23 June 2005

Mississippi mellowing?

I have been following the coverage of the trial of former KKK-man Edgar Ray Killen for his involvement in the deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, the three Freedom Summer civil rights campaigners murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.

I spent most of the summer of 1975 in Mendenhall, Mississippi, working with Voice of Calvary, founded by John Perkins to promote "Black Christian leadership development" and alternative economic structures. Back then it seemed as if the era of civil rights violence was in the distant past; from my current time horizon, of course, things look different. Eleven years between the Freedom Summer campaign and my first visit to Mississippi doesn't seem long now.

Downtown Mendenhall, 1975
House on our side of Mendenhall
John Perkins
Dolphus Weary (right) and 1975 version of me

Mendenhall looked like many of the stereotypes I'd received of small-town Mississippi—right down to the railroad tracks dividing the races. We summer volunteers (all but one were white) were not popular downtown, with the exception of the Post Office, where we were treated with almost startling courtesy.

Three of us volunteers were from Friends, recruited through the American Friends Service Committee's Community Relations Division. Almost all the others were from evangelical colleges; one was from Circle Church in Chicago. The full group of about twenty volunteers were divided into two teams; some of us stayed in the state capital of Jackson, working directly with John and Vera Mae Perkins in the new Voice of Calvary headquarters. The rest of us went to Mendenhall and worked under Dolphus Weary in two programs; some with the downtown medical outreach, some with a Christian version of Head Start, helping young people get ready for the new school year. That was my assignment.

That was such an amazing summer. VOC's Berea Bible Church pastor Artis Fletcher led us through a study of the epistle to the Hebrews, my first exposure to a really careful Bible study, simultaneously devotional and scholarly. As a Friend, one my most vivid memories of Dolphus and Artis was a conversation in which I was asked, "Why are there so few black Quakers? After the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, you could have had us all." I know some of the scholarly answers to that question, but I can't give a decent heart-level answer, and that remains a source of grief.

We worked hard that summer. I was so shy about helping with the cooking that I offered to be a permanent dishwasher to get out of the cooking rotation. Our meal budget was 35c/person/meal. Needless to say, we shopped and cooked very carefully (and looking back on it, probably very health-fully). The local kids looked at our meals with open disbelief. The community compensated us for our spartan ways with their all-out Sunday after-church community dinners, which in quality and quantity simply defied description. We probably didn't really need to eat again that week.

I remember that it was at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall that I first heard, in one of John Perkins' lectures, about the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. (When I learned that Billy Graham helped fund John Perkins' work, I realized that the evangelical world was a lot more complex than its stereotypes implied.) Some of the evangelical college students had also brought with them copies of an odd magazine called the Post-American, since renamed Sojourners. And it was there that I first heard that Friends had a seminary, Earlham School of Religion, where I enrolled as a student eight years later.

Other good memories include a field trip to New Orleans. We broke our journey at Gulfport, Mississippi, where we spent the night in a park, under the stars. (Actually, I slept under a park bench.) Any discomfort was made up for by the next day's music and gumbo.

As soon as the summer ended, I was on my way to Russia for the first time, for two weeks in Moscow and Leningrad. I remember comparing those two great experiences of my 23rd year on planet earth, and reflecting that the months in Mississippi were the larger culture shock.

Back to 2005. I was fascinated by an interview on yesterday's edition of the radio program The World. Here was another Norwegian talking about his experiences of Mississippi, television reporter Gerhard Helskog. He told Lisa Mullins that many European journalists were being encouraged to see the trial of Edgar Ray Killen as a chance to exhibit the USA's primitive side, its racism and intellectual underdevelopment, perhaps as a reaction to current international politics. What he found in his travels, was a very different Mississippi from what the old stereotypes might have led him to believe. (Listen to the interview. [dead link])

Never having returned to Mississippi after my memorable summer, I'm not qualified to comment.

PS: Last summer, I posted an admittedly cranky piece about, among other things, the media's ignorance in covering Al Sharpton's speech, particularly at the point where he referred to the "good men [inaudible]," Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

PS #2: For more historical perspective, take a look at Martin Kelley's post on "the early blogging days," including what might be a screen shot for the first weblog.

Martin inspired me to go into my (paper) files and look again at the reams of continuous-form paper containing some of my first e-mail archives, from back when I was CompuServe subscriber no. 72763,366, using a 1200 bps modem that came with a bonus diskette containing the game Wheel of Fortune. Unfortunately we couldn't use that game until we got a graphics card, which we did.

Until 1990, I could only communicate with other CompuServe subscribers, and, theoretically, those with MCIMail. And we were able to send and receive Telex messages, and CompuServe offered some fax and paper-mail output services. In those days, CompuServe held aloof from the wider Internet.

In 1990, we moved from Richmond, Indiana, to Wilmington, Ohio. CompuServe did not have a local number there, so I switched to PeaceNet (I think my address was fwccoh@igc.apc.org) and got involved with my first e-mail list, gen.quaker, under the thoughtful coordination of Joel Gazis-Sax. By that time, our first modem had been fried by lightning, so I was up to a blazing 2400 bps. In 1993, we moved back to Richmond and returned to CompuServe, which by then had joined the Internet.

Re-reading all this stuff has a humbling effect as I realize how many times I basically beat the same drum. Here's one of my more economical summaries, at the end of a long rant I sent out on October 30, 1993:
In considering the ways Friends obsess on either quakerishness or doctrinal purity instead of the living God, I've been pondering two scriptures -- John 5:39-40 and Romans 10:1-3.


Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for the question. The "scholarly reasons" have a lot to do with the alternate society that African Americans built of necessity in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction era.

Whatever Friends did, the hostility and fear of the larger white community made it very important for the black community to build social structures that would serve their physical, political, intellectual, and spiritual survival. Although forced segregation is a device of the devil to divide human beings to the distinct disadvantage of all, and the acute disadvantage of some, in that terrible reality there were real advantages in having one's own structures to rely on.

(The relative weakness of Quakers to make a massive difference for the millions of freedmen and women can be seen from some of the statistics in the fascinating article, ""'A Great and Good People': Midwestern Quakers and the Struggle Against Slavery." Example: "Indiana Friends reacted strongly to the 1851 Indiana constitution's ban of further black immigration into the state, and its accompanying fund to encourage the colonization of African-American residents. The Meeting for Sufferings of the Orthodox Indiana Yearly Meeting, the equivalent of an executive committee, sent a long memorial to the state constitutional convention decrying the proposal and invoking the Declaration of Independence to argue for legal equality. The only concession that opponents gained, however, was a provision for a popular vote on this clause separate from general approval or disapproval of the new constitution. The pattern of voting on the exclusion provision also is revealing. Statewide, it passed with about 84 percent approval. Only four counties rejected the clause. Of these, Steuben, Lagrange, and Elkhart were on the northern edge of the state, the one part of Indiana settled largely by New Englanders. The other county, Randolph, had probably the largest proportion of Quakers to non-Quakers of any county in the state."

As Linda Selleck pointed out very movingly in her book, Gentle Invaders, and as the article mentioned above documents (as does the work of Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel), racism plays a role as well. However, racism among Friends in the 19th century should not too hastily be equated with 20th-century American racism. My intuition after reading many sources is that it was a far more plastic phenomenon, and more easily corrected through personal relationships. It is also interesting to read about such evangelical Quaker pioneers as Emma and Walter Malone, and more recently Everett Cattell, and realize that they were far more direct in their confrontation with racism than were such well-known Eastern Friends as Rufus Jones. When evangelism is a burning concern, the essential anti-Gospel nature of racism can be revealed in a way that perhaps is less obvious to the intellectual pluralist. (This is a working thesis, not a conviction!)

The phenomenon of KKK infiltration of Indiana Friends in both Indiana and Western Yearly Meetings is a huge subject unto itself. It was very real, and helps explain the importance of Midwestern Friends' testimony against "secret societies," a testimony that seems to have been less important in some other places among Friends. It is my understanding that KKK membership was prohibited by a minute of Indiana Yearly Meeting in the early 1920's, contributing to the end of the Quaker career of, among others, former Muncie Friends pastor Daisy Douglas Barr.

Jed Carosaari said...

Good reading. Nice to see another Friend out there too in this connection with John Perkins. And I too, have wondered at the lack of racial diversity among the Friends, despite there strong commitment to social justice, historically against slavery, etc. Perhaps some of it is the lack of fire I think we face today. Perhaps some is the importance we put on Open Worship, which just doesn't fit as well culturally with the Black experience. It's hard to say, but it is sad to see.

Johan Maurer said...

A new location for the article I mentioned in an earlier comment: "A Great and Good People..."