John E. Cameron Sr.
was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation
Funding for this
project was provided in part by the Mississippi
the National Endowment for the Humanities, and
Department of Archives and History.
John Earl (Johnny) Cameron
was born on June 11, 1932, just outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi
in Petal. His parents were A.C. and Courtney Cameron. He is
the fourteenth of sixteen children.
Mr. Cameron was educated in
the Springfield Vocational High School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi,
where he was graduated in 1951. He later attended Alcorn A
and M College in Lorman, Mississippi. He attended Rust College
in Holly Springs, Mississippi where he received his B.S. degree.
Reverend Cameron also attended the American Baptist Theological
Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee where his major was social
He has been serving in a pastoral
position for more than forty years. His first position was
at First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. He is currently
pastor at Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson,
Mississippi where he has been since 1970. Reverend Cameron
has been active in numerous organizations and actively involved
in the civil rights movement extending back prior to his involvement
with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Additionally, Reverend Cameron
worked with Dr. King on voter registration campaigns in the
Hattiesburg, Mississippi area.
He has been involved in civic
affairs which included his bid for the United States Congress
Fifth Congressional District in the State of Mississippi.
He was the director of the Hattiesburg Ministers' Project
and served as Ambassador to Central America. Presently he
serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Pearl
River Valley Redevelopment Basin in Hinds County.
He has been cited in Who's
Who in Black America, Notable Americans in the Bicentennial
Era, and Outstanding Community Leader. He has
received a proclamation from Mayor Dale Danks Jr., a proclamation
from Judge Alexander in Hinds County, and he served as a colonel
on Governor Cliff Finch's staff.
Early childhood 1
American Baptist Theological
Churches where Reverend Cameron
was pastor 2
Public accommodation at Weidmann's
Voter registration as part of
White assistant ministers 4
Presbyterian Committee of Religion
and Race 4
Hattiesburg Ministers' Project
Arrest in Hattiesburg 4
First impressions of Meridian
Community support groups and
Interracial ministry 8
Segregation in the fifties 8
Jesse Jackson at Greater Mount
Calvary Church 9
Martin Luther King 10
HIV/AIDS education 11
Current civil rights movement
AN ORAL HISTORY
JOHN E. CAMERON SR.
This is an interview for
the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with
Reverend John E. Cameron Sr. and is taking place on January
26, 1999, in Jackson. The interviewer is Don Williams.
(A brief segment of the interview
regarding scheduling has not been transcribed.)
What is your date of birth?
And where were you born?
When did you first go to Meridian?
went to Meridian, I believe, it was 1957.
How long did you stay there?
was there four and a half years at the New Hope Baptist Church.
Was that Reverend Inge's church?
correct. Reverend Inge followed me. When I left New Hope and
went to Laurel, Reverend Inge left Laurel and came to New
I had an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Inge and her daughter.
yes. Wonderful people.
Yes. Have you ever lived outside of Mississippi?
during the time that I was in school. I was at American Baptist
Theological Seminary, in Nashville, Tennessee. I was four
And what type of degree did you obtain?
of Theology degree, minus one year of French. (Laughter)
So, you and Dr. Kornegay can converse with each other?
The dentist over in Meridian.
You know, he is a language man.
Dr. Hobert Kornegay. Yes. Dentist. Oh, yes. Wonderful man.
He was a member of the church when I was pastoring there.
He was head of the Boy Scouts division of the church.
Matter of fact, he is the one who referred me to you. He said,
"You need to talk to Reverend Cameron."
yes. In fact, he was also head of the men's department, what
we called Brotherhood, and he did a most effective job there.
Now, what year were you at American Baptist Theological Seminary?
was there fifty-two through fifty-five. No, I graduated in
1956. That's what it is. See, I was pastoring in Oxford, Mississippi,
during the last two years that I was in seminary. I commuted
each weekend from Nashville to Oxford to the Second Baptist
Church there on Jefferson Street, right across the street
from Ole Miss.
And what was the name of that church you were pastoring?
Second Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi.
Can you name the churches that you have been ministering to
from--. Was that your first one there?
yes. Second Baptist Church was the first.
Which one would be the next one?
would be New Hope in Meridian, Mississippi. From there to
Calvary Baptist Church in Laurel to Sweet Pilgrim Baptist
Church in Hattiesburg, my hometown. And in 1970, I came to
Jackson to Greater Mount Calvary. It was [Mount] Calvary Baptist
Church at the time. I have been here now, for the past twenty-nine
years. Twenty-nine of the forty-six years in ministering and
pastoring have been here in Jackson.
Did you attend high school in Hattiesburg?
yes. Springfield High School. It's a county school.
When did you first register to vote?
registered to vote when I was eighteen. I believe it was in
Holly Springs, Mississippi, when I was attending school at
Rust. See, I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rust College.
Do you remember what year you graduated?
graduated there in fifty-seven.
Bachelor of Science in what?
science. Minor in history.
OK. Let me ask you this. I want to talk a little bit more
about Meridian. When you first went to Meridian in 1957, you
went there to pastor New Hope. Why did you go to Meridian
and what was your first impression of Meridian?
I was looking for a change, and New Hope was a well-established
Baptist church in Meridian, one of the historic churches,
and they were in search of a pastor, and I was made aware
of it, and contact was made. I came to preach. I think I came
twice and after that I was called to the church. That's where
I met Dr. Hobert Kornegay, along with another doctor who was
a member of the church, Dr. O.D. Polk, who was the first black
to be on the school board in Meridian. A very fine [young
man]. He was my family doctor. In fact, he delivered my first-born,
two weeks after I came to Meridian. My oldest daughter is
Johnetta, who now lives in Des Moines, Iowa. So there in Meridian,
one of the first encounters of racism. Of course, during this
time, you must remember that segregation was still very much.
Accommodation of public places was not over, and one of the
places that I participated in breaking down discrimination
in public accommodation was the historic Weidmann's Restaurant
in downtown Meridian. So a group of us decided that it's time
that Weidmann's opened its doors to the public. So we went.
The first time we were turned away. The second time we didn't
wait for the hostess to seat us. We simply
went and took a seat.
Can you tell me, who was in your group?
that's been so long ago now. There was another businessman
in Meridian, Albert Jones. He was also a member of New Hope,
and he had a business down the street in the downtown area.
His restaurant was on Fifth Avenue and he was quite a live
wire during those days in breaking down voter registration
and public accommodations.
So we were able to finally
integrate Weidmann's which was the restaurant
in Meridian in the late fifties. So that was a success. And
of course voter registration was always a part of my ministry
in every church I have pastored. Same thing in Laurel. We
had to break down public accommodations. Getting people registered
to vote. I even had a white assistant minister in Laurel,
in Hattiesburg, and here in Jackson, which was unheard of
in those days and very dangerous to even talk about it. But
I participated in the interracial ministry out of New York
which was under the auspices of the Presbyterian Commission
on Religion and Race. So a young man came in and stayed with
me and my family in the parsonage.
Do you remember his name?
John Smith. I haven't had contact with him in quite a few
years now. I would be interested to know where he is now.
And then I had another white minister from Illinois and his
wife and three children, lived in my home in Hattiesburg,
which, they were harassed to no end.
I was called upon by the Presbyterian
Commission of Religion and Race during my tenure in Hattiesburg
to be the director of the Hattiesburg Ministers' Project which
hundreds of clergy and laymen of all races from all over the
country came through our office in Hattiesburg where, again,
we broke down restaurant after restaurant. We were arrested
many times. In fact the last major encounter in Hattiesburg,
by the way, my hometown, we were arrested
and put in three different jails in one day. They didn't have
but three jails.
So I spent three days and three
nights in the Hattiesburg Prison Farm, and there were several
hundred men, women, and young people. And that's when I really
became close to Dr. Martin Luther King. We sent for him and
he came and spoke many times in Hattiesburg, until finally
the Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race sent $8000
to bail all of the arrested people for picketing and getting
people to register to vote. But I had it known to the officials
that I would not get out of jail unless all of them could
get out. So that was well established. I was released to go
to Western Union to get the money, then, to bail out all of
the people out.
[It was here after a mass meeting
at the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church where I pastored, one
Friday night I was followed home by the night riders who came
back Saturday morning at 2:00 a.m. and shot thirty-two bullets
into my home. I still possess the French sofa with the bullets
still in it. These bullets were meant for me and members of
Of course, the reason we were
arrested was a bogus arrest, as relates to the charges. The
charges were that we were blocking the ingress and egress
of the Forrest County Courthouse, which was nonsense. The
front door was not picketed. The back door was not picketed.
We marched on the side of the courthouse. But the problem
with that was not blocking. It was because we were encircling
the Confederate monument, the sacred cow of the state.
[In my hometown of Hattiesburg,
Mississippi, I often drove by the university, saying to myself
that one day I would like to attend or speak at the university.
And it came to pass that I was the first guest speaker to
speak at The University of Southern Mississippi to honor Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr., whom I will always cherish.]
Reverend Cameron, let me get back to that second question
I had, when you first went to Meridian, and I want to find
out what happened there. What was your first impression when
you went into Meridian, in terms of race relations and in
terms of what you thought about the city?
was a much smaller city of course than it is now. But a very
typical southern Mississippi city. There was no positive communication
taking place with the races, just one or two very sporadic
and those were rendered ineffective because they had no clout.
No one wanted to listen to any dialogue of any substance at
that time. People would tell you things in private but when
it came to standing up for it publicly, they could not be
found. So, I saw possibilities in Meridian, when I looked
and saw people like Dr. Hobert Kornegay and Dr. O.D. Polk,
Mr. Albert Jones, businessmen. And Harris High, Junior College,
Mr. Harris. Many schoolteachers, of course, belonged to our
church and other business people. We saw possibilities, but
we saw no immediate breakthrough. So it was a hard-nosed battle
from day one, even until today. There are many things that,
not only Meridian, but all over Mississippi, and all over
the United States. Now I say that in the broad sense because
we have not arrived yet. Yes, we can register to vote now.
We can eat anywhere we want to eat, as long as we have the
money. The door is open, but by and large, a great deal of
economics has still closed the door. It is all right to open
the door to live where you want to live or to eat where you
want to eat, but you must have jobs in order to pay for what
you are seeking as a citizen. This to me is one of the greatest
barriers. Many have said that it is no longer black and white;
it's green. That's true, but we must continue to press in
order for the economics and the political structure to take
place to ensure first-class citizenship. And this is what
Dr. King was all about.
Did you ever invite Dr. King over to Meridian?
did not know Dr. King at the time. Dr. King had not surfaced
on the stage as a major leader. So we see how far we go back.
It's before Dr. King.
Tell me, what did you do with your congregation? Now I had
an opportunity to interview Mrs. Polk. She is quite a character.
Really someone that you know didn't take any mess.
But tell me, how did you deal with your congregation. You
had all these leaders, business leaders, blacks who were educated
like Mrs. Polk and the professional community. The Dr. Kornegays.
How did you galvanize them.
during those days, after all, you must remember that this
was in the infant stage of stepping forward to cause people
not to--I use the word very hesitantly--sacrifice. I call
it, rather than a sacrifice, I call it a privilege and a responsibility.
Everyone had their own agenda and you must also remember that
in those days, any black person, educator, or business person,
if they showed too much evidence that they were determined
for certain rights, they immediately lost their jobs. Or even
worse. Many of them were put in jail for any infraction, as
they call it, of the law. No more than driving two miles over
the speed limit or talking about going to traditionally forbidden
places. So Meridian was the infant stage for me and for them.
But the ground floor was being laid. Much stronger than even
the people involved knew what level it would finally reach,
as it is today.
Do you think there was a defining moment where that transition
Meridian was like all other places, while you were going through
it, you didn't see, in a pinpoint, what was
the turning point. It was a gradual process, but like the
song said, "Each victory helped us another to win." We went
from one minute stage to a greater level and it has gradually
progressed to the state that it is now.
Now, what organizations existed or community support groups
existed during this period of time?
NAACP was the most effective civil rights organization that
was truly publicly working. As you might remember, too, during
these crucial stages, many other groups came up. COFO, SNCC,
the Panthers. Other groups. And a lot of people, even among
blacks, did not support them, but I venture to say, all
of the organizations were effective in their time
whereas other white communities simply abhorred SNCC, COFO,
the Black Panthers. They wouldn't dare talk to them, so it
drove them to the point that they needed to talk to someone.
So then, to them, the NAACP was the most sophisticated group
that they could talk to. So that gave impetus, that gave leverage
to the NAACP. Many blacks thought that they were too soft,
but nothing comes overnight. You have to take things as you
can get them while striving to go higher, as we must do even
This is probably one of the deepest interviews I have had,
Reverend. You are putting some heavy stuff on me. (Laughter)
(There is an interruption in
the interview. The interview continues on tape two, side one.)
Today is February 5, 1999. This is the second part of an interview
conducted earlier with Reverend John E. Cameron Sr. at the
Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church. I'm Don Williams. Reverend
Cameron, I think when we left off, we were talking about some
of things over in Meridian and the civil rights movement and
race relations, and I want to pick up from, you mentioned
the fact that Meridian didn't have as many serious problems
as other communities around the state and, can you tell me
a little bit more about how did black leadership and your
leadership, at the time, keep the lid over Meridian?
Meridian was a peculiar setting, in that, I mean, they had
problems. They had many problems, as all other cities in the
state of Mississippi, but during my tenure there, there was
not too much community that was galvanized to the point that
they would have a confrontation. The NAACP was the most active
organized body in Meridian at the time. You had Albert Jones
there. You had Dr. Hobert Kornegay. You had Dr. O.D. Polk
and you had some others there just treading the water of breaking
the ice. Those are the ones that I think of at this moment
who became visible in dealing with the inequities there. Number
one, of course, was voter registration and impacting on desegregation
of public accommodations. And I mentioned in our first part
that we successfully desegregated Weidmann's Restaurant, many
of the hotels and lunch counters, but we still had, of course,
a segregated school system, no black representation on the
municipal or county government and no black representation
there in the state, the House of Representatives or the Mississippi
Senate. So it was barren, virgin territory. But finally, Meridian
gradually started coming to some positive life in dealing
with these problems. And it has come a little ways. It still,
even in 1999, has a long ways to go.
Can you go over, when you first got to Meridian? What periods
of time were you in Meridian?
was in the late fifties.
And when did you leave?
left Meridian, I believe it was around sixty-one or sixty-two.
During that period of time, is there anything that stands
out in your mind in terms of race relations then? Some kind
of defining event that galvanized the community?
a result of my involvement with the interracial ministry,
headquartered at the University of New York, I had a young
white man to come to Laurel as my assistant at the Calvary
Baptist Church, Chestnut Street. It was an outstanding event
that took place when my guest, the Reverend Smith, stayed
with me and my family. One afternoon at almost dark, the mayor
of the city of Laurel came to my home and stated that many
white people of the city were disturbed because I had a white
guest in my home. He and the city asked to pay for my guest
to stay in a hotel. Of course, I refused his generosity. I
then reminded the mayor that as he looked down the street,
no lights were on, but all residents were there and that they
were wondering why he was there in my home. He soon left and
did not return.]
At that time there was no effort
at all dealing with positive race relations. And interesting
enough, I have found this to be true statewide, and nationwide,
you could never bring the black and whites together unless
there was a crisis. They would not talk with you when there
was no overt effort in the black community to bring about
positive change. But once the marches started, once demonstrations
and mass meetings started, then we received word, as it was,
across the country, that let's sit down and talk, until we
reached a point that [we were] talking issues to death without
positive action as a result of talking, and did not bring
about positive change.
Can you recall any persons in the white community that you
worked with to try to make changes in Meridian?
none whatsoever. None whatsoever during that period.
In your church, what kinds of things were you involved in,
in terms of assisting the Afro-American community?
this era, of course, we worked as much as we could at that
time dealing with two fronts: that was voter registration
and public accommodation. Now you also have to remember that
during this period in the late fifties, Mississippi was very
much like Alabama and its governor: "Segregation now. Segregation
forever." And that was preached in the white pulpits so the
white community had a voice and that voice was, "No change."
So you were really up against a stone wall and not until many
years later, did this tone become lower and lower. That is,
defiance in supporting defiance of progress and talking about
black citizens becoming members of the various boards, school
board, which I mentioned before, Dr. O.D. Polk was the first
black on the school board and it was really little or no communication
with black leadership or white leadership.
Is Dr. Polk still alive now?
Dr. Polk is dead. Dr. Kornegay is very much alive now.
Yes, I interviewed him.
Young was also a strong figure at that time and a very strong
businessman. Of course, he had the hotel and he had his cosmetic
industry which I understand he is still operating. I don't
know what level, of course. The younger Charles Young, Charles
Jr., is now in the state legislature, but that was almost
undreamable during the early stages of the latter part of
Yes, I had an opportunity to interview Representative Charles
Young. Jesse Jackson was just at your church here. How did
your church respond to Jackson and his renewed call for participation
here in Mississippi?
Jesse Jackson was received here at Greater Mount Calvary,
2000 percent. This is his second or third time here at our
church and he was overwhelmingly--. He had a message to bring.
In fact, he came to the state of Mississippi to go about many
of the schools, universities, and community groups dealing
with voter registration for the upcoming elections, but I
told him when he came here that he could say whatever he wanted
to say on that level, but he is a Baptist minister, so he
would have to preach while he is here. And, of course, we
will be receptive to any other message that he has. Now, I
want to qualify that statement. To me, there is no good preaching
without addressing first-class citizenship. They go hand in
hand. And that was one of the problems during the early stages
of civil rights when many of the pulpits were silent on these
issues. And to me, the minister who says that he is called
of God, must address the problems within the community which
his membership comprises, and he has an obligation, compelling
obligation, to address those needs personally in bringing
about positive change for his members and for the entire community.
The next question that I have is kind of related to the question
I just asked you about Jesse Jackson. What connection is there
between the civil rights struggle and the Afro-American community
today? What direction do we need to go in?
think that the Afro-American struggle is an ongoing priority
within the community and there again the church--I can always
speak most definitively as to church involvement--has always
been the center of disseminating information for the Afro-American
community. And let me just back up and say something else
there. We are now using the words Afro-American community.
You know we have changed names so many times and I would like
to see us start emphasizing simply quality citizenship for
all people. We can call ourselves blacks,
whites, Negroes, colored, now Afro-American. I think we need
to simply say, "People who are concerned about people."
Dr. King put it ever so eloquently,
and of course the Bible validates it. You scratch
beneath the skin and you will find only red blood. And I think--no,
I do not think, I know, that the Bible
states that out of one blood all nations are here. And interesting
enough, when I did extensive touring in the Middle East, the
Holy Land and further east of there, and I retraced the journeys
of St. Paul, where I came into Turkey and Greece, and right
there near the Nile or the Euphrates River of Iraq and the
Bible tells us that the cradle of civilization took
place at the intersection of the Nile and the Euphrates River
in the center of Africa. Now, you tell me, if this is where
God created Adam, then if Adam was not a black man, then why
did He go to the heart of Africa to start His prize creation?
Yes, in the Afro-American community, we must continue to be
about the business of in-depth action in bringing about the
change of nothing less than first-class citizenship for all
people, and I am developing a sermon now, on the future is
You just quoted a statement by Dr. King. Did you ever meet
yes, yes. Many, many times. I was with him on the famous march
on Washington, when he gave that famous speech there. In fact,
I coordinated the Department of Transportation for Nashville,
Tennessee, to go to Washington. When I was in jail in my hometown,
I sent for Dr. King, and he came and supported the Ministers'
Project which I was directing in Hattiesburg and he encouraged
the Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race. They are
the ones who put up the $8000 to bail out many ministers and
laymen who were incarcerated in Hattiesburg. So, yes, we were
a part of the same convention, the Progressive National Baptist
Convention. I have supported him. His children and my children
grew up around the same time, so I knew Dr. King Jr., his
father, his mother, and all of his children.
Well, I want to thank you for the interview, Reverend Cameron.
But I would like to ask you one last question: where do you
think we need to go or do you have anything to add that you
think is important that we didn't cover?
I would like to close by saying, inasmuch as you have asked
about our past, and our involvement, then you perhaps want
to know what we are about now, in 1999. Just to close out
some past activities, during the late seventies, here at our
church, in 1972, we were able to get our church chartered
as a nonprofit corporation by the state. And with that, we
were able to write a proposal and secured funding through
the city of Jackson which was under the umbrella of CETA.
And we wrote a proposal dealing with adult education. We were
funded for about three years, or maybe four years, thereabouts.
And that was during President Reagan's administration, and
we were funded, and our first year, Greater Mount Calvary
Community Development Agency was number one in the nation
under the umbrella of adult education. During this funding
period, we were able to graduate over 600 people who received
their certified high school diploma. They could take this
diploma and go to any university in the nation. My faculty
were certified by the state department of education, two that
I know about have gone on and received their Ph.D. Now, after
that success, of course, President Reagan killed the funding
for CETA nationwide. You've always got programs that work,
they are cut or completely rendered ineffective by funding.
So we went on from there and currently here at the church
we are operating a grant that we received from the State Department
of Health. We are now operating a sister-to-sister program
dealing with HIV and AIDS among Afro-American women ages eighteen
and up. We must address this issue in saving lives, educating
people as to the dangers of promiscuity and how to preserve
their own lives, that they are able to teach that to their
daughters and to their sons about this dread disease that
is simply wrecking our community and causing needless deaths
to take place. So we are currently addressing this need. It
is now sister-to-sister. I will do a proposal with my team
to deal with brother-to-brother and after the success of that
program, we hope to deal with the broader perspective, inclusive
of black and white participation because AIDS is in everybody's
community. AIDS is in every race. So the whole community needs
to be educated as to this dread disease. As you know, there
is no cure and we hope to address that. To me, this is an
extension of the ministry of the church.
Can you expound upon what it is that you are doing today that
has a connection with some specific programs like you just
mentioned to conclude the civil rights movement in a new direction.
the civil rights movement, we hear people say so often, during
the civil rights era. I want to put a statement there that
the civil rights movement is ongoing, and it did not have
a starting point and an ending point. It is ongoing because
there are many inequities still evident across the nation.
We still have job discrimination. We still have people who
are getting jobs who are not nearly as qualified as blacks
and minorities. This is a big problem that must be addressed
and vigorously addressed. And I also may add, inasmuch as
Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials
than any state in the union, I now call upon our black elected
officials to become increasingly responsible to this mandate.
Not just simply be happy that they have a job, but we are
expecting quality as a result of our struggles to get them
there. Now we want to see them give us the benefits of this
struggle. It is now incumbent that they show that they are
worthy of their position. That they are worthy of the sacrifices
that have been made and not become at ease in Zion and to
become career politicians to cover themselves as individuals
but not to forget those who suffered to get them to the level
of living that they are in now.
So let me ask you this: how do you ensure or maintain accountability?
If you elect someone to office, how do you go about--
personally will do this: if I give my support to any candidate,
whether it's black or white, and they fail to measure up to
that, I will work just as hard to get them replaced.
And how important is the role of the black church in politics?
is no real credence to the statement separation of church
and state. To me they are one. If anyone has any doubt on
that, let me take them to the Bible. When Jesus'
disciples asked Jesus, "It is time to pay taxes. What are
we going to do about an evil government?"
Jesus simply told the disciples
to, "Go down to the water and catch the first fish and open
his mouth, you will find money there. Take that and go pay
your taxes." Jesus advocates good citizenship. He never advocated
not paying your taxes. Our problem today is that we are being
taxed without proper representation. So the church and state
must work together for the good of all.
Well, Reverend Cameron, I want to thank you for this interview,
it has been very enlightening, and I think that the information
that you imparted will be significant for students and researchers
and to race relations and sociology and even theology.
It has been quite enlightening and I just want to thank you.
Tougaloo College and The University of Southern Mississippi
appreciate your taking time to impart this information to
would like to just close out by saying I trust that many of
our Afro-American young people will never forget that Tougaloo
College and Rust College, my alma mater, are some of the finest
institutions in this land, that are worthy of your attendance
and graduation. And never forget from whence they have come.
Thank you so much for the interview.