Kneel-Ins an important part of Civil Rights history in Americus – Americus Times

1965 Americus Kneel-In

1965 Americus Kneel-In

A group of local citizens staged a Kneel-In in Americus in 1965.

Posted: Saturday, August 1, 2015 7:00 am

Kneel-Ins an important part of Civil Rights history in Americus

Special ATR Contributor

Americus Times Recorder

Fifty years ago, on a steamy August 1 morning in 1965, an integrated group of civil rights activists conducted a kneel-in on Lee Street in Americus, Georgia. An event overlooked by scholars and overshadowed by other civil rights activities, the kneel-in reveals much about race and religion in America and in Americus about our capacity for, not only exclusion, but also for forgiveness and redemption.

The last weeks of July 1965 in Americus had been contentious. Boycotts, marches, rallies, press conferences, visits by national figures, and a murder filled those long days of summer. The civil rights movement had come to Americus. And on Sunday it went to church.

Seeking to integrate segregated southern churches–kneeling-in– was a stated strategy of the civil rights movement. In fact, the newsletter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Student Voice, claimed in 1960 that kneel-ins represented the next important phase of the civil rights struggle.

But what exactly was a kneel-in? As religious scholar Steve Haynes, author of The Last Segregated Hour, defines them, kneel-ins constituted “attempts by blacks or integrated groups to occupy segregated ecclesiastical space.” These groups of men and women, often black and white, would seek entrance to churches. If admitted, they would go in to worship; if denied they would kneel in prayer as protest. The kneelers were largely silent, respecting the solemnity of Sunday worship. Indeed, no signs, slogans, or chants were necessary, as the presence of these visitors to the churches was statement enough. In the charged atmosphere of the 1960s, as historian Carolyn Renee Dupont put it, even “the ordinarily unremarkable act of going to church acquired new meaning.” Kneel-ins occurred, some estimate, hundreds of times in the 1960s, in small towns and major cities, at churches affiliated with every major Christian denomination. And in 1965, they occurred in Americus at First Baptist and First Methodist Church.

Early on the morning of August 1, several young activists, including Carolyn DeLoatch, Lena Turner, David Bell and John Lewis (now a US Congressman from GA’s 5th District) woke early, nervous and hopeful. Neatly dressed and quiet, they headed toward First Baptist where they were met by Fire Chief H.K. Henderson who informed them, in no uncertain terms, that they would not be allowed to enter the church. They knelt, prayed, and, undeterred, headed across the street to First United Methodist. Again, the group was denied entrance. Church leaders and parishioners stood on the steps of the beautiful church, quite literally blocking the doors. The activists knelt once again. And they prayed– prayed for change, for healing, for reconciliation.

Though the group was barred from church that day in 1965, in the following years, both the First Baptist and First United Methodist Church opened their doors to black Americans. America, and Americus, has changed much since 1965. But we still have a long way to go until all people are treated with dignity, respect, and equality.

In our current political and cultural moment, a moment when our churches have become sites of terror and Americans are still undeniably fragmented by race, we would do well to look back to 1965, to see the ways we are still divided, to repent and to embrace one another in Christian love.

– A Georgia native, Ansley Quiros is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama.

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Saturday, August 1, 2015 7:00 am.

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