The 2 January 1963 issue of the Mississippi Methodist Advocate contained a statement, “Born of Conviction,” signed by twenty-eight pastors of the white Methodist Mississippi Conference, which represented the southern half of the state. In response to “the grave crises precipitated by racial discord within our state in recent months,” especially the 1962 University of Mississippi riot, the statement offered an expression of conscience and commitment from “Christian ministers and . . . native Mississippians.” Because of the silence of the bishop and other top Conference leaders on these matters, the signers felt compelled to speak publicly. The emphasis on native Mississippians was designed to prevent the statement’s dismissal as the words of “outside agitators.” Most of the signers were young—half were under thirty and three-quarters were under thirty-six.
The statement (1) called for freedom of the pulpit so that ministers might speak against injustice without fear of reprisal; (2) quoted passages from the 1960 Methodist Discipline, the denomination’s law book, including “all men are brothers” and “no discrimination because of race, color, or creed”; (3) expressed support for the state’s public schools and unalterable opposition to their closing “or to the diversion of tax funds to the support of private or sectarian schools”; and (4) affirmed the signers’ “unflinching opposition to Communism,” refuting the common contention that anyone who challenged the status quo must be a communist.
The state’s daily newspapers carried front-page stories on the statement and responses to it for several days. Public expressions of support came from the Conference’s lay leader, Dr. J. P. Stafford of Cary; an associate conference lay leader, Francis B. Stevens of Jackson; Dr. W. B. Selah, pastor of Jackson’s Galloway Memorial Methodist Church; twenty-three Methodist ministers of the Tupelo District of the white North Mississippi Conference; and a small number of newspaper editors. However, the overwhelming response from editors, political leaders, church members, and others was negative. The segregationist Mississippi Association of Methodist Ministers and Laymen issued a lengthy statement opposing “Born of Conviction.” Bishop Marvin Franklin declined comment, and on 16 January he and his cabinet (six district superintendents) issued a statement in the Advocate that made no mention of “Born of Conviction” and assured white Methodists that “integration is not forced on any part of our Church.”
Two signers were almost immediately ousted by their congregations with the cooperation of their district superintendents, and a third felt forced out of his position because of violence against his property and further threats. All of the participants received many expressions of support, but most also received telephoned threats and hate mail, and several were shunned or accosted by some members of their congregations. Officials told a few of the pastors that their current churches wanted them moved and that no other church in the Conference would accept them. Some churches passed resolutions stating that they did not want any of the twenty-eight appointed as their pastor. Nevertheless, ten of the twenty-eight were reappointed to their churches in May 1963.
By that summer, eleven signers had transferred to other Methodist annual conferences, and five more followed over the next year. In all, nineteen transferred out of the Mississippi Conference (most outside the South), and another signer spent much of his subsequent career outside the state. Only eight remained in the ministry in the Mississippi Conference for the rest of their careers; two others returned to the North Mississippi Conference a few years later.
In his description of Mississippi’s “Closed Society” in the early 1960s, James Silver argued that “a never-ceasing propagation of the ‘true faith’ [white supremacy and segregation] must go on relentlessly, with a constantly reiterated demand for loyalty to the united front, requiring that non-conformists and dissenters from the code be silenced, or in a crisis, driven from the community.” “Born of Conviction” and the widespread publicity surrounding it resulted in one important crack in that “united front” and called into question the “orthodox” belief that all white Christians supported the maintenance of segregation at whatever cost.
- Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy (2003)
- Peter C. Murray, Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930–1975 (2004)
- Joseph T. Reiff, Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (2015)
- James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (1966); Jim L. Waits, Concern (1 March 1963)