Mark Newman . Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi . Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. 352 pages. ISBN: 0820325260 (cloth); 0820325325 (paperback). Reviewed for the Journal of Southern Religion by Said Sewell.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and though educators, scholars, and laymen – both black and white – often cite this case as a major turning point regarding race relations in America, it is largely misunderstood.  For example, the Brown decision in 1954 was not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court had heard this case.  A legal team that included Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney for the NAACP and later the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice, lost the initial Brown case before the high court.  It was not until Marshall, et al, added to their argument the seminal work of Dr. Kenneth Clark – specifically his research on the psychological effects of racism on children – that the Court moved to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson.  Secondly, the 1954 Brown was not a single case, but rather a combination of cases – from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and elsewhere – that challenged the general premise of Plessy's “separate, but equal” doctrine.  Lastly, the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that overturned Plessy and mandated an end to segregated schools did not actually come into reality until the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Arguably, many scholars have advanced that legal segregation may have been outlawed in 1954, but systematic segregation remained, even to this day.  The process of collective memory, however, seems to move toward simplification, leaving such specific details forgotten or unknown.  Such is the case with the Delta Ministry, a program inaugurated by the National Council of Churches in 1964 for the purpose of responding to the deplorable conditions (e.g., illiteracy, low voter registration, community and economic disadvantages, and the lack of unification) found in the Mississippi Delta.  Mark Newman's exhaustive but approachable work, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and the Civil Rights in Mississippi, seeks to restore what has been forgotten about this aspect of the civil rights movement in the Deep South.

In this book, Newman, who won the Southern Regional Council's Lillian Smith Book Award for Getting Right with God, once again explores the interconnections of religion and politics.  Unlike his previous work, however, which examined white southern Baptists and their attitudes – which were predominately negative – towards African Americans during the Civil Rights period, Newman explores in his work how northern African Americans and whites, with the generous financial, organizational, ecumenical support of the National Council of Churches, responded for nearly thirty years to the challenges facing African Americans in Mississippi.  As the title suggests, these Christian men and women stimulated public sentiment, both positive and negative, about illiteracy and the unemployment rate, systematic disenfranchisement, and the overt discriminatory practices in Mississippi by confronting these problems with a solution – the Delta Ministry. 

"Newman, to his credit, does not just casually discuss the organization and the role it played in the civil rights movement.  Rather, he summarily delves into the essence of the organization . . ."  


Newman, to his credit, does not just casually discuss the organization and the role it played in the civil rights movement.  Rather, he summarily delves into the essence of the organization, its people, and the environment in which it and they operated, detailing the struggle of racism and the intra-community and financial conflicts that confronted the ministry.  The racial element was less of a surprise given the time period and location than were the type of persons who advanced it – white religious leaders, whose religious convictions regarding love and compassion were second to their prejudice.  The Ministry, while struggling against religious bigotry from outsiders, also found itself having to deal with issues from within the local African American community and its religious leaders, who chose not to get involved in community organizing activities because they believed that: 1) the churches should not be involved in secular issues; 2), they did not need outsiders, whether African American or white, who were “overbearing, dominating, and dictatorial” (193); and 3) the Ministry was too radical in its approaches to be effective.  Finances, or the lack thereof, were another salient issue for the Ministry.  Due to its financial dependence on the “predominately white mainstream domination” (201) of the National Council of Churches, which was predicated more on the bases of guilt and sympathy of Northern whites than anything else, the Ministry saw its financial condition steadily decline over its thirty-year existence.  This decline was correlated to the decline in effectiveness of community activities and programs.  Thus, by the 1990s, the Ministry, which at its zenith was the largest community-based organization in the South with programs that ranged from literacy training to citizenship/candidate development to health care, was no more than a one-man operation.

This book is significant for several reasons, not the least of which should be its broad appeal.  Because of its examination of a faith-based organization, it provides religious scholars and ministers with great insight about how religious denominations and churches could make significant impacts on challenged communities.  It should appeal to those who are interested in history, specifically of the South, Mississippi, or the civil rights era, in that it gives detailed insights about post-civil rights leaders and their activities in the South.  Students of politics will be interested in the Delta Ministry's community outreach initiative that initially sought to respond directly to the plight of African Americans that had resulted from past discriminatory policies and unfair resource allocations; but it evolved into a major political action committee that organized protest rallies, registered voters, identified and supported candidates for public office, and lobbied policy makers.  Lastly, nonprofit theorists and managers, given their focus on identifying and explaining elements of success and failures with the ultimate goal of developing “best practice” models, would find the book extremely useful.

Although Newman's book is filled with positive attributes, one notes that the book has several moderate shortcomings.  First, because the book is so comprehensive in its exploration, the reader is often overwhelmed by all of the names, places, events, and acronyms that necessitate close reading or even re-reading for the sake of clarity.  While such detail can be understood as a positive benefit, it also causes the book to be a very slow read.  Secondly, the book confuses the reader with its overlapping information, which occurs in and between many of its chapters.  This confusion is most apparent in chapters three through five as the author presents in-depth accounts of the Delta Ministry's efforts in three cities, after having introduced the people, activities, and time periods in chapters one and two.  Related to this is Newman's way of describing the circumstances by using the testimony of various persons who were involved at the time, which was frequently confusing.

Divine Agitators is a fascinating and solid history of Christian effort and actions toward community organizing in Mississippi.  Through this work, scholars now have an understanding of not only the dismal social conditions and the level of civil rights resistance, both external and internal, that was indicative of most of the southern states, but a description of the successes that came after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Moreover, the book's contribution to this history is equaled by its annotations and bibliography, both of which scholars will find valuable for future Mississippi research.  Overall, the book makes a strong case to future scholars that the work of other such “religio-political” organizations, which existed in the South during and after the civil rights era, must be made available to the general public.

Said Sewell, The University of West Georgia

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