Thelma Stevens, born and raised in central Mississippi, used her position as the secretary for Christian Social Relations of the Woman’s Division of Christian Service of the Methodist Church (1940–1968) to advocate for civil, social, political, and economic equality for ethnic minorities and for women. She allied with African American women to end racial segregation within the church and without, and to assist the black freedom struggle wherever it reared its head. The United Methodist Church recently described Stevens as “an unrelenting champion for racial justice, international peace, and women’s rights. Both prophet and gadfly, she became social action heroine to young Methodists engaged in the civil rights and feminist struggles of the 1960s.” Additionally, Stevens was responsible for the creation of the Church Center for the United Nations, built in 1963 on the United Nations plaza and financed by the Woman’s Division. From her offices there, she collaborated with women from other countries in support of human rights around the world.
Stevens was born in 1902 to Ben and Ida Stevens, sharecroppers living in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Her mother died when she was six, and she ultimately went to live with her older sister, Ethel, a school teacher whose two husbands were clergymen ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS). She was educated in Mississippi public schools and taught at a one-room schoolhouse for a year in Crystal Springs. She was horrified when one day her students took her to witness the lynching of a black man. Later in life she recalled that she had always been bothered by the inhumane treatment of African Americans in Mississippi; the lynching cemented her commitment to do everything in her power to end systemic racism, not just in her home state but also in the nation.
Stevens left Crystal Springs after one year to enter the state teachers’ college in Hattiesburg, now the University of Southern Mississippi. Following graduation she attended Scarritt College in Nashville, a school established by the MECS to train social workers, missionaries, and deaconesses. Following graduation in 1928, she took the job of director of the Bethlehem Center in Augusta, Georgia, a community center for African Americans funded by the Woman’s Missionary Society of the MECS. Its board included black men and women from the community, and it partnered with nearby Paine College, a Methodist school for black women. While in Georgia, Stevens met and befriended another Methodist antiracist lay worker, Dorothy Tilly. Thanks to their influence, the Woman’s Division became an affiliate of the Southern Regional Council, a civil rights organization that succeeded the Methodist-based Council of Interracial Cooperation.
In 1939, when three branches of Methodism merged, Stevens agreed to take over as the head of the Department of Christian Social Relations (DCSR). With her at the helm, the DCSR became the most radical unit of the Methodist Church. At the uniting conference, she vigorously protested the creation of a racially segregated Central Jurisdiction within the Methodist Church. She lost that fight, but she prevailed upon the Woman’s Division to become, in 1948, the first Methodist organization formally to call for the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction.
The Woman’s Division could take revolutionary positions because it, unlike any similar organization in any other Protestant denomination in America, was totally autonomous. It raised its own money and decided how funds would be disbursed. This independence gave the Division the freedom to adopt progressive positions on many cutting-edge issues of the day. At Stevens’s urging, the Woman’s Division hired attorney Pauli Murray to compile a record of Jim Crow laws throughout the nation. The report, published by the Woman’s Division in 1951 as States’ Laws on Race and Color, became the basis of lawsuits aimed at toppling Jim Crow. Thurgood Marshall, chief attorney for the NAACP, referred to it as “the bible of desegregation” and used it in drawing up arguments in the Brown decision.
Backed by the evidence in that report, Stevens denounced racial segregation as evil and wrote the first draft of a Charter of Racial Policies. Revised and adopted by the Woman’s Division in 1952, it subsequently became the model for the rest of the church. She hired black women as staffers and sent lobbyists to Washington, DC, to testify on behalf of antilynching legislation, anti–poll tax measures, and the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. At her urging, the Woman’s Division supported the Freedom Riders in 1961, assisted civil rights workers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer ’64, and joined the 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery.
Before she stepped down from her position as head of the DCSR in 1968, Stevens got the Woman’s Division—and subsequently the entire church—to take progressive positions on a variety of controversial issues. By 1972 the United Methodist Church had ended racial discrimination and had adopted positions that were pro-union, pro-immigrant, pro-woman, pro-child, and pro-choice. Even before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), at the urging of the DCSR, the Woman’s Division and the Church supported every couple’s right to family planning and every woman’s right to legal abortion. Following her retirement, Stevens helped establish the church’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women and helped to craft position papers in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Stevens never married and lived out her last years in Brooks Howell Retirement Home for Methodist deaconesses in Asheville, North Carolina, where she died at the age of eighty-eight.
- Alice G. Knotts, Fellowship of Love: Methodist Women Changing American Racial Attitudes, 1920–1968 (1996)
- Thelma Stevens, interview by Jacqueline Dowd Hall, 13 February 1972, Southern Oral History Program Interview Database, G-0058, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
- Thelma Stevens, Legacy for the Future: History of Christian Social Relations in the Woman’s Division of Christian Service, 1940–1968 (1978)
- Elliott Wright, “Thelma Stevens: Champion of Social Justice,” Methodist Mission Bicentennial, www.methodistmission200.org