By Steve Yates and Michelle Melton
What began in May 1964 as the routine start of a new pastorate at the Columbia Presbyterian Church soon turned into a life-changing experience for the Rev. Dr. William G. McAtee, a fourth generation Mississippian and son of a Presbyterian minister.
McAtee, a Distinguished Alum and past trustee of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has documented his personal experience of social and theological change, during years following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in a new book, Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor's Journey into Civil Rights and Beyond (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).
His story revolves around the quiet leadership of Earl D. "Buddy" McLean, who as Mayor of Columbia, Miss., determined that his community would not undergo the violence and reckless defiance of the law that engulfed so many other Mississippi communities. McAtee joined a group of local ministers, two white and four black, to assist the Mayor in navigating the uncharted social and political waters in a series of "firsts" that began opening access to public institutions and facilities for all citizens as required by the Civil Rights Act.
Civil Rights workers, providing constructive creative tension, took to the streets on behalf of the poorest of the poor demanding what rightly belonged to them according to the law. In retrospect, McAtee's engagement in these events during this intense period (1964-1966) became a turning point in repudiating his own past silent acquiescence to the injustices of the racist society of his birth. His accounting of this personal transformation reflects how his values and behavior were shaped.
This story is a candid reminder that no generation can summarily ignore individual and institutional deceits of the past or rest comfortably on its progress toward tolerance, equality, and justice.
In his blog (http://weegems.wordpress.com), McAtee explains,
One of the themes I explored in my book, in my search for self-understanding and truth about race, was recounting my “almost idyllic days of privilege.” Getting comfortable with that designation has not been easy for me, especially when “white” becomes a modifier of “privilege.” Was it denial or guilt or secret longing for silent acquiescence that I resisted accepting that as a true description of my situation? Probably all of the above and more, but whether I recognize it or not I am in many ways the product of “white privilege” so prevalent in the place of my birth.
“In spite of professed new attitudes regarding race, it is essential to recognize that, even after all these years in the struggle for justice for all, “white privilege” continues to have its profound affect today,” said McAtee. “As hard as it may be for some of us who are white to recognize, there are still today different starting points for different people in the struggle for equality. Some are more equal than others. Others have more to overcome than some.”
The Rev. Dr. William G. McAtee, a retired Presbyterian minister living in Lexington, Ky., has also written Dreams, Where Have You Gone? Clues for Unity and Hope (Witherspoon Press, 2006), a comprehensive history of the Union Presbytery Movement. In the late 1950s and 1960s, McAtee served two pastorates in Mississippi, Amory and Columbia. For twenty-six years, he was an executive for Transylvania Presbytery in Lexington, retiring in 1997. A Distinguished Alum of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (BD ’59; ThM ’65), he served 14 years as a trustee of the institution and also taught as an adjunct faculty member. He also has served as an instructor at McCormick Presbyterian Seminary and Lexington Theological Seminary.
Copies of Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor's Journey into Civil Rights and Beyond are available for purchase in the Louisville Seminary Bookstore or at one the popular online booksellers.