Bishop Knox was born in 1955 in Washington County. The tall, thin black man climbed the ranks of the Mississippi public school system during the 1970s and 1980s, earning a doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi along the way. A biology teacher, coach, and principal, Knox became the center of controversy over religion in public schools in the early 1990s.
During the fall of 1993, in just his second year as head principal at Jackson’s Wingfield High School, students at the majority-white school approached Knox about having morning prayers over the intercom system. A devout Christian and believer in religious exercises in public schools, he found nothing wrong with their wishes. Before making his decision, however, Knox sought the counsel of Jackson school officials. The deputy superintendent and school board attorney advised against the prayers, calling them “inappropriate” and “constitutionally impermissible.” The principal had conducted his own research, however, and reached a different conclusion. Knox found that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans had ruled that prayers and other religious exercises were permitted as long as school officials did not coerce students to participate. He spoke with the Wingfield student council and expressed his support for their request. On 5 November 1993 Wingfield High students voted overwhelmingly in favor of the student-led prayers, and four days later, the student council president began the practice of reading a short prayer over the intercom: “Almighty God, we ask that you bless our parents, teachers, and country throughout the day. In your name we pray. Amen.”
The prayers continued for the next two days, but Jackson school officials stepped in and disciplined Knox. After Knox refused to stop the prayers, Superintendent Ben Canada placed Knox on administrative leave, ultimately firing him on 24 November. Readers of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger flooded the editorial pages with passionate letters applauding Knox and the students who voted for morning prayers. On 29 November nearly three hundred of Wingfield High’s eight hundred students staged a walkout opposing Knox’s dismissal, with the demonstration dominated by signs reading “We Want Knox” and “We Want Prayer” along with the sounds of “Jesus Loves Me.”
This protest galvanized others around the state to defend school prayer and Knox. From Tupelo in the northeast to Hattiesburg in the south, white and black Mississippians took a stand for religion in public schools by holding rallies and walkouts. Predominantly white, conservative Christian groups such as the Tupelo-based American Family Association and the Mississippi Baptist Convention endorsed Knox’s decision and called for his reinstatement. Sixteen black ministers from Jackson gave a press conference announcing their support for Knox and prayer in public schools.
Diverse print media such as Time, Jet, and National Review covered the Knox controversy and the subsequent protests. The biracial nature of these rallies and the pro-Knox sentiment captured the attention of many. In Mississippi, Gov. Kirk Fordice, a conservative Republican with very little support among African Americans, praised Knox and the prayer rallies, frequently comparing the demonstrators to the civil rights marchers of the 1960s. Conservative Christian activists at the national level also saw Knox as a rallying point. “In a statement that could have been made by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell,” Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed wrote, “Knox argued that anything that restored moral values in our young people, including prayer, could hardly be viewed as harmful.”
The controversy lost steam by April 1994, when Knox returned to Wingfield High. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a lower court judge’s reinstatement of Knox. Unlike the lower court, however, the Supreme Court did not require the school district to provide Knox with back pay. The Knox controversy also inspired the Mississippi legislature to pass legislation allowing voluntary student-led prayer in public schools, just as Knox and his students sought. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the legislature, and in 1996 the state’s high court struck down the school prayer law.
After years of working in pupil assessment, Knox became principal at a Jackson middle school and later an associate superintendent and executive director of student support services for Jackson Public Schools.
- W. O. “Chet” Dillard, Caveats from the Bench: Warnings about the Erosion of Our Constitutional Rights from a Mississippi Trial Court (1994)
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (November 1993–April 1994)
- Roxanne Christine Radzykewycz, “Voluntary, Student-Initiated Prayer: The Case of Mississippi” (EdD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1996)