This study is concerned with furthering racial reconciliation in communities where prominent white congregations exist in the shadow of civil-rights-era racial trauma. It seeks to bridge an academic trend—scholarly reassessment of white Southerners’ relationship to the civil rights movement—and an ecclesiastical trend--churches’ willingness to acknowledge and offer repentance for “historical wrongs”—with promising examples of congregational truth-telling in a major Southern city.
As Americans enter a period during which fifty-year commemorations of landmark civil rights events will remind us how much of the country’s racial agenda has yet to be accomplished, the need for frank discussions of race will become increasingly obvious. It has been suggested that the American civil rights movement feels “unfinished” precisely because it was not followed up by a process of truth-telling and reconciliation such as was powerfully on display in the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission during the 1990s. As in South Africa, perhaps the churches have something to teach the wider population about the organic link between truth-telling, forgiveness and reconciliation.
This project has the potential for significant impact on several levels. Most importantly, it represents an opportunity to extend beyond Memphis the extraordinary model of scholarly-ecclesiastical collaboration that has emerged in the wake of research on the Memphis kneel-ins. Scholars and pastors from outside Memphis will bring their own experience and expertise and come away with insights for developing programs of truth-telling and reconciliation in the places where they work or study. The project promises not only to identify strategies of ecclesial repentance that can be adpated in other congregations, but to model a sort of collaboration between scholars of American religion and church leaders that is rare.