News Archives

United Methodists recall 1964 church burning

11/14/2001 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (UMNS) - Mabel Steele remembers the night her church was burned, a few days before the slayings of three civil rights workers. The year was 1964, and the country was divided over issues related to civil rights.

The burning of what is now Mt. Zion United Methodist Church occurred on June 16 that year, one of a long series of arsons at black churches in the South.

"We came to this church to have a business meeting, eight adults and two children," Steele recalled. "We came in and had the meeting, and after, a car came up out in the yard. The people in that car were white men. All the people from the church went to their cars and trucks. My son, 10 years old, turned out the lights."

The white men got out of their car and stopped her family and the others from leaving to ask them if they knew the whereabouts of the "white boys" -- civil rights workers James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The next morning, Steele said her husband learned from neighbors that the church had burned.

Four nights later, after viewing the burned-out church and visiting members, the three civil rights workers were abducted and murdered. The disappearance of the three and the discovery of their remains weeks later in an earthen dam near Philadelphia was news across the country.

Steele was among a group of United Methodists who gathered at Mt. Zion recently to remember what happened. Others included several church members, Bishop and Mrs. Kenneth Carder, members of the bishop's cabinet and their spouses, retired Bishop and Mrs. Clay Lee and the Rev. Ed King. The group assembled at Mt. Zion on Oct. 22 to bear witness to the church's place in history as part of the cabinet's journey of repentance and reconciliation.

The burning of small, African-American churches was commonplace in 1964. "Every week for 60 consecutive weeks, a black church was burned in Mississippi," King told the group.

Steele was the eldest of the witnesses gathered at Mt. Zion. Asked what she felt when the church was burned, she said, "Sadness, a whole lot of sadness, but really I can't hardly tell you how I felt. That was the only place we came to worship. We hadn't done nothing. We were just trying to carry out the mission of the church and follow God's word.

"I can't hardly face it sometimes, but it's true. I'm not trying to make it sound so bad, but it was bad," she finished in a wavering voice.

Others recalled their own experiences in Mississippi in 1964. King, an ardent civil rights supporter, helped officiate at the memorial service for Cheney.

Lee was pastor of First Methodist Church in Philadelphia from 1964 to 1967. He spoke of the "code of silence" that pervaded fearful Philadelphia. "The light tried to shine in the midst of the ashes, and it got blown out time and time again," he said.

Mt. Zion member Arecia Steele remembered holding worship services under the trees after the church burned. The man who had turned the lights out that night in 1964 as a 10-year-old boy remembered hearing a "white preacher from Philadelphia" on the radio, saying it was wrong to spill innocent blood. Thirty-seven years later, he learned that the preacher was Clay Lee.

After the burning, the tightly knit congregation rebuilt Mt. Zion. The church bell that sat in ashes in 1964 stands outside the building, near a marker honoring the memory of Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman. The site, Carder said, was "holy ground indeed."

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The information for this report was gathered and reported by Gwen Green, communications coordinator for the United Methodist Church's Mississippi Annual Conference.

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