KKK is welcomed to a Baptist Church service in Portland, Oregon, 1922. (Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 51017.)

Racial Segregation in the Church

The Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery often were justified by religious leaders who argued that slave owners were performing a noble Christian duty by converting and enslaving Africans, who were inferior to whites in the eyes of the church. After the Civil War, white churches supported racial hierarchy and segregation, forcing black people to form their own churches.

The first independent black denomination was formed in 1787, when Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the first African Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia after white congregants yanked them from their knees while they prayed in a whites-only section of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Black churches became an indispensable cultural and political hub of the African American community.

In 1959, nearly a century after slavery was abolished, less than two dozen of the South’s 100,000 white churches were known to have any black members. In 1957, Dr. John Buchanan, a prominent pastor and Man of the Year in Birmingham, Alabama, defended racial division and told the Birmingham News, “[T]he good Lord set up the customs and practices of segregation.” Just as they opposed integrated schools, many white people feared that recognizing African Americans as equals in the intimate context of church would usher in total social equality, which they found unacceptable.

Today, 86 percent of American churches lack any meaningful racial diversity. It is still true that, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”