Retired minister in Lexington writes about faith journey during civil rights era

Retired pastor William McAtee has written a book about his experiences in Columbia, Miss., during the civil rights struggle. This full-page ad appeared at the time in the local paper and urged non-violence and cooperation.
Retired pastor William McAtee has written a book about his experiences in Columbia, Miss., during the civil rights struggle. This full-page ad appeared at the time in the local paper and urged non-violence and cooperation. Submitted

It wasn't long after the Rev. William McAtee got the call that he put pen to paper.

A museum staffer in Columbia, Miss., was assembling remembrances of the civil rights era for Black History Month and wondered whether McAtee, whom the staffer wrongly assumed to be a black civil rights worker, might add a few words.

Just a few weeks after that 2008 call, McAtee, a fourth-generation, white Mississippi native, had the makings of 12 chapters that eventually expanded into Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor's Journey Into Civil Rights and Beyond (University Press of Mississippi, $35).

"It just flooded out," said McAtee, now retired and a long-time Lexington resident whose book was published in 2011. "I had kept all that story in me all these years."

But, he said, "I felt like it was a story that needed to be told."

And what a story.

During the height of the civil rights turmoil in the South — 1964, 1965, 1966 — while violent protest raged all around them, the citizens of Columbia, Miss., decided that if they worked together they could bridge the gap between races and avoid the worst of the upheaval.

"A healthy community atmosphere beneficial to all individual citizens and businesses will not just happen, it must be worked for," said a letter to Columbia's leading citizens.

The letter, sent by McAtee and another white minister, the Rev. N.A. Dickson, was delivered to several dozen of Columbia's most influential citizens. In a thick binder with pages protected in clear plastic sheets, McAtee still has the original letter along with the list of those who were to receive it. Some names are crossed out, more names are scrawled in the page margins.

Retired Rev. Bill McAtee reads from a newspaper ad taken out by citizens hoping to avoid the violence and turmoil in other Southern cities. (Video by Mary Meehan)

With each letter was sent a copy of a list that included all the recipients' names. That way, McAtee said, people couldn't say they hadn't been made aware of what was going on; also, everyone knew who else was involved.

The message in the letter was that if the citizens of Columbia didn't take steps to integrate their schools and businesses, something the federal government had already mandated, the town could suffer the kind of destruction that had been felt in so many other Southern towns.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on Brown vs. the Board of Education nearly a decade before, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended segregation of stores and other public facilities.

But the reality on the ground was much different. For example, the Columbia school board had decided not to take action to integrate the schools until the federal government intervened and forced its hand, McAtee said.

McAtee, then at Columbia Presbyterian Church, and Dickson, pastor at First United Methodist Church, were supported in their effort by Columbia Mayor E.D. "Buddy" McLean. Soon, three local pastors at black churches — the Rev. I.C. Pittman, first director of the Mississippi Rural Center; the Rev. L.Z. Blankenship, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church; and the Rev. A.G. Payton, pastor of Owen Chapel Baptist Church — became part of the core group, too.

A wide net of citizens made the change happen, but the transformation of Columbia was not without strife. At the time, Columbia had its share of active members of white supremacy groups such as the White Citizens' Council, and they were none too happy when local folks started to openly profess the need for integration, McAtee said.

There were protests and pickets, and McAtee and other leaders assumed their phones had been tapped.

McAtee said he was never openly threatened, although a regular attendee and member of his church — who also happened to be a prominent member of the White Citizens' Council — told McAtee that if a black person ever tried to join them in worship, he would shoot the visitor first and then aim his weapon at McAtee.

"That was never put to the test," McAtee said matter-of-factly.

In the end, the citizens of Columbia managed to avoid the worst of what happened in other Southern cities. The schools and businesses were integrated, and community members of Columbia came to know one another in a different, deeper way, McAtee said.

For McAtee, who left Columbia for Richmond, Va., in 1966, it began a lifetime of slowly unraveling his own views about race borne out of generations of segregation. (His great-grandfather had been a slave owner.)

"I had a long and arduous struggle to overcome my deeply ingrained views and behavior," he wrote in the book.

But, he said, he was guided by some fundamental beliefs: God wants you to love your neighbor as yourself, and the United States Constitution promises "peace and justice for all."