In March 1960 the Mississippi legislature passed the Church Property Bill, the collective and popular name for measures originally introduced as Senate Bill 1517 and House Bill 220. Like much legislation passed during that session, the bill was an openly segregationist measure designed to shore up Jim Crow’s legal foundations and to protect segregation at its most vulnerable points. The bill offered legal provisions to help local congregations sever ties with their parent denominations. Such separations could become necessary, according to the legislation’s proponents, if the denomination “changed social policy”—that is, if it “forced integration” on white churches. The measure permitted local congregations to retain ownership of church property—buildings, furnishings, and supplies—when they struck out on their own rather than returning these goods to the denomination, as both existing Mississippi church property law and many denominations required.
This bill marked the second time in the civil rights era that the legislature had sought to manipulate the law in an effort to foreclose religious critiques of segregation. A bill considered during the 1956 legislative session had proposed depriving churches of their tax-exempt status if they “practiced integration.” While the earlier measure met opposition in the House and ultimately died, the 1960 incarnation fared much better.
The religious threat to segregation seemed to emanate most strongly from the Methodist Church, and many white Mississippi Methodists thought the bill was aimed directly at them and their congregations, which claimed the second-largest membership in the state. The denomination’s reputation as a threat to segregation had grown in intensity and immediacy for more than a decade. Nationally, the church’s official publications consistently condemned segregation, and its ministers and representatives openly advocated racial equality. Some denominational agencies, boards, and facilities had already been integrated. Leaders continued to lay plans for absorbing the all-black administrative unit, the Central Jurisdiction, into the existing white geographic jurisdictions; indeed, the segregated unit had already been dissolved in the western United States.
These developments troubled many southern Methodists. The conservative Mississippi Association of Methodist Ministers and Layman had been working since about 1950 to hold at bay the denomination’s “integrationist tendencies.” Since its inception, this group had held out the possibility of forming a breakaway movement in the event that the national organization insisted that local churches admit all races. The Church Property Bill, drafted by the group’s leader, prominent Mississippi attorney John Satterfield, provided segregationist Methodists the necessary legal protection to effect such a separation.
While the Methodist Church came under the most fire, segregationists seemed concerned that any white denomination might provide a potential point of entry for a racially egalitarian impulse, and debate over the Church Property Bill reflected this concern. As one legislator remarked in his defense of the bill, “When integration finally comes to Mississippi it will come through the front doors of the churches, in the disguise of religion.” Thus, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Catholics also debated the bill’s merits from their pulpits, in their official publications, and at the public hearing on it. Opponents argued that the legislation violated the principle of separation of church and state, that it would exacerbate the tendency for religious friction and divisiveness, and, perhaps most significantly, that it was utterly unnecessary since no denomination would force a practice on its members against their will. Ignoring these objections, the bill’s supporters claimed that the measure was essential in defending white Mississippi churchgoers from forced integration of their sanctuaries.
The notion that religion constituted a threat to segregation sufficient to warrant preventive legislation proved a tough sell to the public. During the roughly nine weeks that the measure spent wending its way through the Mississippi legislature, public opposition ran overwhelmingly against it. Large lay organizations, Sunday school classes, church agencies, and often even entire congregations under unanimous vote registered their disapproval of the bill. By some estimates, opponents outnumbered supporters four to one.
Nevertheless, the Church Property Bill passed the Senate by a comfortable 29–10 vote and the House by an overwhelming 87–13. Gov. Ross Barnett signed the measure into law without comment. As tensions over civil rights issues grew more acute over the next several years, every white religious community in the state suffered from the divisiveness the bill’s opponents had feared. The most significant fracture appeared among Mississippi Methodists in 1965, when disaffected members left their local churches in droves, and some formed the Association of Independent Methodists, with two new congregations in Jackson.
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippians and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- W. J. Cunningham, Agony at Galloway: One Church’s Struggle with Social Change (1980)
- Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975 (2013)
- Peter Murray, Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930–1975 (2004)