CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper writer, feature stories writer, poet, fiction writer, photographer, and painter. She maintains a blog at https://chrisricecooper.blogspot.com. She has a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice and completed all of her poetry and fiction workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing with a focus on poetry. She, her husband Wayne, sons Nicholas and Caleb, cats Nation and Alaska reside in the St. Louis area.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Civil Rights Heroine Experiences Identity and Black Power
University Of South Florida Religious
Studies Professor Mozella Mitchell considers her identity to be a mix of the
important things in life: beautiful
religions of the world, loving individuals of the world, and friends, family,
and colleagues who’ve crossed her path.
Mitchell was born in Mississippi, on
August 14, 1934, next to the youngest of thirteen children.
Her maternal grandparents were born
slaves in 1862 and at the age of two sold on the auction block in Selma,
Once slavery was abolished, her maternal
grandfather, John Henry Graham, became a wealthy landowner, and built his own
house as well as built a foundation for the black society that had lost much,
including their religion and its heritage.
Graham was an old time Black Baptist
Church preacher, combining African American traditions with the Christian
heritage, and reared his sixteen children in the strictest of lifestyle: no movies, no playing cards, and no wearing
pants for the females of the family.
Graham was able to provide well for
his children and left each of them 40 acres a piece.
Mitchell’s father did not come from
as prosperous background as his wife; but he managed to own his own land only
to loose it during the depression, in 1934, the year Mitchell was born. The family was forced to move up the Delta
and become sharecroppers, which Mitchell described as “the poorest of the
“My father worked so hard. He was quite a laborer. He worked on the railroad too. He had his own wagons and mules. He got in an accident and the mules ran over
him and broke his ribs.”
“When he had a fatal heart attack some years
later he wanted me to tend to him and bring him things; I was like his little
nurse. I was like his little caregiver. He told me that I needed to get an education
and to become a nurse.”
Mitchell’s mother, widowed with 13
children, moved the family to 1940s Memphis, where she purchased a home from
the funds she had saved from both sharecropping and work she and her children
did in hiring themselves out as laborers on other farms when her crops were
“I come from a tradition of strong women. My mother would take all of her children and
hire everybody out to other people’s farms to help us all survive. My mother was independent that way. She said to all of us girls: “Get an education and marriage will come
later. The man simply cannot take care
of you. You have to have an education to get good jobs.” I took it to heart. I pushed and pressed. I was the first one to go to high school.”
Mitchell didn’t wait for marriage
though and thought of marriage as an escape from her mother who insisted on
rearing her children the same way her father had done in Mississippi. She married at 14, but continued school on
through college and graduate school. She
and her husband moved back into her mother’s house when she learned she was
pregnant at age 16.
The one thing that Mitchell took her
mother’s words to heart on was to get an education, which she did working after
school and during the summers and with the aid of an allotment from her
husband’s army career and her mother watching her baby girl while she was at
By the time Mitchell entered high
school, she had read a number of Leo
Tolstoy’s books and some of Dostoevsky’s books such as Brothers Karamotsov, as
well as other works of great literature, and knew she wanted to be an English
She graduated with a B.A. in English
from LeMoyne College in Memphis in 1959.
She then went immediately to the University of Michigan to study for the
M.A. in English), then taught (College) English in lower Mississippi but left
after only one year due to racial
tensions, and returned to Memphis to teach English at Owen Junior College. During this time, with the help of student
loans and assistance, she got her M.A. in English from the University of
Michigan in 1963.
“When Jack Kennedy was killed in
1963, I was Teaching Chair of the English Department at Owen Junior College in
Memphis. I heard the news on the T.V. It was just devastating to everybody. I remember exactly what I was doing: working
on my literature class I was teaching at the time. The minute I heard the news I threw
then moved east to Virginia to teach English Language and world literature and
western culture at Norfolk State University, where she taught sixteen
“When I hear the news that night, at home, that Mrtin Luther King Junior
had been assassinated I couldn’t sleep.
I went to Norfolk the next morning.
Ihad an 8 o’clock class. The
teacher s in my building wer eholding class even thoug the stuent organizaiton
had invited everybody to postpone class and instead come to the athletic field
so we could all express our grief and sorrow together. I turned my class out and then I went lal
over the building and said, “You can’t have class now. Martin Luther King
Junior’s been assassinated!”
In June of 1968, Robert Kennedy was also asassinated. Just like the assassinations of President
Kennedy and Martin Luther King Junior, Mitchell aslo rememvbers where she was
when she heard th news.
“We were driving that night from Norfolk to Chicago to attend a black
power organization meeting. In fact,
there were three or four of us in two cars when we heard on the radio that
Robert Kennedy had been assassinated.
Wow. And then we got to Chicago
and everything was lit up over the situation.”
It was at Norfolk that Mitchell
spearheaded a campaign to include black history and black literature as part of
Norfolk’s westernized-dominated curriculum.
“I led the movement to get all of that established. We were fighting for freedom and liberation
and a piece of the pie for our people.”
Because of Mitchell’s position and
her campaigning for black rights she found herself in danger.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; The
Kent State Massacre was going on. Our
students took over the campus. The
campus was in upheaval. There was
political unrest everywhere. It was a
chaotic situation and I was right in the middle of it. And my students needed support and were
looking to me for guidance to help remedy this situation. I got inspired and joined the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference and was part of different organizations and
different black community groups. I
would travel to speak, be in marches, and demonstrations.”
The FBI made false accusations
against her and served her with a subpoena to appear before the grand
jury. She had to get a lawyer. But despite the harassment and other abuses she
endured, she still continued to be actively involved.
“This whole movement of Civil Rights
and Black Power was so psychologically disturbing that it opened up the minds
of people to new ways of thinking, new hope, desires and possibilities. And it also created an identity crises within
yourself – Who am I? How do I relate to
the world? And who are white people and
black people and what’s the story here?
We had clashes and debates that had a spiritual nature to it. You had to try to get some spiritual resources
to help you deal with it. I decided that
I was going to have to draw on my spiritual roots but that I needed some
Mitchell, with the aid of a
fellowship and financial aid, attended Colgate Rochester Divinity School in
Rochester, New York where she received her M.A. Degree in Religious Studies in
While at Colgate Rochester Divinity
School Mitchell experienced a spiritual awakening when the famous black
spiritual leader Howard Thurman spoke.
“I listened to him in the massive auditorium and it was just
fascinating. He mesmerized you. It was just a tremendous thing. It was a
tremendous impact. I had heard about
him, but I never experienced this.”
“He helped me to see myself as more
than just black and broadened the narrow experienced that had started in my
life. He opened up vistas and new ideas
for me. He opened me up to receptivity
to everybody, to all people. And that’s
what mysticism is all about – openness and exposure to life itself. Awareness slowly developed and cumulated. How do you pull yourself back together
again? You can’t be the same person you
After hearing Thurman speak, Mitchell
felt God calling her to the ministry.
She graduated from Colgate and then went back to Norfolk State where she
taught for four more years. She then
attended Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and didn’t have to think twice of
her subject for her dissertation: Howard
“Howard Thurman was raised in the
narrow background and broadened his thinkign and became a uniersl man. He was a minister, a scholar, a mystic, and a
philosopher. He is probalby the most
prominent African American spiritual leader who has influence dall of our spiritual
leaders, including Martin Luther King Junior and Jesse Jackson.”
While working on her PhD and writing her
dissertation, Thurman invited her to be part of a small group that participated
in a seven-day-retreat led by Thurman.
“I was able to ask him questions to help me
establish myself and become whole. I was
able to finish the dissertation easily with the man himself. I was able to bring it all together and put
Thurman into it and see that he was the pinnacle of black spirituality. I sent it to him and he responded to it and
he said mine was the one that best captured his essence and his thinking.”
A year later,
in 1981, she moved to Tampa, Florida to teach religious studies at the
University of South Florida. Her
students were mixed, diverse and from
different countries from all over the world.
“I had been studying African American
religions and the African content in the black church that is unique to this
country. My research and scholarly study
on this took me back to the Caribbean and Latin America where these religions are
more or less intact there. They didn’t
loose their African religion; but we combine African aspects into our Christian
religion. You have these types of
religions all over the Caribbean and America.”
Reverend Mitchell primary areas of
study are: Literature; theology; African
American Religious History; African and Afro-Caribbean Religions; Comparative
Mysticism; women and religion; New Testament; Contemporary Religious Thought;
Liberation Theologies; African American Religious Thinkers, specifically
Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Howard Thurman; and Religion, Culture,
and Social Development.
are prolific and never limited by time: “The
Spiritual Dynamics of Howard Thurman’s Theology” in 1985; Editor of “Howard
Thurman and the Quest for Freedom:
Proceedings of the Second Annual Howard Thurman Convocation” in
1991; “New Africa in American: The
blending of African and American Religious and Social Tradition Among Black
People in Meriden, Mississippi and Surrounding Counties” in 1993; “Crucial
Issues In Caribbean Religions” in 2006; and the General Editor of the “Martin
Luther King Jr. Memorial Studies in Religion, Culture, and Social Development”
series for Peter Lang Publishers of New York and Switzerland.
Her routine in life is a
meditation: the minute she rises she meditates
and prays; then has her cleansing ritual; and has a light breakfast. She also goes to the gym three times a
week. The rest of her days are teaching,
writing, or preaching sermons to her congregation of 32, at her church.
“The religion that I embrace, that I
am part of, and that’s part of me is the religion that is grounded in me. I can experience that religion in any other
culture and in any other other setting.
Christ is God and God is everything.
When I see the love of Christ, I recognize it in everybody and every
religion all over the world.”
Photo Description and Copyright Info
granted by Mozella MItchell
painting of slaves waiting for sale in Richmond, Virgina.
20 ¾ x
31/ ½ inches
to Eyre Crowe
American Baptist Church at the Silver Hill Plantantion in Georgtown County,
taken on April 27, 1940
to Frederick D Nichols
African-Americans chopping Cotton in Green County, Georgia.
– befroe 1950 all railways were laid and maintained by hand and mostly by
Under The United States Copyright Law.
neghro cotton hoer near Clarksdale, Mississippi
to Dorothea Lange
Eckford, 15, on her first day at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas
to Will Counts
Under the United States Copyright Law
Mitchell on June 5, 2012
granted by Mozella Mitchell
known color photograph of Leo Tolstoy
his Yashaya Polyana estate in 1908
to Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
draft of the beginning of “War And Peace”
page of the 1st Edition of “Brothers Karamotsov”
in MNovember of 1880
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Luther King Jr.
Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated