The Mississippi Council on Human Relations was the state’s arm of the Southern Regional Council (SRC). The council began in 1919 in Atlanta as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, which sought to promote racial harmony and created branch groups in each of the twelve southern states. The organization’s existence indicates that some white southerners realized the extent of racial problems early in the twentieth century. In the late 1920s Episcopal bishop Theodore D. Bratton founded the Mississippi Council on Interracial Cooperation in Jackson “to improve race relations” by holding interracial meetings to mediate differences and solve grievances that arose in the segregated society. Most of the MCIC’s early leaders were affiliated with Christian churches, but Jewish and nonreligious members later became active.
The Commission on Interracial Cooperation was superseded by the SRC in 1944, and in the 1950s the MCIC became the Mississippi Council on Human Relations (MCHR), but the name change did not bring life to the struggling group. By the late 1950s conflict had arisen between the MCHR’s white chair and Ruby Stutts Lyells, an African American woman who served as associate director. The SRC sent several staff members from Atlanta to mediate the crisis, but they failed to resolve the situation. In addition, on 12 March 1957 New York Communist Manning Johnson testified before a Louisiana legislative committee that the SRC was part of a broader Communist Party effort to infiltrate the South. Though false, the accusation caused many MCHR members to distance themselves from the group. Further, the scarcity of white members strained the group’s existence, as did intimidation by members of the White Citizens’ Council. In 1957 the SRC’s board of directors terminated funding for the MCHR, and it entered a period of dormancy.
In the autumn of 1961, individuals interested in reviving the MCHR met in Waveland, where they formed a steering committee to select officers for the council. However, three members of the steering committee backed out as a result of pressure from groups such as the White Citizens’ Council. A. D. Beittel, the white president of Tougaloo College, became president of newly reorganized MCHR, and on 3 May 1962 the revived group held its first meeting on the college campus. Members of the earlier version of the council were joined by several new black and white members. The MCHR adopted a new statement of purpose affirming its belief “in the fundamental equality of men before God” and proclaimed that it was “desirous of promoting respect for all men regardless of race, color, or creed.” The council expressed its support for the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and its opposition to the Citizens’ Council and the state-funded Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
During the 1960s and 1970s, as the civil rights movement progressed and segregation began to slowly crumble, the MCHR expanded its focus to include issues other than conciliation across the color line. The MCHR began to work to educate the public about issues of poverty in the state, relying on surveys, sociological studies, and statistical data. The group also made James Silver’s Mississippi: The Closed Society and other publications available to doctors, lawyers, and politicians across the state.
The MCHR registered its greatest success under the leadership of Rev. Kenneth Dean, who served as executive director from 1965 to 1970. Dean helped organize US Senate committee hearings on poverty in Mississippi and on the relief effort following Hurricane Camille, and the MCHR opened local councils on the Gulf Coast, in the Oxford area, and in the Starkville-Columbus area. However, the council lost support in the 1970s and disbanded in 1979 because of lack of finances.
- Donald Cunnigen, Southern Studies (Winter 1992)
- Kenneth Dean, interview by Betsy Nash (9 June 1992)
- John C. Stennis Digital Collection, Mississippi State University Libraries website, http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/jcs1/id/881/rec/1
- Anthony P. Dunbar, Southern Regional Council, Mississippi Council on Human Relations (1969)
- Aaron Watkins, “White Moderates in Mississippi: The Mississippi Council on Human Relations” (master’s thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 2007)