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Bringing the Church into the World: The Civil Rights Struggle & the Student Interracial Ministry

(This guest blog is provided courtesy of our old friend, David Cline, assistant professor of history and director of the graduate certificate in public history at Virginia Tech. Many Library patrons will be familiar with David, through the dozens of video interviews he has conducted for the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP) and also because of several public presentations at the Library focusing on his research into various aspects of the long black freedom struggle, civil rights and social activism In this blog, David reflects on the sometimes unexpected, and always rewarding, ways in which disciplinary training, professional interests, personal relationships, and archival materials come together to produce remarkable stories about memorable people and events that shaped the course of the nation’s history. And, we at AFC are most appreciative that David’s diligent scholarship led to the use of images from one of our collections in his recent book, and more importantly, to making connections with the donors of those very same materials.)

In the fall of 2004, while noodling around for a research project idea that would help me explore my interest in clergy involvement in social activism, I happened upon the story of the Student Interracial Ministry. I had spent an afternoon visiting with Rev. Robert Seymour, retired pastor of the Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Seymour was hired in 1958 as Binkley’s first minister, specifically because of his concerns with racial and social justice and a keen desire to create a church with an interracial congregation. Yet, as Seymour told me that afternoon, their experiment in an interracial and ecumenical church developed slowly and was not truly tested until 1962 when its pastor won approval from the board to request a black summer intern from something called the Student Interracial Ministry (SIM).

Seymour was attracted to SIM’s commitment, in the words of one of its student founders, to “attempt to..bring confrontation in depth [to the freedom struggle]. Just as each group has its own role to play, so SIM is concerned with grace, with reconciliation, with opening lines of communication where none have existed, and with reopening those which have been temporarily cut off.” So, while the half-empty college town lapsed into its usual sleepy summer life, the congregants of Binkley were roused from their torpor by a young, black preacher by the name of James Forbes whose visit marked a fundamental turning point in the life of the congregation. As Seymour told me that afternoon, “Our people were intellectually committed to an inclusive church, but having this black pastor with us for the summer helped them work through some of the emotional vestiges of feelings that were still there.

Union Theological Seminary

Union Theological Seminary, New York (//lccn.loc.gov/2003677482)

The conversation with Reverend Seymour provided the spur for several years of archival research into the newly processed records of the Student Interracial Ministry in the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I found therein the story of a hitherto overlooked religiously-based student-run civil rights organization that operated from 1960 through 1968 and that had been founded at the same place and at the same time as the better known Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SIM members, however, walked a different path than their SNCC counterparts. I found out that Jim Forbes’ arrival at Binkley Baptist Church was in line with SIM’s tactic of placing black assistant pastors in white churches and whites in black churches with the goal of furthering racial reconciliation, this at a time when crossing the color line in the deep South was often an invitation to violence. I came to know that in the first summer of 1960, SIM sent seven students on interracial ministries and that at the height of its efforts in 1966, it sponsored 93 seminarians working as summer or yearlong assistant pastors. In total, nearly 350 individuals — white and black, male and female, Christian and Jewish — from over 40 seminaries and 10 undergraduate colleges in 24 different states participated in Student Interracial Ministry projects throughout the country and in congregations of all the mainline Protestant denominations.

//www.loc.gov/folklife/images/Montgomery65/afc2012040_055_24.jpg

James Forman (2nd from left), Reverend Ralph Abernathy (behind megaphone), Reverend Martin Luther King (to Abernathy’s left) at Montgomery rally for voting rights, March 1965 (Glen Pearcy Collection; afc2012040_055_24.jpg)

When SIM officially ceased operations in 1968, it was operating urban ministry projects from Washington DC to Chicago to Los Angeles. Remarkably, despite its short life-span, SIM volunteers worked in nearly all of the civil rights movement’s “hotspots” and with many of the better-known movement figures, including Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father Martin Luther King Sr., Ralph Abernathy, James Lawson, Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Jesse Jackson, and Andrew Young, and with church leaders and theologians, among them Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, Harvey Cox, and Paul Tillich. SIM students ran messages to King in jail in Birmingham, talked with Stokely Carmichael as he first enunciated his vision of black power in a tent one night during a march across Mississippi.

And some of them were in the congregation at Riverside Church in 1969 when James Forman captured the pulpit to issue the Black Manifesto, calling for churches and synagogues to pay reparations of 500 million dollars to African Americans for their complicity in slavery and racism. [NOTE: The Library’s Manuscripts Division holds James Forman’s papers in its collections – //lccn.loc.gov/mm2007085371 ]

They worked within and alongside the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Methodist Student Movement, SNCC, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Congress of Racial Equality, and many others. In particular – as I detail a little later – SIM volunteers were deeply invested in the Southwest Georgia Project, co-founded by civil rights activists Charles Sherrod and Shirley Sherrod. [NOTE: Recorded interviews with the Sherrods and activists from many of these organizations can be accessed online from the Civil Rights History Project digital collection].

It was a heck of a story, one worth telling about the organization in its own right and what it accomplished. Accordingly, I could have followed up on my conversation with Reverend Seymour, folded in the stories from records contained in the archives, produced a decent enough book, and that would have been the end of the story – except that it wasn’t. Over the course of the decade following my meeting with Reverend Seymour, writing the SIM story opened up a way for me to expand upon and examine the more than century-long tradition of American mainline liberal Protestant progressive thought and social action. In significant ways this tradition underpinned the civil rights struggle and many other social change movements. And these are the deeply intertwined stories I’ve attempted to recount in my book From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement,  University of North Carolina Press (2016) – //lccn.loc.gov/2016012007

Reflecting on the research process, it’s clear to me that as important as archival collections are –I am after all writing this on a blog for our nation’s foremost archival repository – they do not in and of themselves hold all the answers. It goes without saying that people are infinite archives unto themselves, and their basements and attics often rich annexes! Nor are the collections necessarily complete when archivists make them publicly accessible: Research and collecting can be ongoing and complementary, and often proceed hand-in-hand. For me, the archival work on SIM uncovered deeper and richer areas of further research, exploration and interpretation, but more importantly, led to new friendships and the resumption of old ones. And this came about because in the early days of my digging into the SIM collection at Union’s library I began to compile a master record of all the students who had participated in the organization. With the help of the alumni office at Union Seminary, and numerous searches by name on the good old Internet, I managed to make contact with about 70 of the former seminarians who had served with SIM at some time during its eight years of activism. I ended up conducting oral history interviews with close to 40 of them and meeting a dozen or so more. These interviews yielded amazing details that emerged from warmly-recounted and harrowingly relived stories that were not contained in manuscripts, or in moldy boxes of administrative records absent from the existing collection at Burke, nor in photographs, cassette tapes and even a rare 16mm movie documenting some of the project’s work.

I had rich and meaningful contacts with many individuals and while I hesitate in naming only a few out of the many, I do want to mention a few such relationships here: Bob Seymour, the host minister (rather than a SIM student), was the first of many who guided me on the path. John Collins, a retired New York minister and one of the original founders of the organization, supported and cajoled and encouraged me throughout what turned into a dozen years of work. But, one person is especially important for me, and I want to acknowledge him not only as an example of what research can lead to, but also to honor him personally and his colleagues.

Glen Pearcy graduated from Harvard University in 1966, before going to Union Seminary to study for his MA in Divinity. As a Harvard undergrad, he had traveled to Alabama, in the university president’s own car, to photograph the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights for his school newspaper [NOTE: These AFC blog posts contain examples of Glen Pearcy’s documentary work in Alabama and an interview with him – Marching in Montgomery, 1965 and Marching In Montgomery, 1965, Reconsidered]. At Union Seminary, the aspiring minister and amateur photographer and filmmaker met SNCC organizer, Charles Sherrod, who was then taking a break from his work in Southwest Georgia to get his own Union degree in Sacred Theology. Arriving at Union Seminary in 1964, Sherrod appealed to SIM to send volunteers to Albany, Georgia, to work in the surrounding farming counties for the Southwest Georgia Project. The Southwest Georgia Project was an effort to give local black community members control over agricultural land and livelihood that they had been historically denied.

Union Seminary Volunteers with children, Southwest Georgia Project, 1967

Joe Pfister, Union Theological Seminary, with local kids in the Southwest Georgia Project, Worth County, GA, 1967; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_172_02.jpg)

Five students accompanied Sherrod back to Albany at the end of May 1965. According to long-time volunteer Edward Feaver, the Southwest Georgia Project sought “to force seminarians out of their conventional manner of living and out of their intellectual, ivory-tower theological security.” Feaver and the others were assigned tasks designed to develop local leadership of economic, political, and social issues. But, according to Feaver, a main goal behind the project was to “attack the established manifestation of the church in the South and the confining image of the clergy by working with and not for the people in Southwest Georgia.” After the first summer of 1965, twenty more seminarians joined the project in the summer of 1966, and twelve spent full years there. By late 1967, the Southwest Georgia Project had separated itself from SNCC and now described itself as “partially staffed and partially funded by the Student Interracial Ministry.” In total, forty-four Student Interracial Ministry volunteers served with the Southwest Georgia Project from 1965 to 1968, comprising the bulk of the Project’s staff during that time. Glen and Susan Pearcy went South to work with the Project in 1967 and 1968.

Staff meeting of Southwest Georgia Project, Albany GA, 1967; Charles Sherrod, (left , head down reading); Shirley Sherrd, (right, at head of table), Susan Pearcy(standing, striped shirt); Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_204_18.jpg)

Staff meeting of Southwest Georgia Project, Albany GA, 1967; Charles Sherrod, (left , head down reading); Shirley Sherrod, (right, at head of table), Susan Pearcy (standing, striped shirt); Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_204_18.jpg)

Glen Pearcy, Southwest Georgia Project, 1967

Glen Pearcy, Southwest Georgia Project, 1967; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_203_27.jpg)

As part of my research on SIM, I reached out to and interviewed Glen and Susan and made plans to accompany them and other former volunteers on a mini-reunion visit to Southwest Georgia in 2009. While we were talking prior to the trip, Glen casually mentioned to me that he had shot a film in fact,his first film while a SIM volunteer and that it was still around somewhere. I became very excited, since there are very few images of the work of the Student Interracial Ministry (or so I thought at the time) and here was an actual film! Called “One More River to Cross,” it documented the project’s work and included footage of local families and interviews with activists and local people. His photographs, such as the ones that accompany this blog, also depicted Project workers, community members and scenes of everyday life. Glen’s wife, Susan, an artist, rendered many of the same scenes and people in sketches and paintings, some of which were featured in the project newsletter. Subsequently, Glen unearthed the footage and trucked it along to Southwest Georgia for the reunion. Unfortunately, the 16mm projector we had located failed to work and we were unable to screen it that day. But there was more in store.

A short while after the trip to Georgia in 2009, I was immersed in preparations for the launch of the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP), a joint effort of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress. In another casual conversation – that’s how many of these things work, of course! – I mentioned to Guha Shankar, Folklife Specialist at the Library’s American Folklife Center and the Library’s project director for the CRHP, that I knew someone who had rare film footage of the Civil Rights Movement. I asked him if the materials would be of interest to the Library’s efforts to grow extant Movement collections. I then put Glen and Susan in touch with Guha and basically got out of the way. The result was something very special. A friendship and working relationship blossomed between the Pearcys and Guha and the American Folklife Center. Glen’s film was finally screened at a public presentation that I moderated in 2014 – at the national library, no less (see the webcast//www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=6349). The occasion marked the AFC’s acquisition of the Glen Pearcy Collection, 1965-1988, consisting of Glen’s original film, audio recordings and photographic documentation of the freedom struggle. Thus, archival research, an oral history project, casual conversations and growing friendships, led to a rare treasure trove of rich material on America’s social justice struggles becoming part of the nation’s cultural heritage. [NOTE: These connections were instrumental in the George Washington Pearcy collection being added to the Library’s Veterans History Project, which in turn, generated yet more connections and relationships  – //blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2016/02/collection-spotlight-george-washington-pearcy/]

We lost Glen to a battle with cancer in May, 2016. He is survived by his loving family, but also now by his incredible body of work. In May 2017, Union Theological Seminary will host a one-day seminar on the work of the faithful in social justice movements and on the Student Interracial Ministry in particular. James Forbes will be there, Charles and Shirley Sherrod will be there, and so too will be many of those who forty to fifty years ago worked as SIM volunteers and then continued on to fascinating lives of service and struggle. And I’ll be there too, a humble bystander to this work, to talk about the Student Interracial Ministry’s important history and its even more important legacy. And I’ll show some of Glen’s photographs and reflect a little, about how archival records, though rich, represent not the end of the story, but rather a beginning for yet more stories to emerge and for personal connections to be made that are even more rewarding and ongoing.

Additional Resources for Further Exploration & Research:

Rosa Parks Papers

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

A Day like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Voices of Civil Rights

Many Paths to Freedom: Looking Back, Looking ahead at the Long Civil Rights Movement – contains links to public lectures, film screenings and symposia on the topic of the civil rights struggle in 2014 and 2015.

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Marchers with "One Man, One Vote" signs & watchful police, 03/17-18/1965, Montgomery, AL; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_067_13.jpg)

Marchers with “One Man, One Vote” signs & watchful police, 03/17-18/1965, Montgomery, AL; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_067_13.jpg)

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