Mississippi: State of Confession

Washington University in St. Louis
Published October 8, 2014
Overview 

Lerone A. Martin reviews Carolyn Renée Dupont's Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

Review

The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum mock-up from the 2 Mississippi Museums Project Fact Sheet, 2013.
The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum mock-up from the 2 Mississippi Museums Project Fact Sheet, 2013.

Mississippi says it is ready to confess some of its sins. Its new complex of Mississippi history museums, set to open in 2017, will prominently feature the Magnolia State's ferocious resistance to the civil rights movement. A peculiar penitence, however, will occur. Mississippi's opposition to black equality will emphasize individuals, weapons, and artifacts and be located in a separate Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, built adjacent to, not within, the new Museum of Mississippi History. The diehard defense of white supremacy will be recorded in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum as individuals perpetuating white supremacist activities outside of and apart from the "official" religious and civic history of the state and the broader cultural ethos.1

Chroniclers of the black freedom struggle have long sought to dispel the collective memory that undergirds what local state officials affectionately call "The 2 Mississippi Museums Project." The battle to maintain white supremacy was not perpetuated by a few white extremists outside the mainstream. Rather, the construction and upkeep of white supremacy was central to everyday life, carried out consciously and (at times) unwittingly by mainstreet individuals and their religious and civic institutions.2 As Mississippian Ellie Dahmer stated about the 1966 assassination of her husband and local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter president Vernon Dahmer by five Klansman: "They're [the state of Mississippi] just as much to blame as the Klansmen."3

Book cover of Mississippi Praying.

In the study of religion, Charles Marsh, Paul Harvey, and a host of others have shown how Protestant institutions vitally aided and abetted white supremacy and resistance to black equality. With her riveting Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975, Carolyn Renée Dupont joins this cadre of scholars.

Dupont's religious history of the "anti-civil rights movement" makes three primary claims. First, that southern evangelicals played a mighty role in defending Jim Crow.4 To be sure, this is a longstanding assertion. However, recent narratives of religion in the civil rights movement by scholars such as Jonathan S. Bass and David Chappell have come to the rescue of white congregations in ways that can excuse and blur the history. Such chroniclers have argued that southern white congregations were largely moderate and either removed from or anemic in the fight to maintain Jim Crow. David Chappell argues in A Stone of Hope that white churches "failed to elevate their whiteness—institutions and customs that oppressed black folk—above their other concerns." While whites "loved feeling superior to black folk and they loved segregation," he writes, their "churches were unwilling to make sacrifices to preserve segregation. They loved other things—peace, social order—more. They could not make defense of segregation the unifying principle of their culture."5 Simply put, white Protestantism was not a strong force in the attempt to keep African Americans under the rule of Jim (and Jane) Crow.

Mississippi Praying contends that white congregations in Mississippi neither escaped the fray nor were they indifferent. White evangelical faith helped make and maintain the social order of segregation (228). Just as a statue of the Biblical prophet Moses is affixed on the dome of the Jackson, Mississippi, courthouse, the state's religious culture and legal racial apartheid were one. Adherence to evangelical Christianity and law formed what Dupont calls a "holy symbiosis" that white evangelical clergy worked and sacrificed to preserve (16). If, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, many white southern Christians exhibited public silence and indifference to black struggles for equality, Dupont emphasizes that such reticence among Mississippi clergy actually cloaked strong support for racial apartheid (4–5).

Jackson, Mississippi, downtown panorama, August 1, 2009. Photograph by Christopher Meredith. Creative Commons License CC-BY 2.0.
Jackson, Mississippi, downtown panorama, August 1, 2009. Photograph by Christopher Meredith. Creative Commons License CC-BY 2.0.

Dupont chronicles the activities of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Methodist Church (MC), and the Presbyterian Church US (southern Presbyterians) following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. When these denominations voiced public support for the Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation, their Mississippi adherents fervently fought against it (5). An armada of clerics, parishioners, various parachurch organizations (e.g. The Baptist Department of Negro Work, The Mississippi Association of Methodist Ministers and Layman) and publications (e.g. The Baptist Record) utilized Biblical narratives as well as the artful crafting and support of state policy in an effort to preserve white supremacy. In 1956, for example, a bill was put forward to revoke the non-profit status of congregations who practiced integration. It failed. However, the Church Property Bill of 1960—which offered "protection for congregations' property rights" if they choose to break away from denominations that publically supported integration—passed through the Mississippi legislature and was signed into law by governor Ross Barnett (97–103).

Governor Ross Barnett, Jackson, Mississippi, January 1964. Photograph by Hugh Shankle. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Hugh Shankle Collection, PI/COL/1981.0066. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Governor Ross Barnett, Jackson, Mississippi, January 1964. Photograph by Hugh Shankle. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Hugh Shankle Collection, PI/COL/1981.0066. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Dupont also describes an ethos of white supremacy that extended beyond church organizations and publications. Anti-civil rights crusaders utilized churchly pronouncements as scaffolding for their "worldly" affairs. The fiercely segregated First Baptist Church of Jackson counted several influential lieutenants of Jim Crow society among its active leadership and membership: segregationist Governor Ross Barnett taught Sunday School, Louis Hollis was chair of the deacon board as well as a staffer for the White Citizens' Council and its weekly regional paper the Citizens' Councilor, and several generations of the Hederman family (owners of the Jackson Daily News and local television station WLBT) were diligent parishioners (115). These pious segregationists supported and executed Jim Crow legislation, as well as published and broadcasted segregationist sermons, cartoons, and editorials that resembled the sermons of their pastor, Reverend Douglas Hudgins. Such activities flourished, "because of evangelical religion's strength and not in spite of it" (16, 26).

Dupont's second major claim connects the religious anti-civil rights movement in the South with scholarship on its northern counterpart.6 To be sure, many clergy north of the Mason-Dixon line risked their lives in the southern civil rights movement. Such heroic feats, however, can exaggerate the difference between the religious ethos of northern and southern white Protestants, establishing the popular impression that northern Protestants embraced and supported the movement, while southern Protestants resisted. Dupont's narrative shows that there was a great deal of "affinity between northern whites' religious and racial convictions and those of Mississippians" (182). She employs denominational sources, notes and reports from religious meetings, letters from northern parishioners, and instances of civil rights opposition in northern cities involving white clergy to assert that many transplanted and home-grown white evangelicals in northern states such as Illinois and Ohio, exhibited "a great sympathy for the resistant and recalcitrant [white] Christians in the Magnolia State" (198). Mississippi may have been more violent than any other state in its defense of "the holy symbiosis," but the state was hardly unique in its sacred defense of white America's racial order.

Finally, Dupont joins scholars A. G. Miller, Michael O. Emerson, and Randall Balmer in contending that the symbiotic relationship between white evangelicalism and white supremacy is central to understanding the "new" religious right. The SBC, MC, and Southern Presbyterian Church had long harbored internal disagreements over theology, biblical interpretation, women in ministry, and religious authority. However, "only in the midst of the racial revolution" for black equality did these denominations split (9–10). Conservatives took over the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterians established a new denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America), and the Methodist Church suffered a severe decline in membership as disgruntled parishioners took refuge with evangelical ministers such as Oral Roberts, Bob Jones, and Jerry Falwell (228). The push for racial equality was the abomination in the temple.7

Like Joseph Crespino's work on the Magnolia State,8 Mississippi Praying reveals how this new religious right wedded their resistance to black equality with other conservative issues and formed an "absolutely essential foundation for the rise of the religious right in American Politics" (235). "Stripped of their theological variety and flexibility," these new denominations wielded significant power as a monolithic voting bloc during the religious crusades and campaigns of the 1970s and beyond (9). Dupont's work, similar to Joel Carpenter's on interwar fundamentalists and evangelicals, understands the activities of contemporary evangelicals through the lens of historical continuity, not new departures.9

Dupont's conclusion is, perhaps, an overreach. In an effort to highlight the continued resilience of white supremacy, Mississippi Praying closes by arguing that Christian moral suasion did little to effect change. For Dupont, the "holy symbiosis" of white supremacy and evangelicalism withstood the Christian moral suasion of civil rights crusaders. Dupont asserts that civil rights movement victories occurred only when activists turned to economic disruption and legislative intervention. Can Christian moral suasion be separated from boycotts and legal appeals? Similar to white evangelicalism and white supremacy, movement activities—sit-ins, boycotts, voter registration drives, and judicial involvement—expressed the joining of sacred and secular within black Protestant traditions, as did the religiously motivated activism of Mississippi stalwarts such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, and Medgar and Myrlie Evers.

Breaking ground on the Mississippi History and Civil Rights Museums, October 24, 2013. Included in the shovel line, from left, are Entergy Mississippi president Haley Fisackerly, former Governor Haley Barbour, Governor Phil Bryant, state NAACP president Derrick Johnson, former NAACP chair Myrlie Evers, former Governor William Winter, and former state Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson. Photograph courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Breaking ground on the Mississippi History and Civil Rights Museums, October 24, 2013. Included in the shovel line, from left, are Entergy Mississippi president Haley Fisackerly, former Governor Haley Barbour, Governor Phil Bryant, state NAACP president Derrick Johnson, former NAACP chair Myrlie Evers, former Governor William Winter, and former state Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson. Photograph courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

How historians interpret the civil rights movement bears upon societal understanding, judicial decisions, and collective memory. The "2 Mississippi Museums Project" is well underway even as the state and nation commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, the murder of three civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The construction of two separate museums—the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum—depicts opposition to black equality as primarily the realm of extremists, not central to the state. Such historical misremembering lends itself to believing that white extremists are largely removed from public life and therefore white supremacy is essentially a thing of the past. For the "2 Mississippi Museum Project" to be taken seriously, it will have to show how racism was deeply woven into civic and religious institutions and policies. This is the contribution of Mississippi Praying: Displaying the rifle that murdered Medgar Evers is one thing. Depicting the cultural, societal, and legal structures that produced the assassin and helped him remain free for over thirty years is another.

Gripping and detailed, Mississippi Praying tells how the fight to maintain white supremacy was deeply embedded in all of the state's institutions, particularly its churches. Such a narrative challenges readers to understand how some forms of racism topple, while others yet persist.

About the Author

Lerone A. Martin is an assistant professor of religion and politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (New York: New York University Press) slated for release in November, 2014.

  • 1. Campbell Robertson, "Civil Rights Sins, Curated by One of the Sinners," New York Times, April 6, 2014, A1; Dexter Mullins, "Mississippi to Make History by Opening Civil Rights Museum," Aljazeera America, October 23, 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/23/mississippi-civilrightsmuseumtomakehistory.html. For more on civil rights tourism see, Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman, Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory (Chicago: Center for American Places at Columbia College, 2008); Renee Christine Romano and Leigh Raiford, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006).
  • 2. See for example, Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001); Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • 3. Robertson, "Civil Rights Sins, Curated by One of the Sinners."
  • 4. See for example, Charles Marsh, God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997); Paul Harvey, Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Evangelical is indeed an embattled term. For Dupont, evangelical is a unifying theological term denoting Christians, regardless of denomination, who are united by their belief in sin as a personal moral failure (not systemic), the primacy of individual conversion, final authority of the Bible, and the return of Christ. On defining evangelicals and evangelicalism see, for example, George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1991); Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003). Historian David Bebbington offers a succinct definition in "What is an Evangelical," National Association of Evangelicals, accessed July 6, 2014, https://www.nae.net/church-and-faith-partners/what-is-an-evangelical.
  • 5. David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 107. See also, S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001). Ironically, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" found white clergy's public commitments to social order and peace "the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom."
  • 6. See for example, Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008); James Ralph, Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: W. Morrow, 1986).
  • 7. A. G. Miller, "The Construction of a Black Fundamentalist Worldview: The Role of Bible Schools," in African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush and Rosamond C. Rodman (New York: Continuum, 2000); Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions, Religion and Social Transformation (New York: New York University Press, 2012); Randall Balmer, "The Real Origins of the Religious Right," Politico Magazine, May 27, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.html.
  • 8. Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  • 9. Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
doi:10.18737/M7NW25
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