Ellen Ann Fentress, The Academy Stories Editor
“It’s the Christian thing to do,” she declared. As a high school freshman, I was overhearing adults discuss the coming white flight to segregation academies in our area. For months, court-ordered public school integration had dominated the conversation in white Mississippi. That day, the woman explained that white families who could afford academy tuition had a moral duty to donate extra. That would help poor white children flee integration too via seg academy scholarships. She had a logic-twisting—and white— sensitivity to income inequality in her support of racial inequality.
If that sounds absurdly in contrast to an expected Christian talking point, it didn’t to regular white churchgoers in the South in the Seventies. White churches rarely preached loyalty to public schools. In fact, Protestant churches gave essential support to segregation academies in community after community. Typically churches helped new academies by volunteering use of their Sunday School rooms until an actual academy’s construction.
Briarcrest Baptist School in Memphis, which proclaimed itself the biggest non-Catholic Christian school system in the nation, initially spread out its classes between about a dozen Southern Baptist churches in the area. The school, organized for students to flee 1973 court-ordered busing in Memphis, was the setting for the book and film The Blind Side. The motto of its building campaign as busing began: “With God, nothing is impossible.”
Faith and Leadership magazine at Duke Divinity School had me consider the role of churches in segregation academies along with an update on The Academy Stories project.
For a rich full examination of the intersection of the white church and academies, read Joseph Crespino’s In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counter-Revolution. His history has become more essential than ever in 2020 as the nation confronts its systemic racist past.
A Macon, Mississippi native who now teaches at Emory University, Crespino said, “I had always thought that the isolation, distrust and misunderstanding between blacks and whites in my hometown was part of Mississippi's unique history. What I came to realize, of course, was that my own experience was just one part of a larger story.”
Crespino stated “emphasizing the uniqueness of southern racism obscures how white southerners were able to reframe their opposition to the civil rights movement in ways that resonated with white Americans in other parts of the country.” Trent Lott and Haley Barbour rose to national attention plying familiar white Mississippi dog whistles about intrusive government and bootstraps economics for national consumption.
When I asked Crespino about the church role in academies, he told me, “White churches were involved with segregation academies at every step. Many academies sprung up almost overnight in small towns where Sunday School classrooms were the only place that could house students and teachers.”
“Later, segregation academies found legal shelter under the umbrella of the church school movement,” he said. ”Yet, in almost every case, when you go back and look for the tipping point for the exodus of whites out of southern public schools, it wasn’t about religion (it’s not like southern public schools were run by a bunch of secular humanists; local teachers and principals were almost all church-going people themselves), it was about race.”