COLUMN: Racial transformation redefines historic Galloway church in Jackson

JACKSON – If you were a person of color (i.e. black) and showed up on a Sunday in the early 1960s at the front door of Galloway United Methodist Church to join worshippers inside, almost certainly you would either have been brusquely turned away or carted off in a police paddy-wagon.
The same experience – even moreso – would happen not far away at First Baptist Church which, with Galloway, was one of the two biggest Protestant churches in the state, both within sight of Mississippi’s state Capitol.
Founded in 1839, Galloway is Jackson’s oldest Christian church. Although all Galloway members then were not in accord with the white-only policy, the church’s board clung to it even as civil rights pressures mounted. The ban was put to a test in 1963 when a group of Tougaloo College students, after being turned away at First Baptist arrived at Galloway’s front door and were rejected by ushers. Galloway’s pastor Dr. W. F. Selah, promptly resigned.
For three more years, blacks continued to be turned away at Galloway until a showdown was triggered in 1966 when an African-American bishop from the United Methodist’s black division was arrested at the church’s front door.
Several months later, the board voted to open the church’s doors to all races. Immediately after Galloway was desegregated, 1,500 members left the church and went elsewhere to worship. Ironically, later a group of more liberal members resigned when the church board voted down a Head Start center in the church’s facilities. But in the years since, Galloway has grown into a model of racial moderation, in sharp contrast to its 1960s repressive days.
With no publicity, on Sunday, June 28, Galloway took a dramatic step toward ethnic and cultural diversity when 25 Hispanics (all documented) ranging in age from grandfathers to children, were accepted as full members of the Galloway congregation, complete with a marimba band.
More or less an extended family of immigrants that originated in the same region of Mexico, the group formerly belonged to United Methodist’s Trinity Mission in Forest but were in danger of becoming scattered when the pastor to whom they were closely attached was transferred. Besides, since their jobs were in the Jackson area, it was inconvenient for them to travel to Forest for services.
That’s when Rev. Dr. Joey Shelton, Galloway’s co-pastor (with his wife Dr. Connie), stepped up to welcome them as part of his congregation, arranging to get headphones for the older ones who could not speak English to follow the services in Spanish. Plus, Shelton had a church staff member trained as translator.
Shelton, 49, is somewhat of a story in his own right. A Millsaps and Ole Miss Law graduate, he gave up a thriving law practice in Hattiesburg in 1994 to become a Methodist minister. (His law partner: hot-shot sports agent, James amp”Buzamp” Cook, who has represented such stars as Brett Favre and the late Steve McNair.)
First, Joey (along with Connie) obtained a divinity masters degree at Duke University, then pastored a racially-mixed church in Hattiesburg before getting a ministerial doctorate from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Joey and Connie came to Galloway in January, 2008, succeeding the colorful Rev. Dr. Ross Olivier, the Dutch “import” from South Africa who was a friend of Nelson Mandela.
Connie, a University of Southern Mississippi graduate from Picayune, had become well known around Mississippi as pastor and director of the United Methodist Hour which aired on TV out of Hattiesburg.
Some Galloway old-timers such as Dr. T. W. Lewis and his wife, Julia, have remained loyal for 45 years throughout the church’s ups and downs. Lewis, had retired in 1996 as professor of religious studies at Millsaps. We both recalled my one-time neighbor, attorney Francis B. Stevens, a Galloway mainstay who valiantly fought to open the church’s door to blacks in the 1960s, then discouragingly left the state to teach law in Washington, D.C, in the early 1970s. Francis, a German POW in World War II, died recently in Bethesda, MD.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor