Mississippi Methodists remember

Editor’s Note: Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader and activist Medgar Evers, will present the 2013 Mississippi Annual Conference’s Emma Elzy Award to the group of Mississippi Methodist ministers who signed a 1963 document known as the Born of Conviction Statement. That statement declared the ministers’ disapproval of discrimination; of the closing of public schools to create private schools with tax funds, and of communism. The commentary below is from one of those ministers.

I was the organizing pastor of a Methodist church in Gulfport, Miss., 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 that 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 segregation.

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. Twenty-four 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 50 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 assassinated June 13, 1963.

I’m going to be in Jackson, at the conference, on June 9. I’m looking forward to seeing those 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 21stcentury.

*Dunnam is the retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary and honorary co-chairman of the Confessing Movement, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist caucus. 

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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