James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner lost their lives during Freedom Summer for helping African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. Their story has resonated ever since, but the burned sanctuary they were investigating when they were abducted—Mt. Zion Methodist Church—has received far less attention. Carol V. R. George, a historian at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, rectifies the narrative by focusing on the long history of this African American congregation in Neshoba County that not only survived the Ku Klux Klan's attack, but has also positioned itself as a leading voice for racial progress and reconciliation within the Magnolia State ever since.
George begins her history of the church in 1879 at its founding, and concludes in 2005 with the trial of Klan conspirator Edgar Ray Killen. By taking this long view, George intertwines the histories of the black community of Longdale, Mississippi (the location of Mt. Zion, eight miles from Philadelphia), white supremacy in Neshoba County, and the national and regional hierarchies of the Methodist Church. She traces the roots of Mt. Zion to the aftermath of Reconstruction, when former slaves settled, purchased land, farmed, voted, and built community. By staying where they had always lived, church members countered white supremacy, doing so in large part through church organization. Rather than join an all-black Methodist denomination, Mt. Zion decided to become a part of the national Methodist Episcopal Church, because they "regarded it their moral responsibility to support a church that announced itself as racially inclusive" (9). But responding to an outpouring of racism from its Southern members, the Methodist Church created the Central Jurisdiction (CJ), which, according to George, was "the price the denomination paid in racial politics to unite its northern and southern branches in 1939" (61). The CJ required separate congregations based on race, which isolated Mt. Zion while empowering white Methodists in Neshoba County and across Mississippi with a twisted moral position that defended segregation as Christian. Within this context, Mt. Zion responded favorably to civil rights workers who wanted to use the church as a citizenship school during Freedom Summer in 1964. On June 16, 1964, Klan members attacked Mt. Zion members and torched the building. Less than a week later, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner died at the hands of police and Klansmen while investigating the fire. Ever since, Mt. Zion has grappled with the legacy of these tragic events.
Oral history forms the backbone of George's research. Drawing also on records from the Methodist Church, Mississippi state archives, and court documents, George gives an intimate portrayal of life inside Mt. Zion, on its impact within Neshoba [End Page 404] County, and on its relationship to the national denomination. Acknowledging that "oral history can be as fallible as documentary history," George interviewed Mt. Zion members and descendants of early Longdale leaders to understand the church's history and how it coped with tragedy—an impossible task without oral history, since written records on the community are scarce (4). Oral historians are long past the point of needing to defend their methodology, but George writes earnestly about the revelations that oral history opens up. When recounting their pasts, George writes, "people speak most feelingly of the pain of public humiliation and social invisibility"—stories that remain uncommon in traditional archives (2).
Throughout One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, interrelated themes of memory and reconciliation, racism and progress emerge. George sows these ideas in her preface, writing, "White Methodists in the South found their references in the past; and black Methodists, while hardly heedless of their brutal history, consistently looked toward the future for promise of change" (xi). Mt. Zion had pursued racial justice since 1879, constantly looking forward to a better day. But after the summer of 1964, church members remained tethered to the past in a traumatic way. Yet they did more than remember—they fought. One avenue of protest came through the Philadelphia Coalition, formed in 2004. Mt. Zion members played key roles...