Born of Conviction
White Methodists and Mississippi's Closed Society
Early in January 1963, a group of twenty-eight white Methodist ministers in Mississippi published a short statement headlined as “Born of Conviction.” They were responding to the riots at the University of Mississippi following the admission of James Meredith as a student, as well as to the atmosphere of fear that gripped the state that soon would become known as “the closed society.” The statement itself simply pointed to passages in the Methodist Discipline which upheld the equality of all men before God, supported public schools as a bedrock institution of the American Republic, and denounced those who tried to divert attention from legitimate civil rights grievances by launching charges of communism.
For today’s reader, it seems a classic statement of white “moderates,” the kind that soon were to be memorably pilloried by Martin Luther King., Jr.’s epic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, published later that same year. But Mississippi was, if not quite sui generis, certainly a state where ferocious opposition to the slightest challenge to Jim Crow reached its height. Furthermore, segregationists largely controlled the state’s Methodist establishment, as did the relatively new organization the Mississippi Association of Methodist Ministers and Laymen (MAMML). The latter was basically the Methodist version of the White Citizen’s Council, which itself consisted of Klanmen in suits and ties.
Reiff’s outstanding, deeply engaging book follows the story not just of the “Born of Conviction” statement, but more generally of the culture and internal politicking of Mississippi Methodism more broadly for most of the twentieth century; the lives and careers of the twenty-eight who signed; and the evolution of race and religion in the state since the early 1960s. Reiff, a former Methodist minister himself—and son a Methodist minister, not originally from Mississippi, involved in some of the events described here—has interviewed a great number of the participants in the events, researched the Methodist materials thoroughly, and incorporated the relevant primary and scholarly/secondary material into his own work. The result is a really memorable book that will be not just the definitive history of the origins, writing, influence, and aftermath of the “Born of Conviction” statement, but one of the most important contributions to Mississippi, civil rights, and southern religious history published since 2000.
Focusing particularly on the twenty-eight signers, Reiff makes the important point that the normal way the statement and its aftermath are portrayed–that they represented “the closed society [battering] the outspoken young preachers upon the anvil of public opinion” (197)—oversimplifies a much more rich and complex picture. Twenty of the twenty-eight did leave the state, to be sure, but about a dozen of those could have stayed. Some were, as the normal narrative goes, essentially forced out because they spoke out, but others left for better opportunities and bigger churches elsewhere, while eight stayed on in the state. Much of this book follows the lives and careers of the individual signers, and their varied histories, decisions, courses of action, and responses to the events of the period make for fascinating reading. One of the signers, Gerald Trigg, ended up in his later years as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I live; his experiences in those years and later work with multi-racial church groups fundamentally shaped the course of his career. Before he passed away in 2015, his story was featured locally, and people came to appreciate the role he and the others played in chipping cracks into the united front of white resistance in the Magnolia State. Reiff quotes from another signer, who reflected on how it affected those even whom it angered:
"I think there were a lot of quiet lay people who thought exactly as we did, and they had no voice in the church speaking out in their behalf. They weren’t going to say anything, weren’t going to shake the boat themselves. But it at least gave them encouragement and courage to hang with the church, even to feel good about themselves, to know that somehow there’s somebody there who represents us and thinks like we do" (233).
The book ends with a moving description of the fiftieth anniversary of the statement in 2013, when surviving signers gathered together with NAACP leaders and with Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. At another reunion, in 2005, differences and tensions between those who left—sometimes coerced to so do, more often voluntarily choosing to do so—and those who stayed became evident. One of those who stayed believed to that day that those who stayed lived out the meaning of the statement, because, as he put it, “how can you flesh out a conviction if you’re absent” (241). One of the “exiles” acknowledged that he didn’t “have to leave Mississippi. I can understand that kind of judgment ... probably most of us wound up with a better life because we left ... It was almost like a stepping stone that we signed the statement. It was advantageous for my career” (241). Those who left carried their courage in 1963 as a badge of honor; those who stayed, more often put the statement behind them and continued working in the trenches, sometimes with Klansmen as neighbors and church members.
Reiff was, in a sense, born to write this history, and he uses his advantages of family, regional, and Methodist connections to the great benefit of all who will be enriched by his superior piece of scholarship. For anyone who cares about the relationship of religion, race, and the civil rights movement, this is a classic.
Paul Harvey is professor of history at the University of Colorado.
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