JACKSON, Miss. — Keith Tonkel, one of 28 white United Methodist ministers who signed a statement condemning segregation and racism in the Deep South in 1963, has died.
Wells United Methodist Church, where he had been pastor since 1969, announced that Tonkel died Wednesday in Jackson, where he had been hospitalized for pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs. The church said he died after experiencing a heart problem. He was 81.
Tonkel was born in New Orleans to a drummer and a debutante, and grew up Catholic there and in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He became a Methodist as a young man.
Tonkel was pastor of the small Guinn Memorial Methodist Church in Gulfport when he and 27 other young ministers signed the “Born of Conviction” statement against racism. It appeared in a Mississippi Methodist publication in January 1963, near the height of white resistance to the civil rights movement. It was released three months after a mob rioted because of the court-ordered integration of the University of Mississippi in Oxford and about five months before Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his Jackson home.
“Confronted with the grave crises precipitated by racial discord within our state in recent months, and the genuine dilemma facing persons of Christian conscience, we are compelled to voice publicly our convictions,” said the statement, which caused some signers to be ostracized.
Their statement affirmed the Methodist position on race: “Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that all men are brothers. He permits no discrimination because of race, color, or creed.”
Twenty of the 28 ministers who signed the document left Mississippi for a variety of reasons, said Joseph Reiff, who published a book in 2015 called “Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society.” Reiff, a religion professor at Emory & Henry College in Virginia, said about a half dozen of them “really did not have a choice” to remain in Mississippi because of threats.
Reiff said Tonkel faced anonymous threats by phone, and a man showed up outside his house wielding a shotgun. Some church members publicly criticized Tonkel for signing the statement, and he told them they had a right to do so.
Tonkel told The Associated Press in 2005 that he signed “Born of Conviction” with the understanding that he was committed to staying in Mississippi.
“How can you flesh out a conviction if you’re absent?” Tonkel said. “I thought our responsibility was to see what we can create that would be inclusive.”
Wells Church has a racially integrated congregation in a low-income Jackson neighborhood that was largely abandoned by white residents during the 1960s and 1970s.
Reiff attended Wells Church as a college student in the 1970s and was pastor of another Methodist church in Jackson in the 1980s.
“He was an exceptional person in so many different ways,” Reiff said of Tonkel. “He had this way of connecting with people and had really a remarkable way of connecting people to God.”