Review: One Mississippi, Two Mississippi

Joel L. Alvis, Jr.

Joel Alvis is Interim Pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Columbus, GA

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Joel L. Alvis, Jr., "Review: One Mississippi, Two Mississippi," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Carol V. R. George. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder & the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xii, 298 pp. 978-0190231088.

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All history is local.

As a corollary of Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics is local,” this claim describes the world Carol V.R. George explores in One Mississippi, Two Mississippi.Carol George delves into the well-known civil rights murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964. Pealing back layers of the story that led to those violent, brutal, and senseless deaths, she unveils the story below the national headlines. Here lay the communities of Neshoba County, a particular place with its own specific and detailed history.

Florence Mars’s seminal work, Witness in Philadelphia, shared the memoir of a white woman who was part of Neshoba County’s dominant culture. By contrast, George explores the African-American community that brought Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney to the area. The three men made their fateful journey in preparation for establishing a Freedom School at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in the Longdale community. The congregation had approved the project as part of a coordinated effort for Freedom Summer that brought volunteers from around the nation to Mississippi to promote voter registration and civic education.

The story is not only about political developments in 1964. This history is the confluence of a segregated church governance system within a segregated political order. The two were part and parcel of each other. The ecclesiastical descendants of John Wesley at Mt. Zion came face to face with the progeny of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Ku Klux Klan.

George examines the events of 1964 through the prism of the Mt. Zion Church. How was it that there came to be a decision to host a Freedom School there? The answer lies within the development of a faith community. Racial segregation was not only part of the political order of Mississippi; it was also in the fabric of the Methodist Church with the Central Jurisdiction. To tell the tale requires examining the history and order of the Longdale community, as well as exploring denominational politics at the state and national level.

What has happened since 1964 in Neshoba County? George delves into local developments by exploring the Mt. Zion annual anniversary commemoration on June 21 as well as the forming of the Philadelphia Coalition, an interracial group of citizens seeking a way forward for their community.

At one of the places of intersection for the commemoration and the Coalition, then Secretary of State Dick Moplus spoke at the 1989 observance. His words were direct and went to the heart of the matter: “We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it. … Every decent person in Philadelphia and Neshoba County and Mississippi feels that way” (189).

Nine years previously, Neshoba County was the first stop for a newly selected Republican presidential nominee, Ronald Reagan. In his speech at the Neshoba County Fair, Reagan declared: “I believe in states’ rights” (154).

Both sets of words had deep and political meaning. Reagan’s speech was part of a “Southern Strategy” to broaden the appeal of the GOP to Southern whites. Molpus’ speech would be replayed later when he ran for Governor of Mississippi–and lost.

In so many ways the tension between these two comments still demarcates the past and present of American life on matters of race and class. George has contributed to the published conversation about the Neshoba County murders. She has also connected the spiritual past of Methodism with the political history of the state and nation. Her work will always be a useful resource. However, in this particular season of American life and politics, her words not only evoke a time gone by but can hint at a future that may be filled with its own sinister developments.