Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965

By Davis W. Houck; David E. Dixon | Go to book overview
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§112 Dave Dennis and Reverend Edwin King

On August 4, 44 days after their disappearance, the bodies of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were discovered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Buried fifteen feet deep under an earthen dam, their disappearance had sparked massive attention on Mississippi and the Council of Federated Organization’s led (COFO) Freedom Summer project. Dave Dennis, who led the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) operations in Mississippi, was asked to speak at CORE worker James Chaney’s funeral. The charismatic and excitable Dennis could very well have been the fourth civil rights worker executed by the Klan on June 21. He had lent his station wagon to the three men, and save for a bad case of bronchitis, the CORE leader might very well have been along to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. Captured on video, Dennis’s unscripted speech is one of the most impassioned and powerful addresses of the entire movement. The speech is also fairly well known because of its inclusion in the civil rights documentary, Eyes on the Prize. So inflamed and overwrought was the young Dennis that he collapsed into the arms of the Reverend Edwin King, unable to complete the conclusion. Dennis was led outside where he leaned against a tree and sobbed.

Dennis used the eulogy, not “to do the traditional thing,” but rather to question the commitment to change to which members of his immediate audience were committed. Dennis eloquently fuses the salvation of the Mississippi movement with the salvation of his listeners’ souls in the dramatic climax of the address: “If you do go back home and sit down and take it, God damn your souls!”

Into this rhetorical maelstrom the Reverend Edwin King stepped. Born to a prominent white Vicksburg family in 1936, he quietly assumed his place of privilege among the better families of Vicksburg. This changed during King’s senior year of high school when, after a destructive storm, he volunteered to assist in the black area of town. He was stunned to see such deprivation and poverty. A graduate of Methodist Millsaps College in Jackson, King went north for his graduate theology training at Boston University. He returned home to Mississippi in the early sixties to work in the movement, particularly with Medgar Evers and John Salter in organizing blacks in Jackson.

As the chaplain at historically black Tougaloo College, King became prominent in civil rights circles in the fall of 1963, when Bob Moses asked him to run for lieutenant governor on the Freedom Vote ticket with Clarksdale’s Dr. Aaron Henry. That campaign put the young white chaplain in the media spotlight for nearly a year, culminating in his delegate status during the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP) invasion of Atlantic City during the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Pictures of King during this time period typically show a tall blonde man in clerical garb with a heavily bandaged jaw. The injury was the result of a near-fatal car crash on June 18, 1963 in Jackson, when the son of a staunch segregationist ran a car he was in off the road. His face lodged in the windshield, local whites gathered at the scene and laughed at the activists’ mangled car and bodies. King recently retired from the University of Mississippi medical school

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