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Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor’s Journey into Civil Rights and Beyond

William G. McAtee
Foreword by William F. Winter
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvkt8
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  • Book Info
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    Book Description:

    In May 1964, Bill McAtee became the new minister at Columbia Presbyterian Church, deep in the Piney Woods of south Mississippi. Soon after his arrival, three young civil rights workers were brutally murdered outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. Many other activists from across the country poured into the state to try to bring an end to segregation and to register black citizens to vote. Already deeply troubled by the resistance of so many of his fellow white southerners to any change in the racial status quo, McAtee understood that he could no longer be a passive bystander. A fourth-generation Mississippian and son of a Presbyterian minister, he joined a group of local ministers--two white and four black--to assist the mayor of Columbia, Earl D. "Buddy" McLean, in building community bridges and navigating the roiling social and political waters.

    Focusing on the quiet leadership of Mayor McLean and fellow ministers, McAtee shows how these religious and political leaders enacted changes that began opening access to public institutions and facilities for all citizens, black and white. In retrospect, McAtee's involvement in these events during this intense period became a turning point in repudiating his past acquiescence to the injustices of the racist society of his birth. His personal account of this transformation underscores its meaning for him today and reminds the reader that no generation can ignore the past or rest comfortably on its progress toward tolerance, equality, and justice.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-116-8
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    WILLIAM F. WINTER

    This is a chronicle that revives powerful memories for me, as it will for many of my fellow southerners who read it. I shared many experiences similar to those that Bill McAtee recounts in this memoir of his life in Mississippi as a Presbyterian minister in the 1960s. That is when our paths first crossed.

    As a Presbyterian layman I was aware of his work in the church, but as a state public official at the time I also knew of his courageous leadership in the communities where he lived and served during that tumultuous period. No one is better...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. PART I: PRELUDE

    • CHAPTER 1 Columbia Comes Calling
      (pp. 3-21)

      The first time I laid eyes on E. D. “Buddy” McLean, Jr., was on March 1, 1964. It was a Sunday afternoon, when he flew up to Amory, Mississippi, with part of the pulpit committee from the Columbia Presbyterian Church to see if I would consider becoming their pastor. I always thought that was a strange name for the committee, because I felt certain they had a pulpit but needed a preacher to fill it! In time it became known as a pastor search committee or pastor nominating committee.

      One or two others were with Buddy McLean. I think Tinsley...

    • CHAPTER 2 Where You From?
      (pp. 22-41)

      “Hey, Boy, where you from anyway?”

      “Well, I was born up in Bolivar County at Shaw, Mississippi. I’m a fourth generation Mississippian.”

      “Hell, Boy, that makes it worse!”

      I was a bit shocked at what the man said but not really surprised, even though I had hoped for a different response. Somehow I had wished, in true Mississippi fashion, to demonstrate I was “one of us” and not “one of them” (them being “outside troublemakers”) by establishing my ancestry. This conversation took place sometime in south Mississippi in the mid-1960s, when Hattiesburg to the east, McComb to the west, and...

    • CHAPTER 3 First Call
      (pp. 42-62)

      Before I could take up my first call to a church in Mississippi to replicate pastor and church as I had experienced it, the turmoil in society in general was beginning to shift from the abstract to the concrete. I was obliged to finish college and get a seminary education in a climate that reflected that shift.

      Marsh Calloway, one of my predecessor pastors at Columbia, had a lasting impact on me in my call to ministry. After my daddy, he influenced me most in this matter. I remember the quiet way in which he asked the question: “Have you...

    • CHAPTER 4 Freedom Summer
      (pp. 63-84)

      The sun was beginning to push the shadows of darkness toward the west as I drove out of the parking lot at the Admiral Benbow Motel on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, on a Monday. It was June 22, 1964. I would not learn until later how dark the night before had been for some. I left my wife and son in Memphis to go home with her mother, who had driven over to take them home to Jonesboro, Arkansas, for a visit. I was on my way to Louisville, Kentucky, to settle in at the Presbyterian Seminary, which had...

  6. PART II ENGAGEMENT

    • CHAPTER 5 Moments of Truth in the Making
      (pp. 87-107)

      The waning days of 1964 gave way to the dawn of 1965 with more than the usual feeling of relief that the old had passed away, but it was not clear what prospects the new would hold. Some were thrilled that Columbia was spared the violence and traumatic experiences other parts of Mississippi had suffered in 1964 as the result of the activities of Freedom Summer and the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They hoped that 1965 would be business as usual. Others, however, were committed to bringing MFDP and all it stood for to the streets...

    • CHAPTER 6 A Confluence of Perspectives
      (pp. 108-129)

      Faced with the possibility of the impending passage of new federal voting laws, Governor Paul Johnson called for a special session of the Mississippi legislature in June of 1965 to redraft sections of the state constitution that were in violation of the proposed Voting Rights Act in the U.S. Congress, explicitly intended to correct issues of discrimination implicit in the federal Constitution. The prospect of amending the state constitution caused great dismay to those in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party because they felt such changes weakened “their claims about Mississippi’s intransigence in regards to race relations without eradicating the problems...

    • CHAPTER 7 Broken Silence
      (pp. 130-151)

      Silence can be a peculiar thing. At times some people yearn for silence after being caught up in the cacophony of sound, maddening sounds that disturb or make no coherent sense, hearing the same thing over and over with no rhyme or reason driving one to distraction. Sometimes other people, through no fault of their own, hear nothing and must sign with their hands as a way to communicate with one another to overcome the silence. In either case, the lack of silence or the ever-presence of it can be deafening to the soul, killing the spirit unless some creative...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 8 Crossing the Line
      (pp. 152-174)

      It finally happened. Monday, January 3, 1966, was a historic day. According to a report in theColumbian-Progress, “An 8-year-old Negro girl was registered at the formerly all white Columbia Primary School Monday without incident.” Her mother walked with her as she went to her assigned classroom. The line was finally crossed, the one that for decades had been a barrier to equal education under the law. This was the first time the Columbia Municipal School Board’s desegregation compliance policy of integrating first and second grades was implemented.

      Regardless of the mounting pressure and sea of emotions that undoubtedly swept...

    • CHAPTER 9 Dwindling Days
      (pp. 175-196)

      Sometime in early June, Buddy asked if I wanted to fly with him up to Chattanooga to take Danny to summer school at McCallie, a Tennessee prep school. I agreed and we loaded Danny’s gear in the Twin Beech and flew off north to Tennessee on a clear blue summer morning. Upon arrival we went over to the school in a rented car and deposited Danny and his things there. On the way back to Mississippi we swung by Atlanta to get a part installed on the door of the plane. It was exciting to listen to the air traffic...

    • CHAPTER 10 Another Reality
      (pp. 197-218)

      So, that is the story I promised to tell when Chris Watts, the curator of the Marion County Museum and Archives in Columbia, Mississippi, asked me to contribute to his documentation of the town’s history during the mid-1960s struggle for civil rights. As I was telling the story, however, I became ever more aware of the fact that even the telling needed to be a collaborative task bringing together people with perspectives other than my own, who also sought at that time to promote not just peace in the moment, but lasting peace based on justice for all. My accounting...

  7. PART III REFLECTION

    • CHAPTER 11 Thank You, Mr. Mayor
      (pp. 221-230)

      As memories of Buddy McLean flood over me, something Ted Kennedy said about his slain brother Robert seems also to be a true and fitting remembrance of Buddy: “[He] need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, who saw suffering and tried to heal it . . . .”¹ In his own way, Buddy faced conflict and found creative ways to resolve it. What he did in those years as mayor of Columbia did not reward...

    • CHAPTER 12 In Search of Truth and Understanding
      (pp. 231-244)

      Recently, I read the document that listed property related to the 1850 census at the history center of the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Under the name of my great-grandfather, William McAtee, was listed “24 properties,” aged forty-four years down to a few months old. I had known in my head that he had opened up that Choctaw land in Beat Four, Attala County, by owning and working slaves, but this was the first time the reality of my ancestor’s slaveholding status came home to me with such emotional impact. There it was in black and white...

    • CHAPTER 13 So What?
      (pp. 245-258)

      Being a native Mississippian, I had a great deal invested in what was taking place in the 1960s during my search for truth and understanding. I was proud of some of my heritage, and I made no apology to anyone for that part of it. But I was not blind to the manifold injustices in Mississippi, both past and present, and I repudiated them. Apologies and repudiations are tricky and sometimes difficult to separate, but separated they must be. So after all was said and done, I still had to ask, “So what?”

      As I contemplated an answer to that...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 259-270)

    The magnitude of nationwide and regional events grabbing the headlines throughout the decade of the 1960s made the confluence of people and events at this time in Columbia seem almost obscure by contrast. But those involved deemed what transpired far from obscure and, for the most part, life changing. Even the smallest details and routine decisions at times took on epic proportions with far-reaching, unexpected implications. Determined, ordinary individuals, sometimes privately and sometimes publicly, acted in concert for the welfare of the city and county. Their actions made a difference, and this was their story. It was a time of...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 271-274)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 275-302)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 303-310)
  12. Index
    (pp. 311-335)