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Surely Kin to Me
Written March 3, 2003


"We bowed our heads," wrote Anne Moody in her autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi, "and all hell broke loose.  A man rushed forward, threw Memphis from his seat, and slapped my face.  Then another man who worked in the store threw me against an adjoining counter."

The scene was a Woolworth's store in Jackson, Mississippi.  On the morning of May 28, 1963, a group of black students from Tougaloo College had seated themselves at the all-white lunch counter and asked to be served.  When the white lunch crowd arrived, the violence started.

"I saw Memphis lying near the lunch counter with blood running out of the corners of his mouth.  As he tried to protect his face, the man who'd thrown him down kept kicking him against the head. ...

"I was snatched from my stool by two high school students.  I was dragged about thirty feet toward the door by my hair when someone made them turn me loose.

"As I was getting up off the floor, I saw Joan coming back inside.  We started back to the center of the counter to join Pearlena.  Lois Chaffee, a white Tougaloo faculty member, was now sitting next to her. ...

"There were now four of us, two whites and two Negroes, all women.  The mob started smearing us with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies, and everything on the counter.  Soon Joan and I were joined by John Salter, but the moment he sat down he was hit on the jaw with what appeared to be brass knuckles.  Blood gushed from his face and someone threw salt into the open wound.  Ed King, Tougaloo's chaplain, rushed to him."

Tougaloo was an integrated college ten miles north of Jackson.  The chaplain, Rev. Edward King, was white; most of the students were black.

A target of the white Mississippi establishment, the college produced a quarter of the state's black professionals.  It was said to be the only place in Mississippi where blacks and whites could sit down together and have a serious conversation.

After the Woolworth's sit-in, Anne Moody wrote, "all I could think of was how sick Mississippi whites were.  They believed so much in the segregated Southern way of life, they would kill to preserve it."

Two weeks later, they did kill.  Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his Jackson home.

Rev. King appealed to a network of friends in the north for help, and soon the call reached the pastor of my church in the small, almost-all-white farm town of Richwood, Ohio.  Rev. John C. Wagner related the details in the agenda for the First Methodist Church's Official Board meeting of November 12, 1963.

Composite Photo

Here are parts of that message, which I've edited together with parts of a subsequent letter to the members of the church.

The original documents are on display at the First United Methodist Church in Richwood as part of the church's centennial observance.

Dear Friends,

Last week, I received a letter from a responsible friend in Kenton who is pastor of the Epworth Methodist Church.  He had received a telephone call from a classmate of his in seminary who is now serving with the Chicago Federation of Churches, Rev. Stanley Hallett.  Rev. Hallett told how he had received a call from Rev. Edward King at Tougaloo Christian College in Jackson, Mississippi.

The Negroes there are living in condition of almost unbelievable repression.  They feel that, as the situation stands now, there is little hope for them in Mississippi.

Rev. King, who is a native of Mississippi himself, believes that the only thing which can make a helpful impact on the situation is a continuous stream of outsiders coming in to see the situation and report it to their friends at home.  With little news coverage now, the Negroes there feel cut off from the outside world.

Each weekend, ministers are going down to see the situation, to let the Negroes know they do not stand alone, and to go to church on Sunday morning with some Negro Christians at churches which up to this point have been closed by law to Negroes (even though the church members welcome Negroes as visitors).

My friend in Kenton, Rev. Albert Tomer, has asked me to accompany him and some others from the Ohio area who are planning to go to Jackson on the 20th of this month for the weekend.

At first I thought it would be no help for me to go.  As far as the white Mississippians are concerned, I would be considered an "outsider" (although all integrationists are considered by some segregationists as "outsiders").   I would like to stay in my comfortable parish here in Richwood

But I do feel that I would certainly learn a good deal more about the situation there by talking with some of the Negroes and the segregationists involved in the struggle.  I also feel that in some small way I might add my support to the Negro Christians there.

The problem is that there is some chance of my getting arrested.

When four ministers from Chicago attended Sunday School at the Trinity Methodist Church with two Negro students, they were arrested, as they sat quietly in the church, for trespassing or disturbing public worship by their very presence, despite the fact that they had been invited by a church member and despite the pleas of the minister and the District Superintendent that they not be arrested.  They were convicted and sentenced and appealed their case to a Federal court.  They are now free on bond, having spent six days in the Jackson jail.

Three weeks ago, three Negro girls and a white girl were arrested in a Methodist church for quietly taking part in the Lord's Supper on World Wide Communion Sunday.

If I go as a Methodist minister to worship in a Methodist Church in the company of some Christians whose skin is darker than mine, I too might be arrested.  The only virtue in my risking arrest and jail would be for me to indicate my protest against a law which would prohibit a white and Negro Christian worshipping together in a church which accepts people regardless of race, and to bring to the attention of people the somewhat ironic situation of a person being arrested for holding to his Christian conviction as set forth in the Gospel and reflected in the hymns of the church:

In Christ there is no East or West,
     In Him no South or North,
But one great fellowship of love
     Throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands then, brothers of the faith,
     Whate'er your race may be.
Who serves my Father as a son
     Is surely kin to me.

Nowhere in the Bible is there any indication of Christ's supporting segregation as to race.  The crucial thing for Him was whether a man was willing to take up his cross and follow Him.

The procedure would be to plead not guilty, on the grounds that the law under which I was arrested was unconstitutional.  The ministers previously convicted have appealed and are free under bond.  The Chicago Federation of Churches has a fund for their legal defense.  I would not go unless I was assured of the provision of similar legal defense.

One of the reasons I bring this before the Board is that I will need to be away on Sunday, November 24th, if I decide to go.  Also, there is some chance that I might be away longer if detained in the local calaboose.

I am not asking that the Board say that it approves of my action or that I represent this church, for I realize there are many that differ with me on the matter of integration.  I am simply asking for the privilege of going, if the opportunity presents itself, intelligently and prepared for the consequences.

I realize that I have responsibilities here to the church, and the community, and my family.  I realize that there is much to be done right here in Ohio in the way of improving race relations, and I feel we must work on that too.

But I do feel that if I can go, I should.

I cannot preach that men must follow Christ no matter what the cost, and yet refuse to do what I believe He would have me do because I would prefer not to get involved or criticized.

We would be leaving for Jackson on the 20th and return on Monday or Tuesday of the following week, the 25th or 26th.  Sunday the 24th will be Layman's Sunday in our church, with the service being led by the laymen of our fellowship.  Arrangements have been made to fill the pulpit the following Sunday in the event of my being delayed in Jackson.

I invite your prayers and your concern that our visit be one of real learning and intelligent decision in the Spirit of Christ.

John C. Wagner, Pastor


The Official Board granted its permission, although at least one of its members — my father, a native of Kentucky — was opposed to the idea of northerners interfering in southern affairs.

John Wagner made his trip to Mississippi.  Assuming that he followed the planned schedule, he was in Jackson on Friday, November 22, 1963, when the news came of President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.  Of course, that event dominated everyone's thoughts thereafter.  When our pastor returned, he told us about his experiences, but I don't recall anything that he said.

However, sometimes actions speak louder than words.  John Wagner was true to his Christian principles all his life, which ended in 2015.



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