25 Years of Mission Mississippi

By on October 1, 2018
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By Katie Eubanks

25 Years of Mission Mississippi

 

From left: Emily Sanford, Carol Burger, Marilyn Tinnin, Katie Eubanks, Dan Hall, Dolphus Weary and Elbert McGowan pose for a photo at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison.

 

One of the best perks of owning this magazine is being present at the monthly cover photo shoots. During this one, I got to meet multiple believers I’d never met before, each of whom could share memory after memory about their experiences with Mission Mississippi and racial reconciliation.

 

For 25 years, those two phrases – Mission Mississippi and racial reconciliation – have gone hand in hand in the Magnolia State. The organization aims to bridge racial and denominational gaps within the body of Christ.

 

How? Well, simply by getting people together. Sorta like at this photo shoot.

 

I could’ve sat in the Broadmoor Baptist Church lobby all afternoon and listened to longtime veterans Dolphus Weary and Dan Hall swap stories. The more I’m around Carol Burger, the more I realize just how sweet she is. Of course, I love Marilyn Tinnin, my predecessor and founder of this magazine, who is nothing short of genuine.

 

It’s obvious why Redeemer Church, PCA, chose Elbert McGowan as their teaching elder and senior pastor. He gives off good vibes, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him over the past few years.

 

And I’m glad I got to meet Emily Sanford, the associate pastor at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson. When I called her to chat, she said she wants to make sure young people hear the stories of their elders – particularly those who’ve gone through the civil rights era – before that “living history” is lost.

 

Emily also said she’s been pleasantly surprised while doing Mission Mississippi work as a woman in ministry. “I’ve been surprised at some of the settings where I might’ve expected some resistance (and didn’t get any),” she said.

 

“When we’ve been working on a common goal, (my being a female pastor) hasn’t seemed to get in the way. It’s been helpful to me in my own biases of how I might think someone might treat me,” she said, laughing. Wow. Working toward a common goal despite our disagreements? Sounds like people who’ve been reconciled.

 

NIGHT & DAY

Charles Pickering (left) and Eric Stringfellow

 

Mention the names Eric Stringfellow and Charles Pickering in the same sentence, and you might get some weird looks. At first glance, the two men are as different as night and day. They didn’t just have to reach across the aisle to become friends — they had to walk across the whole room.

 

“I had met Eric on three or four occasions, and of course I knew he wrote for the Clarion-Ledger (at the time). I agreed with some of the things he wrote, and I did not agree with everything he wrote,” said Pickering, a former 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge whose 2004 appointment by President George W. Bush was essentially overthrown because of a previous judicial decision that many viewed as racist.

 

The controversy stemmed partly from a 1994 cross-burning case in which Pickering, then a Federal District Court judge in Hattiesburg, tried to get a lighter sentence for one of the three defendants. Pickering has said he did so because the other two defendants got lighter sentences after pleading guilty, and that the seven and a half years in prison sought by prosecutors was draconian.

 

At the time, Mississippi leaders of different races and political parties defended Pickering, whose actions related to race had evolved over the decades. He had left the Democratic Party in 1964 after the Mississippi party was told to integrate its delegation, but he testified against the Ku Klux Klan in 1967 and later got involved in several racial reconciliation efforts in Mississippi.

 

“I think the first time we met (before the Mission Mississippi gatherings started), I think I was going to write a column about (Pickering),” Stringfellow said. “And for some reason, I never wrote it.

 

“All that stuff about whether he should be confirmed (to the 5th Circuit), that was going on.”

 

“I knew (Eric) was of a different race. And I knew that he was a Democrat, and I’m a Republican. … And that was basically what I knew,” Pickering said.

 

Stringfellow said that when he met Pickering, “I was struck by his integrity, and just struck by his — he seemed to be somebody who was really principled and who really had a heart for God.”

 

It was in the mid-2000s, right around the time the federal government was fighting over whether Pickering should be a 5th Circuit judge, when Mission Mississippi paired him up with Stringfellow, Dan Jones (then dean of the University of Mississippi School of Medicine) and Circuit Judge Robert Gibbs, as part of an effort to create interracial friendships among Mission Mississippi board members.

 

“We had dinner at Dan Jones’ house down in Crystal Springs with our wives, the whole nine yards,” said Stringfellow.

 

Pickering and Stringfellow had plenty to talk about during their year of monthly get-togethers.

 

“We disagreed about a lot of stuff. But there was a lot of stuff we agreed upon,” Stringfellow said. “Judge Pickering has some interesting views, for example, on reparations. He would say it a little differently, but to me, it sounded like that was something he could support.”

 

(Pickering said reparations per se “would be a mistake” but that “we need to make efforts to try to lift those who did go through Jim Crow, and try to do things to help them … not as a form of reparation, but certainly opportunities to get into the mainstream, and encourage them to get into the mainstream. I think that was the conversation that Eric was referring to.”)

 

When Stringfellow was elected president of the 100 Black Men of Jackson in 2005, Pickering attended the swearing-in.

 

When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Stringfellow and Pickering had a conversation. Pickering had voted for Republican Sen. John McCain — but when Stringfellow asked Pickering what he thought of the outcome, he said he wasn’t entirely disappointed.

 

“It gave me hope. I thought that (Obama’s) election should, could break down barriers. Unfortunately, I don’t think that happened,” Pickering said.

 

“But I think Eric was surprised I wasn’t too disappointed (Obama) was elected.”

 

Pick a political issue, and chances are Stringfellow and Pickering will disagree on it. But despite that, they became friends.

 

“He’s just somebody that, quite frankly, I was able to have a level of trust with,” Stringfellow said. “He shared some pretty intimate stuff, and I think I did too.

 

“We talked about (his son) Chip a lot, and some of the stuff Chip has gone through is similar to stuff that I’ve gone through. And we’ve talked about that. He’s prayed for me, talked about some of the advice he gave Chip.

 

“When I ran for (Hinds County) supervisor (in 2015), (Pickering) was one of the first people I called.”

 

The two met at a Waffle House near the Jackson-Evers International Airport to catch up. Pickering gave Stringfellow a campaign donation.

 

“He asked did I want him to keep it under the limit where I wouldn’t have to report it,” Stringfellow said, laughing, “and I said absolutely not.”

 

Stringfellow, who now works at a Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, called Pickering just a few weeks before this interview to see how he was doing.

 

“That was a pleasant surprise,” Pickering said. “And I hope that we can keep those contacts.”

 

Just as Stringfellow was struck by Pickering’s decency, “I think (Pickering) had some notions about me that, after getting to know me, he had no basis for,” Stringfellow said.

 

And that’s the whole point.

 

“When you read stuff or put stuff in black and white about Republican, Democrat, so-called conservatives, so-called liberals, it’s easy to demonize folks. Put down those labels and sit down and talk to people,” Stringfellow said.

 

A WARM FRIENDSHIP

 

Marilyn Tinnin and Carol Burger

 

Carol Burger and Marilyn Tinnin each used the same word — in separate interviews — to describe their first impressions of each other: Warm.

 

If you know either of them, that’s no surprise. Spend any amount of time with Carol, recently retired from United Way, or Marilyn, recently retired from this publication, and you’ll get a sense both of their passion and their kindness.

 

Both are active at their churches. Both are mothers, grandmothers.

 

Both grew up in small-town Mississippi during segregation.

 

But when Mission Mississippi paired the two women up in the mid-2000s to get to know each other, they had no idea what they were in for.

 

“I was a little intimidated (by her) because she was such a successful businessperson,” Marilyn said of Carol. “And I had just started the magazine not long before that, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was a successful businessperson.

 

“She was just so articulate, and outspoken — but not in an obnoxious way.”

 

As Mission Mississippi board members, Carol and Marilyn were to help set the example for the organization. They were just one of several pairs of interracial people who would meet monthly for a meal and a discussion. Not just any discussion, mind you.

 

“These weren’t just breakfasts where we exchanged pleasantries,” said Marilyn. In fact, longtime Mission Mississippi leader Dan Hall urged the two to confront unpleasant realities.

 

Marilyn had grown up in Indianola, attended Ole Miss in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and was sheltered from much of the ugliness of Jim Crow. Carol had experienced it firsthand.

 

“I was raised to be very independent,” said Carol, whose grandparents owned 80 acres in Jefferson Davis County.

 

But that didn’t change the fact that she often heard, “N—–s go home” when she and her friends tried to frequent certain stores. White kids were allowed to congregate as much as they liked, but the black kids couldn’t show up in groups. Oftentimes, they couldn’t show up at all.

 

Carol enrolled at Tougaloo College at 15 years old and was active in the civil rights movement. She met Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in person. Later, a group of African- American leaders handpicked her to become the first black teacher at Pearl River County schools in 1966.

 

She was grateful that only one parent removed their child from her class.

 

As a child, Marilyn never understood segregation. And she grew up listening to her parents’ dinner table talk — but only got one side of the story.

 

After she and Carol had met a few times, Marilyn opened up a book her mother had written on the history of Sunflower County, including Fannie Lou Hamer and the civil rights movement. Reading from that book after hearing Carol’s perspective on those same topics was an eye-opening experience.

 

Dan also had them watch the movie “Crash,” which told the fictional story of racially explosive encounters in Los Angeles, and discuss it afterward.

 

“That was hard for me, and I’m sure I didn’t participate as much as Dan would’ve liked,” Marilyn said. “If that movie was true and realistic, it was — really bad. And shocking.”

 

At that time, before political tirades raged on Facebook, politics was not a top priority for discussion.

 

“You just sort of knew (how the other person voted),” Marilyn said.

 

When asked, “What was one topic y’all disagreed on?” Carol couldn’t name one.

 

“I don’t think we ever actually disagreed on anything,” she said. They just had different life experiences.

 

“We really wanted the same things for ourselves and our families,” Marilyn said.

 

In fact, after starting out discussing issues of race, they started to talk about other stuff: Family. Kids. Grandbabies. When Marilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Carol was there for her. And their friendship has continued since then.

 

That’s been the most surprising part, Carol said — how this relationship, which started as almost a social experiment for a nonprofit, has actually lasted.

 

“I feel like if I needed something I could call her up anytime, and she would be there. And I think she feels the same way about me. We really care about each other.”