The National Council of Churches launched the Delta Ministry in September 1964 as a ten-year program of relief, community building, literacy, economic development, and racial reconciliation. The Delta Ministry concentrated its efforts in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and operated projects in Hattiesburg and McComb. Influenced by the biblical idea of a servant ministry and by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, the ministry sought to enable the poor to achieve self-chosen goals by acting as a facilitator rather than as a leadership organization. Directed by Art Thomas, a white Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, the ministry’s staff was at first predominantly comprised of white northern Protestant clergymen. The ministry also brought hundreds of mostly short-term lay and clerical volunteers, including some Jews, to Mississippi.
The ministry never received adequate funding, in large part because opposition to the project, particularly from white southerners, limited and delayed contributions from some of the largest denominations in the National Council of Churches. Nevertheless, by 1967, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality in decline and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference largely focused on the North, the ministry had the largest civil rights field staff in Mississippi. By design, most ministry staffers were now blacks from Mississippi, although two African American northerners, Owen Brooks and Harry Bowie, led the organization.
The ministry failed to achieve racial reconciliation. Its militancy, support of direct action, and working alliance with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party alienated the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and moderate whites such as Greenville newspaper editor Hodding Carter III. Nevertheless, the ministry achieved some notable successes. By threatening to distribute food, it induced counties that had not joined the free federal surplus commodities program to participate. In January 1966 some Ministry staff joined unemployed agricultural workers in occupying the disused Greenville Air Force Base, which led Mississippi to implement Operation Help, a federally funded food program for the poor. The action also encouraged the federal government to restore funding to the Child Development Group of Mississippi, a Head Start program that the ministry had helped launch and that benefited thousands of deprived black children. Working with health care professionals, the ministry secured federal funding that helped expand impoverished Mississippians’ access to medical care. In 1969 the ministry created the Delta Foundation, which used federal and philanthropic monies to create six thousand jobs over the next twenty-five years. The ministry also registered thousands of African American voters, trained black electoral candidates, and assisted black elected officials.
The ministry’s financial difficulties precluded a literacy program and prematurely curtailed the McComb project. The group also made strategic mistakes. It supported a 1966 strike by Delta farmworkers that only hastened rural unemployment caused by mechanization and herbicides. Cooperatives founded by the ministry did not find sustainable markets, and Freedom City, a village built by displaced agricultural workers, failed to develop a viable economic base.
Budget cuts imposed by the faltering finances of the National Council of Churches reduced the ministry’s staff to four in 1971, eventually led the National Council to withdraw from the project, and revealed long-simmering tensions between the group’s northern leaders, who favored independent African American development, and black staff members from Mississippi, who supported integration and favored working with moderate blacks and whites in the state’s Democratic Party. By the late 1970s the ministry often comprised little more than Brooks, who continued his civil rights work until his death in July 2014.
- James F. Findlay Jr., Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950–1970 (1993)
- Bruce Hilton, The Delta Ministry (1969); Leon Howell, Freedom City: The Substance of Things Hoped For (1969)
- Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)