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From dean’s chair to pulpit, Ethel Young Scurlock on democracy and how everyone matters

Caroline Tibbs

Books line the shelves of Dr. Ethel Young Scurlock’s office in the Sally Barksdale Honors College. Framed family pictures are arranged around her, and a stack of papers rises beside a corded desk telephone.

Dressed in a red pantsuit, Scurlock sits at her desk, checking her email. She’ll get many emails as the day progresses, a reflection of her busy schedule as Interim Dean.

Scurlock has been a force at Ole Miss campus for more than two decades. She’s taught English and African American studies, and she has held many leadership roles, including the Luckyday Residential College Senior Fellow.

Over the years, she was named the College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year, UM Humanities Teacher of the Year, and she won the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award.

Scurlock also excels at her ministry. She is a part-time pastor of two churches, First United Missionary Baptist Church in Batesville, and Alvis Grove Missionary Church in Oakland.

Scurlock says democracy, and its current challenges, can be seen in a biblical context.

“For me, an act of democracy would be the well-known story of the woman at the well,” said Scurlock, referring to the scriptural story in which a sinful, promiscuous woman meets Jesus at a well. Jesus stops, talks to the woman, and listens to what she has to say.

“This woman was ostracized from other women. She didn’t have a voice with them. She didn’t have a voice in her community. But Jesus takes time,” explained Dr. Scurlock. “He has this conversation with her, gives her freedom, changes her life, changes her community.”

Scurlock finds the embodiment of democracy in scriptural narratives.

“That’s democracy to me,” said Scurlock. “She goes from being ostracized, not having a voice, then after having spiritual contact, she found her voice and changed this community. She’s brought in and valued,” said Dr. Scurlock, nodding her head.

She described her upbringing in Cherokee Heights, a small Memphis neighborhood, as influential in shaping her identity, ministry career, and ultimately, her ideas on democracy.

“The interesting part about my neighborhood was that it was majority black. Everyone went to school together. They made this neighborhood a home, and we felt really safe.”

She explained that the sense of community and friendship among her black neighbors helped her develop a positive identity as an African American early in her life – something she is proud of.  “I didn’t even understand that there were negative stereotypes of what it meant to be black.”

She was also greatly influenced by her parents the Rev. Edgar M. Young and Harriett Young both had careers in education. Her father was a high school English teacher and seminary instructor; her mother a librarian.

“I grew up in a household that was really centered around education, reading, and books. That’s how my parents brought me up. My father was a pastor, and I saw him bring people together with different backgrounds, different interests, different classes,” said Dr. Scurlock.

“The way he had the same respect for somebody who had never been able to go to school, someone picking cotton all their lives, he had the same respect for someone like that as he did someone who was on the TV news.”

Everyone was important – whether you had dirt streaked across your face from the fields, or if you were a clean-shaven car salesman with an affinity for bluffing.

“Everybody was treated as if they mattered. Everybody had a say-so,” said Scurlock. “And that very much influenced how I grew up and my identity now.”

Her ministry work is central to that identity. In 1996, Scurlock moved to Mississippi after earning her doctorate in English at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

While in Ohio, she began her ministry, and her eyes light up when she talks about it, too.

On Sundays, she makes the drive from Oxford to First United Missionary Baptist Church in Batesville for her 9 a.m. service. “Then, we go to Oakland. I preach at Alvis Grove Missionary Church.”

Both churches have small, rural congregations, and both are Baptist. “I just felt like God had been so rich towards me, and I was so extremely blessed,” Dr. Scurlock said of her contributions and successes. “And I believe in philanthropy. I can’t write checks for $100,00 scholarships, but I can come to your community and minister. It was just a way of me giving back.”

Female pastors are not traditional in the Baptist church, she explained. Because of that, Scurlock said she was not initially welcomed to preach in one of the churches, First United.

“My husband was the pastor there. When he died, they asked me to step in and interim, and I actually became the pastor there,” said Scurlock. “It’s been an incredible relationship.”

Many young people at First United have attended Ole Miss, she added. “Right now, I have four students that grew up in that church who are now students at the University of Mississippi,” she beamed. “I’m really excited and really proud.”

For Scurlock, her faith has a democratic, as well as religious dimension, which shapes how she ponders democracy’s future. “The way I read Christianity, I think it’s all about democracy,” Scurlock said. “It’s about people and freedom and liberation.”

She elaborated. “It’s about people who are having different arguments. Paul comes in and says, ‘We believe this’ and then the Pharisees came in and said, ‘We don’t,’ you know?”

When Scurlock reads what some would call oppressive Bible stories, she adopts a “liberation” perspective. Broadly defined, liberation theology examines where freedom occurs in religious contexts.

However, many view biblical times as oppressive, brutal, and barbaric in terms of government structure. Stories of kings murdering their subjects for slight law-breaking offenses, something few people would consider democratic, occur throughout.

On the other hand, explained Scurlock, the Bible does reflect democratic values, like citizen representation and debating, if examined through a liberation lens.

“People go to the temples, and they’re debating. That’s what democracy is. That’s what the whole Bible is to me,” said Scurlock. “People fighting things out and deciding where we stand in the end.”

She leaned back into her wooden chair, folded her hands over her lap. How many times had she preached the woman at the well? How many times had she had to defend her ministerial role, her race, her gender, her democracy?

“I don’t know what the future of democracy in America is,” she said with a laugh. “Who would have ever projected where we would be right now? I mean, black voter participation has gone down in recent years, but Asian American and Latino participation has gone up. Who would have ever thought that?”

White people, Scurlock said, are slowly losing their voting majority. She acknowledged that they still have the upper hand, a hand steadily being lowered.

“Democracy will continue to mean that same thing, that everybody gets a voice,” said  Scurlock. “But those bodies are going to look different. And those bodies are going to shake up some things in years to come.”

Caroline Tibbs is a sophomore at the University of Mississippi majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications. As the social media coordinator for the American Marketing Association chapter at Ole Miss and a consultant at the UM Speaking Center, Caroline hopes to work in public relations and currently enjoys dancing and cooking.


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