By Jeneane Jones
United Methodist News Service
SHUBUTA — “I watched and felt the tears come to my eyes. I said to myself, now I know that I did not march in vain.”
That was the experience of the Rev. Jim McRee, who turns 90 soon, as he watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama from his home in Laurel, near Shubut. Yet he knows there is still much work to be done for racial justice.
The proof of that reality came two days after the Jan. 20 inauguration, when several United Methodist congregations gathered at New Mount Zion United Methodist Church to recall the lynchings at a bridge along a back road in Shubuta.
Two 14-year-old boys, Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, were hung there on Oct. 12, 1942. There is documentation that the bridge was used for nearly a half-dozen lynchings. The “Hanging Bridge” was said to be so notorious that white mobs brought black people from neighboring states to be hung from its trellises.
More than 50 people from around the region attended the Jan. 22 commemoration, organized by The United Methodist Church’s Mississippi Conference Commission on Religion and Race. The event was the first in the Journey Toward the Light series of 2009 sponsored by the commission.
“Outsiders came, but not many people from Shubuta,” said the Rev. Fitzgerald Lovett, a conference staff member. “Some people were afraid to come. There is a lot of tension here. They don’t want to stir things up. Others don’t want to relive old memories. They want to bury the past.”
Shubuta is a predominantly African-American and Hispanic community where the poverty rate nearly doubles that of the state of Mississippi; where the percentage of children living below the poverty level is 62 percent compared to 28.9 percent in the rest of the state, and where the median household income is $22,200 — 10 percent less than elsewhere in Mississippi.
Put aside shame
Lovett thinks many would be happy to let the old stories of the lynchings disintegrate into nothing, the way the old bridge is trying to. But those who attended heard a young professor share his research into the events surrounding the lynchings.
Jason Morgan Ward, who teaches in the Mississippi State University Department of History — and is the son of Bishop Hope Morgan Ward — shared information from the detailed reports of Walter White. White, an African-American executive secretary of the NAACP in 1942, passed for white in order to investigate the killings. His reports provided some of the only factual accounts about the lynchings in Shubuta.
“I came to find out what was going on,” said the Rev. Mike Hicks, Hattiesburg District superintendent. His face was taut and unsmiling, even though his eyes seemed to want to smile. “People need to talk about what happened, to find a way to dialogue, but that is not easy to do.”
The audience listened as McRee talked about his nephew, who was jailed the night the two boys were lynched and heard the teenagers’ screams to the deputy sheriff not to let them be taken to the bridge. McRee’s nephew, now deceased, told his uncle he saw the deputy sheriff take the keys to the locked jail cell and toss them to the ground, giving the lynch mob easy access to the boys and sealing their fate.
“There are still people living here whose family members were part of that lynching mob,” McRee said. “They’re here and we live with them. I couldn’t say their names though.”
Lovett explained that the Hanging Bridge was a symbol in Shubuta, like the burning crosses that menaced black and white communities around the South. According to statistics held in the Tuskegee Institute’s history archives, more than 500 black people were lynched in Mississippi from 1882 to 1968, more than any other state.
The bridge in Shubuta was a symbol of what would happen if you spoke out, spoke too loudly, or spoke about being wronged, he added. “I can understand what it must have been like then—this area was just one plantation after another. If you were black, and you were caught, there was no place to run.”
Keeping a secret
McRee remembered that when he was a pastor of a segregated black Methodist church in the 1950s, his congregation didn’t want to know he was attending civil rights meetings, working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists. “If they knew, they would have put me out. I had to be an activist in secret.”
Once they did find out, he said, “they stopped paying my salary, my utilities. I got asked, ‘Jim, how are you still making it?’ They didn’t know that secretly the National Council of Churches was giving me a stipend, providing me with money for a rental car to travel to civil rights rallies and meetings.”
McRee suggested that fear kept churches from wanting to associate with him. Lovett believes that same fear of reprisal, the Hanging Bridge’s legacy, still lives in the memories of some who would not come to the commemoration.
While the inauguration of Barack Obama as president has given people cause to think racism is on the decline, McRee pointed out that “Shubuta is a long way from the nation’s capital. What happens in Washington, D.C., takes a long time to get here. “
The stories of the lynchings are not just intended as a cautionary history lesson, according to Jason Ward. They provide a lesson of how change takes place, how long it takes and what it takes. “In my classes, I compare the Hanging Bridge lynchings of 1918, when four people were lynched in two days, with the 1942 lynchings of the teenagers and a near lynching that took place in 1966 in the same area,” he said. “In ’66, the crowd pulled back from its original plan to kill the black man who had been trapped by a mob.”
Some want the Hanging Bridge restored, a reminder of how hatred and fear can torment and terrorize communities. Others, like Lovett, choose the road marched by McRee and are determined to keep seeking new ground to cover and new bridges to build.
The conference commission on religion and race has created a program to encourage relationships between those who have lived in fear and those who want to see change.
The Peacemakers Program requires a one- to two-year commitment that builds levels of trust between churches and members. It can start with something as ordinary as people from different racial ethnicities agreeing to take a daily walk together, or meeting together for a meal, according to Lovett. The commission has also developed a program that encourages local congregations to become “Light Partners,” gathering in small groups for interracial Bible study, worship, prayer and other activities that change strangers into disciples.
One commission member explained her commitment as a peacemaker in Mississippi as the concept of Ubuntu, a traditional African philosophy that recognizes how every person is inextricably bound in everyone else’s humanity. Translated as, “I am because you are,” Ubuntu describes a sense of unity between people through which we each discover our own strengths and virtues.
Bishop Ward echoed that sentiment when she characterized the work of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race as helping local conferences create programs like the Light Partnerships. “By sharing models for dialogue and programs that can help our people engage, the general commission is itself a gift to us-a gift of encouragement, mentoring and teaching,” she said.