One Mississippi, Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County
Carol V. R. George
Oxford University Press, 2015
328 pp., 35.95
"Season Was a Always Open on Me"
If you don't understand why we should say 'Black lives matter,' " the panelist said to the audience, "and why we shouldn't then say 'All lives matter,' then come and see me afterwards. I'd love to have a chat with you."
The invitation that evening was straightforward: examine your relationships with minority communities. Understand the injustices committed against our black brothers and sisters for well over 300 years on American soil. Understand systematic racism still prevalent in our country today. And understand why African Americans have a right to be angry and why justice has yet to happen for the black community.
Like that conversation, Carol V. R. George's One Mississippi, Two Mississippi is a step in the right direction. George's multilayered book sheds light on the role the Methodist Church played (and chose not to play) regarding equal rights for blacks, particularly in the South. It zeroes in on the history of one small congregation, Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and its contribution to the greater fight for racial justice. George highlights the conscious decision the congregation made to promote voter registration during the Freedom Summer of 1964—a commitment that resulted in the brutal beating of five church members and a fire that destroyed the original church building—and revisits the notorious murder of three young civil rights workers who had come to investigate the church-burning.
Spanning a period of almost 200 years, George's chronicle begins by examining the state's "dark journey" with the Choctaw Indian tribe. Following the Indian Removal Act of 1833, the majority of the tribe was driven out of state, to lands west of the Mississippi River. George then shows how Reconstruction affected the residents of Neshoba County, and considers the distinctive culture of Mississippi, where conflicts over civil rights were particularly intense. And she helps readers to understand why, in the midst of blatant oppression, unabashed white privilege, and a growing Klan presence, many black residents nevertheless chose not to leave for the north. All of this and more she does without losing her focus on Mt. Zion Church.
Part of the Methodist Episcopal Church (now called the United Methodist Church), Mt. Zion was founded in the mid-1800's. As the second-largest denomination in the Magnolia State, Methodism was known for its historic antislavery stance. But Methodism was also bedeviled by the contradiction that afflicted American Christianity more generally, especially but not only in the South: the tension between a radically inclusive gospel and deep-seated racism.
When Reconstruction ended in 1877, rather than acknowledging the contradiction and seeking to redress it, denominational leaders—in the name of a unified church—established a constitution that mandated internal segregation, denying rights to black Methodists. Black bishops were elected to serve the black community, an accommodation to Jim Crow, "consistent with the color line drawn in all areas of collective life."
Institutionalized segregation compromised the church's witness. Lynchings were a present reality. For white southerners who desired to "maintain the Southern way of life," there was no discrepancy between professing Jesus as Lord and believing in the need for an apartheid state.
That brings us to 1964 and the heart of George's narrative, when Mt. Zion voted to open its doors to the Mississippi Summer Project, thereby allowing thousands of blacks in Neshoba County to exercise their right to vote for the first time. On June 16, eight adults (with two children present) gathered at Mt. Zion for a finance meeting. Klan members, wrongly believing that key activists of the Freedom School were present, assaulted five of the church members after the meeting had concluded. The members recognized some of their attackers as local law enforcement officials and never reported the incident to the police. Later that evening, "they saw the night sky lit by fire, and when they looked out they saw their beloved Mt. Zion Church burning to the ground."
Five days later, Klan members tracked down the civil rights workers they'd been looking for: James Chaney was arrested on speeding charges, and Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner for "investigation." They were taken to the local jail, held for six hours, and then released back into the hands of ten local Klansmen. As some readers may recall from the (albeit fictionalized) 1989 film, Mississippi Burning, the three men were shot at point-blank range, dumped into the bed of a local reservoir, and covered with dirt by a bulldozer in the middle of the night.
Although the Klan thought they'd put together a foolproof plan, 44 days later FBI agents discovered the remains of the men. Eighteen Klansmen were indicted "on charges of conspiracy to deny the victims their civil rights" (the legal maneuver that allowed the federal government to intervene after Mississippi authorities refused to charge the conspirators with murder). Seven of the men were found guilty and served sentences ranging from three to ten years. The man whom many thought to be the head of the entire operation, Preacher Ray Killen, ran free.
George's book concludes by bringing the reader to the present. Each year since 1964, Mt. Zion Church has hosted a gathering to remember what happened that summer. On the fortieth anniversary, organizers called for a reexamination of the case. The same pastor, Ray Killen, who had been acquitted by the vote of a single juror, was tried again. Using evidence from the 1967 trial, both the defense and the prosecution used a defense of culture to prove their point. Really, it was a contest between two Mississippis, the old and the new. Killen, an unrepentant segregationist, doubted a jury would convict an eighty-year old man.
But he was wrong. On the 41st anniversary of the murders, Killen was found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to sixty years in prison. (On June 20, 2016, authorities closed the case after more than fifty years, stating that no other suspects remain in the "Freedom Summer" murders of 1964.)
Did finally putting the ringleader of the operation in prison provide necessary closure, or did it merely show the community—and perhaps the nation as well—the continued need for justice? Like Carol V. R. George, I believe the work has only begun. Just as the panelist that evening reminded me of the importance of understanding why we need to believe black lives matter, we cannot ignore the connection between the murders of those three young men in 1964 and justice for the black community today.
For until we don't have to talk about it any more, we have to continue talking about it even more.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and is co-host of Shalom in the City's monthly book club podcast. She holds a Masters of Theology (Fuller Seminary), and can be found on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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