Mississippi Praying: An Interview with Carolyn Dupont

Editorial Note: I'm pleased to host this interview with Carolyn Dupont, historian at Eastern Kentucky University and author of Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights MOvement, 1945-1975. We previously noted this book here, and let me repeat a bit of what I wrote then:

This is, for my money, right at the top of the heap for works dealing with southern white churches and the civil rights movement. {This] is a crisply written, strongly argued book that takes a decided stand on an issue (the degree of support that white southern churches gave to segregationism) that has been the subject of a most interesting and productive recent scholarly dispute.

Here's a bit from the NYU Press website, before we get to the interview:
Mississippi Praying examines the faith communities at ground-zero of the racial revolution that rocked America. This religious history of white Mississippians in the civil rights era shows how Mississippians’ intense religious commitments played critical, rather than incidental, roles in their response to the movement for black equality. Challenging previous scholarship that depicts southern religious support for segregation as weak, Dupont shows how people of faith in Mississippi rejected the religious argument for black equality and actively supported the effort to thwart the civil rights movement. At the same time, faith motivated a small number of white Mississippians to challenge the methods and tactics of do-or-die segregationists. Racial turmoil profoundly destabilized Mississippi’s religious communities and turned them into battlegrounds over the issue of black equality. Though Mississippi’s evangelicals lost the battle to preserve segregation, they won important struggles to preserve the theology that had sustained the racial hierarchy. 

Here are four questions for Professor Dupont, and her answers. Enjoy. 

As you know, the degree of support white southern churches gave to the system of segregation during the era of the civil rights movement is a very contentious point in the scholarship. You argue that "White Mississippians created a faith divinely suited for a segregated society." Can you elaborate on that point, and explain more about your findings that, contrary to the views of some other historians, segregationists did in fact find substantial support among southern white Christians.

Certainly, evangelicals did not speak about race and segregation with one voice.  Some evangelicals condemned America’s racial practices quite pointedly, while others made biblical arguments for segregation.  It becomes a pretty tricky exercise to determine which of these approaches dominated when you look at these denominations as a whole, because the civil rights movement divided them deeplyBut I realized, by looking at one single state, that overt evangelical support for segregation had a geography; where resistance to black equality thrived, this resistance enjoyed a fairly vigorous religious support.  Another important divide lay between denominational elites, who tended to be more progressive, and folks in the pews.  Critiques of American race relations more often came from seminary professors and heads of denominational agencies, a small element in these bodies, rather than layfolk, who constituted the majority.  Certainly, listening to denominational elites (whose voices are fairly easy to recover) creates a different impression than listening to laypeople (whose voices are harder to find.)

A problem arises here with identifying “support for the system of segregation.”  Scholars tend to look for such support in biblical defenses of the system, and some argue that there just weren’t really that many such polemics.  However, religiously motivated segregationists supported the system in many ways other than making the strained biblical case for it.  Among such methods, evangelical segregationists very effectively argued for the racial hierarchy by attacking those in their faith traditions who embraced or worked for black equality, and in particular attacking their theology as dangerously apostate.  I found tons of such activity in Mississippi.  And there were other strategies as well--boycotts against denominational literature, complaints about and punishment for progressive leaders, forming groups to preserve segregation in the church, strategizing to leave the denomination if it integrated.  Essentially, any effort to give a religious imprimatur to the notion of black equality met howls of resistance from white Mississippi evangelicals.  And, finally, religious people certainly supported segregation simply by sanctifying as holy the political ideology that kept it intact.

Yet, even beyond these overt acts of resistance, we have to think about political, social, and economic systems and ask where the ideologies that support any such system are housed. Religions don’t arise in a vacuum; they grow up in a culture and are intimately connected to the distribution of power and privilege in that culture, as well as to other aspects of it.  In the case of southern evangelicalism, the connection between the dominant religion and its racial environment was not always overt, in that many leading pastors and layfolk did not go around spewing racial hatred. Yet, these evangelicals espoused a theology that emphasized individual morality and responsibility, while acting corporately to oppress another collective and to create institutions that would perpetuate white superiority and black inferiority.  Since its support for white supremacy was then almost invisible, religion was even more powerful as an ally.

Some historians have suggested that foreign missionaries from the southern denominations (such as those sent by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention) were key to breaking down white supremacist views among many parishioners, simply by pointing out how much the southern system hampered missions efforts.  Did you find any evidence of that in your study? How much were Mississippi evangelicals aware of the international implications of their staunch defense of segregation?

Mississippi evangelicals were certainly aware of this critique; both the state Baptist newspaper and the state Methodist newspaper published letters from denominational missionaries who expressed exactly this sentiment.  Evangelical segregationists met the challenge of this critique by turning it on its head:   our biggest competitors abroad, the godless communists, advocated integration and that made a good reason to oppose it.

But perhaps more importantly, I’m not sure that religion ever really broke down white supremacists’ views, at least to any great degree in the Magnolia State.  Of course, we assume such racial conversions in our narratives about the civil rights movement, but I found little evidence that most white Mississippi evangelicals “saw the light” on this issue.  Some moderates came to embrace more inclusive notions of religion and social life, but the idea that segregation was a sin only worked its way into southern religious consciousness decades after black Americans began appropriating the gains of the movement.  More commonly, segregationists decided that it was in fact their denominations that had sinned—gone apostate—in embracing the cause of black equality (and a theology to support social action). That’s why in the 1970s and 80s they worked to redeem their traditions, or forsook them to establish new ones altogether.  Decades later, after a conception of discrimination and racism as evils had worked itself well into our culture, southern evangelicals agreed that such were sins.  Importantly, however, they continue to understand race as a problem of individual attitudes, rather than as systemic. 

 PBS's 'Independent Lens" series just aired an excellent one-hour documentary on the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, featuring some chilling first-hand evidence of the role of the Commission in tracking the movements of civil rights workers, including (most famously) Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney shortly before they were murdered. Did you find any evidence of complicity with the Sovereignty Commission among evangelical churchmen or leaders?

I did find such evidence.  Two very overt cases come to mind.  During the church visit campaign of 1963-64, when civil rights activists sought entry to white Jackson worship services, the Sovereignty Commission manipulated events in at least one congregation.  Commission Director Erle Johnston sought to influence members of Trinity Lutheran Church, arguing that the activists were insincere in their Christianity, hoping only to make martyrs of themselves and thus solicit attention.  Johnston also prodded the Jackson school district superintendent to carefully observe one of his teachers, Trinity’s pastor’s wife, Mrs. Koons.  Johnston suggested that the minister had “openly advocated integration of the races” and Mrs. Koons “might be indoctrinating the students with beliefs contrary to ours.”  Johnston even passed the name of one of the congregation’s “liberal” members to the local paper, suggesting that he use it in a column.  In another instance,  G. Aiken Taylor, editor of the ultra-conservative publication, The Presbyterian Journal, inquired of the Sovereignty Commission on several occasions whether they had any “dirt” on black ministers associated with the Delta Ministry.  More indirectly, plenty of evidence suggests that the Sovereignty Commission watched certain ministers known for their lack of enthusiasm about segregation.  The Commission clearly regarded religion as a vulnerable point of entry for ideas that would undermine segregation.

What is your bottom line "takeaway" point you most want readers to get from your work?

I hope my readers will think differently about how race has worked in America.  We focus so much on the problem of individual attitudes—racism—as the source and cause of black suffering but, in fact, the most effective strategies for preserving racial hierarchies have always been systemic, institutional, and collective.  While racial disparities often masquerade as products of individual effort, the fates of both black and white Americans have been written into our economic, political, educational, judicial, and religious systems.  I’m certainly not the first or the only scholar to emphasize this, but discussions of race continue so often to fall back on individual attitudes--racism.  Understanding the corporate and institutionalized nature of our racial problems changes everything about the how we view both the past and the present.  It changes the historical questions we ask, and it changes how we understand religion’s often ambivalent relationship to our racial realities.  It also changes where we look for the sources of our continuing racial disparities.  In spite of the extraordinary gains of the last fifty years, we continue to preserve racial hierarchies powerfully and intractably in our institutions.  Today, our criminal justice system may be the most significant way that we perpetuate a black undercaste; Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness has made this case very effectively.    


Rusty Hawkins said…
Great interview and an incredible book. Thanks, Paul and Carolyn!

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