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Civil Rights Act 50th Anniversary: Freedom Summer anniversary brings reflection


Freedom Summer anniversary brings reflection

July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, the workplace and facilities that serve the general public.

The signing and passage came in the midst of Freedom Summer, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's voter registration drive in Mississippi. It was a summer when three Freedom Summer workers were murdered and acts of violence occurred in many places in the United States. At the same time, black and white Methodists and members of the Evangelical United Brethren Church were working alongside many others to keep the efforts for change and responses to them non-violent.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, Interpreter invited six United Methodists involved in the struggle for civil rights to share their reflections.

Bending toward justice

By Maxie Dunnam

Fifty years is a long time. I realized that in 2013, when the Mississippi Annual Conference recognized 28 ministers for an act they performed here in 1963. These ministers, then young, issued a statement called "Born of Conviction," written in response to the violent riots stirred by the admission of African-American James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

I was one of the four writers of the statement and among the 28 who signed it. Today, it's difficult to imagine the statement could have been the bombshell that it was. That itself is witness to the dramatic difference between where we were then and where we are now.

After completing the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

I came to Memphis, Tenn., as senior minister of Christ United Methodist Church in 1982. Our city is where King went to his death supporting striking sanitation workers. In 1991, our city elected Willie Herenton as our first African-American mayor. We now have our second African-American mayor. The arc is long, but it bends toward justice.

I'm praying the bend will be more noticeable in the future. I left Memphis in 1994 and returned in 2004. Poverty and race are still our most critical issues. I believe public education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. A person's ZIP code should not determine his or her opportunity for a good educational foundation.

Four years ago, our church established Cornerstone Prep as a private Christian school and located it in one of the neighborhoods where many underserved children live. Now a public charter school, Cornerstone Prep has grown from 60 students in our original private school to 625 and has responsibility for the first three grades of one of the most failing schools in the city. The school has had amazing results.

This movement on the part of our congregation is giving me great hope. Memphis is a very troubled city. Race and poverty flavor every relationship and every corporate decision. But I don't know another city that has more bold and creative expressions of mission and ministry.

I believe it would be just like God to witness to the nation that if it can happen in Memphis, it could happen anywhere. Some of our city's churches are at the forefront of bending the arc of justice, and I'm trusting that the arc will bend more dramatically during the next 50 years than it has in the past.

Now retired, the Rev. Maxie Dunnam is pastor emeritus of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. He began his pastoral service in Mississippi, served 10 years with The Upper Room and 10 years as president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Committed to liberation

By Angella Current-Felder

I am a product of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. My experiences as a graduate of a segregated high school in Richmond, Va., and as a student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, enhanced my worldview and commitment to the liberation of people of African descent.

My father, the Rev. Gloster B. Current, was director of branches and field operations for the NAACP and a major strategist in coordinating the 1963 March on Washington. Dad was also a founding member of the General Commission on Religion and Race. Mom, who became Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly, was then a teacher at segregated Armstrong High School in Richmond. She agreed to be one of two African-American teachers to integrate the faculty of John Marshall High School and ensure that the first African-American students integrating that school would have teachers of color to support them.

In 1963, I was at Morgan State. I was a student participant in the Maryland Freedom Rides, picketed the movie theater near the campus at Northwood Shopping Center and was arrested with 343 Morganites. Each of us was charged $600 bail and jailed for six days in Baltimore's Pine Street Jail. With NAACP support and funds raised by residents, the charges were dropped, we were freed, the theater was desegregated and buses returned us to campus.

The Rev. James Lawson, a Methodist minister, and others founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which became largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement. To this day, many of us believe that it was the student movement that played a major role in ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964.

We have celebrated 60 years of the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This year we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and 2015 will bring the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. We have witnessed the passing of our heroes and "sheroes," who fought for our freedom and are among that mighty cloud of witnesses. Yet, simultaneously, we are witnessing a frightening emergence of racial hatred.

Every generation inherits the world that the preceding generation helped to dream and create — both the good and the bad. As my generation passes the baton, are there people we can rely upon who will remain steadfast, unmovable, always abiding in the Word of the Lord?

Angella Current-Felder is the former executive director of the Office of Loans and Scholarships, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Her books include Breaking Barriers: An African American Family and the Methodist Story, Abingdon, 2001, and School of Dreams in the Valley of Hope: The Africa University Story, AU Press, 2012.

The Church and the Civil Rights Act

By Edwin King

We often see history as the work of great individuals. In 1964, critics condemned President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for not staying in traditional roles. The president was preaching. The preacher was moving from personal faith into the political world.

King was the visible leader of the Civil Rights Movement, pushing the president and Congress to act. His personal faith was a testimony revealed in courage and imprisonment, reminding many people of biblical figures. He could have understood his role as just changing hearts and minds. King insisted that morality had to be part of political activity.

Are we dependent on charismatic powerful leaders alone to bring change? Must we wait for the next prophet?

The institutional church was crucial in developing political support to bring racial change. Laws were passed only after Americans in every part of the United States demanded change. The democratic American system was slowly aroused. The president would not lead without significant public support. He had to know racial justice was not just an issue for blacks in the South. He had to have strong bipartisan support in Congress.

The organized work of the church through boards, agencies and ecumenical cooperation aroused believers who were also loyal citizens. Then-Rep. Gerald Ford explained to me that the Civil Rights Movement had to make our issues matter to people at the grassroots level outside the South and Northern urban centers.

The familiar images of burning buses and burning churches in the South, of nonviolent demonstrators and martyrs, began to open these "silent" Americans. Denominational structures and the ecumenical work of the National Council of Churches in traditional agencies and in new structures such as the Delta Ministry reached these people.

Then, perhaps more importantly, civil rights workers were sent to almost every state to talk with small groups about personal experiences (denials of voting rights, prison, torture), and people were urged to pray for us and for America AND to let their members of Congress know racial justice did matter. These good folk were urged to write letters to their local newspaper as well as to political leaders.

Slowly, enough Americans everywhere became involved, and Washington responded. However, the successful massive organization was achieved through those ecumenical and denominational agencies and staff we sometimes ignore and often criticize as insignificant to the personal faith and life of the local church.

The Rev. Edwin King is a retired member of the Mississippi Annual Conference. In the 1960s, he was appointed chaplain of historically black Tougaloo College by Bishop Joseph Golden of the Central Jurisdiction. King was an organizer of Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He lives in Jackson, Miss. Ed King's Mississippi – Behind the Scenes of Freedom Summer will be published in October by the University Press of Mississippi.

Not yet whole

By Gilbert H. Caldwell

Anniversaries, whether they are of marriages, churches or of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are best celebrated when we remember the struggles that make progress much more sweet. Grace and I this November will have been married 57 years. This year, as we have done before, we will celebrate without pretending we have had no struggles. Anniversaries have deeper meaning when we admit there have been valleys amid the mountaintops.

As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it is important to acknowledge the racial segregation that existed in voter registration, public schools, restaurants, hotels, workplaces, buses, trains and other public places. It is especially important this year that the nation and The United Methodist Church remember their respective histories of racial segregation.

Suppose Joseph and Mary were denied the right to register in "their own towns" (Luke 2), as blacks were denied the right to register and vote before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When people who are not black, think of themselves or of Mary and Joseph denied equal access, the awfulness of blacks being denied because of their race becomes almost unbelievable and repugnant.

In 1964, I was 30 and pastor of Union Methodist Church in Boston. I was a Civil Rights volunteer in Mississippi Freedom Summer in Palmer's Crossing, Miss. That was the summer when three volunteers, one black and two white, were killed. They were involved in voter education and registration.

We cannot remember this anniversary with conscience and integrity if we do not remember those – including many Methodists – who gave their lives, were injured, lost their jobs, were rejected by their families or were separated from their churches because they dared to engage in acts of protest against racial segregation.

I believe that if United Methodists are serious about disciple making in the United States and the world and want to observe this 50th anniversary, we must admit that on matters of race, the U.S. is not yet whole.

Because of our racial struggles and progress, we have an opportunity to engage in a race- and culture-based ministry as no other religious group in the nation can. We can do this by plowing up the ground that holds vestiges of the racism of old, in order to plant a crop that reflects the inclusive love and justice of Jesus. May we say "Amen!" to this ministry.

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a retired elder of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, lives in Asbury Park, N.J. He was active in the Massachusetts unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked in the Movement across the United States. His books include Something Within: The Writings of the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell.

‘I am grateful'

By Margaret Ann Williams

I was born in 1935 in Laurel, Miss. As I reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many memories and feelings come to mind. The first and most personal is the move my family made in the middle of the night in 1940. My older brother had responded to a heckler in a group of white teens by pushing one of them into a store window.

Due to the prejudice and racism that existed in Mississippi at that time, my brother's opponents immediately planned to kill him. There was plenty of evidence that black teen boys who dared to respond to white men's threats, heckles or promises would be hung, shot or killed in various ways. Heeding the warning about the plan from a white family for whom we worked, our family gathered our personal belongings and disappeared before sunrise.

Seven decades later, I reflect on that brother of mine. At age 24, in Chicago, after graduating from Du Sable High School, he enlisted in the armed forces. He served his country many years, as a lieutenant and captain. After retirement, he worked several years for the Texas House of Representatives.

I have strived to break down barriers and fight for justice and equality. I worked for more than 49 years at Marcy-Newberry Association, reaching out to help the least, the last and the lost. I believe I have made a difference.

As I look at what my son and my daughter have accomplished, I am grateful for the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Today, my grandchildren have clear rights and great opportunities as they enter college to reach their professional goals. I pray that they will have faith and pursue their dreams as they work hard, pray without ceasing, accomplish their goals and always be thankful to God.

The signing of the Civil Rights Act motivated The United Methodist Church to move forward. It influenced the church to realize where we needed to do some self-examination and make changes and additions to our Book of Discipline. The churches struggled with racism and segregation at all levels.

I relate the meaning of this 50th anniversary to a key word in the United Methodist vocabulary: diversity ... addressing the needs and concerns of an inclusive church, respecting the efforts and objectives of racial ethnic groups, eliminating the atrocities of racism and bigotry and creating awareness of the history, heritage and contributions of all ethnic groups. God intends diversity!

Before and After

By Bette Prestwood

A jumble of images surrounds me as I think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I see the signs in the big department stores in Birmingham designating water fountains and restrooms for the use of "White" and "Colored." Riding to my high school through a residential area peopled by black residents, I knew these high schoolers rode buses and streetcars past my neighborhood to the school meant exclusively for them. I never had a childhood friend whose skin was dark; all my playmates bore a lighter skin color.

I visualize the dividing markers on buses and streetcars, assigning the front to whites and the rear to blacks. The relative size of the two sections changed as the white section became more crowded to allow seating for more whites. But the section for blacks never grew larger as their riders crowded on. There could be empty seats up front, but riders overflowed into the aisles in the back.

An assassin's bullet disrupted the progress toward passing the Civil Rights bill proposed in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy. It fell to President Lyndon Johnson to wrestle the legislation through Congress.

Many white Southern business operators argued that the government had no right to tell them who they had to serve in their restaurants or hotels. Public swimming pools were closed in cities over the South rather than allow black children to swim with white children. Public parks were abandoned.

Today, I see people socializing, based not on skin color, but because they enjoy one another's company and have common interests. I am able to go to restaurants with any person because of friendship, not outer appearances. Whereas I had no playmates my age who were black, my 11-year-old granddaughter Zoe tells me that three of her best friends have dark skins. It's wonderful to go to her school and see students, teachers and administrators of all races.

Even though churches were not included in the Act, I believe working and playing together during the week made worshiping together more desirable. I rejoice that, at last, local United Methodist churches are multi-colored, with members joining together in respect of our differences and recognition of our commonalities. It brings tears to my eyes when I observe the changes from likeness to variety in our churches. I thank God for those who have sacrificed to make it so.

Bette Prestwood was wife to the late Rev. Charles Prestwood and is mother to four daughters. In 1963 and 1964, she worked informally with a network and the Women's Society for Christian Service (predecessor to United Methodist Women) for peaceful integration of the Mobile, Ala., school system and urged church friends to support the proposed Civil Rights Bill.