The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. As the last layperson to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Owen Cooper recognized the need for fundamental changes in the organization’s approach to racial issues. While the nation attempted to build on the tenuous gains of the Civil Rights Movement, Cooper recognized that Baptist churches, too, must evolve in the way they dealt with their black brothers and sisters in Christ. However, his determination to change the old ways of thinking and put those changes into action would require the sacrifice of his political aspirations.
1972 - Like many Mississippians of his generation, Cooper gave little thought to racial equality. He recalls how his daughter’s desire to attend an integrated church sparked a change in his thinking. As President of the Southern Baptist Convention for two terms, 1972 – 74, Cooper recognized the need for churches to be more welcoming of African Americans. He explains the dilemma for church leaders during that time.
As a prominent businessman, Owen Cooper’s work with pro-civil rights organizations created controversy. He remembers how a picture of him eating dinner with NAACP leader Aaron Henry was widely circulated. When Cooper decided to work with black citizens in such groups as Mississippi Action for Progress, he knew it would end his hopes of running for governor. He reflects on that decision.
Forty-eight years after this interview was conducted, the Southern Baptist Convention has made solid progress in the way it handles the issue of race. However, for the nation as a whole, Sunday morning worship services remain the most segregated of hours.