Civil Rights scholarship no longer privileges the years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March to Selma and further recognizes the national scope of the movement. Because African American churches provided vital institutional support and the movement’s most iconic leaders, scholars have recently examined the religious nature of the Civil Rights movement. David P. Cline’s From Reconciliation to Revolution investigates the Student Interracial Ministry (SIM) and continues these dominant historiographic trends. The failure of white religious institutions, ministers, and laypersons to respond to the movement frustrated progressive seminarians and led them to [End Page 273] rethink the very meaning of “church.” This inspired greater activism, including work with SIM. In addition to pastoral internships, SIM organized and staffed community projects across the United States. As Cline shows, for these students, church might mean preaching on Sunday and organizing an inner-city Head Start program during the week. Cline examines the origins of SIM, interns’ work in the field, the evolution of the organization in the face of Black Power, and the effect the program had both on interns and parishioners. Because it maintained a low profile, SIM has not gained extensive scholarly attention. Cline’s book succeeds in capturing the history of an organization that prided itself on flying under the radar while doing vital, if unglamorous, Civil Rights work.
Cline tells the story of the SIM in six chapters. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, for students from across the nation. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) dates its inception to the conference but the much less well-known SIM also grew from seeds planted in Raleigh. Inspired by the conference, participants from Union Theological Seminary in New York City returned home and, in the following months, organized SIM. For the first few years of the program, SIM placed white seminary students as pastoral interns in all-black churches and black students in white congregations for the purpose of “modeling peaceful interracialism” (p. xiii). As a full immersion program, interns would also live full-time among their flock. The organization’s goal was racial reconciliation, which they believed began at the local church, and such interchange was quite rare in America’s segregated congregations. More than reconciliation, the young seminarians believed that American churches desperately needed radical reform that embraced racial equality and progressive social, political, and economic activism. One student described their vision: “The churches are in for a shocking century – at least that is my hope. It will be a century in which the churches died and the church was born again” (p. xii). Overall, SIM’s goal was racial reconciliation that led to a religious revolution. [End Page 274]
The pastoral internships began as three-month summer assignments in southern churches. Throughout the history of the program, white male seminary students were most numerous, although African Americans and women of various races certainly participated. Some high-profile churches welcomed interns, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. When King was traveling, intern Gurdon Brewster worked for King’s father. He unexpectedly found himself cooking breakfast for “Daddy King” and chauffeuring him around Atlanta. But Brewster also preached on Sunday, visited the sick, and picketed a local supermarket over discriminatory hiring practices. SIM interns were therefore not engaged in visible Civil Rights activism like Freedom Rides. But their mere presence in church was significant and both students and their parishioners believed this experience created understanding across racial lines, a necessary prerequisite for reconciliation. Laymen and interns, both white and black, confronted their own prejudices and discovered that more united them than divided them.
One chapter focuses entirely on SIM’s work in Albany, Georgia. Cline’s assessment of Albany challenges the prevailing historiography. Typically depicted as King’s great failure, a longer perspective shows that the Albany movement did not end when King pulled...