By John Armistead
The Rev. Douglas Jones looked back with keen satisfaction on his trip to Memphis Saturday.
Led by three Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol cars with blue emergency lights flashing, Jones and a caravan of more than 300 vehicles carrying about 1,300 prayer-in-school supporters from Pontotoc County rolled northwest into Tennessee to attend the National Affairs Briefing at The Pyramid.
“I’ve never seen anything that’s united our county as this has,” said Jones, pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Pontotoc and spokesperson for the Pontotoc County Citizens for School Prayer Committee, which organized the Memphis trip.
Jones addressed The Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing on Saturday night, urging support for prayer in the schools. He was invited to speak by Roundtable chairman Ed McAteer of Memphis. The briefing, which attracted numerous elected officials and Republican presidential candidates, was designed to discuss moral issues in the 1996 election.
Staff Sgt. H.L. Kitchens of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol was in charge of escorting the caravan from Pontotoc and rode in the lead patrol car. “It was over an eight-mile procession,” he said, “and it got bigger all along the way. Cars joined us at New Albany and other places. People on the sides of the road were waving at us. It was really something.”
The highway patrol led the caravan all the way to The Pyramid. “We were met at the state line by a squad of eight motorcycles and several cars of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department,” said Kitchens. “They went way beyond the call of duty.”
Riding at the front of the procession in the car with Jones were U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Bill Murray, son of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. O’Hair battled in the courts in the 1960s to have school prayer banned. Wicker has joined U.S. Rep. Ernest J. Istook, R-Okla., in sponsoring the federal Religious Liberties Amendment, which would strengthen constitutional protection for school prayer.
National media attention focused on Pontotoc County after Lisa Herdahl, whose children attend a 1,300-student school in Ecru, filed suit in federal court to halt morning devotions over the school’s public address system. A federal judge banned the religious practices, pending the outcome of a trial in March.
After hearing of Jones’ invitation to speak in Memphis, several Pontotoc County pastors expressed an interest in accompanying him. “Then Terry Chew, an alderman in Pontotoc, suggested a two-mile long caravan,” said Jones. “It was his brainchild.”
Not long afterward, McAteer came to Pontotoc and spoke at the National Guard Armory. “He said he wanted to be a part of what we were doing,” said Jones.
McAteer made several trips to the county helping boost support for the caravan. “He wanted us to get a good attendance at the meeting,” said the Rev. James A. Lewis, pastor of Cherry Creek Baptist Church in Pontotoc County. “We had the largest representation of any group that was there.”
At The Pyramid, the Pontotoc group set up a booth and sold more than 500 red, white and blue T-shirts. Printed on the T-shirts is a Liberty Bell and the legend “Religious Freedom.”
“They were thrilled to death to be a part of it,” Jones said of those who traveled with him to Memphis.
The committee’s next scheduled event is a rally in support of school prayer to be held at the Pontotoc County courthouse square Feb. 17.