There are a number of 20th century figures whose names are synonymous with social justice, people like Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela.
In the United States no figure is more recognized, or more universally respected, than slain civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This weekend people throughout Northeast Mississippi are honoring King’s legacy with banquets, speeches and religious services, and several people of faith recently shared their perspectives about the man’s life and work, and how his religious convictions provided the basis for his courage.
A different world
People who grew up in the pre-civil rights era remember life before King’s work as radically different from today.
“In the backwoods of Benton County in the 1930s and ‘40s, it’s hard to describe how different things were,” said Bishop H.L. Coleman, pastor of Flatwood Grove Church of the Living God in Blue Mountain.
As a young man, the 87-year-old was scared to give his full name to civil rights activists working to educate black voters in the countryside.
In the early ‘60s concerned citizens came to Mississippi to help blacks overcome roadblocks put in place to discourage them from participating in the political process.
Around Coleman’s home they worked mostly out of churches, trying to help blacks connect with the high-profile demonstrations taking place in larger cities.
As the Bible says, the sprit was willing but the flesh was weak, and it wasn’t easy for the activists to muster support.
“Poor, simple people had to make a living, and we didn’t know any other way,” said Coleman. “You had to be careful how you handled things. Making a fuss could get you in a lot of trouble.”
The Rev. Bessie Givhan of Pontotoc had a similar experience.
“My younger brother had a white friend, and when they turned 13 my brother had to start calling him ‘Mr. Billy,’” said Givhan, a retired United Methodist minister who grew up just outside Jackson.
Starting in the mid-1950s, a series of events brought national tension over civil rights to a boiling point.
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in the Delta. That same year, Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Birmingham bus, sparking a demonstration that catapulted a young King ont o the national stage.
Bessie Givhan’s husband, the Rev. William Givhan, grew up the son a sharecropper in Pontotoc. He said no single event sparked the civil rights movement, but King quickly emerged as its central figure.
“He was the person willing to lay himself out there, as a kind of sacrifice, and I believe God gave him the nerve to do it,” said William Givhan.
For more than a decade King, through his spirited oratory and intellectual acumen, brought awareness to the plight of blacks in the United States, introducing terms into the American lexicon that today are familiar phrases, like “non-violent resistance,” and “civil disobedience.”
His assassination, in Memphis, in the spring of 1968, marked a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and galvanized compassionate Americans to make his vision of racial equality a reality.
Before he became the face of the civil rights movement, King was first a Baptist minister. He drew his deepest convictions about human equality and uplifting the poor straight from the Bible.
Christians unsympathetic to the civil rights movement sometimes used the Bible to justify racism, such as claiming that the mark of the villain, Cain, was upon blacks.
The Rev. Henry Shelton remembered many Christians twisting biblical stories in just such a manner.
“They actually justified this kind of thinking, many of them otherwise good people,” said Shelton, former pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, speaking of his childhood in rural Mississippi.
Shelton entered seminary in Louisiana in 1960, and found himself seated next to a young black man named Bernie.
“He was smarter than me, how outrageous,” Shelton said, facetiously, explaining that he’d been inculcated with racist beliefs from a young age.
That same year Shelton returned home to serve as an altar boy during midnight mass, and although he wanted to confront people about what he’d been taught as a child, he was afraid. “I needed their approval more than God’s,” he said.
King’s sense of fearlessness in the face of scorn is what Tupelo dentist Ed Holliday, a member of Harrisburg Baptist Church, admired most about the civil rights leader, and he believes it came from a holy place.
Holliday was just a boy when King was killed, but growing up he saw the changes that came about as a result of the minister’s work, like the final integration of Mississippi public schools in 1970.
As a member of Mission Mississippi, an organization dedicated to building relationships between black and white Christians, Holliday has worked closely with black churches in Lee County. He’s also collaborated with King’s niece on a book of essays about religion and social justice.
“You cannot separate King from his roots in the black church and it’s emphasis on justice and freedom,” said Holliday.
“To understand one is to understand the other, and the black church has done a great job of not making King an idol but holding him up as a man grounded in biblical principles.”
King famously said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, but at least one Tupelo church is proving today that society has come a long way.
Sunday, shortly before 11 a.m., the praise team at Crosspointe Ministries in east Tupelo kicked off a rousing set of four songs, including a cover “You Reign” by the group Mercy Me.
As black praise minister Willie Davis led the congregation, a wave of black and white arms reached toward the ceiling, waving back and forth like seaweed in the tide.
The praise team continued to drive the celebration as the church filled. The 400-seat space became engorged with a half-and-half mixture of black and white worshipers. The six-year-old congregation is Tupelo’s most integrated church, and the worship style – traditional preaching interspersed with strong dashes of emotional expression – melds together images of black and white churches throughout the area.
Standing in the back, Nathaniel Stone Jr. said that not so long ago people didn’t think such an integrated church was possible, but amid a flurry of “Amens” shouted during pastor Kevin Rea’s sermon, Stone said his church has set an example he hopes others can follow.
“Even in Mississippi, even in this day and age, this can happen,” he said, beaming.
Attempt to control
At its heart, racism is an attempt to gain control over people, a means of dehumanizing them in order to maintain a position of power.
Shelton pointed out that in the gospels, Satan tries to get Jesus to embrace a perverse sense of power, one rooted in control and defined by worldly expectations.
“You should be able to provide for yourself, to relieve want. You should have political power over people and nations. You should be able to keep yourself from harm’s way,” said Shelton.
King, like Jesus, rejected that false sense of power, and embraced a kind rooted in service and sacrifice. Also like Jesus, King’s choice cost him his life.
Coleman of Blue Mountain put it this way.
“He lived longer than I thought he’d lived, but he always spoke of himself in terms of Moses, who might not reach the Promised Land,” said Coleman.
He paused, then added, “When he was killed – Lord – it seemed like the end of world, but it wasn’t. Good people carried on his cause, and they’re still doing it, today.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The City of Tupelo will honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with these events:
– Saturday, Jan 16 -, 7 p.m., a black-tie banquet at the Christian Life Center at St. Paul United Methodist Church, 502 N. Spring St., $20 per person, tickets available at the door. Includes dinner, entertainment and a speech by August Collins of the Mississippi Worker’s Compensation Commission
– Sunday, Jan 17 – 2:30 p.m., Tupelo Civic Auditorium, a program featuring Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr., as well as music by the Northeast Mississippi Drill Team and music by the Tupelo Diversity Choir and the Tupelo High School Voices Black History Choir. Admission is free.
– Monday, Jan 18 – 11 a.m., a motorcade starting at the VF Factory Outlet Mall, 2824 S Eason Blvd, and ending at St. Paul United Methodist Church. Service follows at noon. All are welcome.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal