A Christian voice in racist Mississippi
By Gordon Martin, 1/27/1984
nlightened self-interest should force a young parent to look beyond 1964 to 1984, and then to take those steps and actions now which will insure a more tranquil society for his children . . . In Mississippi the next move is up to the white moderate. If he is in the house, let him come forward. Let him ask for nothing else than a facing up to reality and a constructive approach to better community relations based solidly on this reality."
Those words, written a generation ago, just before the discovery of three decaying bodies of civil rights workers on a farm in Mississippi, were not those of a Northern writer preaching to that intransigent state. Rather they were those of the editor of the Mississippi Register, the weekly of the Catholic diocese of Natchez-Jackson, which encompassed the state. In March that young editor, Rev. Bernard Law, now Bishop Bernard Law of Missouri, will become the fifth Archbishop of Boston.
To appreciate fully what Father Law meant to race relations and ecumenism in Mississippi and the South in the '60s, one must have a sense of the times and of the place of the Catholic Church in the state. When the diocese was established in 1837, there were only two priests in the state and not one church. By 1964 there were 71,132 Catholics in a population of some 2,248,000, or slightly more than three percent -- approximately six percent of the white population and half of one percent of the blacks.
Though in 1964 there were 215 priests in the diocese, Mississippi remained mission territory, 30 of its 82 counties lacking a resident priest. Those Irish brogues that Bostonians heard on the radio this week discussing their former colleague were authentic. Two-thirds of the diocesan priests were in fact born and educated in Ireland.
This foreign and minority status had paralyzed even nominal church involvement in matters of race.
Early in 1963, however, a young curate with no journalistic experience was transferred from Vicksburg to Jackson and made editor of the Register. Fr. Bernard F. Law, who had entered the seminary following his graduation from Harvard College in 1953, did not pull his punches, and the Register's editorials and columns provided a sharp contrast with the racist diatribes of virtually all of the state's daily and weekly press.
One young priest cannot bring about social change or even effectively call for it without a change in the previously repressive atmosphere within the church in Mississippi. There had been a change, and if any one event can be pointed to, it would have been the cowardly shooting in the back on June 12, 1963, of NAACP leader Medgar Evers outside his Jackson home.
Alabama native Richard O. Gerow, bishop of Natchez-Jackson, who had served as bishop of his diocese longer than any other American, broke what one wire service called "a 38-year silence on the race question." His statement, entitled "Everyone is Guilty," appeared at the top of the front page of the Register following Evers' assassination. The adjoining headline, over a part of the 1958 Bishops' statement on Racial Discrimination and the Christian Conscience, read "True Christian Admits Segregation is Evil."
But it is worthy of note that the week before, in copy prepared prior to the murder, the lead story in the Register had been the first part of that 1958 statement, headlined "US Bishops Firm on Rights of Negro." Fr. Law had already begun the kind of editorial policy which his superiors must in their hearts have expected when they placed him in that job.
When Allen Dulles was dispatched to Mississippi by President Johnson following the disappearance of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney, Dulles met at the Catholic chancery office with Bishop Gerow, the chancellor of the diocese, Fr. Law, and a group of clergymen that included two black Baptist ministers. When NBC television, doing a special telecast immediately after the disappearance, wanted a statement of reason and moral purpose from a white Mississippi clergyman, Fr. Law was selected.
On August 21, 1964, Fr. Law editorially noted with approval an announcement by the Mississippi Baptist Convention that it wished to assist in the rebuilding of the various black churches which had recently been burned in the state. Fr. Law called upon Catholics to join in contributing to the fund, and was instrumental in the formation of a biracial interfaith "Committee of Concern" to aid the reconstruction.
Throughout the sixties, the initials "BFL" signing editorials and columns in the Mississippi Register signalled a call for morality and fair play:Aug. 16, 1963: "Real Political Leadership"
"It may be too much to hope that a candidate for governor of Mississippi in 1963 would dare to speak in terms consistent with Christian and democratic ideals. Until the day comes when our candidates can speak out in this way, the course of Mississippi history will be dismal indeed . . .
"Unless freedom of expression is restored in Mississippi, politics will continue to be shadowboxing with the Kennedys or their successors. Until a politician can dare to speak out in clear defiance of the oppressive policies of the Citizens Councils, Mississippians will remain a captive people. Freedom in Mississippi is now at an alarmingly low ebb. So far, no change of tide is in sight. (BFL)"Oct. 9, 1964: "Arrest in McComb"
"At this writing the news is still fresh concerning the arrests of three men implicated in recent bombings in the McComb area. While it is sad to see the depravity of which man is capable, it is reassuring to have effective measures taken against the lawlessness which has gripped this state in fear. (BFL)"Jan. 15, 1965: "Responsibility Needed"
"It will be criminal neglect if at this point in our state history we dissipate our energies in futile gestures rather than get on with the business of improving the educational opportunity of our youth. We need to expand and better our facilities. We need to look critically at our curricula, to compare them with those of other states, and to work, in cooperation with other states as well as private institutions, to effect a better educational system locally and nationally.
"Some view joint effort as a threat to our educational system. There is no better way to insure inferior education than to isolate ourselves from the rest of the nation. If we can appropriate billions for public defense, it is difficult to see the logic in fearing federal assistance in public education. In fact, our national defense demands an improved educational system. (BFL) June 11, 1965: "No Area Has Monopoly"
"It is particularly incumbent on the Catholic, and most especially upon the Catholic layman, to involve himself in the stuff of which today's history is made and to bend every effort to bring the light and the truth of Christ's teaching to bear on our problems.
"There are cities in the state of Mississippi where communication of a meaningful sort between Negro and white leaders is absolutely nil. These cities are potential Selmas and Bogalusas. There is no reason under the sun why responsible leadership within this state and within every community within this state cannot join hands and work together for the future which we must share together. (BFL)"Sept. 22, 1967: "Reality and the Vote"
"It is a disgrace for which all of us are guilty that candidates must, on the one hand, publically disavow Negro votes, while on the other hand, as any politician worth his salt will do, welcome this vote. Any man running for office of governor of Mississippi should be forced to declare himself openly on what he intends to do to make the Negro's place in this state's life what it should be . . .
"Christians have a duty in this election, and it is this. They should demand of candidates that they be specific in representing their programs for the problems and challenges we face. Whether we like it or not, our future as a state is bound up with the way we make real the rights of all our citizens. Any candidate who straddles this issue deserves to fall flat on his face. (BFL)"Sept. 29, 1967: "The Word of Hate"
"In expressing sorrow to the rabbi and congregation of Beth Israel Synagogue in Jackson, we reflect the sentiments of Bishop Brunini, Bishop Gerow, and all Catholics in Mississippi.
"The damage, the hurt which this bombing has caused cannot be measured in terms of blasted concrete and shattered glass. The bombing has spoken the word of hate, of prejudice. The bombing has told us that anti-Semitism is not dead. We may wish to evade this. We may wish it were not so. But it is.
"There is a general lack of understanding of the Jewish faith on the part of Christians. The reverse is also true, but because Jews are a minority, it is they who suffer most through this lack of knowledge . . .
"Those of us who glory in the name Christian should be first in honor and respect for those tied by blood to Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. We need to recognize and root out all remnants of anti-Semitism in our lives (BFL)."
While these quotations from his editorials give us much insight into his thinking, the picture of Bernard Law, Catholic editor, would be incomplete without a quotation from his weekly column, "Of Other Things."
During the week of the synagogue bombing, he wrote, "In all charity it must be said that democratic church policy has often led to a shackled pulpit. When the pulpit becomes a sounding board, even indirectly, for the prejudices of a congregation, then that pulpit is dead."
In another column he cited a former pastor's "sage comment that one is not in the priesthood to win a popularity contest."
Fr. Law doubtless would not have won a popularity contest in Mississippi in the Sixties. His coverage of the march at Selma cost the Register subscriptions, but he was true to his faith and his conscience. Still he had no illusions about the extent of his influence. Commenting on an admiring magazine article in December 1964, he wrote: "To say something is one thing, to have it listened to' is something else again."
Then he was a rising young priest. Today Bishop Law is an established member of the hierarchy, and the same qualities of courage and genuine concern for all people that he demonstrated then should make him an outstanding archbishop of Boston.
Judge Gordon Martin of the Roxbury District Court was a trial lawyer with the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department in Mississippi in the early Sixties.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/27/1984.