Submitted by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History
October is Racial Reconciliation Month in Mississippi. Christians are encouraged to find ways to improve race relations. One of the best ways to promote racial reconciliation in the present is to better understand Mississippi’s past. Why do we need to repair relations? How did we get to this point in our history? How do Christian repentance and redemption relate to racial reconciliation?
Answers to these questions can be explored in Jackson at the Two Mississippi Museums — the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. This Smithsonian-caliber museum complex, administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), opened to nationwide acclaim in December 2017. And just in time for Racial Reconciliation Month, the museum is rolling out a new program for churches and places of worship.
Church groups and other religiously affiliated organizations with 10 or more can now visit the Two Mississippi Museums for free, thanks to a $2.5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. This foundation, based in Indianapolis, made the grant through its Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative, a nationwide effort to help museums and other cultural institutions improve the public understanding of religion. The grant to the Foundation for Mississippi History, the private fundraising arm of MDAH, is intended to build and promote programs, activities, and projects focused on the understanding and interpretation of the role of religion in Mississippi history and culture.
“From the spiritual beliefs of the Native Americans who were here first, to the conflicting religious convictions of slaveholders and enslaved people, to the leadership of people of faith during the Civil Rights Movement, religion is at the heart of Mississippi history,” said Katie Blount, director of MDAH. In fact, the state’s first constitutional convention in 1817 to achieve statehood took place in a small Methodist Church in the town of Washington, near Natchez. And today, our new state flag contains the words “In God We Trust.”
Mississippi is considered one of the most religious states in the U.S. as measured by the Gallup Poll, the Pew Research Center, and the Public Religion Research Institute. According to the 2020 Census of American Religion, 86 percent of Mississippians claimed a religious affiliation, and 66 percent attended religious services regularly.
An exhibit of a rural church at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum shows a film about Freedom Summer in 1964
Within Mississippi, Christianity is surprisingly diverse. The census above reported that 35 percent of Mississippians are black Protestants, the highest percentage of any state in the nation. Forty-five percent are white Christians, the largest sub-group of which are white evangelical Protestants (27 percent). Understanding the history of black and white Christianity in Mississippi is critically important to understanding the state.
Interestingly, both the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum contain recreations of church buildings that show short films about the state’s history. The Museum of Mississippi History contains a replica of Mount Helm Baptist Church, which was created in 1868 for African Americans who, prior to the Civil War, had worshipped in the basement of First Baptist Jackson. A theater in this church exhibit contains pews for visitors to view a film highlighting Mississippi history from Reconstruction through the 1927 Mississippi River Flood.The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum contains an exhibit of a rural church where visitors can see a film about Freedom Summer in 1964. Despite attacks on some churches, for the most part, churches were seen as safe places to gather. Meeting in a church also underscored the moral component of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of those involved in the movement were motivated by their religious beliefs. They took literally the charge to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and they were obedient to the words of James in the New Testament, who wrote that “faith without works is dead.” Many who work toward racial reconciliation today are also inspired by their faith.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum features some religious leaders in its Points of Light exhibits spread throughout the museum. Points of Light highlight individuals whose example of dignity, strength and perseverance advanced the cause of freedom. For example, W. B. Selah, pastor of Jackson’s Galloway Methodist Church, is singled out for his sermons against racism and support for the Born of Conviction Statement, which criticized injustice and discrimination.
Two Mississippi Museums Director Michael Morris is excited about the opportunity for church groups to come see for themselves the connections between history and religion in Mississippi.
“We welcome Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, youth groups, senior citizens, singles groups, or other church groups of 10 or more to visit for free,” he said. “In fact, to avoid museum fatigue and since church group admission is free, I recommend making two separate trips to fully explore each history museum.”
The Lilly Endowment grant also will allow church groups and faith-based organizations to use event space at the Two Mississippi Museums at a discounted rate. A large auditorium located between the two museums could be used for a church banquet, pastor’s conference or other religious event.
Finally, the Lilly Endowment grant will allow MDAH to offer workshops for church secretaries and church historians to learn best practices for saving, storing and preserving church records. Preserving records properly will ensure that future generations understand our state’s rich religious history.
A replica of Mt. Helm Baptist Church at the Museum of Mississippi History features a film that takes viewers from Reconstruction through the 1927 flood.
Religion and history are bound together in Mississippi, perhaps like nowhere else. That’s why the Two Mississippi Museums are thrilled to welcome religious groups to come explore the stories that make Mississippi special — for free. Now that deserves an amen!
To set up a free visit to the Two Mississippi Museums for your church group, go to https://2mm.mdah.ms.gov/visit/group-visit or call 601-576-6800. To reserve event space for your church group at the discounted rate, visit https://www.mdah.ms.gov/event-rentals-form or call 601-576-6800.