Eavesdropping on the Most Segregated Hour
A City's Clergy Reflect on Racial Reconciliation
- ISBN: 9780881467918
- Published By: Mercer University Press
- Published: February 2021
Liston Pope, the 20th-century sociologist, referred to the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America in the 1950s. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the oft-quoted originator of the phrase, but the truism remains regardless of origin. One of the problems for later generations of American Christians has been whether the statement serves as a rhetorical stance to highlight the hypocrisy of racism within American Christianity or a charge to overcome the division. Some White Christians have presumed it meant the latter, while the majority simply ignored the power of the rhetorical charge to avoid coming to terms with racism within Christian thinking.
Andrew Manis has spent much of his academic career pursuing the prophetic voice in American Protestantism regarding its color line. Whether examining the nature of civil religion within the civil rights movement as a whole, the biography of the remarkable Fred Shuttlesworth, or the racial history of Macon, Georgia, he has plumbed deeply the well of Christianity’s claims that Jesus sides with the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. In Manis’ hands, the story of American Christianity has been the prophetic voice crying in the wilderness of American racism. In the collection of essays entitled Eavesdropping on the Most Segregated Hour: A City's Clergy Reflect on Racial Reconciliation, Manis explores not only his own intellectual engagement with this larger project of racism in American churches but also published fifteen Macon ministers’ sermons to reveal their own thinking on the subject. Sandy Dwayne Martin serves as an intellectual partner in this project, writing an essay to help introduce the work of racial reconciliation and justice and a concluding essay on the published sermons. Manis (identifying as White) and Martin (identifying as Black) riff off one another in the opening essays and then unpack the sermons in concluding essays to provide a peek into how Black and White ministers and intellectuals think about the subject behind the most segregated hour: racism.
Manis and Martin take turns outlining what they think are important reasons for why 11 o’clock became the most segregated hour. Manis locates the problem in American individualism, consumerism, patriotism, nostalgia, and exceptionalism. Martin agrees with much of Manis’ analysis, but adds that we must remember that Black churches formed as hubs of Black identity in light of Jim Crow segregation. In the essay that precedes the sermons and the essay that follows the sermons, Martin signals an important caveat to the truism: the most segregated hour may be a necessity in a society so blinded by overt racism in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Rather than pointing to 11 o’clock-segregation as something to be overcome, we might be better off examining how the people who worship during that hour undergird their politics through religion. Martin astutely points out that when White people say they don’t like politics in the pulpit they are mostly unaware that that is a political statement. I’m not sure, however, that the intended target audience, White Christians who make political choices that undermine Black people, are the ones who will read this book since in footnote five of the introduction we learn that two of the White ministers invited to contribute did not, and Manis informs the reader these two would have been the most conservative voices (259–260).
The sermons are wide-ranging in terms of the scope of the ministers’ backgrounds. They share a willingness to help their congregants think through how they can address the factors that led to segregated congregations, many sharing personal stories of how they came to see racism within themselves and their religious communities. There are representatives from Black and White Baptist congregations, Holiness and Methodist congregations, Presbyterian ministers, a rabbi, and an imam. The inclusion of the latter two clergy helps expand how racism fits within American religion more broadly. The rabbi and imam give nuanced readings regarding segregation through their sacred texts within American society. All of the sermons confront the sinful nature of racism, but each does so with different tonal inflections, including humor, storytelling, dramatic presentations of King’s “Dream” speech, and some elements of deflection.
With the exception of Manis’ sermonic contribution, only the Black ministers’ sermons address the subject candidly and directly. Many address how individuals can confront their own racial prejudices. And while there are attempts at pushing congregants beyond making different individual choices, only Manis goes so far as to suggest that the issue is bigger than individual choices to be better. He demands specific steps for White congregations to participate in reparations. Given the nature of racism within American society, Manis and Martin point out that individual choices to address personal prejudices are important first steps. However, even if all the individuals in the congregations heard the message and changed their personal choices, racism’s systemic structure remains in place through bankers’ decisions about home loans, voter suppression measures in places like Georgia, or the routine criminalization of people of color because of the color of their skin. One of the ongoing problems for historians of American religion, and one that Manis is prone to in his essays, is the continued emphasis on seeing religious ideals as the norm rather than the exception. We should expect religious people to be conservative in nature because religion helps ground a community in rituals and traditions. Prophetic voices are rare and often unheeded.
The book follows a growing body of work designed to help religious people rethink their religious affinity to American racism, particularly in light of White evangelicals’ attachment to Donald Trump. While the essays and sermons should appeal to a broad audience, the benefit of this kind of collection would be in ministerial training programs that help emerging ministers learn how to help congregations grow from helping individuals make better decisions regarding prejudice as a behavior to addressing larger systematic forms of racism that harm fellow Americans.
Douglas E. Thompson is professor of history and director of the Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies at Mercer University.Douglas E. ThompsonDate Of Review:April 2, 2021