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In Keeping with the Prophets: The Mississippi Summer of 1964

by James Findlay

Dr. Findlay is professor of history at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 8-15, 1988, pp. 574-576. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Twenty-five years ago the nation's attention was riveted on the civil rights struggle in the South. That struggle entered one of its critical stages in the summer of 1964 when young black civil rights workers in Mississippi, aided by about 800 white college students from the North, tried to bring blacks in the Magnolia state to a new level of political and social awareness. They organized voter education and voter registration drives, and Freedom Schools for the young and old. The white community met this campaign with the sternest resistance -- daily harassment, the burning of black homes and churches, even murder (remember James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner?).

The National Council of Churches spearheaded white churches' support of the battle in Mississippi. The NCC funded and organized the intensive weeklong orientation sessions in June 1964 for nearly all the student volunteers. And in a project still little known, the NCC recruited about 300 ministers from all over the United States to go to Mississippi that summer as informal "advisers" to the students. These ministers left their jobs briefly or used their summer vacations to offer direct support to the civil rights workers. Most went for ten days or two weeks, some for longer periods. A few never returned home and are still living in Mississippi.

Recently uncovered archival data enabled me to identify and contact many of those who "went South" in 1964. I sent a brief questionnaire to them, and many responded with long and fascinating replies. They also sent newspaper clippings, sermon-reports to congregations and articles they wrote afterward for religious journals. Some produced portions of diaries, letters to families, tape recordings, even slides taken in Mississippi and at the student orientation sessions in Oxford, Ohio. One person mailed the script of a play he wrote recently based on his 1964 experiences.

Long-dormant yet sensitive nerves had been touched. One person wrote that even now he could not think about the memories without tears. Another asserted that "recalling this experience and detailing it brought back some intense feelings-anger, fright, even a brush with terror."

As "advisers" the ministers simply joined the civil rights workers in their daily routines. They picketed at courthouses, searched out potential registrants, taught in freedom schools and served as librarians and receptionists in freedom centers. As a result they, like the local people, were physically and emotionally intimidated. A few were arrested and jailed, one or two were beaten. One minister assigned to Greenwood, a very difficult town, took people to register each day. He recalled:

There was the inevitable line-up of whites yelling at us, spitting at us. One guy even urinated in my direction once. I caught a bit of it on my pants. The hardest thing for me was not to respond in some physical manner. I had fought in the Golden Gloves in high school and I usually had a very aggressive manner in my lifestyle. I can remember thinking: "You dirty S-O-B. I could take you out with one punch." Not exactly the acceptable thoughts of a clergyman, but my rage was right under the surface and I had to keep remembering the mandate of our instructor -- "Don't lose your cool."

Another minister recalled walking down a road in the black community in Canton and hearing someone yell "Jump! Jump!" He tumbled into a ditch as a truck roared by, coming down into the ditch and missing us by six inches." Later this same person hid for two hours in a bedroom of a black family's home while the deputy sheriff s car circled the neighborhood searching for him. When he left Mississippi, he remembered, "I felt that I had been in hell for three weeks. I came home with double pneumonia and total exhaustion."

These middle-class, idealistic church people entered a tangled world of hate and oppression most of them knew little or nothing about. Suddenly they were part of the underclass, an outcast group to be harassed and attacked if they got out of line. They found that law enforcement officials were not, as they had previously thought, dispensers of evenhanded justice but were often spearheads of a system of injustice. One Disciples of Christ participant reported that she was "amazed [after leaving Mississippi] at how long it took me to get over having my heart turn over at the sight of a police car. And I had only one week like that. Think of what it would be for persons who always fear authorities!"

In moments of fear and terror a bonding of the deepest sort occurred between blacks and whites -- a fact that made a deep impression. An ironic reversal of roles took place, with northern whites feeling safe in the black community. An Episcopal laywoman recalled: "Walking down the streets of Canton's Negro section, we were obviously of the Movement. From every porch, from every yard, came greetings. 'Hi, y'all.' To my northern accented 'Hi,' came the cheery report, 'Fine."' At night there were long conversations between black hosts and white visitors on porches kept unlighted for security purposes. The wife of a northern clergyman noted in a letter home that "we were told that Negroes sitting on benches along the street weren't just sitting -- they were watching to see that our office [the NCC office in Hattiesburg] and the COFO [Council of Federated Organizations] office across the street were safe."

One of the ministers' principal aims was to reach out to the local white community, especially the clergy and churches, looking for a chance to talk about the changes whites were having to face. They hoped to create an atmosphere in which Christian reconciliation might develop.

These efforts met with little success, and most often with vehement rebuffs. One minister who sought to attend a Sunday service at a Disciples of Christ church in McComb was recognized as a civil rights worker and "thrown bodily out of the building." Another Disciples minister, who remained in Mississippi for a year, tried to join a church of his denomination in Gulfport-Biloxi. He was informed by the church's minister that he would never be welcome in the latter's house, nor would the minister ever visit him. Church women's meetings were held in parishioners' homes and announced privately by phone to prevent the wife of the "outsider" minister from attending. Eventually the outsiders joined a black Missionary Baptist church.

The attitude of white Mississippi churchpeople intensified the northern ministers' respect for the black people they had come to support. Despite encountering communities scarred by poverty ("homes ranged from a few small, neat and attractive places to huts, shacks and hovels held together by odd pieces of wood, metal and building blocks. Health and sanitation conditions were appalling. As a result, we found a staggering number of sick and invalid people with little hope of regaining their health", the ministers' remembrances were nearly all positive.

They remembered food and other essentials willingly shared ("I remember the buckets of fried chicken brought to Freedom House by neighbors. I remember the elderly people who let me live in their house even though it put their lives in jeopardy". They remembered the courage and determination of the young civil rights workers ("The real heroes were the black 'Snick' [SNCC, or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] personnel, who faced the worst dangers and took more than their share of the violence. Always they were intent on helping anyone threatened. Always they took hardship as a matter of course. These were the real leaders, and that is as it should be. It was a privilege to work with them"). They also remembered the spiritual power of the [civil rights] meetings," especially the singing, with a passion and feeling rooted in the black church.

Above all else the ministers remembered spirited individuals who were unbroken by threats and powerfully supportive of the push toward freedom. Stories like the following were common on the questionnaires:

There was neither gratitude nor fawning in our relationship with our hostess, but rather a fierce pride. She reigned over her house, and the six volunteers billeted with her, like an African matriarch. At six in the morning she did the daily shopping before the heat set in, yet she spent the hottest part of the day over a wood stove producing Southern fried chicken, rice, cornbread. A widow four times, but unsubdued, she answered the door concealing a long knife behind her skirts.

Some ministers later returned to Mississippi to visit their black friends, and some still correspond regularly with their hosts -- small acts suggestive of the ties that were established.

One might wonder how such deep connections between people of different races and very different backgrounds could develop so quickly. Perhaps part of the answer rests in what the northerners represented to the black people of Mississippi. As one Presbyterian minister who stayed permanently in the state explained, until the '60s white Mississippians often dubbed the few black persons who agitated for civil rights as "crazy niggers," and that perception was seldom challenged. The isolation of black activists was almost complete. In the mid '60s, however, the white community outside Mississippi (as well as young blacks in the state) were suggesting that those "crazy niggers" were not crazy but correct in their demands.

That white churches would send ministers to Mississippi to stand with the "crazy niggers," however briefly, affirming to the world the soundness of what they were doing, was a powerful symbolic act. The ministers, as well as the black community understood this fully. As one put it, going to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 "expressed to the blacks that there were other persons who cared and were concerned. " "Here were ministers visibly giving support to the movement to change the system. To those in Mississippi working to effect change we gave encouragement, saying, 'You are not alone."'

Most of the northern ministers did not stay long in Mississippi (something some still feel guilty about). After ten days or two weeks they were replaced. By the end of August 1964 nearly all had left. But they carried away an entirely new perception of their country and of themselves. As they testified again and again in their comments two decades later, their lives had been permanently altered.

The testimonies suggest that many had been subtly prepared for going to Mississippi. "I was reared in a Christian home where racial equality was taken for granted." "Perhaps having a black summer playmate when I was seven to ten was a memory that urged me into the 'long trip' into the South." For others the beginnings were in college or soon after: "As a student at the University of Missouri, I took home with me at Christmastime a German Catholic, a Jew, and a Chinese student who had no place to go at that time of year."

A number of the ministers participating in the project had become involved before 1964 in civil rights demonstrations or interracial ministries, or had worked overseas or on Native American reservations. "At the time we were living in Horton, Kansas, in the midst of Indian reservations, and there was a strong prejudice against the Native American, which was expressed in a 'nigger' mentality. The appeal [to go to Mississippi] spoke to me as I saw a relationship between the local Indian prejudice and the suppression of blacks."

Others could not so clearly pinpoint their reasons for going. "There was no real explanation for going to Mississippi. My decision was intuitive, emotional, nonrational. I wanted to participate. It seemed like something I could do. But the most frequently voiced feeling in the recollections was the sense that some sort of a moral demand had been placed upon the ministers: "The church had an obligation to be involved in the voter rights struggle." "I felt it was the 'right thing to do."' One writer put it even more compellingly: "I went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 because I felt 'called' to do so. By this I mean it was an act required by my profession of faith. The injustice inflicted on blacks I felt was so appalling that I could not in conscience do other than respond."

One of the best ways to assess the significance of the Mississippi project is to consider how the white ministers acted afterward. One wrote, "I grew up on a farm in southeastern South Dakota. and despite college and seminary was still abysmally ignorant concerning the realities of racial injustice. My involvement in this project transformed my theological understanding and shaped my ministry from that time to this day." Another minister said, "My suspicion is that the most permanent change was not in the South as such, but in the minds and hearts of us northerners, who received a mighty 'education in reality.' All of my teaching and writing about our society since those years have been deeply shaped by my experience among the black poor and oppressed of the South. "

Almost all the first full-time staff members of the Delta Ministry, the NCC-sponsored civil rights group which began work in the Mississippi delta and elsewhere in the state in September 1964, had participated in the summer project. At least three of those people are still living in the state, all still engaged in race related causes. One of them wrote in 1986: "It [the summer of 1964] transformed my life. I'm still here."

One man wrote from Zimbabwe, where as a social worker and academic he was engaged in community planning sponsored by the Disciples of Christ and a local nongovernmental agency. "My life has been dedicated to issues of justice ever since [1964]. 1 learned much about what faith and faithfulness mean, about what commitment entails,"about how to follow, about sensitivity to others." One respondent, a campus minister in Texas in 1964, moved to Alabama a year later, where he and his wife worked at Stillman College, a predominantly black school. Several of the ministers entered interracial ministries, locally or at the national level (for example, as staff persons in denominational social-action agencies).

Some individuals were affected in very personal ways. One minister's daughter, who was also in Mississippi as a student volunteer, married a Howard University graduate and successfully integrated her immediate family. Another explained that for him Mississippi "led to the adoption of two mixed-race children." Even those few who had left the ministry sometime since 1964 had taken jobs connected in some way to their Mississippi experiences. A man living in California wrote, "Isn't it interesting that even though I am no longer doing parish ministry I am still heavily involved: this time as an elementary teacher in a racially mixed urban school."

Relying on memories about events of almost a quarter-century ago may produce too positive a picture. The 1964 Mississippi experiences were part of the early success of the black freedom movement and reflected a brief moment when a national white-black coalition seemed to sweep everything before it. We know that the efforts of the '60s to alter race relations were followed by white backlash and a far different national mood.

But though subsequent national developments might have embittered the churchpeople who went to Mississippi in 1964, that does not seem to have happened. The power of their experiences during that long hot summer in the Deep South reverberates across the years. One of the participants concluded: "It was the most intense moment of my life, and I felt like I was where history was, that my role as a young clergyman was much in keeping with the Old Testament prophets."

Said another:

Yes, my inner being was connected in a very powerful way to my outer behavior. That awareness has never left me. I can honestly tell people that if they care and take action, they can help change the world around them. It may be slow, but it does happen. Values can be lived, and when they are, they are life-giving. I learned to tell the truth in 1964, and have never consciously let go of that value.

The prophetic imagination truly seemed at work in these people. On a small but important stage, that band of ministers in Mississippi in 1964 represented one of mainline Protestantism's finest moments.


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