Remembering the late Mississippi populist Gov. Bill Allain preaching social justice to 3,000 Pentecostals
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
More than 3,000 Pentecostals had gathered under their giant tabernacle in Raymond, Miss., that July night back in 1985. It was what one preacher called an "old-fashioned, God-sent, Holy Ghost camp meeting," and on the stage was Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain, a devout Catholic.
Allain died at the age of 85 this past week, and it brought back memories of that long-ago Mississippi District United Pentecostal Church Revival Camp Meeting.
It was a night of foot-stomping, hand-clapping and palm-waving. Choirs sang songs like "He Ain't Never Done Me Nothin' But Good" and "I'm So Glad Jesus Lifted Me." As 74-year-old Christine Craig told me that night, a man has "got to have the Holy Ghost, speak in tongues and be baptized in Jesus' name" to get into heaven.
"Y'all better sit down," the governor told the crowd as he stepped behind the microphone. "I might preach a little."
Just two years before, Allain had suffered through the dirtiest campaign this reporter has ever seen in a nearly 40-year career as a journalist.
A fiery former state attorney general who had shaken Mississippi's political elite to its core, Democrat Allain was coasting to an easy victory over Republican Leon Bramlett when just weeks before the election, deep-pocketed Republican financiers went across the state in an effort to tar brush him as a man who not only kept pornography in his Jackson apartment but who had paid for sex with three black male transvestites.
The Republican operatives held press conferences and dumped hundreds of pages of so-called "testimony" by Allain's accusers on reporters. Television journalist Geraldo Rivera even came to the state to report on the sordid accusations, which evoked all the ghosts of Mississippi's tortured past of race, prejudice and demagoguery. The Mississippi people didn't buy it, however. On election day, 55 percent of them voted for Allain. He won 74 of the state's 82 counties.
I've never been prouder of Mississippi. The prostitutes later recanted their stories.
"If you are not clapping your hands … I said if you go out there and you're not clapping your hands, you either took the wrong road and are on the wrong campgrounds or you are spiritually dead inside," the Catholic governor told his Pentecostal audience that night. An organ played in the background, and cries of "Amen" came from the crowd.
Jesus "fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick and infirm," Allain told them. "That is the standard by what we must love one another."
As much as any political leader in Mississippi’s modern history, Allain tried to live by those rules. "Many times I sit in my office and think I only have four years," Allain said. "Then I think: Jesus did what he did in three short years. Look at all the good things that can be done."
As a young assistant attorney general in the early 1960s, Allain found himself on the wrong side when he had to represent the state in such cases as segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett's fight to keep James Meredith from becoming the University of Mississippi's first black student.
However, as attorney general and later governor in the early-to-mid 1980s, Allain fought the good fight -- taking on the big utilities and the all-powerful state Legislature, led as it was then by entrenched pols such as state House Speaker C.B. "Buddie" Newman from the Mississippi Delta. Allain succeeded in getting legislators kicked off executive branch committees and winning approval of successive terms for governor (although he himself declined to run for a second term). He also appointed women and blacks to important positions. That includes appointing Reuben Anderson as the first black member of the state Supreme Court.
"He overcame a lot of stuff," said Faye Moser, a 52-year-old housewife from Jackson, at that camp meeting back in 1985. "When a Christian has a trial and they overcome it, it makes them stronger."
Allain did overcome his trial, and he helped Mississippi become stronger, too.
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.