COLUMBIA — Organ music echoed softly through the Second Missionary Baptist Church as the Rev. Clyde Ruffin stood at the pulpit.
The pastor would later recall what had passed through his mind as he prepared to welcome the crowd before him — a sea of black and white, young and old:
"Now is the time. It has taken 87 years for all the right people to come together, but now is the time."
The crowd had gathered at the church Sunday night for the James T. Scott Benefit Program as well as to remember a dark moment in Columbia’s history. In 1923, a Columbia mob lynched James Scott, a black man, after he was accused of raping a white girl. He was an MU janitor, a father and a husband, and he got married at Second Missionary Baptist, where he was a member of the congregation.
The James T. Scott Benefit Program was held to raise money to buy Scott a headstone. At the start of the program, Ruffin asked members of the James T. Scott Monument Committee to stand and be acknowledged. The committee formed in September to coordinate efforts to raise money for the project. Scott’s grave in Columbia Cemetery is marked only with a small concrete slab.
Ruffin then led the crowd in a responsive reading. As he read passages about courage and harmony, the audience stood with their voices strong and clear in unison, responded, "We believe that it is possible to live together in unity and peace."
The Lincoln University Choir, under the direction of Michelle Gamblin-Green, gave several performances before MU professor emeritus Doug Hunt introduced keynote speaker Patrick Huber. Huber, an associate professor of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, wrote about the Scott lynching for his undergraduate thesis at MU.
A vocal solo by Nollie Moore, a music instructor at Columbia College, echoed through the church as he sang the spiritual lyrics to the folk song "Wayfaring Stranger" that lent themselves to Scott's story:
I know dark clouds will gather round me; I know my way is rough and steep. But golden fields lie out before me where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep.
Huber's speech focused on Scott's background, details surrounding the lynching and the community's reaction to the incident. He spoke also to the aspect of the lynching that caught the attention of a nation: The lynching had occurred in a town with a major state university.
Many of the participants were students, professors or elite members of the community, despite sociologists' and Southern elites' claims at the time that lynchings were committed by lower-class whites, Huber said.
"The University of Missouri's presence and the alleged student participation in Scott's murder attracted front page headlines from newspapers across the nation and drew sharp criticism from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations," Huber said in his speech.
Huber's speech was followed by a dance performance from Candace Ingram, a Columbia resident, who danced to the song "A Change is Gonna Come."
Ingram began her performance with her head tilted to the sky, a hopeful expression on her face. As she danced, she said later, she lost herself in the moment. "I heard James Scott's voice," she said. "I was James Scott's voice."
Several organizations made public donations to the James T. Scott Monument fund. A general donation session followed the public donations.
Local producer Scott Wilson and medical examiner Michael Panella received loud applause as they explained their successful efforts to remove the words "Committed Rape" from Scott's death certificate. They said the words represented a denial of due process since Scott was never convicted of the crime for which he was killed.
Wilson held up enlarged versions of the old and new death certificate, mounted on cardboard, when Panella spoke about the process it took to change the documents.
“There was no way that in this community what I saw on that death certificate was proper,” Panella said. “We had a right and an obligation to change the death certificate.”
Ruffin then invited Mayor Bob McDavid to speak. McDavid, one of the first supporters of the Scott project and a member of the monument committee, was solemn as he described the disconnect that people often feel to historical events. He said people often feel certain events happen in a different time and a different place.
He spoke about how he was surprised that a lynching could happen in Columbia but was saddened to find that others he spoke to were not.
“The James Scott lynching did not happen in a different world or a different time or a different place," McDavid said.
The event closed with a benediction by the Rev. Patricia McCarty and another performance by the Lincoln University Choir.
Ruffin said no major decisions will be made on Scott's headstone until the committee takes into account the funds they have to work with. After the headstone is purchased, it will be commemorated in April to mark the anniversary of Scott's death.
Following the program, Ruffin spoke of his excitement about the committee's success.
"It's overwhelming to see something that began as a simple thought turn into ... " Ruffin broke off, and then he spoke again.
"Just look at what's happened."