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Professor visits museum to discuss the Church of God in Christ's role in civil rights movement


MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Among the 1,096 people who visited the National Civil Rights Museum recently was a young college professor from Houston.

"I'm always overwhelmed by what happened here, and what it means to so many of us," Dr. Jonathan Chism said as he stood by Room 306. "There's so much to learn here, so much to do."

This wasn't Chism's first trip to the museum, but it was the first time he'd been there to do more than tour the place.

Chism, 34, teaches U.S. history at the University of Houston. He's particularly interested in African-American religious groups and their role in social justice movements.

He was at the museum recently to talk about "The Saints Go Marching," his dissertation on the Church of God in Christ's role in the civil rights movement.

He was interviewed by Mary Patterson, president of the Pentecostal Heritage Connection and widow of COGIC Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr.

"This isn't just about the past," Patterson said. "This is important for the church and society today."

Not to mention the museum. Chism is exactly the sort of scholar, and his work is exactly the sort of scholarship, museum leaders are hoping to attract in the years ahead.

"We want this to be more than a tourist attraction," said Terri Lee Freeman, who became the museum's new president last November. She was scheduled to meet with Patterson on July 29.

"This is a national museum. We want this place to be at the center of the national conversation on social justice, race, human rights, economic disparity, mass incarceration, and other meaningful and relevant issues of today."

Those are issues that matter most to Chism. In addition to studying and teaching history, he directs a re-entry program for ex-felons in Houston.

He hopes his research on how African-American religious groups addressed matters of social justice in the past will inform those efforts today.

"Dr. King and other religious activists used their intellectual and spiritual resources to come up with creative solutions to societal problems," Chism said. "We still need creative solutions."

Chism grew up at East End Church of God in Christ in Pine Bluff, Arkansas He was ordained to preach at age 14, but decided history was as interesting as theology. His research on anti-intellectualism in the church led him to want to know more about his church's role in society.

"I'd always heard about the major role Baptists and Methodists played in the civil rights movement," Chism said as he waited in a museum meeting room to record his interview with Patterson.

"I assumed that black Pentecostals were 'otherworldly' and detached from politics or social justice, but I was surprised to find out how involved they really were in the movement."

According to Chism, it was no coincidence that King delivered his fateful "Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, which had become a spiritual base for civil rights activists.

Activists such as Paul Robeson and Mary McLeod Bethune spoke there in the 1940s. King spoke there many times, including in 1959 on behalf of a local slate of black candidates known as the "Volunteer Ticket."

Bishop C.H. Mason, the church's founder, wasn't just a prayerful preacher. He was a pacifist who engaged in acts of civil disobedience decades before King.

Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr. and other COGIC bishops and elders led voter registration campaigns, boycotts, marches, and behind-the-scenes efforts to desegregate downtown hotels and restaurants.

"King devoted and gave his life to one of the most powerful social movements in American history," Chism said, "but he did not advance the movement alone."

This was Chism's first trip to the museum since it reopened last year, following a $28 million reconstruction that was vetted by 24 scholars.

After his interview, Chism toured the upgraded and reinterpreted exhibits and found new inspiration.

"I felt I had been given an invitation to join King and other activists and to develop creative strategies to oppose injustice today," Chism said.

"With the likes of , , , the Charleston Nine, Sandra Bland and many others on my heart and mind, I am reinvigorated and energized to participate in this ongoing quest for freedom, justice and human rights."

The quest continues in a museum built around a motel balcony outside Room 306.

Information from: The Commercial Appeal,

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