The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described 11 o’clock on Sunday morning as the “most segregated hour in America.” This commentary is part of a series by Religion News Service about the future of segregation and integration in American religion, produced in partnership with Sacred Writes, a project that helps scholars share their research with a broader audience. The rest of the series can be found here.
CHARLESTON, S.C. (RNS) — On a Monday night in April 2016, more than 2,000 people packed into Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. The crowd included black and white Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, as well as Reform Jews, Unitarians, local activists and other community members. They weren’t there for worship but to confront racial bias in policing practices.
The gathering was the culmination of months of work by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, which began in the intimacy of private homes the previous fall. People shared stories of the concerns that kept them up at night. A common refrain, particularly of black residents, was being stopped by the police for no apparent reason. The practice, known as an “investigatory stop,” had led to the murder of a black man named Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer.
One year later, the justice ministry demanded an independent audit of both the Charleston and North Charleston police departments for racial bias. That was what had brought the thousands of women, men and children to Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist, not far from where Scott died. They were there to ask their respective mayors and city council members, directly, whether they would agree to an audit. The call and response that evening: “Too wrong! For too long!”
I was in the church that night, still a new resident of Charleston. My family and I moved to the city in the wake of two tragedies: Scott’s shooting and the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which took place mere months after Scott’s death. The city was still mourning both crimes when we arrived, its feelings raw.
The two events weighed heavily on how we adapted to our new home and how, as a community member and a professor, I answer the question: What would it mean for our country’s religious communities to move beyond “the most segregated hour in America”?
You may recall Charlestonians of different religions and races walking across a major city bridge in the months after the Mother Emanuel shooting, hands joined in a “unity chain.” Less well publicized was the somewhat spontaneous assembly of black and white religious communities who gathered to grieve together in Morris Brown A.M.E. Church in the shooting’s aftermath. Together they may offer one model for moving beyond the racial segregation of American faith communities — a #CharlestonStrong show of empathy across the racial divide.
Yet, as I reflect on the question, my mind turns to another version of that aphorism typically attributed to Martin Luther King. Our current crisis seems better represented by what James Baldwin had to say on the subject in an interview with Dick Cavett in 1968. “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” the writer told Cavett. “I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but … I know, as Malcolm X once put it, that the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday!”
For Baldwin, violence against black people on the streets was a more pressing problem than potential togetherness in the pews. What was the value of moving beyond “the most segregated hour in America,” if that hour only reflected the segregation of our society writ-large? Baldwin called not for grand gestures or changed hearts, but for comprehensive institutional action.
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Source: Religion News Service