One Mississippi, Two Mississippi

Paul Harvey

Just a brief note today about a book that I haven't seen discussed elsewhere, yet: Carol V. R. George, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County.

This work is primarily a study of Mt.Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County, known now primarily for its role as a center of voting registration at the beginning of Freedom Summer in 1964. Klan members, in conjunction with local law enforcement, beat and tortured church members, looking for information on civil rights workers, and burned down the church, The investigation of the burning brought three young men out to the church grounds -- Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. You know the rest of the grim story. Or, you may think you do, but it's precisely the point of this book to provide historical details, context, and local history that immeasurably enriches the story.

Through a micro-history of Mt. Zion, George brings to life the complicated history of the county and region, from its earliest years of settlement by white Americans and black slaves, to its resilient Choctaw community, to the effects of recent efforts towards racial reconciliation. Throughout, as George shows, the members of Mt. Zion "embraced the beliefs of the founders, confident that in the struggles over race, they held the moral high ground. Even during the vast exodus of migrants during the Great Migratino, relatively few black Methodists left the Magnolia State. These Methodists called themselves the 'faithful Black remnant.'" And these were the Methodists that were there, and were not cowed by, the fateful events of 1964. And they remained there through the long struggle for a proper recounting of, and prosecution of the perpetrators of, the crimes of the civil rights era. That struggle stretched through another forty-year period, and of course in other venues continues today.

Notably, Mt. Zion remained within the Methodist Episcopal Church. The continued presence of black churches with the denomination, a subject explored memorably in James Bennett's Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans, which followed the trajectory of interracial Methodist churches and leadership in New Orleans in the later nineteenth century, until Jim Crow finally won the day. George follows the story of black Methodist churches in the denomination through the creation of the segregated "Central Jurisdiction" in 1939, and then over the struggle to desegregate the MEC organizational structure once and for all. In Mississippi, that met the determined resistance of the formidable Methodist lawyer John Satterfield, head of the Mississippi Association of Methodist Ministers and Laymen. Far more than any minister or bishop, Satterfield came as close as any individual to running the Methodist establishment in the state, until the Methodism he represented finally dissipated in the early 1970s.

The result of George's work is a micro-history that tells us much about America's macro-history of race and religion. And that's what micro-histories at their best can and should do. Along the way, readers will learn much about the evolution of Methodism and race from the Civil War through the civil rights era, and also about the details of the events of 1964, even more chilling now in a close re-telling that looks at them from the perspective of the members of Mt. Zion. The conclusion of the book takes the story of the church, and of the county and Mississippi more generally, to the present day. This is a memorable, admirably researched, moving work, one which richly textures and complicates a story grown too familiar through popular media representations, and through the same retellings. There is always so much more to be told.


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