Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

White Mississippi Baptist Ministers Who Helped Crack the Walls of the "Closed Society," 1954-1974

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

White Mississippi Baptist Ministers Who Helped Crack the Walls of the "Closed Society," 1954-1974

Article excerpt

In These Few Also Paid a Price: Southern Whites Who Fought for Civil Rights, G. McLeod Bryan presents brief biographical sketches of thirty white Southerners who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Only five of them--Ed and Mary King, Ira Harkey, Duncan Gray, and Will D. Campbell--were permanent residents of Mississippi. The only clergymen were Campbell, chaplain at the University of Mississippi; King, chaplain at Tougaloo College near Jackson; and Gray, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Oxford. In fact, there were more than sixty white Mississippians who publicly supported justice and equality for all Mississippians in the 1950s and 1960s. (1) Nine of these were Baptist ministers:

* Stanley James Smith, Shady Grove Baptist Church, Hazlehurst (1955)

* Will D. Campbell, University of Mississippi (1955-1956)

* Clyde Gordon, First Baptist Church, Poplarville (1955)

* Richard Butler Smith, Fairview Baptist Church, Indianola (1961)

* William Penn Davis, Mississippi Baptist Convention (1963)

* James Bradley Pope, First Baptist Church, Shelby (1963)

* Chester A. Molpus, First Baptist Church, Belzoni (1964)

* John Daley, First Baptist Church, Marks (1965)

* Harold E. O'Chester, Poplar Springs Baptist Church, Meridian (1968)

The sermons and actions of two of these ministers--Clyde Gordon and John Daley--evoked no opposition or harassment from their respective church members or the local communities, so they are not discussed here. The seven remaining ministers had to contend with the mindset in the 1960s that "if you are not openly opposed to integration, that meant you were for it." (2) This article presents vignettes of the seven Mississippi Baptist ministers whose sermons and actions precipitated either harassment and some opposition or harassment and opposition that resulted in their forced resignations.

Ministers Who Experienced Moderate Opposition and Harassment

William David "Will" Campbell (1924-2013)

William David Campbell, a native Mississippian, grew up in East Fork Community in Amite County with the expectation of becoming a Baptist preacher. In 1941 he enrolled in Louisiana College and was ordained to the ministry. Two years later at the age of nineteen he enlisted in the army, serving more than two years in the South Pacific as a medical technician. His military service exposed him to people whose views on race in America challenged his views as a Southerner, where white supremacy was as natural as breathing and it never occurred to anyone that it would ever be any other way. (3)

After returning from military service Campbell graduated from Wake Forest College and then entered Yale Divinity School, where he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1952. He became pastor of a Baptist church in Taylor, Louisiana, a conservative small timber town that did not respond favorably to sermons in which he attacked McCarthyism, supported organized labor, and promoted a Christian view of race relations in Taylor. By the summer of 1954 Campbell realized that he could not survive as a pastor in Taylor or any other small town, so he accepted a position at the University of Mississippi as university chaplain and advisor on religious matters to several campus organizations, committees, and university officials.

After spending a year or so at the university, Campbell concluded that the state of Mississippi needed a symposium on race. He decided to do this through the annual Religious Emphasis Week scheduled for February 1956, working with a university committee that selected the speakers. (4) Campbell recommended speakers who supported integration, and the committee approved his recommendations. His plan went off the rails, however, after one of the invited speakers--the Episcopal priest Alvin Kershaw--won $32,000 on the television show The $64,000 Question and announced he would contribute his winnings to charities, one of which was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. …

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