January 2, 1963, became one of those pivotal dates deeply embedded in the lore and psyche of Mississippi Methodists. No one fully dreamed of the consequences, intended or unintended, that was immediately unleashed by the publication of the “Born of Conviction” statement. It was signed by twenty-eight white Methodist pastors and published in the Mississippi Methodist Advocate on this date.
The statement simply, 1) called for freedom of the pulpit; 2) noted that the Methodist Discipline asserted Jesus’ teaching permitted no discrimination because of race, color, or creed; 3) affirmed support of the public school system; and 4) declared the basic commitment of a Methodist minister is to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, not to Communism.
What is perceived decades later as a mild dissent ignited a firestorm in 1963, widely taken as an open onslaught on the public unanimity of Mississippi white resistance. “You challenge ‘our way of life’ and you pay the price.” By mid-1964, eighteen of the twenty-eight signers had left Mississippi.
White citizens and white churches in Mississippi, for the most part, were totally immersed in their rabid resistance to change brought on by Brown v Education and the fall out from what William Doyle termed An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Others’ reaction to the underlying injustices and inequities these two occurrences addressed often was one of benign denial or shrouded in a cloak of silence when conscience was pricked.
Mississippi Presbyterians had their moments of struggle with voicing publicly Christian convictions in response to the racial discord and violence erupted in our state. On October 16, 1962, the Presbytery of St. Andrew (of which I was a minister member as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Amory) at its fall meeting became embroiled in a debate over what action it should take with regard to the “crisis and tension following the rioting, and bloodshed within our bounds at the University of Mississippi and Oxford.”
Some felt that we should take no action since this was not the business of the church. Others felt that we should take a stand in support of Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. It was friend versus friend and family versus family. All sorts of speculation were made about what had taken place there and where blame should be placed. For a while in the morning it looked as if no action would be taken.
After lunch the discussion took on a very serious tenor when two if its pastors strode onto the floor in full battle dress from their encampment at Oxford. They had been called up as Chaplains in the Federalization of the National Guard. Stories of their first-hand experience at Oxford persuaded the body to adopt a pastoral letter to the congregations within its care to remember “The spirit of hatred and strife, which manifested itself in the violence, is contrary to the Spirit of Christ.”
The pastoral letter admonished each of us “to give the Spirit of God that supreme place in our hearts and minds . . . summon those of our communion within our bounds to undertake such a searching self-examination and to turn to true repentance as the Spirit leads them . . . act only in those ways which promote order and peace . . . use their every influence to the end that those officials charged with maintaining order may pursue their task with dedication and with diligence . . . urge our communicants to pray for God’s mercy and guidance for ourselves and for our state and national leaders, that we may praise and serve Him all our days.”
This modest action by St. Andrew Presbytery did not generate the furor unleashed by the “Born of Conviction” statement of the Methodists. No further widespread action by Presbyterian ministers as a group produced any public statements to challenge prevailing massive resistance. Individual pastors did make public stands and found various ways to express their Christian convictions in matters of racial injustices. Reactions by their constituents were mixed.
By the late 1960s many that made stands left the state to other calls. Little comprehensive documentation exists of their actions or their impact. Only individual memoirs and personal files record their experiences. This is not the case for the twenty-eight signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement.
Joseph T. Reiff, a United Methodist pastor in the Mississippi Conference that grew up in Mississippi and graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, made sure a comprehensive record exists of the “Born of Conviction” statement. Reiff is currently Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Emory and Henry College.
Born of Conviction, Reiff’s book published this fall, was a long time coming. It is understandable, since he had the daunting task of weaving 28 signers’ “before, during and after stories” into one cogent narrative. He did it! When he started his extensive research it must have felt like he would never get it done. If Reiff had managed to get Born in some publishable form before 2013, it would not have been the book it is today. Part IV never would have been like it is. To me this is the most compelling part of the book, not to take anything away from the life sacrifices of the “28”.
Reiff was able to move to a much deeper level of insight and perspective on the January 2, 1963 “Born of Conviction” statement because of what took place at the 2013 Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Comments made there by those that left Mississippi in the 1960s and reactions by some of those that “stayed and not run” brought into sharper focus a deep divide in perspectives that existed too long without recognition and attention.
The Conference on June 9, 2013 may have been a critical watershed in the on-going narrative. Recapturing in a 2015 context what the “28” did 50+ years ago accentuates its relevance for back then, but more importantly now for today. The icing on the cake is “Legacies,” Chapter 11. “Some plant, some water, and some harvest . . . !”
I have always had an affinity for Methodists. My own narrative I recounted in my memoir, Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor’s Journey into Civil Rights and Beyond, intersected briefly with N. A. Dickson, one of the “twenty-eight” signers that “stayed and not run.” Dickson served the Methodist Church in Columbia, Mississippi when I became pastor at the Presbyterian Church there in 1964. What we accomplished together to support our mayor as he sought to build community bridges and navigate the mid-1960s roiling social and political waters, made a cameo appearance in Born.
Transformed and Born are companion witnesses to the significant minority of Mississippians that finally broke their deafening, spirit-killing silence and challenged the separate but unequal cultural arrangement that dominated Mississippi’s relational landscape for generations.
My affinity was also more personal. For years I thought myself a “fourth generation Mississippian” because I was counting the four generations of William McAtees that lived there. [I’m IV and now there are V and VI!] Actually a generation of my family existed in Mississippi before the name McAtee entered my generational story. I had two sets of great great-grandfathers, both Methodist ministers that preceded the McAtees in Mississippi. They later linked up when the daughter of one married William I and the granddaughter of the other married William II.
One migrated to Mississippi from Alabama in 1833, a circuit-riding Methodist missionary to the Choctaw Indians, a well-known Methodist “Bishop,” physician, and teacher in a seminary in Alabama. [It is my understanding that the term “Bishop” did not carry the same connotation it does today, but was similar to the title “Reverend,” and referred to the function of “circuit rider.”] The other migrated to Mississippi from South Carolina in 1845, a circuit-riding Methodist minister that served many appointments in Mississippi, including appointments to ‘colored mission points.’
On the basis of these facts, I proudly qualify as a “fifth generation Mississippian” with Methodist DNA! How we became Presbyterians is a whole other story of my Dad being “a welcomed stranger” one Sunday after church.
11-25-15 © McAtee & weegems, 2015