Mississippi Praying

Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975

Carolyn Renée Dupont
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 303
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Mississippi Praying
    Book Description:

    Mississippi Prayingexamines the faith communities at ground-zero of the racial revolution that rocked America. This religious history of white Mississippians in the civil rights era shows how Mississippians' intense religious commitments played critical, rather than incidental, roles in their response to the movement for black equality.During the civil rights movement and since, it has perplexed many Americans that unabashedly Christian Mississippi could also unapologetically oppress its black population. Yet, as Carolyn Renee Dupont richly details, white southerners' evangelical religion gave them no conceptual tools for understanding segregation as a moral evil, and many believed that God had ordained the racial hierarchy.Challenging previous scholarship that depicts southern religious support for segregation as weak, Dupont shows how people of faith in Mississippi rejected the religious argument for black equality and actively supported the effort to thwart the civil rights movement. At the same time, faith motivated a small number of white Mississippians to challenge the methods and tactics of do-or-die segregationists. Racial turmoil profoundly destabilized Mississippi's religious communities and turned them into battlegrounds over the issue of black equality. Though Mississippi's evangelicals lost the battle to preserve segregation, they won important struggles to preserve the theology that had sustained the racial hierarchy. Ultimately, this history sheds light on the eventual rise of the religious right by elaborating the connections between the pre- and post-civil rights South.Carolyn Renee Dupont is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2387-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: History, White Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement
    (pp. 1-14)

    Most Sunday mornings from June 1963 through April 1964, as white Christians flocked to church in Jackson, Mississippi, they met chaos. Amidst the buzz of a police force with dogs, billy clubs, and walkie talkies, small groups of curiosity seekers and angry layfolk loitered under church porticos; sometimes a complement of local and national press representatives stood by, too. All awaited the arrival of interracial groups of civil rights activists who sought entry to these sanctuaries but endured repeated rejection from the majority of them. Sometimes members of a “color guard” formed physical barricades, and police often arrested the would-be...

  6. 1 Segregation and the Religious Worlds of White Mississippians
    (pp. 15-38)

    In the two decades after World War II, Mississippians exuded religious zeal. Riding the crest of a national revival, the state ranked as one of only four where more than 80 percent of the population claimed a church affiliation.¹ Spiritual leaders celebrated as their institutions enjoyed heightened prosperity, their sanctuaries filled to capacity, and armies of young people chose vocations in Christian service. Yet to some outsiders, Mississippi reeked of contradictions. For even as religious observance soared to its zenith, whites’ savage resistance to black equality turned the state into a metaphor for brutality and violence. The apparently untroubled coexistence...

  7. 2 Conversations about Race in the Post-War World
    (pp. 39-62)

    Just after World War II, Mississippi’s churches seemed to burst at the seams. Returning service personnel, new believers, and once-wayward backsliders all streamed to houses of worship. Scores of congregations rejoiced as they set new attendance records. Formerly small, struggling churches raised their status to “full time,” finally able to support a pastor all their own. After fifteen lean years of depression and war, prosperity had surged again. As they poured forth from their new abundance, Mississippi evangelicals surpassed all previous giving records. Methodists pledged a “million for the Master” to refurbish and expand their facilities, while Baptists erected new...

  8. 3 Responding to Brown: The Recalcitrant Parish
    (pp. 63-78)

    Southern Baptists descended on St. Louis for their annual convention a mere two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its watershedBrown v. Board of Educationruling in May of 1954. With the South already seething over the decision, the thousands of Baptist messengers anticipated some sort of convention statement on the subject, as did their constituents at home. Likely few, however, expected that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) would endorse theBrowndecision so resoundingly. The Convention’s Christian Life Commission (CLC) declared the decision “in harmony with the constitutional guarantee of equal freedom to all citizens, and with...

  9. 4 “A Strange and Serious Christian Heresy”: Massive Resistance and the Religious Defense of Segregation
    (pp. 79-104)

    “During the past two years there has been a deluge of materials spread over the face of the South in which various Biblical proofs are given for divine sanction of racial segregation . . . not only the ignorant wool-hat-hill folk [are] accepting the exegesis of the hate mongers but the more refined as well. . . . The pamphlets, articles, and tracts [are] written by preachers and religious educators well known in the circle of the target audience.” Thus observed Will Campbell, the progressive Mississippi Baptist expatriate, in 1957.¹ The writer Lillian Smith confirmed that “[t]here is a great...

  10. 5 “Ask for the Old Paths”: Mississippi’s Southern Baptists and Segregation
    (pp. 105-126)

    In November 1954, just six months after the announcement of theBrowndecision, white Baptists performed their yearly ritual of gathering for the state convention in Jackson. In his opening address, state association president Dr. John E. Barnes affirmed the wisdom of doing things in familiar ways with a text from Jeremiah 6:16: “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths where is the good way and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” While Barnes made no direct mention of the Supreme Court decision, the Christian Life...

  11. 6 “Born of Conviction”: The Travail of Mississippi Methodism
    (pp. 127-154)

    On an early January day in 1963, an irate townsman stormed into the office of Pisgah Methodist Church near McComb to scold Pastor Bill Lampton: “You’ve messed yourself up real good, boy!” He announced that church members planned to meet that night to “throw [him] out.” The following Saturday, Reverend Lampton awoke to find his car tires slashed. Still intending to conduct worship services the next day, he reconsidered when two sympathetic parishioners brought warnings that an angry mob threatened violence to the church and parsonage. Fearing imminent danger, Lampton quickly removed his family to the safety of his parents’...

  12. 7 The Jackson Church Visits: “A Good Quarter-Time Church with a Bird Dog and Shotgun”
    (pp. 155-180)

    On Easter Sunday 1964, Charles Golden and James Matthews planned to worship together at Galloway Memorial Methodist Church. The two knew that, for the previous ten months, white Jackson churches had systematically rejected integrated parties that came to visit. As a native black Mississippian, Golden understood the rigidity of racial lines in his home state, but he still expected welcome as a bishop of the Methodist Church. His white colleague, Matthews, respected the sincere Christianity of Mississippians and believed the Galloway congregation would respond “in terms of faith rather than in terms of traditional social mores.”¹

    The two bishops seriously...

  13. 8 “Warped and Distorted Reflections”: Mississippi and the North
    (pp. 181-198)

    Writing for theChristian Centuryafter 1964’s turbulent summer, Richard Marius described Mississippi as an ironic paradox, both “embarrassing and enraging.” The one-time Baptist-preacher-turned-historian observed, “It can be worth your life these days to work for civil rights in Mississippi—and yet Mississippi is probably the most devoutly religious state in the nation.” Underscoring Christians’ utter complicity in the horrifying episodes that riveted the nation’s attention, he “wonder[ed] how the church there can stand its own shame and cowardice.”¹

    By the time Marius penned these words, his readers recognized Hattiesburg, Canton, Clarksdale, McComb, and Jackson as sites of sustained civil...

  14. 9 Race and the Restructuring of American Religion
    (pp. 199-230)

    In 1965, a white minister from Massachusetts called on Reverend Gwin Turner in his study at Bomar Avenue Baptist Church in Vicksburg. Turner talked some three hours with the northern cleric, who worked in black economic and political development with the National Council of Churches’ (NCC) Delta Ministry. Reflecting later on their encounter, Turner sized up his colleague as “typical of the good-intentioned but misguided problem solvers now evident in the civil rights movement.” To the Mississippian, the NCC minister displayed an “utter lack of understanding in things supernatural.” He had rejected the essentials of Christian doctrine—the notion of...

  15. CONCLUSION: A Theology on the Wrong Side of History
    (pp. 231-240)

    The conservative religion of white Mississippians offered almost no help to the state’s African Americans as they struggled to upend white domination. In fact, ideologically and institutionally, this faith served as a serious and persistent impediment to black activists’ goals. Evangelicals fought mightily against black equality, proclaiming that God himself ordained segregation, blessing the forces of resistance, silencing the advocates of racial equality within their own faith traditions, and protecting segregation in their churches.

    This story suggests much about moral suasion and its ineffectiveness in persuading a people to willingly relinquish power and privilege. In civil-rights-era Mississippi, such moral suasion...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 241-284)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 285-289)
    (pp. 290-290)