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“Did I do what I should have done?”: white clergy in 1960s Mississippi

In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”  Martin Luther King Jr. expressed keen disappointment in white church leaders, whom he had hoped “would be among our strongest allies” and “would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure.” Southern white clergy in the civil rights era are stereotypically portrayed as outspoken opponents of change, or as chaplains of the segregated system who claimed a purely “spiritual” (i.e., not “political”) role for the church, or as somewhat sympathetic supporters of the black freedom struggle who remained in tormented silence, afraid to stir things up and hurt the church and their own careers. Looking back on that time, many white pastors who led churches in the 1960s have asked themselves, “Did I do what I should have done?”

In Mississippi, the state known as “the toughest nut to crack” by movement leaders, a few white church pastors tried to do the right thing. In response to the 30 September 1962 riot at Ole Miss on the eve of James Meredith’s registration as the school’s first African American student, a small ecumenical group of white clergy in Oxford, including Episcopal priest Duncan M. Gray Jr., issued a call for repentance “for our collective and individual guilt in the formation of the atmosphere which produced the strife at the University of Mississippi.” Most white Mississippians aware of this appeal either ignored or rejected it.

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“Photo of James Nicholson in pulpit from 1960s.” Courtesy of James Nicholson family.

James B. Nicholson, pastor at Byram Methodist Church near Jackson, hoped in vain that his bishop or the pastors of large Jackson churches would respond publicly to the riot, but then, he said, “I began to realize, why was I looking for the church to say something? …For the whole thing was bearing down on me. What in Sam Hill were you ordained for?” In his 21 October sermon, he told his congregation, “We have let prejudice shut out the Gospel and in many areas of our lives have turned to the gods of segregation and white supremacy to sustain us.” He insisted schools should be kept open when desegregation came and asserted the education of children “is certainly more important than the doctrine of segregation. If the time ever comes when I must choose whether my children go to school with Negroes or else have no school at all, my children will go to school with Negroes.” The congregation tried to dismiss Nicholson; the district superintendent prevented it then but assured them their pastor would not speak on race again (Nicholson made no such promise). Most church members boycotted worship in response.

Later that fall, Nicholson joined 27 other Methodist pastors of the white Mississippi Annual Conference in signing “Born of Conviction,” published in the Mississippi Methodist Advocate on 2 January 1963. In the wake of the Ole Miss riot and the continuing denial of responsibility for it by white Mississippi, these ministers went on record as opposing ongoing massive resistance efforts. The statement called for freedom of the pulpit and quoted the Methodist Discipline: “Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that all men are brothers. He permits no discrimination because of race, color, or creed.” The signers asserted, “We are unalterably opposed to the closing of public schools on any level or to the diversion of tax funds to the support of private or sectarian schools,” and they affirmed their “unflinching opposition to Communism” in anticipation of the usual accusations of Communist influence hurled at anyone who dared challenge the status quo in Mississippi. “Born of Conviction” attempted to address “the genuine dilemma facing persons of Christian conscience” and responded to the “anguish” of those white Methodists who were deeply troubled by the excessive evil of the segregated system but felt paralyzed and unable to speak against it.

 

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“Born of Conviction” statement from The Mississippi Methodist Advocate, January 2, 1963. Courtesy of the Mississippi Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church.

“Born of Conviction” caused a huge controversy in Mississippi. James Nicholson’s decision to sign resulted in his dismissal as pastor of the Byram Church, and two other signers were also ousted from their congregations. The other 25 participants experienced a range of responses, from threats and ostracism to private and sometimes public support; in some churches the statement fostered significant discussion of the race issue. By mid-1964, 18 of the 28 had left Mississippi, including Nicholson; two more left eventually. Some were truly forced to leave; others chose to do so for various reasons. One who could have stayed explained his 1963 departure the following year by saying, “If I could have found any encouragement from a single leader in the Mississippi Conference, not excluding the Bishop or my District Superintendent, assuring me that the cause of justice and brotherhood was the concern of the Methodist Church and that this would be a united effort wherein their support could be felt, I would be there to this day.” Yet eight signers remained in ministry in the Mississippi Conference for the rest of their careers, and two others returned to the North Mississippi Conference by 1967.

The civil rights movement resulted in significant change in Mississippi, the South, and the nation because its leaders and workers risked their lives on a daily basis in the fight for freedom and equality for African Americans. Southern white churches mostly stayed on the sidelines and were thus complicit in white resistance, but some of their clergy and lay leaders spoke or acted against the tide. Though “Born of Conviction” seems mild today, its publication represented a significant denial of Mississippi’s insistence that all its white Christians supported maintenance of segregation. The consequences suffered by many of the signers pale in comparison to the difficulties faced by civil rights workers, but these ministers paid a price for doing at least part of what they “should have done.”

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