Divine Agitators
The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi

Mark Newman

The first full-length history of one of the largest and most enduring civil rights organizations in


"Divine Agitators fills an important gap in the historiography of the civil rights movement in Mississippi and provides a fascinating view of one of the most controversial organizations in the state. Anyone interested in the civil rights movement, in the history of Mississippi, and in the southern and American religion will profit from Newman's work."
—Randy Sparks, author of Religion in Mississippi

"In his meticulously researched study, Newman explains how the Delta Ministry was simultaneously co-architect, product, symbol, and ultimately victim of the African American freedom struggle in Mississippi from the optimistic zenith of activism in the 1960s to the uncertainties and disappointments of the 1970s. As he unravels the complex, often bittersweet tale of the Ministry's relationship to the evolving civil rights and black power struggles, Newman apportions credit for its successes and blame for its failures in a thoroughly judicious and evenhanded manner. Consequently, not only is Divine Agitators an important contribution to our understanding of how religious ideals and practically minded faith-based organizations influenced the Mississippi freedom struggle, but it also represents a sophisticated and respectful corrective to the relentlessly celebratory accounts of the Movement that still dominate civil rights historiography. It is an impressive piece of scholarship."
—Brian Ward, author of Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations

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The National Council of Churches established the Delta Ministry in 1964 to further the cause of civil rights in Mississippi—the southern state with the largest black population proportionately and with the stiffest level of white resistance. At its height the Ministry, which was headquartered in Greenville, had the largest field staff of any civil rights organization in the South. Active through the mid-1970s, the Ministry outlasted SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC in Mississippi, helping to fill the vacuums when these organizations fell apart or refocused their energies.

In this first book-length study of the Delta Ministry, Mark Newman tells how the organization conducted literacy, citizenship, and vocational training. He documents the Ministry's role in fostering the growth of Head Start and community-based health care and in widening the distribution of free surplus federal food and food stamps.

Newman discusses, among other Ministry successes, the Delta Foundation, which created jobs by channeling grant money to small businesses that could not secure bank loans. At the same time, he details the Ministry's problems from its chronic underfunding to its uneasy relationship with the Mississippi NAACP, which pursued civil rights objectives through less confrontational methods. Newman examines the Freedomcrafts manufacturing cooperative and other ministry failures, as well as mixed efforts such as Freedom City, a collective agricultural and manufacturing community built by displaced agricultural workers.

Divine Agitators looks at many inadequately studied events across a time span that extends beyond the widely accepted end dates of the civil rights movement. It offers new insights, at the most local levels of the movement, into conflict within and between civil rights groups, the increasing subtlety of white resistance, the disengagement of the federal government, and the rise of Black Power.

Page count: 376 pp.
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25


List price: $30.95

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Mark Newman is a reader in history at the University of Edinburgh. He won the Southern Regional Council's Lillian Smith Book Award for Getting Right with God.