In 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the “most segregated hour” in America. Segregation is not only the separation of racial/ethnic groups, but the legacy of institutional racism that has led to that separation.
Jemar Tisby, the president of “Witness: A Black Church Collective,” said historically, “there would be no black church without racism in the white church.”
During the Civil War-era, white theologians issued treatises justifying the enslavement of Africans and saw their perpetual bondage as sanctioned and ordained by God.
During the Civil Rights era, many white Christian school systems in the South resisted the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation.
“Just as they opposed integrating schools, they feared that recognizing blacks as equals in the intimate context of church would usher in total social equality, which they found unacceptable,” according to eji.org.
So, “whites-only churches” deliberately barred black people from entering a church building, let alone becoming members, elders or leaders.
Tisby said the status of racial segregation in the church has changed in the post-Civil Rights era.
“The climate in society has changed to become less militantly opposed to integration,” he said. “Although, you could make copious arguments that we’re still segregated.”
In 2015, Christianity Today reported that 8 in 10 congregations are mono-racial (at least 80% of churchgoers belong to a single race/ethnic group).
Tisby said churches now generally will say they are open to everyone, although that as a fact in practice is a different question.
“There is still very much a race problem,” he said.
In terms of the black/white racial divide, he said there are reasons for ethnic-specific churches, and that it goes deeper than stylistic differences in preaching or worship services.
“It is about the content. Although the theologies are not incompatible, there are different starting points,” he said.
For example, the starting point for white evangelical churches is Christ’s resurrection, the New Testament, and Paul’s Epistles to the churches. By contrast, for much of the black church tradition, the beginning point is the Exodus and biblical theologies of freedom, liberation and justice.
Tisby also said that when black people form their own denominations or leave predominantly white churches, it is not typically because of a doctrinal dispute.
“They are not arguing over the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the Nicene Creed or other core foundational Christian doctrines. What black people are responding to is the fact that they are being treated as second-class citizens in the household of God,” he said.
In 1974, UM students formed the Black Student Union Choir in response to being ignored, dismissed or disrespected by other students at a predominantly white college. According to Malaco Music Group, the choir provided black students a “musical and spiritual outlet as well as a supportive community and source of cultural pride.”
In 1991, the choir changed its name to the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir.
Darius Woodard, the director of the UM Gospel Choir, said the group is welcome to singers of every race, although it is important to know how the choir started and where it came from.
“The choir started from a segregation-type situation,” said Woodard. “We want anyone who joins to be comfortable, but we also need to be real about the fact that it was started by black people who had to fight to establish it.”
The University of Mississippi does not have a Black Campus Ministry (BCM), and the only college/university in the state that does is Mississippi College, according to bcm.intervarsity.org.
The UM Gospel Choir is all black this year, but it has included people of other racial backgrounds in the past. Also, it is not listed on the university’s website as a “student religious organization.”
A Baylor University study found that the percentage of multiracial congregations nearly doubled from 1998 to 2012, although it is still a small percentage.
Click here to read more.