Repentance and reconciliation: Remembering the 1964 kneel-ins at Memphis’ Second Presbyterian Church

by James R. Bullock Jr.

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA (PNS) On March 22 at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, a remembrance of the 1964 kneel-ins was held. More than 200 people from Second Presbyterian Church (SPC), Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) and the participants of the 1964 kneel-in attended.

Pastors Sandy Wilson from SPC, and Pastor Richie Sessions from IPC welcomed participants to a service of reconciliation and repentance.

The event, sponsored by SPC and IPC, took place exactly 50 years after two college students ― one African American and one white ― attempted to worship at the church.

Stephen Haynes of Rhodes College told those gathered the story of what happened in 1964 from his book, The Last Segregated Hour.  Carolyn Purdy McGhee (sister of deceased participant Joe Purdy) and I described what happened on Sunday, March 22, 1964.

In those years of segregation, I  ― a student at a local white segregated  Presbyterian-related college, Southwestern at Memphis (later  renamed Rhodes College) ― and Joe Purdy, an African American from Memphis State, came to SPC  to worship. Joe was asked if he was African and when he replied that he was American, we were not allowed in.

We continued to come with friends each Sunday and were blocked from entering. The then-Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (now part of the PC(USA))  had proclaimed that all doors should be open to all God’s people.  However, SPC continued to block integrated groups from entering for more than a year.

The PCUS General Assembly was scheduled to meet at SPC in 1965. In the spring of 1965, after repeated requests for SPC to open its doors and repeated refusals by the session of SPC to do so, the PCUS Moderator, Felix Gear, who was a former Southwestern professor as well as a former pastor of SPC, decided to move the General Assembly meeting to Montreat, N.C.

In the fall of 1965 SPC, with a new session in place, voted to open its doors. A group from SPC split off to form Independent Presbyterian Church. In the coming years SPC left the PC(USA) for the Evangelical  Presbyterian Church and IPC went into the Presbyterian Church in America.

The Last Segregated Hour (Oxford, 2012) by Stephen Haynes was written three years ago. After it was written, both churches chose to face the truth of that time, to bring the worshipers who were refused admittance and to face the truth of the continued waywardness of the church, to ask forgiveness and to share all the new efforts toward racial reconciliation that they were doing in the city.

The gathering included pastors and leaders of the churches as well as of Downtown Presbyterian Church. A luncheon with a panel concluded the meeting.

Participants expressed gratitude for what happened. Tears were shed and hopes were expressed that all may work for reconciliation.

Haynes has received a grant in which a task force of professors, writers, and clergy who have worked on reconciliation will study reconciliation and repentance in congregations. That group, which will met for the next year and a half to study repentance and reconciliation, was also at the March 22 event.

James R. (“Jim”) Bullock Jr., retired Presbyterian minister, is now living in St. Augustine, Fla. His wife Ervin was formerly on staff of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.