Friday, August 16, 2013

The Farmville Kneel-In

Farmville, VA Methodist Church
Over at Religion in American History, Mike Utzinger of Hampden-Sydney College has a fascinating piece on the 50th anniversary of an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement in Prince Edward County, VA.

In order to avoid desegregating its public school system, the county decided to abolish public education between 1959 and 1964.  White students attended all-white church academies and black students either left town, attended school in other counties, or were transplanted to other communities across the country by the American Friends Services Committee.  In 1963 the black students of the Prince Edward County town of Farmville had had enough and attempted kneel-ins in local white churches.

After reading Mike's post, I am eager to read Jill Titus's book Brown's Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, VA.  I would really like to learn more about what was going through the head of the minister of the Farmville Methodist Church (one of the few people who did not leave the church when the black students tried to attend worship, although he did beg the students to leave).  It was his first Sunday on the job!

Here is a taste of Mike's piece:


Fifty years to the day, First Baptist Church, Farmville Methodist, Farmville Baptist, and Johns Memorial Episcopal Church commemorated the kneel in with a walking tour where the churches were open to all, including individuals barred from entrance 50 years ago.  Rev. Williams, pastor of Levi Baptist Church, spoke at First Baptist, recalling, “I had the students and the demonstrators sing right there on the steps of Farmville Baptist and I prayed. Well, before we knew anything, here come the cops.”  The students, he remembered, went limp as the officers carried them away.  However, within the past decade, he noted, things have changed. He even preached at Farmville Baptist last Good Friday.  Ms. Tina Land Harris was a leader in the NAACP Youth Organization and a student leader of the demonstrations.  She was also arrested that day on the church steps.  However, fifty years later the Farmville Police Department made a commendation of the students' bravery.  After the commendation, a young lieutenant, who said the photographs of the arrests gave him chills (and not the good kind), turned and hugged Ms. Harris noting his respect of her bravery. Williams then led the multi-ethnic crowd of about 200 people in several chorus of "We Shall Overcome."  Centra Southside Hospital provided water for the participants as they left the church for the next stop.  The Town of Farmville donated a local bus to transport those who needed assistance from site to site.