The speeches of President Obama and Congressman John Lewis at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama earlier this year rightly observed that there is work still to be done to achieve racial justice at home. At that 50th commemoration of the Selma civil rights march, the speakers reminded the nation that “there are more bridges to be crossed,” if we are to overcome our legacy of a Jim Crow past.
As an historian, I have been interested in how the hold of history and memory affect the present, and how they influence national priorities today, particularly where issues of race are concerned. Recently I completed a micro-historical study of a small black community in east central Mississippi to learn what light it could shed on our intractable racial dilemma. My book about the study, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press this May.
The community I studied does not appear on any maps, though it is known by locals as Longdale, or Mt. Zion, since it was first settled by people who built their homes around the Methodist church they named Mt. Zion. Over its long history, Mt. Zion has provided testimony to the “American Dilemma,” our nation’s struggle to achieve a just and equal society. The term comes from Gunnar Myrdal’s research into America’s racialized past, and refers to the tension between what people profess to be—tolerant, inclusive, color-blind citizens—and the reality of how they actually think and act—as race-conscious, even racist, individuals.
As we have seen, the consequences of a divisive racial past continue to be exposed in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Norman, and other locations around the country. There is a consistency in our national pattern of race relations: periods of racial progress and reform tend to be followed by regressive policies and decisions that move the clock back. As one historian noted, “revolutions can go backwards.”
Located in Neshoba County, Mt. Zion anchored the community and held a disproportionate amount of influence—given its size—on the region. Its story follows this national pattern of progress and reversal. The county and the church have come to claim a place in our history texts because of events that transpired there in 1964, when three civil rights activists—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner—were murdered by members of the local Klan after these Klan members learned of the activists’ plans for a voting rights school at Mt. Zion.
Mt. Zion’s history dates from 1879, a time when radical Reconstruction reform—the attempt by Northern carpetbaggers and Southern moderates to create a racially egalitarian environment in the post-war South—was still alive in scattered areas of the South. A group of people just out of slavery settled in the area, and embraced the gospel of Methodist itinerants, black and white, who traveled the state.
The settlers observed a striking resemblance between the message of the religious itinerants, who were adherents of John Wesley’s ban on slaveholding, and the political goals of the Reconstruction reformers. In post-Civil War Mississippi, the denomination grew in a symbiotic relationship with the progressive agenda of Reconstruction reform. Thus it happened that Mt. Zion first claimed its place in society imbued with a sense of optimism, not just for personal salvation, but for acceptance of the full rights of citizenship.
Their confidence in a just and inclusive society was repeatedly challenged in the years that followed. White supremacy, and the privileges that went along with whiteness, became the new norm by 1890, within the South, in the nation, indeed, in the world, including eventually Methodism itself. The members of Mt. Zion, some landowners and others sharecroppers, grew cotton, raised cattle and engaged in timbering, a tithe from their proceeds going to maintain their church and their school. When cheated out of their full payments by cotton factors and cattle auctioneers, they had no recourse in the courts. Still, the close-knit community tried to pass on to succeeding generations their belief in the promise of full citizenship.
But as the promise of Reconstruction faded, so did the inclusive goals of Methodism. Divided over slavery in 1844, the Southern branch, renamed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, brought in scores of adherents to its racially segregated churches. By 1939, the Methodist General Conference, eager to claim this large Southern membership, voted to reunite the denomination, but at the price of black exclusion. One new administrative unit was formed for all black Methodists across the country, named the “Central Jurisdiction,” which for many became a symbol for denominational endorsement of segregation.
Racially exclusive African Methodist denominations (which had separated from the larger Methodist body in the previous century) appealed to the members of the Central Jurisdiction to leave the Methodist denomination and join with them, so they could make their own policies free of white control. However Mt. Zion and its black Mississippi conferences refused to leave the Methodist denomination, claiming that they were the truly authentic Methodist church. When the Second Reconstruction appeared in the 1960s, Mt. Zion’s congregation was ready to join in the continuing battle for the ballot.
Members offered the church as the site for a voting rights school. But even before the school could open, the church was burned, five members were badly beaten, and Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were dead. In the surrounding white community, residents closed ranks, and kept a stony silence when investigators came looking for the killers, their silence a cover for the terrorists in their midst.
By 1968 the Central Jurisdiction was a moral embarrassment to the Methodist denomination and its leaders called for reunification. A reunified church, meant to show the denomination’s commitment to racial inclusiveness, was resisted by white lay people in Mississippi. This attempt at racial harmony in the church had no effect on the unresolved murders in Neshoba County.
It took more than forty years for the chief conspirator in the murders to be tried and convicted, long after an earlier trial had sentenced several co-conspirators to brief prison terms. The Philadelphia Coalition, a tri-racial collection of local people, generated the pressure for the new trial in 2005, the Coalition consisting of members of Mt. Zion, white moderates from the small city of Philadelphia, and a few representatives from the Choctaw tribe.
When the trial ended, the organization transformed itself into a community group that introduced novel ideas to the area: it had a view of racial reconciliation learned from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Similar groups emerged throughout the state, tied together by the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss, whose many programs were oriented toward young people. These efforts, small, struggling, and underfunded, were intended to demonstrate that the “American Dilemma” could be resolved, by learning new ways to talk across the racial divide. The participants in these programs came from the “other” Mississippi, the one that was generous, accepting, modern, and tolerant.
Yet it would be too much to claim that these small interracial groups in Mississippi have the answer to our continuing racial struggle. What President Obama referred to as the “long shadow” of our history is still visible, not only in the confrontations on the street, but in the Supreme Court’s decision last year to set new limits to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The action by the Court, which removed protections for black voters the Act put in place, holds the potential for having a more intrusive effect on race progress by allowing gerrymandering to dilute the power of the black vote. It still remains to be seen whether this nation can maintain a forward march toward racial inclusiveness.