From Reconciliation to Revolution

The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement

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David P. Cline
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469630434.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the spring of 1960, a group of some two hundred students representing fifty-six colleges attended a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. The conference had been organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in order to bring college students and seminarians into a conversation about Civil Rights sit-ins and to “share experience gained in recent protest demonstrations and to help chart future goals for effective action” (viii-ix). The name of the conference was “From Reconciliation to Revolution.” It was at this conference that students from Union Theological Seminary were introduced to the theology of James Lawson, the student activist from Nashville who had been instrumental in non-violent protests in Nashville, Tennessee. As a result of that conference, two new civil rights organizations were founded. The first, and more prominent, was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. The second and lesser known, was the Student Interracial Ministry [SIM], which was founded by a group of white students from Union in order to foster racial reconciliation within the churches. The tactic that SIM would deploy to achieve their goals was to place white pastors in black churches and black pastors in white churches for summer-long internships. The SIM founders believed that if “individual racial attitudes changed within a given community, the effects would ripple outward” (xiii).

David P. Cline’s From Reconciliation to Revolution charts the decade-long rise and fall of the Student Interracial Ministry in the 1960s. Cline’s work not only includes research in the archives of Union Theological Seminary and other major institutions detailed within the monograph, but also a series of thirty-eight in-depth interviews and eight interviews previously recorded with members of SIM. Cline divides his book into six chronological chapters, which chart the Student Interracial Ministry from its beginning in 1960 to its collapse in 1968. The first three chapters detail the beginnings of SIM, its funding sources, early leaders, and students who were involved. Central to the early success of SIM was funding and support from the National Council of Churches [NCC], though their relationship continued to be tenuous. Cline documents how SIM also benefited from clergy exchanges and internships with many high-profile civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Sr., Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Kelly Miller Smith, Jr., and J. Oscar McCloud. 

Chapters 4 and 5 narrate the changing shape of SIM after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. When Charles Sherrod, the SNCC field secretary in Southwest Georgia, came to Union Theological Seminary in 1964, he quickly secured SIM participants to join him in his campaign in Albany, Georgia, where he had worked for the past three years, and which was considered by many civil rights historians to be the site of Dr. King’s first major defeat. Cline argues that this historiographical trend is fallacious, for the Albany movement continued long after King had left. Sherrod took SIM students to southwest Georgia in the summer of 1965 as a part of his continued effort to break the bounds of segregation in the South. Because of Sherrod and his project, many SIM students began to realize that the structural roots of segregation and racism were much deeper than they imagined, and could not be solved with a few legislative victories in Washington, DC. As a result of this, SIM began to pour themselves out into major urban areas, and involved themselves more deeply in voter registration drives, political campaigns, and other projects aimed at addressing the structural hierarchies and complexities of race in America. 

It was during this time that SIM students were becoming more radical, and putting more pressure on the institutional churches. While the NCC had finally come out against segregation and in support of racial reconciliation, SIM students, and students aligned with other organizations, were asking the churches to do more than talk. They required action. As the churches struggled to remain relevant in the turbulent times of the late 1960s, the student activists questioned whether or not they could support or stay a part of denominations that seemed unwilling to act. 

The final chapter charts the attempted changes in the curriculum of Union Theological Seminary and other theological schools, as well as the multifaceted reasons behind SIM’s collapse. Not the least of SIM’s problems was the changing dynamic of the civil rights movement as it expanded to include the anti-war, women’s, and gay liberation movements, as well as finding sources of funding that could support the ever-growing number of students who wished to serve. 

Ultimately, Cline’s narrative provides great insight into both the civil rights movement and the student movement as a whole. Up to this point, SIM has not been given a book-length treatment. Cline has done the academy a great favor with this book, not only for his insight into SIM, but also in dealing with the role of both the National Council of Churches and Federal Council of Churches [FCC] in the civil rights movement. The best treatment of this broader subject is James Findlay’s Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950-1970 (Oxford University Press, 1993); however, in this volume, SIM is given only a one-page treatment. Cline’s work offers another piece of the FCC/NCC puzzle that Findlay describes. Furthermore, Cline’s attention to theological education is helpful in understanding not only the role of seminaries and divinity schools in the 1960s, but also how the events of the civil rights movement and the efforts of student groups like SIM changed the face of those institutions to the present day. This book is a must-read for graduate students and professors interested in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, student movements, and theological education.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Wilson Dean is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David P. Cline is Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech. He has helped to lead several national civil rights movement oral history research projects, working with the Southern Oral History Program, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is also the author of Creating Choice: A Community Responds to the Need for Abortion and Birth Control, 1961-1973 (2006).

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