THE Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called 11 o'clock Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week. Thirty years later, many churchgoers in the South say his observation still holds true.
Traditional segregation of churches - and the difficulties that sometimes arise when the racial divide in the pews begins to fall - has become apparent in recent weeks.
One incident in a small south Georgia town underscores the problem: An interracial couple who had lost a child was asked last month to remove the baby's body from the cemetery of an all-white church.
The Baptist church in Thomasville quickly backed away from its demands. But several days later, when the couple - a black man and a white woman - asked to be married in the church, leaders refused, saying the couple had lived in sin and didn't seem to have repentance in their hearts.
The incident may be extreme, but some experts say it represents an overt example of the lurking undercurrent of racism that exists under the steeples of churches in the South and around the nation.
"It's a symbol of a larger problem," says the Rev. Nibs Stroupe, pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Ga., a town near Atlanta. "It happens a lot; it's just that many white folks don't consciously act like that."
Mr. Stroupe, author of "Why We Run This Race," a book about racism, says the racism that exists in churches is subtle. "Most of us make race-based decisions for deciding where we live, where we go to school, where we go to church," he says. "Black churches have always been open to white people; white churches have not. Most white churches now have an open policy, but we really want people who are black to come and be assimilated into being like who we are."