Front Row Seat to Civil Rights
In this my 70th year, I wish the journey to social justice was further along. If anything, this last year seems to have turned the clock back 70 years. After 50 years in ministry, it would be easy to get discouraged and give up. But I am as committed as ever, maybe more than ever, to “fight the good fight”. I have been reflecting upon the timeline of events that occurred all around me as I came of age in Yazoo City, MS. In retrospect, mine was a “front row seat” to many milestones of the civil rights movement. While as a child and youth, I did not recognize the magnitude of these events, in my old age, I have come to appreciate how these events shaped my life. The last milestone changed my life. For my own benefit, I created the following chronology, interspersing “close by” events (including miles from my hometown) with some national civil rights milestones that add perspective.
Sitting on the steps of my family home in Yazoo City, circa 1950, I seem to be saying, "One day, all this poverty will be mine!"
June 1948, I was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, about an hour’s drive north of Jackson. Yazoo City calls itself “The Gateway to the Delta”. It was then, and remains today, one of the poorest regions in the United States. 1948 - (50 miles away in Jackson), Gladys Noel Bates, an African American teacher in the Jackson public school system, filed suit for equal pay. She lost the suit and her job. 17 May 1954 - Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, opening the door for desegregation. 11 July 1954 – (49 miles away in Sunflower County), the White Citizens' Council was formed by Robert Patterson, with fourteen original members. 7 May 1955 – (26 miles away in Belzoni) Rev. George Lee, a businessman and minister, was shot and killed. Rev. Lee was one of the early proponents of voter registration for African Americans. 28 August 1955 – (63 miles away, near Money, Mississippi), 14-year old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a country store. His brutal death at the hands of white racists is seen by many as the start of the modern civil rights movement. 1 December 1955 – (291 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama) Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger and was arrested. 1956 - (50 miles away, in Jackson), The state legislature established the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for maintaining segregation in the state. 21-25 September 1957 - In Little Rock, Arkansas, Federal troops and Arkansas National Guard protect African American students in the integration of Central High School.
24 May 1961 - (50 miles away, in Jackson), A group of 27 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) activists, both white and African American, attempted to ride Trailways and Greyhound buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana. The "Freedom Riders," as they were called in Mississippi, were harassed, subjected to incidents of violence, and arrested in Jackson, 30 September 1962 – (141 miles away in Oxford) Riots erupted on the campus of the University of Mississippi as James Meredith attempted to attend classes at Ole Miss. The violence spread throughout the town of Oxford, involving 3,000 students, local citizens, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Over 20,000 United States Army soldiers were sent by President Kennedy to restore order in Oxford. The riots resulted in the death of two people and the injury of sixty U.S. marshals. 2 January 1963 – “Born of Conviction” statement was signed by twenty-eight white Methodist pastors and published in the Mississippi Methodist Advocate. It offered an alternative witness to the segregationist party line. For this, many of the clergy were forced out of their pulpits and parsonages. 11 June 1963 - (50 miles away, in Jackson), Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens Council, was convicted for Evers' murder in 1994. 28 August 1963 – (1,023 miles away in Washington, DC) Martin Luther King, Jr., led 250,000 people in a march in the nation’s capital for equal rights. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech..
1964 - Freedom Summer - Hundreds of African American civil rights activists from Mississippi and white college students from northern states joined together to work for equality in Mississippi. The primary focus of Freedom Summer was voter registration for African Americans and other social inequalities. 1,062 people were arrested, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 37 churches were bombed or burned, 30 Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned, four civil rights workers were killed, four people were critically wounded. 21 June 1964 – (86 miles away in Neshoba County) - Three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. After several weeks of searching for the missing civil rights workers, authorities found the bodies of James Chaney, an African American Mississippi native, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in an earthen dam. June 21, 1966 – (0 miles away in Yazoo City) As I turned 18 years old, and three weeks after graduating from Yazoo City High, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Yazoo City as part of the “March Against Fear” begun on June 5 by James Meredith, the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi. Meredith was shot in the leg by a sniper on June 6 near Hernando, Mississippi. In his Yazoo City remarks, Dr. King said, "I'm ready to die myself. Many other committed people are ready to die. If you believe in something firmly, if you believe in it truly, if you believe in it in your heart, you are willing to die for it, but I'm not going to advocate a method that brings about unnecessary death. When I die I’m going to die for something!”
4 December 1967-19 June 1968 – Poor People’s Campaign (primarily in the Mississippi Delta) addressed issues that impacted all who were poor regardless of racial background. Bobby Kennedy, former attorney general and brother of the slain president, was deeply moved by his visit to the poverty-stricken Delta. 11 April 1967 (75 miles away in Cleveland, MS) “The toddler had no time for this white man in a fine dark suit. Robert Kennedy may have been a former attorney general and the brother of a slain president, but Annie White’s son was focused on the cornbread crumbs scattered on the floor of his dilapidated home in Cleveland, Miss.” (Ellen Meacham)
4 April 1968 – (189 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee) Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. 1970 - Sixteen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision which ruled segregation in public education unconstitutional, Mississippi public schools were forced to desegregate. Many white Mississippians responded by establishing private, all-white academies to educate their children.
1970 Spring Semester, (92 miles away in Rosedale) I did my student teaching at Rosedale High School, all Black high school in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. As one of the first white student teachers to be assigned to an all African American high school, that experience changed my life and set the arc of my life bending toward social justice.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” ~ Walt Whitman
As I said at the outset, after this past year of social justice reversals, it would be easy to just give up. I remember the words Dr. King said the night before his death:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So, I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
For Christ’s Sake, Dr. Bill Jenkins