Baptists > History > The Baptist Dark Ages
For two centuries the southern
United States endured a kind of
Baptist Dark Ages
Only now are we beginning to
face what was a terrible
blemish on what has otherwise
been a proud and noble history
   The history of the Baptists is generally one of great accomplishments for the cause of Christ.  No one will argue that their victorious response to the challenges of our earlier history, coupled with their tremendous accomplishments over the decades and centuries have been amazing.  However, there is a tarnish upon that history which continues to be a source of shame and humiliation.  It was never worldwide nor did it take in all of those who lived in the continental United States.  The irony is that the southern states are known as the "Bible Belt" and it was this very region where it happened. Only recently has a generation arisen that has determined to lay that blemish to rest.  Even though they have been successful in doing so, the lesson learned has been that we must always vigilant to never again allow the culture to dicatate that which the Bible clearly states to be evil and wrong.
   The culmination of almost two centuries of the "Baptist Dark Ages" across the American southlands took place in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964.
   Civil rights volunteers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner two white New Yorkers and James Chaney, a black Mississippian, were intercepted by Klansmen in their station wagon on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam, in a case that was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning 
   Originally, it was assumed that it was only Cecil Price (deputy sheriff of Neshoba County at the time) who gathered the group of men who hunted down and killed the three civil rights workers.  However, once the dust cleared and the investigations were completed, the real brain behind the conspiricy turned out to be a Baptist preacher--Edgar Ray Killan.  He was a sawmill operator, a part-time Baptist minister, and also a kleagle, or klavern recruiter and organizer, for the Neshoba and Lauderdale County chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Killan as he
appeared in 1964
   He zealously performed his duties, as evidenced by the over seventy men who met on June 16 in Meridian to plan a trip to Mount Zion Church in Longdale, where they hoped to find and kill Schwerner.  Instead, they found only local blacks, who the klan badly beat before burning down their church. 
   After Killen received word from Price that Schwerner and the other two civil rights workers were being held in jail, he travelled to Meridian in Lauderdale County to meet with other klan leaders at the Longhorn Drive-In.  
Killan at his
trial in 2005
Phone calls were made and recruits signed up for a trip that evening to Neshoba County.  That night, the three civil rights workers disappeared.  Their bodies were recovered when an FBI informant gave away their location.
   Killen was one of nineteen men arrested on December 4, 1964.  At his trial in 1967, Killen created a stir by passing  to his defense attorney a question for a prosecution witness, Reverand Charles Johnson.   His attorney then asked the question in cross-examination.  Is it true, Killen asked, that Johnson and Michael Schwerner had tried to "get young Negro males to sign statements that they would rape one white woman a week during the hot summer of 1964 here in Mississippi?"   The judge was not amused by the question, and demanded to know where it came from.
   The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Killen's guilt.
   However, on June 21, 2005, he was charged and convicted of manslaughter, 41 years to the day after his crime, after a jury of nine whites and three blacks rejected the charges of murder but found him guilty of recruiting the mob that carried out the killings. He was sentenced on June 23, 2005, by Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon to the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison, 20 years for each manslaughter, to be served consecutively.
   The very fact that it was a Baptist minister who perpitrated this horrible crime served to galvanize a nation, thus, forcing the Southern states to face down almost two centuries of racial intolerence.  It was bad enough that the culture was filled with racism.  However, when one considers that the white Baptist churches formed the largest religious group in the those states while determining never to challenge the racism of their memberships, then the magnitude of this "blemish" becomes even more of a mystery.  How can a people so knowledgeable of the Word of God be so guilty of demeaning the value of a soul based on color?
   There was a time when no southerner dare challenge its racism.  However, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, passed in part due to this case, provided for life imprisonment or the death penalty for deprivations of civil rights (e.g. voter registration) resulting in bodily injury or death. Prior to that the maximum penalty was ten years.  The South could no longer tolerate intoleration.
   It will take time for the last vestiges of racial hatred to be totally cleansed from that part of the United States.  Another Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, would be the most well known leader to begin the cleansing process.  Yet, the work is still in progress these decades later.  A new generation of both white and black Southern Baptists is replacing the old with a new desire to unite in their service to God.  No longer will blacks be confined to sit in the church balcony while whites sit on the main floor.  The barriers are continuing to be knocked down as black and white hands grasp one another in the realization that past intollerences must give way to a new day of true equality for all.
   In Christ we are all one.  That Biblical truth must never be violated again.

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