A Powerful Christian Legacy

Episode 52

Ray Notgrass: On today’s Exploring History podcast, I’ll tell you about a remarkable person that Charlene and I knew that you probably never heard of, who left a profound Christian legacy.

Titus Anderson: [music in background] Welcome to Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History.

Ray Notgrass: I’d like to ask you to think about Mississippi in the 1950s. Black citizens had few rights: most couldn’t vote or serve on juries, and black children could not attend school with white children. This was true from grade school through college.

I’m going to relate some incidents that took place in Mississippi. These are hard to hear, and I assure you that they are hard to talk about, but they provide an idea of the attitudes of many white people in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mississippi was the site of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a tragedy which I mentioned on my previous podcast. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old young black man who lived in Chicago. In the summer of 1955 he was visiting relatives in a small town in Mississippi. Stories vary about the details, but apparently Till and some friends were shopping at a small store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, a white couple. As the story goes, Emmett whistled at Mrs. Bryant or did something that offended her, and she told her husband about it.

On August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, tortured him, murdered him, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Within a matter of weeks, Bryant and Milam were put on trial for the murder in the Tallahatchie County courthouse. An all-male, all-white jury found them innocent. No one else was ever arrested or tried for the murder. Years later, the two men confessed to a magazine writer that they had in fact committed the crime.

Six years later, in 1961, James Meredith attempted to enroll in the all-white University of Mississippi in Oxford. Meredith was born in Mississippi, had served in the U.S. Air Force, and had attended Jackson State College in Mississippi. His application to Ole Miss was rejected. Meredith filed suit, and on September 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the university had to admit Meredith. He was finally admitted to the university on September 30, but a riot broke out on campus. Angry white persons assaulted federal marshals with bricks and bullets. Only the arrival of federal troops ended the violence, in which two bystanders were killed, over two hundred marshals and soldiers were injured, and over two hundred persons were arrested. Meredith was finally allowed to register for courses on October 1, 1962. U.S. marshals escorted Meredith everywhere he went on campus. Federal troops remained on campus for over a year to protect Meredith and discourage further outbreaks of violence. James Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1963 and went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University law school.

In 1964, members of the Ku Klux Klan, assisted by a deputy sheriff, murdered three civil rights workers who had come to Mississippi with several others to help black Mississippians register to vote. The only trial held in the case at the time was in federal court in 1967, where seven men out of the 18 on trial were convicted of denying the three men’s civil rights. None of the defendants served more than six years in prison. Only in 2005, on the 41st anniversary of the killings, was one man convicted of manslaughter.

Understandably, the memories, the fears, and the bitterness of those events lasted for years.

Charlene and I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1977, 15 years after the Meredith incident, and just ten years after the trial of those involved in the murders of the three civil rights workers. We knew people who remembered well the incident involving James Meredith. This is unrelated, but we also knew people who had known Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford until his death in 1962. We moved there for me to be campus minister with a Christian group at Ole Miss. We didn’t have any children at that point, so Charlene and I were both busy with Ole Miss students.

University of Mississippi Campus (2016)
Photograph in the Ben May Charitable Trust Collection of Mississippi Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The focal point of our campus ministry was the Christian Student Center, which opened in the early 1960s across the street from the Ole Miss campus. The goal of the center was to provide a Christian environment for students attending Ole Miss. The center offered Bible classes for college credit through a Christian college in Arkansas. Many students applied those courses as elective credit toward their Ole Miss degree. The minister of our church and I taught the classes. Ten girls in one dorm and 12 guys in a separate dorm lived at the center. Other students, who lived in campus dorms and off campus, were involved in our campus group as well.

As hard as the memories were for people in Mississippi at the time, we can be thankful that 1977 was not 1962. Charlene organized a group of black and white female students who faithfully attended a weekly Bible study together in a campus dorm room. We also had an adult Christian in our church who was on staff at the university and whose personal mission was to reach out to international students at Ole Miss. At various times we had students from Nigeria, India, and Taiwan who attended our church and who were involved in the activities of our campus group. I ought to add that integrated churches were not common in Oxford or in Mississippi even in 1977.

Students who lived at the Christian Student Center, as well as some other students, ate their evening meals at the center. Gladys Walls cooked those delicious meals. She was the heart of the Christian Student Center. Gladys was one of the sweetest, most humble, most dedicated Christians that Charlene and I have ever known. She had cooked for the students at the center for many years before Charlene and I arrived. As a middle-aged black woman, she had lived through the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s in Mississippi. Besides being an excellent cook–and Charlene still uses one of her cooking tips today–she was also an unofficial counselor to many students, who talked to her about boyfriend and girlfriend problems, roommate problems, family problems, school problems, and many other things. As a young campus minister, I’d sometimes go into the kitchen in the afternoons as she was preparing supper and benefit from her wisdom and spiritual insight. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, loved Gladys.

When Charlene and I were expecting our first child, Gladys organized a baby shower for Charlene with the women of her church, whose members were mostly African American. It was very special–and they held it on the night before John was born!

The story of Gladys’ influence does not end with her. Gladys and her husband had two children, a son, Benny, and a daughter, Diane. Benny became a preacher, and he preached for many years until his untimely death several years ago. Diane became a nurse and worked at that career for 50 years until she retired. We were in touch with Diane just a few weeks ago. She is now 70, and she was participating in an evangelistic campaign in Florida. Although Gladys passed away several years ago, the influence of the life and faith of Gladys Walls continues decades later, in my life, Charlene’s life, the lives of our children, and the lives of the hundreds of students she influenced at the Christian Student Center, and her influence expands even more as Diane teaches others about Christ.

So why am I talking to you today about a cook who lived in Mississippi all those years ago? Actually, I have several reasons.

Gladys could have become bitter about the treatment that she and other black persons received in segregated Mississippi, but she didn’t. She loved Jesus, trusted Jesus, and demonstrated His love to all she knew. You and I can do that, too.

Gladys wasn’t a famous speaker. In fact, black women did not stand high on the social ladder in the Mississippi of her day. But talk about an influencer! Gladys was a simple, faithful Christian who lived for the Lord and who made a difference with people one on one. You and I can do that, too.

Gladys effectively passed on her faith to her children, who have lived for Jesus and expanded the kingdom in their times. The lives of Benny and Diane remind me of what Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1, “I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.” Many people are concerned about the next generation and whether they will live by faith. Parents and other adults around them will have a huge impact on how the next generation answers that question. You can’t share what you don’t have, so it’s up to the older generation to have strong faith in order to pass it on.

The story of Gladys Walls is an example of how history intersects with real life and real people. This is one reason why history is so fascinating and so important. When you read about and hear about historical events, never forget that those events involved real people, and those events affected them. Real people fight wars in foxholes. Real people lived in terror in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re all going to face trials, some on a personal level, and some because of events that will wind up in history books. The question is, how will we respond to them.

So thank you, Gladys, for your beautiful faith, for your delicious meals, and for very precious memories. I’m Ray Notgrass. Thanks for listening.

Titus Anderson: This has been Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast app. And please leave a rating and review so that we can reach more people with our episodes. If you want to learn about new homeschool resources and opportunities from Notgrass History, you can sign up for our email newsletter at ExploringHistoryPodcast.com. This program was produced by me, Titus Anderson. Thanks for listening!

Visit Homeschool History for more resources related to the topics discussed in this podcast.

Explore Resources