At a stately but aging Greek Revival building on the busy corner of Ponce de Leon and Piedmont avenues in midtown Atlanta on the warm spring Saturday of April 24, 1965, a revolution of sorts happened. A small body of white, largely Southern-accented Christians acted to voluntarily, without coercion from above, take into its bounds churches from a segregated body within the same denomination.
On that day, the Southeast Convention (SECNV) of the Congregational Christian Churches, in its annual meeting held at Central Congregational Church, took in four former congregations of the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Alabama and Tennessee and also some 23 predominantly black churches of the Convention of the South (CS) residing within the six-state territory, to form the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ. In so doing, the UCC finally became rid of the color line at the conference level, bringing the denomination one major step closer to its goal of full inclusion of all people.
Ever since the 1963 UCC General Synod called for the denomination’s home mission board to terminate financial support of churches and entities that continued to practice racial segregation, some of the SECNV’s leaders and churches felt threatened by the UCC’s commitment to equal rights. Even as the theme developed especially from abolitionist days, work in developing white Southern churches had been rather studiously oblivious to parallel Congregationalist educational and evangelistic work among the “freed people.”
With a few exceptions mainly in cities, the SECNV’s churches typically had worship less frequently than weekly. Some of their ministers had never had the opportunity to get a formal high school education, let alone a collegiate or theological one. More important than anything was “saving souls,” and most saw no need to change doctrine or attitudes to reflect industrialization-induced prosperity, since most everybody had come from a agricultural background and their attitudes had been shaped by the hard times of the Depression.
By sharp contrast, the African-American congregations, all but a few founded by the American Missionary Association, were mostly located in proximity to the academies and universities planted by brave Northern missionaries. For generations, the CS churches had been mainly composed of a professional African-American clientele, usually physicians, attorneys, business people, and—especially—educators. So a truly oil-and-water blending was about to take shape with the merger, with race not by any means the sole barrier to harmony. Class and educational differences and attitudes toward modernity and received traditions also played their hand in this move.
Under the leadership of one W. C. Carpenter, Sr., a staunch segregationist and flamboyant preacher, one faction of the SECNV did what it could to forestall the merger on the first attempt at the 1964 Annual Meeting, and succeeded by 86 to 75 votes, a large number from churches who seldom if ever came to the Annual Meeting and came for the specific purpose of stopping the union. But a measure was approved afterward to revisit the matter the next year. During that interval, Southeast Convention superintendent James Lightbourne, Millard Fuller (before his fame as the founder of Habitat for Humanity), and UCC field representative Edward Brown worked assiduously to change the outcome next time around.
So, when the time came in April 1965, the stage was set for highly tense debate and confrontation, amplified by the presence of UCC President Ben Herbster and fraternal delegates from both the E&R and CS churches. Opponents of the measure managed to get a roll call vote, but this time, the pro-merger side won, 116 to 99, with two abstentions. Both the presence of progressively-minded churches from Tennessee and Kentucky and the relative absence of rural conservative churches from Alabama and Georgia contributed to the reversed outcome. With a number of churches refusing to buy into integration, though, the UCC Statement of Faith’s proclamation of Jesus extending His offer to accept the cost of discipleship would ring very true. But so would the joy, and both would be in evidence over the next 50 years.