible by many Southerners to this day. It turns out that in our era if you want to get a sense of where a person stands on race issues, do not ask about integration or racial reconciliation; ask whether or not God smiles upon interracial marriage.
TRACKING A PAINFUL HISTORY: Author Stephen R. Haynes.
Several members of IPC found the sermon comment offensive. According to Haynes, the Rev. Tom Elkin, a former adjunct pastor at IPC and now on pastoral staff at The First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, taught a Sunday school class two weeks later at IPC where Elkin “misleadingly implied that Hardie was not only defending interracial marriage” but “encouraging its practice.” Elkin objected, in part, because Hardie’s view appeared to condemn Southern Presbyterians’ spiritual ancestors. In his admonishment of Hardie, Elkin even went so far as to defend pro-slavery Presbyterians like R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell and their acceptance of American slavery on what Elkin interpreted as non-racists grounds. After a few months of questions and turmoil, Hardie found himself “resigning” by May of 2007. Haynes concludes that however Hardie’s abrupt departure is officially described “there is no question that his decision to invoke interracial marriage as an acid test for white racism was a fateful turn in his brief tenure at the church.”
The Hard Road of Reconciliation
Independent Presbyterian Church and is a member church of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. In recent years several, other books and articles have raised troubling questions about individual churches and the resistance to desegregation. Books such as Joel Alvis’ Race and Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983, Peter Slades’ Open Friendship in a Closed Society, and an article by R. Milton Winter titled “Division & Reunion in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.” stand out as prime examples. The PCA has taken important steps toward acknowledging its past as a denomination through repentance and racial reconciliation statements (2002) and statements condemning the sin of racism (2004). However, consistent with its Southern Presbyterian roots, those statements are non-binding and only make a difference in congregation life if individual churches take action in response. As a result, according to Haynes, IPC is the only church in the PCA that has ever taken the courageous step to confess and repent of the sins of their own local church fathers.
Given the number of Presbyterian congregations in the Southeast with histories dating back to slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, it might seem amazing to some that, although the denomination embraced a repentance statement over a decade ago, only one of the nearly 1,800 churches has publicly confessed and repented of the past locally. Some argue that this has much to with a Southern cultural norm that discourages people from discussing the failures of previous generations. This perspective can only be called idolatry. Richie Sessions and IPC reject this idolatry. IPC understands the biblical model of confessing the sins of our fathers and instead of turning a blind eye, to honor them in their death for the good they did (Ezra 9:6-15, Neh. 1:6-7, 9:2).
To date, IPC remains a model of what true racial reconciliation looks like. Without confession and repentance in Southern cities by individual churches, reconciliation will be cheap and ineffective. What cities in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina need are pastors with the vision and fortitude of men in leadership at IPC. Confessing and repenting of their father’s sins puts the gospel on display to a watching world and reminds members of their need of the grace of God, lest they return to beliefs and practices that deny their baptism. As I noted in my official endorsement for this book, Haynes presents a story based in Memphis that is paradigmatic for the entire South.
MODELING SERVANT LEADERSHIP: Manassas High School coach Bill Courtney sought to teach more than football.
We’ve seen the story before: a white coach turns around a failing inner-city football team and, in the process, helps ease racial tensions in his community. This time the film is Undefeated, a documentary about three black players from North Memphis, Tennessee, and their volunteer coach Bill Courtney. The film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards last Sunday night (snagging an Oscar for executive producer Sean “P.Diddy” Combs), but while Courtney is humbled by the honor, he isn’t all that impressed and says he didn’t set out to save anybody. UrbanFaith talked to this no-nonsense coach about his faith, his motives, and his goals for working with the team. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: In an interview with MSN before Undefeated won the Academy Award, you said if the film defines you or the players featured in it, or if it is the best thing that ever happened to any of you, you’ve got real problems. How do you feel now that it’s won?
Bill Courtney: I feel the same way. The film winning a little 14-inch gold statue doesn’t make it any better or worse than it was before it won it. It’s a great honor and it’s humbling. In Hollywood, societal statements or environmental statements are the types of things that are typically celebrated, so when a film about perseverance and kids wins, it speaks to the power of the film. I think it’s great, but it doesn’t define us and it cannot define us. What needs to define us is the experience that we had together so that when we go on in our lives 20 years from now, and we’re raising families, having graduated from college, and have jobs, that’s what needs to define us, not a moment in time that was captured on film. Don’t take me wrong. It’s humbling. It’s a wonderful experience and we should allow ourselves to enjoy it, but if something like that defines you, you start taking yourself too seriously and that’s a pretty tough road to hoe.
An employee of yours had asked for time off to cook pre-game meals with his Sunday school class for an inner-city football team and you told him about Manassas High School, which is down the road from your lumber company. He then told the Manassas team about you and that’s how you got involved. Did faith play a role in your involvement too?
Courtney: Faith plays a role in everything I do. I’m a Christian. It’s my job to be as Christ-like as I possibly can. I sin daily. Thank goodness for forgiveness; otherwise my life would be in shambles. Certainly faith played a role in it, because I feel compelled and I feel that it’s all of our calling to help out those in the greatest need. These kids were completely deficient in a number of basic tenets and fundamentals that I want my own children raised with. The need was there and it was the most rewarding experience of my life to be able to share my life with them. It’s inspirational that they shared their lives with me. I don’t think they would have been welcomed into my neighborhood nearly as quickly and generously as they welcomed me into theirs.
What did you learn from these young men who came from a different culture and a different racial background than you?
Courtney: The racial thing didn’t really have anything to do with it. I didn’t think of them as my black players and they didn’t think of me as the white coach. I know society is going to look at this film and want to have that conversation. It had nothing to do with our relationship. Therefore, I don’t have anything to say about it.
With regard to what I learned from them, prior to my experience with them, I probably would have had the attitude that this is a free country. My mom and dad were divorced early. I grew up with very little and I made it, so if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. Frankly, that’s a lie. That’s something we want to tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good. The truth is the playing field isn’t level. When children grow up having seen perpetual generations that have no hope and feel lost, and feel like they’re not even part of society, that’s what they’re going to feel and grow up doing. All the money and governmental programs and everything in the world simply does not replace true love, care, and compassion, and true mentorship.
What they taught me was that no matter what you’re circumstances are, when you try to do the right things, and you work toward commitment and discipline, and you work on your own soul and character, then amazing things can happen. I will forever be indebted to those kids and that community for welcoming me and accepting me.
You’ve said that football doesn’t build character, it reveals character, and that if a person’s foundation is football, they’re going to fall on their behind.
Courtney: I don’t think something as trivial as a game builds character. You build your own character when you build a foundation of the tenets you want to make yourself. Things like football, a job, a marriage—the real things in life are what reveal your character. If you think football is going to help you to rise up above your circumstances and have a great life, I think you’re wrong. You can’t stand on a football. Football cannot be a foundation for anything. Your foundation has to be your discipline and your commitment. If you build your foundation on those principles, then you can hold 20 footballs over your head all day long.
In the MSN interview, you talked about the servant leadership of a coach you had growing up who made seniors get water for the team and things like that instead of making freshman do it, as is customary. Is Christ-like servant leadership something you taught your players and modeled for them?
Courtney: I believe that Christ lived on this earth and gave his life so that I could be forgiven for the things I do on a daily basis that I’m ashamed of. So, when I believe the ruler of the universe served me, I pretty much feel like it’s my responsibility to serve everyone I can. In serving, you then lead, because you give an example to people of a way to lead your life that is more selfless than self-serving. I didn’t say that, because it comes off self-serving if you say, “Hey, look at me.” I just did it. My belief is: I can’t save anybody—I can’t save anybody from circumstances; I can’t save anybody into a faith. It’s my job to introduce my faith and then let the Lord work his will the way he sees fit. The way you do that is you walk what you talk and do the very best you can to serve and to share what your life is about, if they ask. Hopefully from there, they find a place in their own lives to grow from that.
The 1960s and early ’70s witnessed two record companies with integrated ownership, integrated executive leadership, and integrated house bands vying to be recognized as the epicenter of the burgeoning soul/rhythm-and-blues movement in popular American music. Like prize fighters battling it out in the ring, these two giants released hit after hit, and helped define a generation.
As a young person growing up in an all-white rural town in a virtually all-white county, attending an all-white school system, I listened to the artists who recorded on those twin towers of soul — Motown and Stax.
Back then, the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis gave me a window into a mysterious, other-worldly culture. Listening in late at night, when the radio signal came in with clarity, I heard music that was simultaneously gospel-tinged and yet sensual (Marvin Gaye’s “if the spirit moves you, let me groove you good, let your love come out”); at once similar to my own teen experiences (the Supremes’ hand-clapping, bubble-gum refrain of “baby, baby, where did our love go?”) and yet very different (Isaac Hayes’ hip, urban private eye known as “Shaft, John Shaft”); at once mindlessly sweet (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour, pretty little girl that I adore”) and yet powerful social commentary in a way that began to raise my awareness of contemporary issues — particularly the Vietnam War and police brutality (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and its line, “war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate”) and the inequality of the races nearly two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (Wonder’s civil rights classic “Living for the City” and its re-enactment of New York police brutality with the memorable, barked line, “Get in the cell, n—–! ).
Until I left for studies at a large, multicultural, multiethnic university in 1979, virtually my entire view of the African American experience came through music, and most of it was from Motown and Stax.
In his book Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture, journalist Kevin Phinney suggests that soul and rhythm-and-blues music like that of Motown and Stax actually changed white American culture and race relations. Bill Withers, himself a soul/R&B artist with chart-topping hits like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” to his credit, critiqued Phinney’s thesis by saying that “race is too serious an issue to be discussed under the auspices of something as narrow as music….” On principle, Withers refused Phinney’s request for an endorsement of the book.
Bill Withers may or may not be correct. But at the very least, the music helped expand the narrow borders of my world. In the process, it prompted me to consider new vistas regarding race, religious faith, and sexuality — three topics that one did not talk about in my rural Indiana home. All three were seamlessly woven together in the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis and into my bedroom, into my world.
In their heyday, Stax and Motown were a formative part of American culture — both black and white. But their artists were not the first to have an impact. Indeed, journalist and filmmaker Nelson George traces the initial soul/R&B spark that Motown and Stax would ignite into a pop culture flame to an artist who never recorded for either label — Ray Charles.
But my appreciation for Ray Charles came much later. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Stax and Motown — Detroit and Memphis — carried the message my way.
Stax Records: Soulsville U.S.A.
Though neighboring Nashville had its country and western division of Capitol Records with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, among other artists, on its roster, Memphis had Stax Records with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and the Staple Singers. Booker T. and the MGs, who scored major hits with the instrumental “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight,” served as the integrated house band for much of the Stax catalog, laying down grooves with a distinct horn section, strong bass lines, and out-front organ solos.
Founded by a white country fiddler and banker named Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, in 1958, Stax was originally called Satellite Records. After spending its first year in a garage studio about 30 miles outside of Memphis, Stewart — by then working his primary job as a banker in the city making $350.00 a month — signed a $150.00-a-month lease on the former Capitol Theatre at the corner of College and McLemore in a neighborhood that was turning from white to black.
For two decades, the Stax catalog of soul and rhythm-and-blues music was recorded at the sloped-floor studio that became known as “Soulsville U.S.A.” in obvious juxtaposition to Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” nomenclature, which was affixed atop its studio and office building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.
In his book Just My Soul Responding, on the connections between rhythm-and-blues music, black consciousness, and relations between the races, Brian Ward gave his take on the impact of Stax, particularly during the 1960s as tensions mounted in Detroit, Newark, Watts, and beyond:
During the 1960s, many blacks within the industry and beyond it continued to see southern soul as both an occasion and a mechanism for promoting greater racial tolerance, respect and understanding. Al Bell, the black Stax songwriter, executive and later president, clearly believed that the label’s biracialism carried great symbolic significance, even into the heart of the black power era.
In A Change Is Gonna Come, author Craig Werner also used the popular music of the 1960s and early ’70s to explore the social transformation of that period. But rather than rehearse the massive popularity of Motown in the north, he focused on Southern soul as embodied in the music recorded at Stax.
“Part of the black community’s broader struggle to redefine the ground rules of American society, the dissonant harmonies emanating from Memphis drew on and spoke to the beloved community,” Werner writes. “Like gospel, Southern soul spoke to the burdens of life and the need to reach for something higher. The rough edges reflect something fundamental about life in a place where rednecks and the children of the ghetto shared enough of a common culture to challenge everything they’d been taught about race. It wasn’t smooth, but neither was the life outside the studio. And, for a while, there was reason to think that the dialogue that began in Memphis might spread across the world.”
Otis Redding was Stax’s first true superstar with hits like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” and the posthumously-released “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Redding’s death in a plane crash near downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967 signaled the end to what Bowman considers Stax’s first life and, indeed, some feared the label would cease to exist without its signature artist. But other forces, including former Stax session musician Isaac Hayes — arguably the label’s final superstar — and the Staple Singers, a Chicago family gospel group–stepped into the gap. Hayes had huge crossover hits including “Theme from Shaft,” and the Staple Singers scored with “Let’s Do It Again,” “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Like Marvin Gaye’s 1970s music, “I’ll Take You There” combined spirituality and social protest, and it is one of the more memorable tunes from my own adolescence.
In Rob Bowman’s corporate biography of Stax, Mavis Staples said, “The songwriters at Stax knew we were doing protest songs. We had made a transition back there in the sixties with Dr. King. We visited Dr. King’s church in Montgomery before the movement actually got started. When we heard Dr. King preach, we went back to the motel and had a meeting. Pops (Staples, her father) said, ‘Now if he can preach this, we can sing it. That could be our way of helping towards this movement.’ We put a beat behind the song. We were mainly focusing on the young adults to hear what we were doing. You know if they hear a beat, that would make them listen to the words. So we started singing protest songs. All those guys were writing what we actually wanted them to write. Pops would tell them to just read the headlines and whatever they saw in the morning paper that needed to be heard or known about (they would) write us a song from that.”
Mavis Staples’ comment about “I’ll Take You There” and other Stax classics serves as a clear reminder of the difference between “Soulsville U.S.A.” and its northern counterpart — “Hitsville.” Until Marvin Gaye leveraged his superstardom and demanded the release of the anti-Vietnam War concept album What’s Going On over his label owner’s strenuous objections, Motown was not concerned with contributing to the movement as much as selling “45” records and Motown Revue concert tickets — primarily to white teenagers, like me.
Motown: Hitsville U.S.A.
If, as Mavis Staples has said, Soulsville U.S.A. was putting words from the day’s headlines into song, Hitsville U.S.A. was more of a mass production assembly line.
Though Chicago had the Chess brothers’ record company on South Michigan Avenue with the inimitable Chuck Berry, among others, in the label’s fold, Detroit had Motown Records with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Stevie
Started in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr., with just $800 in assets and a dream, over the course of the next 13 years Motown became enormously successful — and its name became a synonym for Detroit. Gordy, a former Ford Motor Company employee, believed that music could, similarly, be organized and automated for efficiency and quality.
As journalist Elvis Mitchell has written, “Gordy was out to carve a niche for himself. Motown made Detroit a lightning rod for potential and promise, where the level of competition pushed everyone to their best. We can’t actually say what Gordy’s goal was but the accomplishment is undeniable: he turned Detroit into a Mount Rushmore of popular culture with his bare hands.”
Nelson George thinks he does know what Gordy’s goal was.
In his book The Death of Rhythm & Blues, George wrote that Motown promoted its founder and president as an “affirmative, unthreatening symbol of black capitalism, one as acceptable in the New York Times as on the cover of Ebony. In his rare public statements and in all Motown promotional materials, Gordy clearly stated that his goal was to buy into mainstream standards. He was amassing wealth and expanding his operations — a sure threat to insecure whites — but his message was, ‘Don’t worry. I just want to be like you.'”
In his pursuit of becoming just like his white counterparts at Columbia Records in New York or Capitol in Los Angeles, Gordy hired choreographers and tailors; he sent Diana Ross, among others, to “manners” courses or finishing schools to refine their dress, their movements, and their speech. After floundering with a number of records that didn’t crack the Top 40, the Supremes, with Diana Ross as Gordy’s hand-picked centerpiece of the trio, would by the mid-1960s supplant Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Four Tops to become Motown’s best-selling act.
Gordy had, in fact, reached his goal. In 1968, the year that Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, five of the top ten hits on the pop charts carried the ubiquitous blue and silver logo of Motown Records.
“Before Motown, the music business relegated most of the great black artists to second-class citizenship,” former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw writes in his best-selling book Boom! – Voices of the Sixties. “They played in out-of-the-way clubs in black neighborhoods, recorded on little-known labels, and were featured on stations at the far end of the dial. Gordy and Motown changed the place of black music in America by dressing it up (critics would say whitewashing it) with simple, emotional lyrics and sweet harmonies performed by artists who were carefully groomed and coached to cross over to the white audience of record buyers and radio listeners, without losing standing with their black base. Equally important, he made a black-owned company into an American entertainment colossus.”
Why the Music Matters
In the 1960s and early to mid-1970s, during the heyday of Motown and Stax, I’d not yet read a book by Dr. King or Malcolm X, by Andrew Young or Ralph Abernathy, by Cornell West or George Yancey. Those readings would come a decade later.
But like many of my generation, I had listened to the music.
Music was my “book” in the 1960s and early to mid-1970s. Through the volume written at Motown, I had been given an image of African Americans more refined, more polished, and more skilled as musicians than any white person or white artist I had encountered. Motown countered the popular images found on television of the day, offering more of a “Sidney Poitier To Sir With Love” model rather than a “Redd Foxx Sanford & Son” stereotype. Through the volume written at Stax, I had a sense that prejudice and discrimination — I would likely have called it bigotry — were alive and well in the world and the voices coming out of Memphis and, occasionally, Detroit were onto something that needed to be heard.
The Motown and Stax songs informed my experience, expanded my borders. There was power in the music. I’m convinced there still is.