Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, Shelton Professor of Religion at Emory & Henry College in Abingdon, VA, presented the Lowrie and Ingram Lectures on Born of Conviction: White Methodists in Mississippi’s Closed Society on October 11-12, 2016 at Memphis Theological Seminary. A full video of the first lecture can be watched here.
Rev. Autura Eason-Williams, Dr. Maxie Dunnam (one of the authors and signers of “Born of Conviction”), and Dr. Andre Johnson provided responses to the book on a panel discussion hosted on October 12. Rev. Eason-Williams recently shared her very eloquent response to Reiff’s important book. We post here her response in the hope that her words and Dr. Reiff’s published work may challenge us all to more loving, just, and reconciling race relations in the Mid-South and beyond.
As I thought about what I might have to add to this very important and timely discourse about the problem of racial prejudice and discrimination of all kinds in the church and in the culture, I decided to bring who I am to the table. I am a child of the south. I was born in 1970, seven years after the Born of Conviction statement and controversy- after Jim Crow, after Brown vs. Board of Education, and while the Central Jurisdiction was being dismantled in the newly formed United Methodist Church.
At the age of 5, I watched white flight from the neighborhood where my parents bought their first house and I remember white flight from our elementary school. In 4th grade we were bussed to Oakhaven elementary. I was born into a culture that taught me that blacks are unwanted, discounted and despised- and should be treated as separate and unequal; but because of pressure, because of laws “we are forced to act like you are equal.”
I remember liking the white dolls better. I was a little black girl who asked God why he created me black when blacks are treated so badly. We all bring ourselves to the table. It was my parents, black teachers and the black church that raised me to love myself in a world that is hostile to blacks. They helped me to undo much of what was being sown in my life that could have taken me down a path of self-hatred.
I lift this up only to be vulnerable and human in this very important moment in history where we talk at each other and about one another and ruminate about whose ideas are right and wrong instead of looking at the black lives that were being slaughtered then and now and how it affects all of us. The exodus of the middle class both black and white from neighborhoods, from public schools, and segregation in churches hurts all of us and makes us all less than God created us to be.
“Born of Conviction” was a statement of the convictions of 28 white Methodist pastors at a time when it was dangerous to upset the status quo. As I read Reiff’s book, the effect for many of the 28, at least for a time, was a shedding of their right to white privilege in Mississippi. For me, reading the [Born of Conviction] statement for the first time a month ago, these 28 white Mississippi Methodist Clergymen, while they were stating their convictions about racial injustice in the language of the Book of Discipline were also saying “Black Lives Matter too” in response to as Reiff puts it, “the turmoil surrounding the riot at Ole Miss when James Meredith arrived to enroll as the school’s first known African American student” (xiv). The position of the Methodist Church had been largely ignored in favor of preserving a southern culture of segregation and racial prejudice. It was the 28’s belief that they were not only standing for themselves but for many other whites who may have felt they could not speak because of the climate in the church and in the culture.
That being said, the culture of racial segregation and injustice still exists today and not just in Mississippi. It is perpetuated in Civil War reenactments, the flying of the confederate flag, the monuments to klansmen in city squares and the naming of state parks, as people desire to celebrate and preserve their history and heritage. Attitudes about race weaken our communities, our public schools, and the witness of the church universal. It is perpetuating a culture of self-hatred which is paralyzing many who have nothing to counter it because the witness of the black church and the white church is compromised- as many church-goer’s politics are separate from the gospel. The “good news” is an ideal we aspire to in the “by and by” and not a faith we practice that transforms all of our lives.
I am encouraged by the reflection of one of the 28, Wilton Carter, who responded to “the conference survey of clergy exiles by exhorting the church to unite ‘for the cause of justice and mercy’ which will require her leaders to decide exactly what they expect the church to be. My own wonder is will the church continue to be just a meeting place for good people on Sunday or will it serve as the mouthpiece of God’” (Reiff, 235)?
Rev. Autura Eason-Williams, Capleville UMC, Memphis