On July 27, 1962 Martin Luther King was conducting a "kneel-in" protest in Albany, Georgia--literally on his hands and knees praying to fight racial segregation. But when asked by a newspaper reporter what he thought of a recent Supreme Court ruling banning teacher-led prayer in school, King--a preacher and a son of a preacher--gave his full support to the court's decision. It was "sound and good," King declared, "reaffirming something that is basic in our Constitution, namely, separation of church and state."
The following year, Alabama governor George C. Wallace threatened to conduct his own type of "pray-in"--against the Supreme Court. Wallace was already famous for his defiance of court-ordered integration, "standing in the school-house door" to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. "If [the Court] says we cannot read the Bible in some school," Wallace announced, "I'm going to that school and [sic] read it myself."
These two reactions represented a critical shift in the politics of public-school religious instruction. During the 1940s and 1950s, conservatives and liberals supported prayer in school. They differed on the content--liberals stressed the "social teachings" of the Gospel and conservatives emphasized its message of personal salvation in Christ--but both camps agreed upon the need for religious instruction in public schools.
But in the early 1960s, the politics shifted dramatically--and to a degree rarely understood, the cause of the change was not faith but race.
Many blacks claimed that the special circumstances of African-American communities necessitated public school prayer. Traditionally, blacks noted, their schools had placed a heavy accent upon religious exercises. When the Supreme Court barred these rituals, it also attacked an important part of the African-American educational heritage.
At North Carolina's all-black Caswell County Training School, for example, "chapel" services anchored the weekly schedule. In the wake of Engel v. Vitale, blacks from the Caswell area felt cast out to sea; by 1967, they were circulating petitions for a school-prayer amendment. Elsewhere, blacks cited the dire social problems afflicting their neighborhoods--especially crime, drugs, and unwanted pregnancy--and argued that prayer might help relieve them. "[T]he schools have gone to the devil and the children have gone to hell under the present setup," intoned a black legislator from New York's Harlem district, backing a state law for silent classroom meditation. Subtle church-state concerns paled next to the poverty and chaos of inner-city America, which could only benefit from the hope and discipline that school prayer provided.
A few days after the Engel decision, for instance, New York's leading black newspaper published a fiery column supporting the Supreme Court's prayer ban. Its argument focused less on church-state separation than who was attacking the court rulings. "Among the loudest complainants are Senators Talmadge of Georgia and Eastland of Mississippi," wrote James L. Hicks in the Amsterdam News, citing two of Congress's most vehement segregationists. "Do I need to say anymore?" Although the Court's 1954 anti-segregation ruling "was molded in the image of Jesus Christ," Hicks noted, men like Talmadge and Eastland had refused to abide by it; now these same racists insisted that the Court's prayer decision was "preventing them from living like Christ."
An accompanying cartoon depicted a pair of white "Church Bigots," carrying Bibles and a sign that pleaded, "Supreme Court Unfair--We Need Prayer!" The prayer protesters were trampling upon two other demonstrators, one black and one white, whose sign demanded "Equal Rights for All." Like Hicks' column, the cartoon scored white hypocrites who seized on the prayer issue to block the black freedom struggle. The cartoon's caption, "Standing in the Way," contained a second implication: any black who supported school prayer would also assist the racist foe.
The prayer issue also split white civil-rights supporters. Spokesmen who praised the Supreme Court's liberal rulings on race often condemned its prayer prohibitions. "New justices discovered the injustice toward the Negroes hidden behind the fair-sounding slogan of 'separate but equal,'" noted a Catholic diocesan newspaper in Indiana, in an attack on Engel. "Someday soon, God willing, new justices will discover the injustice to religious people hidden behind the slogan of 'separation of Church and State.'"