Don Manning-Miller, Holly Springs
In late November and early December two long time Mississippi religious leaders died. The Reverend Dr. Henry Clay, a dean of black United Methodists in the state and nationally, and the Reverend Dr. Earl Kelley, the face of the Mississippi Baptist Convention for many years. Both men were iconic figures in my life and religious development in very different ways.
While serving as the pastor of a small white Baptist Church in Union County and pursuing studies at Blue Mountain College in the nineteen sixties, in view of the developing challenges of the civil rights movement and the moral suasion of the ecumenical church, I became convicted that the “good ‘ol Mississippi way of life” was incompatible with the Christian ethic as I understood it. Cautiously and fearfully, I began to reach out for involvement in the developing movement and to speak about my conviction from the pulpit, in church meetings, and to make contact with national church leaders who were known as “liberal” and progressive on what was then called “the race issue.”
My participation in a more or less clandestine discussion group in Oxford led by the United Methodist chaplain at Ole Miss, the Reverend Jimmy Jones, and including the Presbyterian and Episcopal chaplains along with a few students, led to contact with the Mississippi Council on Human Relations (MCHR) and its Director, the Reverend Kenneth Dean, who invited me to a statewide gathering in Jackson of leaders in the Mississippi movement. Although there were a number of more important civil rights groups active in the state at that time, the Council was probably the principal meeting space for black activist leaders and white liberals and activists.
Although I had begun to meet with a couple of black ministers in Union County to discuss possible work on the Freedom Democratic Party agenda, most of my affiliation with the movement to this point had been theoretical and empathetic rather than concrete involvement. As I drove to Jackson I was very uncertain and apprehensive. Would I be accepted? What would they think of me, a white, Mississippi Baptist preacher and Mississippi native showing up unheralded at a statewide meeting of leaders of a revolution against everything those credentials of mine seemed to represent.
Upon entering the meeting, Ken Dean took me by the arm and led me up to an easily recognizable figure, Dr. Aaron Henry, the President of the Mississippi NAACP and a leader in the Freedom Democratic Party – considered an infamous enemy by white Mississippi. As Dean introduced me, I approached with trepidation and hesitantly stuck out my hand. Ignoring my hand, Dr. Henry spread wide his arms and wrapping them around me warmly said in his husky voice, “Welcome, Miller!” While no doubt many remained understandably suspicious of my motivations until I had time to prove myself over time, this broke the ice for my initial acceptance into such relationships as were mediated by the MCHR. And, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Aaron that endured more disagreement than agreement as my own identification aligned more with SNCC, COFO, and CORE than with the more conservative and sedate NAACP.
At this point the stage was set for the late arriving entrance of Dr. Henry Clay. Dr. Clay had just driven up from Laurel where his church was located and where just the night before his home had been shot into repeatedly by high powered rifle wielding Ku Klux Klan terrorists. He still appeared somewhat shaken by this experience as he shook my hand and welcomed me to the meeting. I was powerfully impacted and shamed by the realization of how privileged and relatively protected I was as a white Mississippian while the people around me that night were subject to assassination and abuse for pursuing their most basic rights as human beings and citizens of a supposedly democratic United States of America. Dr. Clay, though he was not and would never have claimed to be the most important leader of the Mississippi movement, immediately became a permanent symbol to me of the righteousness of that movement and the courage and determination – the spiritual strength that drove it.
Shortly after that with the support and encouragement of my Oxford group, I determined to take a public stand to challenge the church on the continued segregation of its institutions. The annual meeting of the Mississippi Baptist Convention provided the forum for me to offer a resolution promoting the integration of the Convention affiliated institutions of higher education. In this I would be following the courageous example of the 26 young Methodist ministers who had published a statement on race that resulted in most of them being forced to leave the state.
To prepare the ground for my action, I decided to meet with Dr. Earl Kelly, Jr., President of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church of Holly Springs. Dr. Kelly was reputed to be and often reviled for being the most liberal minister in the convention. Meeting with him in his study at the church, Dr. Kelly indicated his agreement with my proposed resolution and told me that he intended to make a strong statement on race in his keynote address. I was ecstatic to know that I would be able to put my proposal forward in the context of this favorable leadership. Then he asked me if I believed in the integration of the local church. To which I answered, “Well, yes sir, I do.” He said, “Then I have to disagree with you there on the grounds that our mission is to win souls for Jesus Christ and I believe black churches can better win black converts and white churches white converts.” Faced with these ethical limits to “liberalism” in Mississippi, I still left somewhat encouraged about the upcoming convention.
At the convention after conferring with his colleagues in the leadership of the convention, in his opening address Dr. Kelly’s “strong statement” became “one of these days we are going to have face this race issue.” My resolution was referred to the Resolution Committee who evaded the issue by recommending against its passage on the ground that it might jeopardize the colleges’ accreditation. Actually the statement had been carefully crafted to eliminate that possibility but the committee was death valley for unwanted impertinences and the resolution failed by several hundred to one. When I returned home on Friday afternoon, I found a note on my door saying my deacons wanted to meet with me that night. Prepared to make a theological explanation for my position, I was not allowed to speak, only informed that I was being dismissed as pastor and was not to appear on the following Sunday. Dr. Kelly went on to a “distinguished” career which included being Executive Director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board for 18 years. If he ever made a strong statement on race he did not make it loud enough to be heard. My resolution received a good deal of press statewide and locally and I was satisfied that it had been a faithful challenge to the shame of a church ethically accommodated to the Mississippi cultural norm continuing its role as a sanctifier of the status quo.
Dr. Clay went on to a truly distinguished career in the Methodist Church and in the civil rights movement. I did not see him for many years but was reunited with him when I joined the staff of Rust College where he served as a Trustee when I was able to remind him of that 1960s meeting where we met the night after his home was shot into by the Klan. Both Dr. Clay and Dr. Kelly died within a few days of each other in late November and early December, 2013.
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Rust College, Holly Springs, MS