Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Part 5: The Black Churches of Mississippi

Praying for Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Mickey Schwerner
by Charlie Leck

This is Part Five of a Six Part series written for
my youngest child. As a Christmas gift, she asked
me to remember the sixties and write about
them for her – especially my involvement in the
civil rights movement of that decade. So, I will
do that in a series of essays here on my blog.
[click here if you would like to begin with part one]

The most delightful, happy moments of my time in Mississippi during the summer of '64, were those spent with the children of Angelina Davis and those times when we worshipped in some of the black churches scattered around in Madison County.

While we were in her home, I don't think Angelina's children ever quite got over the bizarre feeling of having two white men as regular guests. Each evening, as we sat chatting with Angelina, they would approach us tentatively, waiting for some signal from David or me that it was okay to crawl on our laps or to sit on the floor next to us. It took only a nod or a dipping of the hand to bring them on. There were some evenings when we were out too late into the night to spend time with the children, but we and they would always make up for that in the morning. David and I always had some kind of treat for them tucked into one of our pockets – a packet of gum or a box of candy to share. It took ever so many days to get the children to really trust us. It was as if they were waiting for some hammer to fall – some act of outrage and hatred from us. To make them feel as if we were all equals was next to impossible. They had been trained, or brain-washed, by Mississippi's "closed society" to believe something else entirely.

I had read James Silver's book, Mississippi: A Closed Society, for an ethics class that spring. It was odd to come to grips with the thesis of a book in a classroom, and then to see it alive and in the flesh. We came to realize that Silver could not have exaggerated the situation. To be black in Mississippi was to live in one of the most horrible situations on earth. It wasn't that African-Americans made up the bulk of the state's poor, or that they lived in such horrible conditions; rather it was the degradation of their humanity – a mean dehumanizing of their spirits – that made their situations so ugly and intolerable. While black men and women in Mississippi were constantly and thickly spreading around their "yaz-sirs" and "yaz-mums" to the white folks of their communities, their innards were burning with rage and hatred. And who could blame them? Opportunity was closed to them. Hope was impossible.

In Mississippi, up until 1996 at least, there was no human relations department nor any human rights commission or agency. That's a fact, Jack!

Why not get out of Mississippi? That was the question that white folks in both Mississippi and Minnesota would ask of blacks. The same question would be asked of anti-war protesters later on in the 60s: "Why don't you leave America if you don't love it here?"

As hard as it is to believe, Mississippi was home for those African-Americans we encountered down there. It was as much home to them as it was for the white folks who lived there. No one had a right to question why they stayed. They stayed because they had roots there. They had family and friends there! Why should they have to start over again in Syracuse or Chicago?

The goal of the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 was to change Mississippi – to open up the "closed society." How does one open such a situation? The answer to the project workers was simple: Open up the election process! Mississippi would simply not change until African-Americans assumed their constitutional right to vote. The Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it blatantly illegal to deny the vote to citizens of legal age through acts of or threats of intimidation.

The economy of Mississippi was controlled by the white population. This was the great hammer. The black population depended on Mississippi's economy for sustenance and survival. Could a voting rights act change that? Only slowly – ever so slowly!

Yet, it was clear to us, during our time in Mississippi, that the wheel was turning and that change would surely come.

The omnipresent goal was to secure the vote! The only way toward an effectively different future was to put black men and women on school boards, on city councils, on county boards, in the mayor's office and behind the sheriff's badge. For most of Mississippi's black folks, during the summer of '64, that seemed an impossible goal, but not for the young people. George Washington III was a believer. He knew "change was a comin'" and he was not ever going to let up until the goal was achieved. He was everywhere we looked during that summer. He loved the volunteers and he thanked them every day. If they needed some assistance, he provided it. It might be a pat on the back or it might be his telephone so that some kid could call home and talk to his parents. Or, it might be his services as a driver.

George Washington III was our regular chauffer. Somehow he kept his big, old, banged-up station wagon rolling. He drove us out into the countryside so we could see the utter poverty of rural Mississippi. He got us to church every Sunday and he took us to little, country churches for week-night services. It delighted him to see how happy we were when we were in a church. What he didn't know was that it was "church" like none of us had ever known before.

Church was a special place for black men and women and their children. Their churches were theirs alone. They supported them and maintained them. They made the decisions and ran them. This was their gathering place and, once inside, their hearts opened up and they became the people they wanted to be. They were free! There was no more need to jive the white man – no more kissing ass! Worship became an explosion of joy and a celebration of hope. Singin' and swayin' was a constant! Prayin' and preachin' was real and honest. The whole place was rockin' and we stodgy, proper, white fellers were a-lovin' it. It made our hosts beam to see how much we enjoyed it.

The very specialness of the local church in the black society of Mississippi was not lost on the Klan. They understood it as clearly as I have explained it above. That's why the black churches of Mississippi became the Klan's target in 1964. During that year, 44 black churches were destroyed by fires set by arsonists. The Klan understood! If you want to hurt black people deeply, go after their churches. If you want to remove the last bit of openness and freedom they have in your closed society, destroy their churches.

There were constant conversations about the threat inside the churches we visited. Plans and strategies to protect the buildings were discussed. Volunteers would sign up for nights when they would stand guard. If there were enough volunteers, the shifts would be short. If there weren't, some volunteers pulled all-nighters.

In 1989, James McPherson, then a professor at the University of Iowa, wrote powerfully about one of the church fires and about the motives behind it. He writes about the burning of the First Zion Baptist Church in Neshoba County. It was set ablaze just a few days before James Chaney and his two traveling companions were killed.

"…Beatrice Cole who, about to be beaten by the Klan, asked if she could kneel and pray for herself and her husband, who had already been beaten. She fell to her knees and said: "Father, I stretch out my hand to Thee. No other help I know. If Thou withdraw Thy help from me, O Lord, wither shall I go?

"'The Lord was there,' Mrs. Cole later concluded. 'Because then the man said, 'Let her alone' and he looked kind of sick about it.' This Klansman, behind his mask, apparently had a slight moral sense. If Mississippi has indeed changed, I assume that this basic moral sense is behind some of the change."
[James McPherson, New York Times, 1989]

First Zion Baptist was not burned down that night, but, in fact, Mississippi hadn't changed – even in 1989, when McPherson wrote the above in a review of the movie, Mississippi Burning. Between January of 1995 and June of 1996, there were "more than 59 arsons of African American churches in the south." This 1996 report about the burning of churches in Mississippi goes on to say:

"Southern rural black churches…were rallying points for many galvanizing demonstrations that ushered in the modern civil rights movement. As religious institutions, black churches were havens for the people who marched for five days from Selma to Montgomery, shelters where freedom riders ate and slept, hosts for meetings and voter registration drives, and headquarters for the Montgomery bus boycott. Fire bombs were used against the churches in retaliation."

It is impossible to understand Mississippi's black society in 1964 without understanding the institution of the black churches in the state.

An FBI profile of the arsonists who burn these black churches was revealed in 1996. It says: "…prejudiced thrill seekers and likely to be a diverse group, not a single hate conspiracy."

In attributing the cases of arson to members of the Klan, Professor McPherson says something much more salient about Mississippi itself:

"In my view, the relatively few poor Anglo-Saxons in the Klan only act out the racial fantasies of a large part of the population. In a special, horrible sense, they have been assigned the role of spokesmen for what many white Americans would rather leave unexpressed. They bear the cross for a large part of the population."

For my part, as I said in the opening paragraph, I remember no more gloriously happy and enchanting moments in my life than those moments swaying, clapping and singing about the goodness of God in little, back-water churches in rural Mississippi. And I remember with tears in my eyes those moments when these same congregations grew totally and absolutely silent as it prayed so earnestly for the safety of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Over the days, the prayers slowly became prayers for their souls and not their safety. There, in those still, hot little churches, I trembled in such fear when I thought of those young men and what they must have endured. I knew with certainty that they were martyrs for this great cause for which we were now striving.

"I believe that the three men were innocents who were chosen by fate to act out the ritual role of martyrs. They were of the innocent minority for which God tolerates the entire human race. The deaths of such people, when weighted in 'normal' scales of value, cause deep, moral questions to be raised. The resolution of such questioning leads, sometimes, to atonement and to change. In this special sense, the death of innocents is a force for moral change in the world."
[James McPherson]

On one dark summer night, in a black church far outside of Canton, the mournful prayer for the three young men ended and, up on the chancel, a marvelous soprano, with deep, coal black, beautiful skin, began to sing and the entire congregation stilled. Her powerful voice ricocheted off the walls and I could hear little whispers of "sing it girl" sprinkled around the pews. I began to tremble, nearly uncontrollably, and David had to put his hand on my shoulder to steady me. Those three, poor young men were missing for a week now and we did not want to speak it, but we knew the truth. The words poured out over us and reverberated across the countryside.

Nobody knows de trouble I've seen
Nobody knows de trouble but Jesus
Nobody knows de trouble I've seen
Glory Hallelujah!

Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down
Oh, yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost to de groun'
Oh, yes, Lord

Although you see me goin' 'long so
Oh, yes, Lord
I have my trials here below
Oh, yes, Lord

If you get there before I do
Oh, yes, Lord
Tell all-a my friends I'm coming too
Oh, yes, Lord

We stayed on after the service and our hosts fed us splendidly. As usual, there were piles of fried chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, corn, collard greens and kale. As we chatted and laughed and ate, it grew dark outside.

It was a long drive back into Canton. George Washington III wanted to chat and laugh. My thoughts were on the black preacher's long prayer for James Chaney and his family – his prayers, too, for Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. He begged God to care for their souls. It was as if he knew something that we did not. He was a black man born and raised in Mississippi. He knew.

David kept looking over his shoulder at every car we met and passed – watching to see if the car would slow, spin around and begin following us. Doctor Nelson, satisfied fully by the wonderful dinner, sat in silence. John Fisher passed the time in conversation and laughter with George Washington III. I looked out into the dark night and prayed for mercy.

END Part Five of Series

Next: Saying Goodbye to Angelina and her children and back home on the speaking circuit

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