State’s bishops lead church in turbulent time

In light of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, we would like to share some portions of Bishop Richard O. Gerow’s notes from the time.
July 1 (Wednesday) Jackson – This morning at 10 o’clock our meeting of ministers convened in our library. There was a specially large number of Negro ministers. During the meeting it was proposed that if this group could sit down and talk with the Mayor of Jackson perhaps we could understand each other better. What the Negro ministers want especially is some means of communication with the civic authorities. At present they feel that there is as it were an impenetrable wall between them and the Mayor. They would like at least to be able to talk to him. I volunteered to telephone Mayor Thompson and attempt to arrange a meeting with him; in fact, to invite him to come and sit in at this meeting. I phoned.  He was busy in a Council meeting but he would be asked to call us later. He called after our meeting had dispersed. He refused absolutely to a meeting of any kind. I asked him if he would meet with Bishop Brunini, Bishop Allin, and myself. He said he would be glad to meet with us for a social visit – but not to discuss race. So our attempt was a failure.
July 3 (Friday) The Civil Rights Bill has now been passed by the U. S. Congress and has just been signed by President Johnson. Accordingly, this morning I issued to the press and mailed to all our priests the following statement:
“The Civil Rights Act has been passed by the Congress of the United States. The people of our beloved Mississippi have the historic opportunity of giving to the world an example of true patriotism in a Democracy. Each of us, bearing in mind Christ’s law of love, can establish his own personal motive of reaction to the Bill and thus turn this time into an occasion of spiritual growth. The prophets of strife and distress need not be right.
“Dear Christian, Catholic people, your Bishop calls upon you to accept the action of Congress as loyal Americans and to make a positive contribution to our State by rejecting the spirit of rebellion and by standing for justice, love and peace.”
The Catholic Church was on the forefront in pursuing and speaking out for justice and dignity for all. For more than a year before the act was signed into law, Bishop Gerow joined by his auxiliary, Bishop Joseph Brunini, were in dialogue with the Episcopal and Methodist bishops plus several prominent ministers in the African American community.
This group evolved into the Committee of Concern when churches began to be burned in reaction to the passage of the law and the breaking down of segregation. The Committee of Concern raised donations to help rebuild these houses of worship destroyed by hate, ignorance and intolerance.
These were very turbulent times in our nation and Mississippi in particular. The leadership of the church stepped up in this violent time to remind people of what a true Christian was called to be. Being Christian is not always popular and not always safe, but it is what we are called to be by Christ Jesus.
We offer Bishop Gerow’s notes as food for thought. With the humanitarian crisis growing on our own border with thousands of children braving treacherous treks across perilous terrain in order to find safety and freedom from violence and oppression, perhaps we should remember the prophets of strife and distress of our not so distant past and pledge to heal rather than hurt again. MTW