Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Civil Rights Heroine Experiences Identity and Black Power

Christal Cooper 2,074 Words

An Identity In Wholeness

“You have to integrate yourself into
wholeness:  the wholeness of unity,
the quest  for self, and understanding.”
Reverend Mozella Mitchell

“But his life, as he looked at it,
had no meaning as a separate life.
It had meaning only as a part of a whole
of which he was at all times conscious.”
“War And Peace” by Leo Tolstoy

“We been saying freedom for six years. 
What are we going to start saying now is,
“Black Power!’”
Stokley Carmicahle, who popularized the term,
in a speech in June of 1966.

            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, Alabama.

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 poor.”

     “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 laid by.

      “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 school.

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 teacher. 

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 everything down.”

     She then moved east to Virginia to teach English Language and world literature and western culture at Norfolk State University, where she taught sixteen years. 
     “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 training.”
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 1973. 
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 were.”

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 Thurman. 
“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.

         Her writings 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

Photo 1A
Mozella Mitchell
Copyright granted by Mozella MItchell

Photo 1B
Oil painting of slaves waiting for sale in Richmond, Virgina.
20 ¾ x 31/ ½ inches
Attributed to Eyre Crowe
Public Domain

Photo 2
African American Baptist Church at the Silver Hill Plantantion in Georgtown County, South Carolina
Photo taken on April 27, 1940
Attributed to Frederick D Nichols
Public Domain

Photo 3
Photo of African-Americans chopping Cotton in Green County, Georgia.
Attributed to Delano
Public Domain

Photo 4
Gandy Dancers – befroe 1950 all railways were laid and maintained by hand and mostly by African Americans.
Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law.

Photo 5
Feet of neghro cotton hoer near Clarksdale, Mississippi
Attributed to Dorothea Lange
Public Domain

Photo 6
Elizaeth Eckford, 15, on her first day at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas
September 4, 1957
Attributed to Will Counts
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 7
Mozella Mitchell on June 5, 2012
Copyright granted by Mozella Mitchell

Photo 8
Only known color photograph of Leo Tolstoy
Taken at his Yashaya Polyana estate in 1908
Attributed to Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
Public Domain

Photo 9
9th draft of the beginning of “War And Peace”
Public Domain

First page of the 1st Edition of “Brothers Karamotsov”
Printed in MNovember of 1880
Public Domian.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Public Domain

Martin Luther King Jr.
Public Domain

Robert Francis Kennedy
Public Domain.

Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated
Attributed to Bob Jagendorf
CCASA 3.0 Unported

Map of structures, troopp movements, bullet hole locations, and locations of casualities at the Kent Stste Shotoing of May 4, 1970
Public Domain

Stokley Carmichael in the 1967 Wolverine Michigan State Yearbook on page 49
Public Domain

Howard Thurman
Public Domain

Howard Thurman
Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law

Jesse Jackson speaking at the United Nations on March 31, 2012.
Attributed to US Mission Geneva
CCA2.0. Generic License.

Mozella Mitchell
December 20, 2012
Copyright granted by Mozella Mitchell

Mozella Mitchell
June 5, 2012
Copyright granted by Mozella Mitchell

Reverend Dr. Mozella Mitchell and Rev. Dr. Teneramie Jimenez
Copyright granted by Mozella Mitchell.

Jacket cover of “Crucial Issues In Carribean Religions”

Mozella Mitchelle
Copyright granted by Mozella Mitchell.


  1. Hello, Chris. Your article is superb! You really did a good job on it. I will have some time now that I am retired, to do some of the things you requested of me last spring. I will have to try to keep up with you. Thanks so much for your hard work.

  2. Your article is superb, Chris, thank you for your hard work. Let me know if you want me to pick up and do some of the things you requested last spring. I have more time now that I am retired.

  3. This is quite well-done, Chris. Thank you. I hope people like it.