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Presbyterians and the Civil Rights Movement

In February 1964, Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985), Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA and chairman of the NCCC’s Commission on Religion and Race, presented a proposal for a long term civil rights project in the Mississippi River Delta. Led by Presbyterian minister and executive secretary of the NCCC’s Division of Home Missions, Jon L. Regier, the Delta Ministry of Mississippi became the largest civil rights group in the South despite opposition from the leaders of Mississippi’s predominately white churches. Projects were located throughout Mississippi and included voter registration, education and job training, locating and building houses, distributing food and supplies, and “desegregation tests” of public facilities and schools. In its first year, the DM attracted over 300 volunteers and staff from various denominations.

Presbyterian Survey, 57(6), June 1967, p. 23.

Presbyterian minister Reverend Robert Lyon Beech (1935-2008), director of the Delta Ministry’s Hattiesburg Ministers’ Project, at a Head Start center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Photograph by Bruce Hilton, ca. 1964.

Eugene Carson Blake and Robert W. Spike, executive director of the NCCC, participate in a press conference held in the concourse of the Jackson, Mississippi airport to explain the Mississippi Summer and Delta Ministry projects. Religious News Service, photograph by Elsie May Chambers, 1964.

Mississippi residents wait in line to register to vote. Religious News Service, photograph by Bruce Hilton, 1966.

Delta Ministry promotional brochure, ca. 1967. Click to read.

In 1965, the Delta Ministry played a central role in the organization of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), a statewide Head Start program. Mary Holmes Junior College, a Presbyterian school in West Point, Mississippi, received a grant of nearly $1.5 million from the U.S. Government’s Office of Economic Opportunity to administer the program for its first year. It operated 84 centers in 24 counties, enrolled 6,000 children, and employed 1,100 people, mostly local black women. Children received health care, nutritious meals, and educational support.

Doll house built by the community for Richmond Grove Head Start Center, ca. 1967. CDGM Head Start Program Scrapbook.

CDGM brochure, 1966.

Defaced sign on the road to Mount Pisgah Head Start Center, ca. 1967. CDGM Head Start Program Scrapbook.

The Mount Beulah Conference Center in Edwards, Mississippi, was the Delta Ministry's headquarters and the birthplace of the CDGM. It was chosen for its reputation as a “safe location,” but was not immune from attack. On the night before Good Friday, 1967, four Klansmen were seen positioning an eight-foot cross against the entrance sign and setting it on fire. Commission on the Delta Ministry, photograph by Nash Basom, 1967.