Once reviled, now revered, 28 white ministers will be honored Sunday by their fellow Mississippi Methodists for following Jesus instead of segregationists half a century ago.
“We affirm our faith in the official position of The Methodist Church on race as set forth in paragraph 2026 of the 1960 Methodist Discipline,” the 28 Methodist ministers declared in a statement they signed and published in January 1963.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that all men are brothers. He permits no discrimination because of race, color, or creed. ‘In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith…’”
Fifteen of the ministers are still living, and eight will be present Sunday to receive the 2013 Mississippi Annual Conference’s Emma Elzy Award. The award will be presented by Myrlie Evers, wife of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, who was assassinated on June 13, 1963, six months after the ministers’ published their statement.
“It was a bombshell in white Mississippi Methodism in January 1963,” said Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, a Mississippi Methodist and Emory and Henry College professor who is writing a book about the statement. “It was a crack in the wall of supposed unanimity among Mississippi whites.”
Among those present to receive the award will be Dr. Maxie Dunnam, pastor emeritus of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. Dunnam was one of four authors of the “Born of Conviction” statement, published in the Jan. 2, 1963 edition of the Mississippi Methodist Advocate.
“Confronted with the grave crises precipitated by racial discord within our state in recent months, and the genuine dilemma facing persons of Christian conscience, we are compelled to voice publicly our convictions,” began the statement, written largely in response to riots that followed James Meredith’s admittance to the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962.
Within six months of publication, Dunnam and 20 of the signatories had left Mississippi due to public and private threats and condemnation. Like Dunnam, who was born in Deemer, Miss., in 1934, about half the signatories were men in their 20s. All but four were under 40. A dozen were serving their first church appointments.
“Maxie Dunnam was one of the early prophets in Mississippi in a time when most clergy remained silent in the face of racial inequality,” said Memphis Bishop William T. McAlilly, a Mississippi native. “He and his colleagues who were willing to speak truth to power gave courage to many.”
Dunnam, who was pastor of a church in Gulport, Miss., wrote the statement along with Gerald Trigg, Jim Waits, Jerry Furr, all of whom are living. The four met secretly at Dunnam’s southern Mississippi river camp to work on the document.
“Maxie Dunnam and those who so courageously stepped up to fight racism and discrimination set the standard for future pastors as for faithfully living out our call to share the Gospel,” said Rev. Shane Stanford, Christ Church’s senior pastor who grew up in Mississippi. “I am a pastor today in large part because of their commitment.”
In a guest column for the United Methodist News Service this week, Dunnam said he’d glad people remember the statement but wonders how much has changed.
“I’m convinced racism is not as pronounced as it was in 1963, but it is still present all over our nation,” Dunnam wrote. “I’m as concerned about that today as I was 50 years ago, but my passionate concern is this: I believe public education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
Written a few months after James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi touched off riots, the 1963 document addressed public education.
“We are unalterably opposed to the closing of public schools on any level or to the diversion of tax funds to the support of private or sectarian schools,” the signers wrote.