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In contrast to safe, retroactive endorsements of the civil rights movement, Mississippi residents who challenged segregation in 1963 faced real risks. (Photo credit: BlackPast.org)

In contrast to safe, retroactive endorsements of the civil rights movement, Mississippi residents who challenged segregation in 1963 faced real risks. (Photo credit: BlackPast.org)

On January 2, 1963, a group of white, largely evangelical ministers in what is now the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church released a famous public repudiation of racism in the midst of a very volatile environment. As others prepare a  ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the statement, we are honored to publish this guest post by one of the main organizers of this effort, the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam. Dunnam is a longtime, prominent leader of evangelical renewal efforts in United Methodism who we have been privileged to know as a brother and a friend.  Later parts of his career included serving as president of Asbury Theological Seminary, world editor of “The Upper Room” devotionals, president of the World Methodist Council, and one of the most widely recognized leaders in the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church.

MISSISSIPPI METHODISTS REMEMBER

I was the organizing pastor of a Methodist church in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1963. James Meredith had been admitted as the first black student to the University of Mississippi. There were student protests and riots, and racial tension had risen to new heights.

Three minister friends joined me in writing a statement which we called BORN OF CONVICTION. We introduced it with these words:

“confronted with the grave crisis precipitated by racial discord within our state in recent months, and the genuine dilemma facing persons of Christian conscience, we are compelled to voice publicly our convictions. Indeed, as Christian ministers, and as native Mississippians, sharing the anguish of our people, we have a particular obligation to speak.”

We then spoke of the responsibility of the church to steward freedom of the pulpit and the call to pastoral/prophetic responsibility on the part of clergy.

We expressed our concern and opposition to racial segregation, stating clearly the Biblical and Church’s conviction that there must be no discrimination based on “race, color or creed.”

Our third concern was the undermining of public schools by the proliferation of private Christian schools to preserve segregaion.

In those days, the issues of race and communism were confused and folks committed to racial justice were accused of being communist. We closed our statement by expressing our opposition and the official position of the United Methodist Church in relation to communism.

Unfortunately, the annual conference was crippled by internal ecclesiastical politics, making it impossible for the conference to speak with one voice on any issue. To keep our statement out of that political arena, we four writers of the statement decided we would invite only younger clergy to join us in issuing the statement to the conference and the public. We wanted the issues to be kept clear. 24 others joined us in signing.

Reading the statement today, you might think there was nothing radical about it. But in Mississippi parlance, “all hell broke loose.” Most of the signers were compelled to leave Mississippi and serve in other areas.

That was fifty years ago. The Commission on Religion and Race of the Mississippi Conference has chosen to honor the 28 ministers who signed the Born of Conviction statement with an award established in honor of Emma Elzy who spent her life advocating reconciliation and better race relations.

The award will be presented by Myrlie Evers, wife of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, who was assasinated June 13, 1963.

I’m going to be in Jackson, at the conference, on June 9. I’m looking forward to seeing the persons who signed the statement, some for the first time since 1963. I have no notion about whether we deserve to be honored, but it is good to know that memory sometimes serves us well.

I’m convinced racism is not as pronounced as it was in 1963, but it is still present all over our nation. I’m as concerned about that today as I was 50 years ago, but my passionate concern is this: I BELIEVE PUBLIC EDUCATION IS THE CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE OF THE 21st CENTURY.