Praying for the President in a Southern town

(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

Remember the Daily Kos poll showing that 47% of southerners had doubts that President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii?  What would the numbers look like if the question was posed to white southerners?

Fortunately, we aren’t left to idle speculation.  Del Ali of Research 2000 crunched the numbers and concluded that, if the Daily Kos figures are accurate, “the proportion of white Southern voters with doubts about their president’s citizenship may be higher than 70 percent.”

The Daily Kos study applied the “Southern” label to twelve states: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.  Some of these states went blue in 2008 and others were in the swing state category.  So, if the 70% figure applies to white Southerners generally, what percentage of white voters in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama (where Obama took between 10 and 14% of the white vote) fear the President might be a closet foreigner?

Now, move to small-town Mississippi and ask the same question.  Is it possible that upwards of 85% of the white adults in Winona, MS (to choose a town at random) question the citizenship of our president?

And if this figure is inaccurate, is it too high or not high enough?

A couple of Sundays ago, Methodist pastor L. Charles Stovall and I attended a small but vital Missionary Baptist church in Winona.  According to the tradition of the black church, brother Stovall and I, as visiting pastors, were ushered to the front to sit at the right and left hand of the pastor and I was asked to lead the altar prayer.  Fortunately, I have attended enough traditional black worship services to know I was supposed to wait until the congregation had gathered at the front, joined hands, and sung a call-and-response hymn.  I didn’t start praying until the pastor gave me a gentle nudge.

I adapted my praying style to the black idiom as much as a white preacher can without sounding ridiculous.  This means breaking things up into bite-sized pieces, a few syllables at a time and waiting for the congregation to respond.  Toward the end of my prayer I prayed for “our president . . . and his wife . . . and his children.”

I might not have considered praying for the president but, the previous Sunday, I had worshipped with Priscilla Hutton (a Roman Catholic) at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis.  Episcopalians always pray for the president using his Christian name, as in “. . . and for our president, Barack.”  So, on the fly, I adapted this custom to my black Baptist prayer.

When I was done and everyone had returned to their seats, the pastor said, “thank you so much, Reverend Bean, for that prayer.  You prayed for ‘our president’.  And he is  ‘our president’, just like George W. Bush was ‘our president’.  I was so surprised to hear you use that phrase and I was really moved and touched that you did.”

Why should it be considered amazing when a white preacher prays for “our president”?  Because in small town Mississippi, most white folks have a hard time embracing the idea that a black man, a black woman, and two black children are ensconced in the White House.

P9214726-1It is important that we not demonize Southern white folk.  Taken as individuals, some of their views and attitudes can be troubling, and in some instances, alarming.  But white people in Winona, Mississippi don’t have a lot of positive role models in the racial reconciliation department.  Resentment for the civil rights movement is so widespread in this culture that any other attitude is counterintuitive.   White residents of small Southern towns know it is wrong to discriminate, but the very mention of black leaders associated with the civil rights movement makes them bristle.

How do you reconcile a belief in racial equality with a deep-seated resentment for the movement that established, at least in a formal sense, that equality?

Reconciliation isn’t necessary because, as a practical matter, it is impossible.  White people can’t work through their feelings on these sensitive issues without revisiting the humiliation of the 1960s when their cultural heritage was exposed and ridiculed every evening on the nightly news.  White Southerners have adapted to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  If the black folks want a little state money for a civil rights library here and there, prominent white politicians are willing to cooperate–within reason.  But don’t ask these folks to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or to rejoice in the rich legacy of the civil rights movement.  Deep wounds have yet to heal.

It is generally considered bad form to beat up on Southern whites.  These people have been demeaned, stereotyped and condescended to for generations, the argument goes, so why not cut them some slack.  When I question the objectivity or the racial sensitivity of people like Doug Evans (the prosecutor in the Curtis Flowers case) or State Senator Lydia Chassaniol it isn’t because I believe they are fire-breathing, old school racists.  Doug and Lydia concern me because they are embedded in a deeply traumatized culture and it shows.  Chassaniol admits that she belongs to the Council of Conservative Citizens  (an organization with roots in the old White Citizens’ Councils) but doesn’t think that makes her racially insensitive.  She isn’t being the least bit disengenuous.  After attending all-white  public schools during the Jim Crow era, Chassaniol went to college and returned to Winona to teach in the community’s all-white segregation academy.  With all the best intentions in the world (and I firmly believe she is well-intentioned), she can’t extricate herself from her culture and it’s tortured history.

Having lived in a small, racially polarized Texas town, I know how hard it can be for folks on either side of the cultural divide to break ranks with the status quo.  The journey toward racial reconciliation must be taken in the company of others–few can make this arduous pilgrimage on their own.

But where do we start and who takes the first step?

The jury system is the best system we have; but when that system collides with the racial history of the South because a low-status black man is accused of killing a high-status white woman, things fall apart.  Investigators, prosecutors and potential jurors (on both sides of the color line) find it impossible to maintain the degree of objectivity our jury system demands.

The criminal justice is breaking down in cases of this nature all across the rural South, but I have never witnessed a more compelling demonstration of the phenomenon than I have encountered in Winona, Mississippi where a murder prosecution has dragged on for thirteen years, dividing a community along racial lines.  How can we bring closure and resolution to this story?  One thing is certain: It isn’t likely to happen in the courtroom.

8 thoughts on “Praying for the President in a Southern town

  1. Thanks for praying for him. He needs all the prayers he can get. Encouraging little op. ed. in NYT today by David Brooks. Limbaugh and Beck have lots of callers, but their opinions do not count for much at the polls. I wonder how health care would fare if it were put to a vote.

  2. As a lifelong Catholic I recall in the old days we used to end prayers at Mass with an appeal to God for the conversion of Russia. I think that would be an appropriate sentiment today for our president who has expressed so many anti-American beliefs and surrounded himself with so many people who have espoused the destruction of our Constitutional Republic. Don’t forget while most American’s say God Bless America, the president you write about had a mentor who said God Damn America.

  3. White folks in the south just need someone to reach out to them in a manner that they understand. They weren’t winners when they arrived here, their roots are feudal, they lost the Civil War, they faired well enough during the early part of the 20th century and tasted the good life for a heartbeat before the Great Depression, gave their sons and their crops to the war effort, then lost repeatedly during the Civil Rights era and took the hurt hard because the beginning of the global marketplace was stealing their progress, which is something they’ve never acknowledged or discussed amongst themselves. Now they’re left with lots of land, lots of talent, and no place on the national stage, other than a dunce seat.

    I’m not saying we should pity them, I’m not saying we should forgive the senseless terrorism of the Jim Crow era, I’m just saying more people should step foot in the South with an open mind. Visit one of those beautiful little towns and you’ll think to yourself, “I’d love to live here if there were jobs…” But don’t stop there, think about how far one would have to retreat from the rest of the world to draw one’s borders in so close to exist completely within a 20-mile radius.

    Small town mentality is as present in Washington, DC as it is in Winona. It’s just that in DC there’s more people, more colors, more languages, more opinions involved, which mandates a broader view of the world… In a place like Winona, survival is through keeping it simple, which inevitably sacrifices one’s ability to view the scene with a wide-angle lens.

    Just a thought…

  4. Nelson:
    What you say is true: Barack Obama’s mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, preached God’s judgment upon America just as he preached God’s blessing. There is no difference between Wright’s “God damn America,” and Billy Graham’s, “If God doesn’t judge America he’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah” (which were destroyed in a hail of fire and brimstone). The difference is that Graham and Wright had different sins in mind. Graham was concerned about sexual permissiveness and, to a lesser extent, the anti-war movement and, yes, the civil rights movement. Evangelicals are big on civil authority until their opponents hold power. Wright was primarily talking about structural racism, economic injustice and international violence. But the point Graham and Wright make boils down to much the same insight, God Almighty is not tied to our agenda and will not bless what we bless simply because we desire it so.

    As for Obama surrounding himself with those who desire the downfall of our constitutional republic, I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific as I have no earthy idea what you are talking about.

  5. DP:
    Actually, I am in full agreement with your observations with one quibble: I don’t think the white violence of the Jim Crow era was “senseless”. It was unapologeticallydesigned to preserve white supremacy–the term of choice during the period. Early on, while the movement was wedded to a non-violent consensus and the media still gave a damn, white violence was counterproductive. Later on, in Mississippi especially, white violence was so ferocious that the media grew weary of reporting on a fight with no resolution in sight and moved on to other things. In the end, both white and black movement leaders were left exhausted and cynical. A strategic stand off existed that has persisted to this day. Poor blacks and whites have common economic grievances but are too separated by religious, political and historical issues to realize it.

  6. Alan, the first name that comes to mind is Van Jones, the self-described radical black communist, who was only forced to resign after his background was revealed by those same people who our Dept. of Homeland Security has labeled as “domestic terrorists’. Then, of course, is Obama’s long-time friend Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground. While Obama has distanced himself from Ayers in the same manner he distanced himself from Rev. Wright, the long time association still exists. Then there was Obama’s childhood mentor, communist Frank Davis, who Obama mentioned in his book. Currently there are several of Obama’s Czars, whom he has appointed without scrutiny by our Congress. Among these are Kevin Jennings, Safe Schools Czar, who in a 1997 speech expressed admiration for Harry Hay famous for co-founding NAMBLA the North American Man-Boy Love Association. And Jeff Jones who co-founded the Weathermen. Our Constitutional Republic was founded upon a strong belief in God-given rights but the events over the last 9 months indicate a socialist central government that wants to change everything that made America the greatest country in the world.

  7. Alan, this may not be an exact fit for your discussion about Jim Crow but have you ever heard of the National Black Republicans Association?

    They have an interesting list of grievances in their petition to Congress.
    Reparations Petition to Congress Demanding a Formal Apology to African Americans for the Democratic Party’s 200-year History of Racism.

    You can read it here:

  8. It’s very interesting when you Google up small southern towns and all of the sudden, you find an article about racism…. in your own small southern town. I’m not native to Winona, MS, but I have lived here for most of my life and I call this place home for the moment.

    There are in fact people who are flat out racist here, but I don’t think that you should talk about the entire white population as a whole. There have been community projects aimed at racial cooperation. For instance, we have a biannual folk play called HillFire, which I have been a part of for a few years but quit because band take up my schedule o.o. We have also had community revivals that incorporate both black and white worship styles.

    Right now, the most interesting part of our town racially is Winona School districts. It is composed of an elementary school and a secondary school and has between 1500 and 2000 students in attendance. The racial makeup of the school constantly hovers around 50% white 50% black, which is unusual for small school districts in Mississippi. There are rarely any racial related arguments/fights (that I am aware of), and white and black students tend to get along well socially. Now, it’s rare for there to be blacks and whites being friends, but there is still surprisingly little tension.

    That being said, there is still a rift splitting apart the town, and it will not change any time soon. The Tardy Furnitures Murder Case is only a part of this rift.

    As to the topic of this article, I would not be surprised if the authors numbers are correct. People of this town are, of course, very Republican by nature. To add the fact that Obama is not white definitely fuels their fire that “We have a bunch of wild and crazy liberals in our whitehouse”. The only number that I can say for certain, however is that less than 100% of us in Winona would answer that they have doubt of their Presidents origins.

    If you have any questions/comments, Please reply, I am willing to discuss this article.

    P.S. Small town is Small town. I am going to graduate with the grandson of the woman that got killed in the Tardy Furniture Murder (and probably some extended family of the accused).

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