Southern Baptist leader blazed civil rights trail in state

By Natalie Bell

Special to The Mississippi Link

The 1960s interracial work of the late Rev. Dr. William Penn Davis is the subject of a biography titled Smoke Over Mississippi: A Journey of Hope and Reconcilation written by Jackson native Oren Renick, who will be the noonday History is Lunch speaker at the Mississippi Deptartment of Archives and History June 15.

Gov. William Winter, who was a friend of Davis’, will introduce Renick.

The remarkable story of Davis is well known in those Mississippi corners where he left an indelible mark. People with whom he interacted in the 1960s would now be in their 70s or older.

Succeeding generations may not know of him. Now, his story is easily accessible.

Renick has written a compelling and, at times, gripping biography, parlaying the insights of a progressive white Mississippian, observing and experiencing the injustices of segregation.

The book was released in 2015 and is based on Renick’s early interviews and writing about Davis’ interracial work, begun when Renick was a graduate student at Mississippi College.

The book is also drawn from Davis’ personal diary, which his widow lent Renick.

Davis worked for the Mississippi Baptist Convention. He also started a national Committee of Concern in the 1960s, which aided Southern black churches that were burned or bombed in racial attacks. His job was cultivating relations and developing missions outreach to black Baptists.

He regularly visited black Baptist churches to fellowship and facilitate support for two particular institutions: The Mississippi Baptist Seminary, headquartered in Jackson, and the Sophia Sutton Mission Assembly, a church retreat center and youth camp, located near Prentiss in Jefferson Davis County. Both are Baptist institutions built through the joint work of black and white Baptists; each still exists, but have since become the domain of black Baptist organizations.

In places like Prentiss, people still remember Davis like part of the family, where he worked with blacks to obtain one of the first federal grants in the country for a Head Start program, then considered controversial.

The Prentiss Head Start was established in 1965 on the grounds of the Sophia Sutton Mission and still operates, though at a different location in Prentiss, under the name of Five County Child Development Center.

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