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Charles Marsh


JESUS in MISSISSIPPI

The civil-rights movement as theological drama.

So many of the best stories of the civil-rights movement are the smaller ones: not the stories of the waters parting and the people marching over, but of everyday bravery and long-forgotten failures. I am especially partial to the story of the church-visit campaign in 1963. Led by a white, Mississippi-native Methodist minister named Edwin King, along with a handful of black and white students, ministers, and professors, the church visits were part of an intensified effort to crack the iceberg of Southern segregation by focusing energies on Mississippi—"the most race-haunted of all American states,"1 where a brutal pigmentocracy and a fervent belief in Jesus Christ were endorsed with equal passion.

Ed King and company went straight for the jugular. Sunday after Sunday, he and his theological comrades appeared on the steps of Jackson's most segregated white churches, praying, singing, testifying—enacting time and again spectacular scenarios that teased out of the "church guards" darkly comic and ironic assertions about faith and social existence. As the campaign proceeded during the fall of 1963 and spring of 1964, it had all the makings of a theater of the absurd wherein the myriad theological contradictions of a closed and racist society became evidenced and pantomimed.

One Sunday morning during the autumn of the church-visits crusade, King drove a biracial group of students from Tougaloo College (the historically black private college where he served as chaplain) to the cavernous Galloway Memorial Methodist Church for an early-morning Communion service. The church guards, who had not been prepared this morning for the visitors' arrival, rushed to form a human barricade at the double doors, forcing the church regulars to find their way inside by entering the educational building on the opposite side of the grounds. (These guards were deacons or ushers who patrolled the sidewalks and entrances for black, integrated, or otherwise suspicious groups of worshipers.) ...

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