Mississippi pastor recalls effort to integrate church


By Susan Dal Porto
Special to the Advocate

CHICAGO — The issue of race and racial equality has long challenged communities of faith. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning."

In early October, some of the leaders of the effort to bring racial equality to the Methodist Church during the American civil rights movement gathered at First United Methodist Church – Chicago (The Chicago Temple) to share stories about the struggles they faced.

The highlight of the gathering was the presentation of a cross which was set on fire by the Ku Klux Klan on the lawn of the campus chapel at traditionally black Tougaloo Southern Christian College in Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1963. The Rev. Ed. King, a young, white Methodist pastor, was the campus minister at Tougaloo and the target of the burning cross.

The charred cross went to the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia, where it was a symbol used during a protest against a racially divided church. The demonstration called for an end to the Central Jurisdiction and asked for Methodist churches to open their doors to all races.

The cross was given to the Rev. Gerald Forshey of Chicago, as a gesture of appreciation for the role Chicago clergy had played in efforts to end segregation. The cross will now have a permanent home at the Chicago Temple.

Facing arrest
Ed King developed a passion for racial justice in Methodist youth groups.  He worked closely with Medgar Evers and other civil rights leaders in Mississippi. His outspoken and unwavering support of racial equality led to threats, violence, incarceration and often repudiation for his efforts. In 1963, Ed King, recently out of seminary and awaiting ordination, was appointed to Tougaloo College. He was committed to the de-segregation of society, including the church.   

Betty Anne Poole was a 19-year old Tougaloo College student from Chicago in 1963. She joined with fellow black student, Ida Hannah and a white student, Julie Zaugg to try to attend church at the Capitol Street Methodist Church in Jackson. The students were barred from admittance to the church by the ushers and arrested by police on the front steps of the church. The students were held in jail for nearly a week and sent to trial with less than an hour’s notice. Their sentence was one year of jail time and a fine of $1,000.

Immediately after news reached Chicago of the arrest of the three Tougaloo college students (two of whom were from Chicago), Ed King received a call asking what clergy from Chicago and other northern cities could do to help. King said, “Come and go to church with us.”  

Chicago clergy, the Rev. Joe Buckles, pastor at Hyde Park Methodist Church; The Rev. lmer Dickson, pastor at Hope Methodist Church, Westchester, Ill.; the Rev. Don Walden, pastor at Chicago Lawn Methodist Church, and the Rev. Gerald Forshey, clergy at Holy Covenant Methodist Church in Chicago traveled to Jackson to be part of the church integration efforts.  One of the churches targeted by the racially mixed groups was Galloway Memorial Methodist in Church in Jackson.

The previous June, the Rev. Dr. W.B. Selah, senior pastor at the Galloway Church noticed some commotion outside his church when five black students from Tougaloo tried to come to church. They were turned away by the ushers. That day, Selah who had served Galloway for 19 years cut his sermon short. He told his parishioners that in spite of his love for them, he could not serve a congregation that would turn away persons because of the color of their skin. Either he would deny the Gospel he had been called to preach or he would offer his resignation. His days at Galloway ended that morning. Galloway lost 50 percent of its members over this incident, according to God’s Long Summer by Charles Marsh.

All the clergy from Chicago were arrested in Jackson in the fall of 1963 for their efforts to accompany black students to church. Ed. King visited the Chicago clergy in jail. King had been arrested previously for his civil rights activities but did not participate with Tougaloo students in church integration because he “knew he would have been killed.” Ed King had already been involved in a suspicious automobile accident with suspected Klan involvement. In that jail cell, King and the incarcerated Chicago clergy celebrated a simple communion – the bread was a hard roll smuggled from a prison meal; the chalice, a battered tin drinking cup.

“We felt, our little band of prisoners,” recounts King, “like the only ones in an immense cathedral, strengthened for the streets outside.”

A burning cross
During this same tumultuous period, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of the chapel at Tougaloo College. “The burning cross … became the ultimate symbol of terror” which the Klan used “to keep people from doing what they might do the next day,” said King.

Six months later, the cross went to the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church. It had a prominent place in an all-night vigil and was a “living memorial” as over a thousand people stood in witness against the segregationist policies of the church. King gave the cross to the Rev. Gerald Forshey. The Rev. Martin Deppe, a fellow Chicago clergyman, packed the cross into the trunk of his car and brought it to Chicago from Philadelphia. Deppe says that the cross, “reminds us of our exodus as American Methodists – God brought us through the wilderness.”

Forshey later asked sculptor, Jack Kearny to preserve the charred cross in bronze. The artist added a young black man as the Christ figure on the cross. The cross resided at the Forshey home in suburban Chicago until Forshey’s death last spring. Florence Forshey, the pastor’s widow, was instrumental in carrying out her husband’s wish that the cross be given a permanent home at the Chicago Temple – a progressive congregation in the heart of Chicago’s loop and the oldest Protestant congregation in Chicago.

Passing the stories
Historian, David McCollough has warned against “Losing the national memory of America’s story, forgetting who we are and what it has taken to come this far.” In that spirit, leaders gathered in Chicago 45 years after their de-segregation efforts, to contemplate what it had taken to begin to move the church toward more inclusiveness for all races.  

The Rev. Phil Blackwell, senior pastor of The Chicago Temple noted the contributions of “some of the people who made the gospel true – Ed King, Bill Kirk, Betty Anne Poole Marsh, Thomas Armstrong, Martin Deppe, Dick Tholin, Elmer Dickson, Bob Harman, Tom Grey, Bob Burkhart, Sheldon Trapp, Jim Reed, Jerry Forshey, and in many crucial ways, the people of the Methodist churches in Jackson who paid dearly for being faithful.”

When Ed King came to Chicago last month, he made a request at his home church, Galloway Memorial UMC in Jackson, that someone come from a younger generation, to hear the stories and learn what it took to make a more equal and just world.  Elise Williams, a 17-year old senior in high school came to Chicago with her father, Tommy Williams and Galloway’s Pastor for Students the Rev. Emily Sanford.

 Elise Williams heard the stories, and the pain of those civil rights struggles.

 “I’ve grown up in an environment where race hasn’t been an issue for me – at home, in my school, in my church,” she observed. “I’ve known about some of the history of the civil rights movement, but hearing it first hand from those who were part of it, particularly in Jackson and my church, Galloway UMC, helps me understand the tremendous courage, and the cost to give my generation that gift.”

Blackwell said, “These days we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and we take delight in the fact that he came out of the church to call a nation to revere what is true and good and beautiful. But, truth be told, much of his opposition came out of the church, too. The church is slow to change; we seldom lead the way. However, it might be the case that the church becomes the crucible in within which change is hammered out.”

The charred, bronze cross stood next to the altar at the Chicago Temple– a strong and powerful witness.  The Temple will eventually find a public home where many visitors can view the cross and contemplate the events surrounding it. Blackwell reminded those who worshipped that October morning that “there is no limit to God’s love. If there were, the cross would be empty, just an ugly, charred reminder of human cruelty. But there is Jesus, and there is every person who ever has tried to change the world for the better, even just a little bit.”

Blackwell closed the service with this call to action: “There still is work to do, but let us take heart that our story of 2008 is not the same as the story of 1963.” 

The Chicago Temple Gospel Choir and congregation provided this musical benediction to the stories of struggle and triumph they had heard, with the words to the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome.

Dal Porto is director of communications for the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church.