- Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi's Closed Society by Joseph T. Reiff
When James Meredith matriculated at the University of Mississippi in 1962, segregationists resisted and protests engulfed the campus. In the aftermath, a group of twenty-eight clergy signed a statement entitled "Born of Conviction," which condemned racial discrimination, supported public education, and attacked communism. The "Twenty-Eight" were white Mississippians, Methodists, and ministers (p. xiv). Some lost their status and even faced death threats in their communities and congregations. In Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi's Closed Society, Joseph T. Reiff explores how their statement impacted not only their lives (twenty left Mississippi by 1971) but also Methodism and society in the Magnolia State. In so doing, Reiff makes two important interventions in the historiography.
First, Reiff's discussion helpfully rebalances the dominant narrative that white Mississippians used religion exclusively to support white supremacy. He does stellar work in showing that both the signees and the segregationists who opposed them were deeply motivated by their faith. When the Twenty-Eight signed their names, they were putting their careers and lives on the line. Their faith, as the author ably demonstrates, convinced them to be forthright in their belief that racial prejudice was contrary to their religious convictions. Reiff then shows how the hierarchy in the Methodist church admonished the Twenty-Eight with spiritual defenses of segregation and reminders of biblical prohibitions on political activity. [End Page 212]
Reiff makes a second contribution to our understanding of Mississippi as an altogether "closed society" during the long civil rights era by successfully showing how the signees, albeit inadvertently, were instrumental in influencing other pastors to speak out against prejudice. He makes a compelling case that rather than being "forced out," an array of factors accounted for twenty of the original signees' decisions to leave the state (p. 145). Reiff's dogged collection of dozens of interviews and deft use of these oral histories reveal that decisions about leaving were far more complicated. Some even left voluntarily. They may have been under duress, but they were still in charge of their own destinies. Surprisingly, some signees received much support from their communities. Reiff then explores the later careers of the eight signers who remained in the state. After 1962, many enjoyed rewarding tenures in the Magnolia State.
Reiff's fine oral history work and his eagle-eyed mining of materials on Mississippi Methodist churches from several archives make Born of Conviction as much an impressive institutional study as an exploration of individual lives. My only wish is that the author would have more precisely pinned down the exact sources of the Twenty-Eight's religious convictions. Rather than being born of conviction, might their educational and familial backgrounds have accounted for their decisions to sign? This minor quibble aside, Born of Conviction is an important study, obviously a labor of love for the author, and a fine contribution to the growing scholarship on religion in the American South.