Agents of Change

Members and associates of Holy Family Catholic Church in Natchez, the first African-American parish in Mississippi, played an integral role in the civil rights movement. A new book by Sojourners contributing writer and columnist Danny Duncan Collum contains their first-person stories of struggle and hope during the brutal Jim Crow era. Here, the words of Rev. Shead Baldwin, a Baptist minister and former president of the Natchez NAACP, which was housed at Holy Family Church:

In September 1963, I had a church get burned down. I started rebuilding that church in July 1964, and then I had another church where I preached get burned down. Along that time, George Metcalfe, who was president of the local NAACP, came to me, and he said, “Well, we going to get organized to combat some of the problems here.” At the time they were also calling our people out, especially an undertaker named Archie Curtis. The Klansmen called him out like somebody was sick, and he went out, and they got him and beat him up. We didn’t start any action about that. Later on, they got two more fellows; one of them was a butler at Kingston mansion. They took him out and beat him up.

We decided to start taking action. So we went to Nosser’s grocery store to try and integrate it. George Nosser was the mayor of Natchez at that time.

A little bit later, they bombed George Metcalfe and tried to kill him. When that happened, we started to get organized. We gave several demands to our city fathers. They had to do with getting black police on the police force, getting other black people working in the stores, and so on. We told them if they didn’t do it, we was going to start marching and picketing and what-not. This was in the last of 1964. They said they would give us an answer at a later date, and, about three days later, they got 650 National Guard members brought in. We decided that we wouldn’t do anything to cause bloodshed. We waited until the National Guard was gone and then we started to march. When we first marched, it was peaceful. The next time, the city put an injunction on us to keep us from marching.

We told them that we had constitutional rights, and this was a violation of our rights. But they said if anyone is out there marching, they’re going to get arrested. So we just told them to get the jail ready because we’re going to be there, and that’s what happened. We went out to march, and they arrested a bunch of people. They filled up the jail; they didn’t have anywhere to put them. They came and said to us, “Don’t do it again.” But we did, and they put them down in the City Auditorium. We had a bunch in there—several hundred people. They decided to send them to Parchman penitentiary. The Mississippi law says you’re not supposed to send anybody to Parchman unless you have a legal court hearing, and the person is found guilty. So they violated that law.

Excerpted from Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, by Danny Duncan Collum. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission from Paulist Press.

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