Monday, November 16, 2015

“Did I do what I should have done?”: white clergy in 1960s Mississippi

From Oxford University Press-

In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”  Martin Luther King Jr. expressed keen disappointment in white church leaders, whom he had hoped “would be among our strongest allies” and “would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure.” Southern white clergy members in the civil rights era are stereotypically portrayed as outspoken opponents of change, or as chaplains of the segregated system who claimed a purely “spiritual” (i.e., not “political”) role for the church, or as somewhat sympathetic supporters of the black freedom struggle who remained in tormented silence, afraid to stir things up and hurt the church and their own careers.

 Looking back on that time, many white pastors who led churches in the 1960s have asked themselves, “Did I do what I should have done?”
In Mississippi, the state known as “the toughest nut to crack” by movement leaders, a few white church pastors tried to do the right thing. In response to the 30 September 1962 riot at Ole Miss on the eve of James Meredith’s registration as the school’s first African American student, a small ecumenical group of white clergy in Oxford, including Episcopal priest Duncan M. Gray Jr., issued a call for repentance “for our collective and individual guilt in the formation of the atmosphere which produced the strife at the University of Mississippi.” Most white Mississippians aware of this appeal either ignored or rejected it.

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