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Bishop Law: A calming factor in tense Mississippi of the '60s

By Curtis Wilkie, Globe Staff, 1/27/1984

Second of three articles

 The series
Part One
In early years, a close-knit family

Part Two
Calming factor in tense '60s Miss.

Part Three
In Mo., working to build bridges

ACKSON, Miss. -- During the years of fire and blood when Mississippi was convulsed by resistance to the civil rights movement, a few people would gather at the end of each work day at St. Peter's Cathedral, a small, spiritual refuge two blocks from the state capitol.

A young priest, Bernard F. Law, who was editing the diocesan newspaper at the time, would say Mass there every evening.

"He didn't have a parish, so the ten or twelve of us who showed up, we were his parish," recalls Frances Boeckman. "There was a marvelous, close feeling. He would deliver a short homily, and we'd go away with a feeling of warmth and goodness -- even though our day may not have been like that."

Bishop Law, appointed archbishop of Boston this week, is best remembered here for the role he played in calming racial tensions. The years that he lived in Mississippi between 1961 and 1973 spanned a turbulent period, and Catholic sources say Bishop Law was instrumental in the church's move to stand up against segregation. He is also credited with organizing an ecumenical movement of church leaders to speak out against the violence that tore the state 20 years ago.

And it was Bishop Law, sources say, who reinforced Bishop Joseph Brunini, a native Mississippian, at a crucial time when whites were fleeing the public schools in the late 1960s. Rather than turn the parochial schools into havens for whites, Bishop Brunini issued an order to prevent transfers for those trying to escape desegregation. "We had to turn down our own Catholic people," Bishop Brunini said Wednesday. "It was very painful."

Bishop Brunini, whose own retirement was announced Tuesday, the same day that Bishop Law's appointment was made public, said, "Boston will be getting someone in the tradition of (Richard* Cardinal Cushing."

Certainly Bishop Law was no Berrigan at the barricades in Mississippi. He moved comfortably among the moderate establishment, a course that sometimes put him in conflict with poor blacks and leftist whites who were pushing for more radical solutions.

Though no one questions his commitment to civil rights, several of Bishop Law's friends suspect that behind his charisma, he -- like Pope John Paul II -- is a natural politician and a doctrinaire conservative on church issues.

Those who knew him in his Mississippi days are not surprised by his rise to power. They say he was always forceful, ambitious and adept at politics within the church.

"He'd like to be Pope,"said one Mississippi Catholic who has known Bishop Law for years. The source, who asked not to be identified, said he was troubled by Bishop Law's ambition. "After he was made monsignor, I asked him if I could still call him Bernie.' He told me he preferred to be called Monsignor Law.' " Nevertheless, the source, who is older than Bishop Law and a well-known layman, called him "smart, attractive and a capable administrator."

Others say they do hope he becomes the first American Pope.

"I see him as a prince," says Cleta Ellington, who has known him since she was a young girl growing up Catholic in a Protestant state. "He was articulate, someone that somebody who was Catholic could be proud of."

Much of Bishop Law's appeal in Mississippi is based on the simple fact that he is American. In a state where many of the priests are Irish, serving, in effect, as missionaries in predominantly Protestant surroundings, Mississippians embraced Bishop Law. In the words of one, he was considered "a bright star among native born guys."

Although he was actually born in Mexico to American parents, "Bernie was ours," said another Jackson parishioner, "just like Bishop Brunini was ours."

After arriving in the state as an assistant pastor at a church in Vicksburg, Fr. Law began asserting himself when he became editor in 1963 of the Mississippi Register (now called Mississippi Today), a weekly newspaper distributed to many of the state's 80,000 Catholics.

That year, Medgar Evers, a leader of the state's NAACP, was murdered, and his funeral spilled out onto the streets of Jackson in a pageant of protest. There were few whites who attended, but Fr. Law prevailed upon Bishop Richard O. Gerow -- then the leader of Mississippi's Catholic community -- to attend the services. The presence of Bishop Gerow, who had been reluctant to become involved in racial controversy, was one of the first signals that the institution of the Catholic church was prepared to oppose the status quo in Mississippi.

In the spring of 1964, months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and years before the public schools in the state were integrated, Fr. Law wrote an editorial that would later be singled out as the best of the year by the Catholic Press Assn.

"For too long we have been wasting time, talent, effort and money in a senseless, doomed struggle to maintain the corpse of enforced segregation," he wrote, appealing to Mississippi leaders to convene a series of conferences to reconcile the state to the reality that schools would soon be desegregated.

"When intelligent men plan, peace and order will maintain. When a society prefers to arm for battle, chaos is inevitable," he warned.

Chaos came to Mississippi that summer. Three civil rights workers were murdered, and the attacks on humble black churches -- which doubled as rallying points for the civil rights movement -- became so epidemic that southwest Mississippi was called "the church-burning capital of the world."

Threats from the Ku Klux Klan and other terror groups forced church officials to move Bishop Law from his home in Rankin County, a rural area outside of Jackson, into the city "because there was reason to believe he might be harmed," says a fellow priest.

In that climate of anxiety and anger, recalls veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor, Fr. Law worked behind the scenes to create a "Committee of Concern," bringing together prominent Catholic and Protestant clergymen and laymen to use their influence to restore order.

"He was a brillant guy," says Minor. "He really brought the Baptists into the fold."

Owen Cooper of Yazoo City, an industrialist and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says, "It was the first time, in my memory, that Baptists and Catholics participated together. . . It was the most significant development up to that time." Cooper said he was a "great admirer" of Bishop Law's.

Rev. Patrick Farrell of St. Richard's Catholic Church here says, "I think, above all, Bishop Law was a catalyst. He was the type of individual who -- almost by second nature -- developed a certain relationship with bishops, religious leaders of other faiths, and civic leaders."

Bishop Law became close friends with William Winter, leader of the progressive political forces in the state and later governor. He was also a friend of the late state supreme court chief justice William Ethridge, whose widow, Laura, became a Catholic convert and now helps Bishop Law care for his mother in Missouri.

When a battle over funding for a program to train workers developed during the "Great Society" years of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration , Fr. Law sided with the moderate black and white leadership in the state.

The bitter struggle developed between the Systematic Training and Redevelopment (STAR) program, which Bishop Law embraced, and another program sponsored by the Delta Ministry, the most leftist group operating in Mississippi at the time. STAR was led by moderate establishment figures and had an advantage in Mississippi.

"The people on the left were pushing for more grass roots control," recalls Rims Barber, who was associated with the Delta Ministry. "We were concerned about the little towns in the Delta, the displaced cotton choppers." The STAR program, he contended, was designed to move workers from the predominantly black Delta region, where they would eventually have political power, to the Gulf Coast.

Though they were adversaries, Barber says, he harbors no ill will toward Bishop Law today.

In fact, the mood in Mississippi over Bishop Law's new appointment is one of pride. It has been front page news in a state that has never produced a national Catholic leader.

When he left Mississippi in 1973 to go to Missouri, his old friend, Bishop Brunini ordained him a bishop. "I never realized," Bishop Brunini said this week, "that I was ordaining a future archbishop."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/27/1984.
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