King anniversary recalls bishop’s desegregation efforts in Mississippi

(Editor’s note: A story about this research project appeared in the March 23 edition of Mississippi Catholic.)
By Tim Muldoon
CHICAGO (CNS) – When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress Sept. 24, 2015, he pointed to the witness of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting that a great nation “fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters.”
As we remember the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it is important to recall the hard work of social change that helped bend our nation in the direction of greater justice. The integration of Catholic parishes and schools in Mississippi provides an important window into the moral struggles that existed inside the church’s own institutions, and offers us lessons for today.

JACKSON –The August 6, 1964 letter issued by Bishop Gerow to be read at all parishes announcing that Catholic schools would accept all children, regardless of race, resides in the Diocese of Jackson archives. (Photo by Tereza Ma)

In the decade between 1955 and 1965, Mississippi was a hotbed of racial unrest, and Catholic schools and parishes were not immune. It was a period sandwiched between two racially motivated murders that drew national attention: the murder of the 14-year-old boy Emmett Till in 1955 and the Freedom Summer (or “Mississippi burning”) murders of three young civil rights activists in 1964. In Catholic parishes, groups of whites threatened blacks attending Mass at St. Joseph in Port Gibson; Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg; St. Joseph in Greenville; and many others.
Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow, head of what is now the Jackson Diocese, had been nurturing hopes for desegregation of his parishes and schools for years, keeping meticulous files of racial incidents. A realist, he understood that episcopal fiat could not undo generations of racial prejudice, and so worked slowly to develop collaborators.
One example in 1954 was in Waveland, where a parishioner threatened black priests sent by Father Robert E. Pung, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, who was the rector of St. Augustine Seminary, the first black seminary in the United States. Father Pung composed a strongly worded letter to the man:
“And what did the priest come to your parish to do: just one thing – to celebrate Mass and bring Christ down upon your parish altar and to feed the flock of Christ with his sacred body. And that the majority of the parishioners looked upon the priest celebrating holy Mass as a priest of God and not whether he was colored or white is evident from the fact that last Sunday over three Communion rails of people received holy Communion from his anointed hands.”
He assured the man that these same priests would be praying for him.

Bishop Richard O. Gerow, pictured in an undated photo, headed what is today the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., from 1924 to 1967. He was a strong advocate of desegregation for Catholic parishes and schools in his diocese but in such racially charged times he promoted incremental change, to protect black priests and parishioners from retaliation. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Jackson Archives via Catholic Extension) See RACIAL-DESEGREGATION-MISSISSIPPI April 6, 2018.

Bishop Gerow kept an extensive file including this and many other racial incidents. In an entry from November 1957, he shares the advice he gave to a group of Catholic men who were distressed at the ill treatment of black parishioners. He wrote:
“We are facing a situation in which we as a small minority are up against a frantic and unreasonable attitude of a greater majority of the community. If we attempt to force matters, we are liable to do injury not only to ourselves but also to those whom we would wish to do help, namely, the Negroes. Imprudent action on our part might cause them very serious even physical harm.”
His position on desegregation was a delicate one, which attempted to balance a complex array of factors and forces:
• First, there were the pastoral needs of black Catholics in the region, some of whom had to travel to celebrate the sacraments and who sometimes faced verbal or physical threats.
• Second, there were the established parishes comprised mostly of whites, themselves a minority in a region that was dominated by Protestants.
• Third, there were men in both state and local government, not to mention law enforcement, who were sometimes hostile even to white Catholics, and so the presence of blacks in Catholic congregations was a further potential danger.
• Fourth, there were a growing number of organizations supporting the cause of integration: organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as Catholic organizations, like the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, or NCCIJ.
In 1963, Henry Cabirac Jr. of the NCCIJ began to force the hand of Bishop Gerow, when Cabirac called for integration of schools at meetings in Mississippi City. Responding to Cabirac’s advocacy that black families apply for admission to white Catholic schools, Bishop Gerow wrote in his diary of July 1 the following:
“My point is this: School integration is going to come in the course of time, but at present we are not ready for it. I feel that the first step is to create a better relationship between the two races.”
He wrote guidelines for sermons to be preached throughout the diocese on the moral demand of integration, but remained convinced that school integration would be dangerous for black parishioners. Nevertheless, only two days after this entry, on July 3, the bishop wrote that he had received letters from two black families requesting admission of their children to schools “which we have considered white.” He laments being in an embarrassing position, feeling that “a bit more preparation of our whites is prudent.”
No doubt the bishop was sensing great tension in the air. Only two weeks earlier, the field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers, had been assassinated, and once again the nation’s attention was on Mississippi. The immediate aftermath of the assassination saw Gerow in a political role to which he was naturally averse.
He had been active in drawing together white ministers in the various churches in Jackson for some time, and in fact had arranged for a meeting that included black ministers only five weeks earlier. The groups had hoped that their combined voices might thaw the icy relationship between blacks and the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. But after the assassination, the bishop felt compelled to make a public statement which he shared with the press.
The opportunity to act decisively happened one year later, July 2, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. Bishop Gerow issued a statement to the press the next day.
“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.”
On Aug. 6, the bishop published a letter to be read in all churches the subsequent Sunday (Aug. 9), indicating that “qualified Catholic children” would be admitted to the first grade without respect to race. He called on all Catholics to “a true Christian spirit by their acceptance of and cooperation in the implementation of this policy.” In a letter to his chancellor, Bishop Gerow describes this move as “more in accord with Christian principle than of segregation.” The following year, he desegregated all the grades in Catholic schools.
In recent months, we also have seen tragic examples of racially motivated hate crimes. Later this year, the U.S. bishops plan to release their first pastoral letter on racism in nearly 40 years. Mindful of the gifts that people of all races bring to the community of faith, and of the need to work towards a just social order, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, said at the launching of the racism task force last August, “The vile chants of violence against African-Americans and other people of color, the Jewish people, immigrants, and others offend our faith, but unite our resolve. Let us not allow the forces of hate to deny the intrinsic dignity of every human person.”
For ore than a hundred years, Catholic Extension has been serving dioceses with large populations of the poor, the marginalized and people of color, and have sent millions of dollars to ensure that they have infrastructure and well-trained church leaders that will form them for positive social change. Our dream is that these leaders will, in the words of Pope Francis, “awaken what is deepest and truest” in the life of the people, and ultimately be the catalyst of transformation in their communities.
During this 50th anniversary of Rev. King’s assassination, we are mindful of all those Christians who have gone before us in the struggle for a more peaceful and just society, so that we may be inspired by their example to confront and struggle with the pressing questions of our day. Bishop Gerow’s extensive efforts to chronicle the important period of his episcopacy remind us that we, too, live in the midst of a history that others will remember and judge in the light of God’s call to live justly.

(Tim Muldoon is director of mission education for Catholic Extension. Contributing to this article was Mary Woodward, chancellor of the Jackson Diocese, who assisted with the Bishop Gerow archive.)

Catholic history in Mississippi goes digital

By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – A little-known treasure hides in a vault in the Chancery building in Jackson. This treasure chronicles more than 200 years of Mississippi and regional history and is housed in a 10′ x 20′ room on the ground floor. In this small space, Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow, who served the diocese from 1924 to 1966, created a diocesan archive filing system still in use today. The good news, this little-known history is about to get new life and new exposure, thanks to a grant from the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL) and the work of the diocesan chancellor’s staff.
It often is said Catholic Social Teaching is the church’s best kept secret, but preserving and protecting records and history is another one. Canon Law requires the church to keep all sacramental records of its members, but it also requires a historical archive to be kept so that the events in the life of the local church can be chronicled for future generations.
The diocesan archives gives a unique accounting of history through the growth and spread of the Catholic faith within the boundaries of the 20th state of the Union. Papers and records in the archives date back to Spanish Colonial times in 1796 Natchez and travel forward through the establishment of the diocese in 1837, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, world wars, great floods, economic depression, the Civil Rights movement up to the present day. Items from these archives, gathered and maintained by Bishop Gerow and his successors are now continually updated by the diocesan chancellor’s office.
Throughout his 42 years as bishop, he meticulously indexed and journaled all the previous bishops’ papers dating back to the beginnings of the diocese in 1837 and beyond, making sure the legacy and expansion of the church in its developmental times would be properly documented.
Bishop Gerow also chronicled the growth of the church in the state by taking a camera along on his journeys around the diocese for dedications, ordinations and confirmations. In his tenure he amassed more than 1,700 photos depicting church life in those five decades of his episcopacy. Many of his photos are of structures that no longer exist, especially in the coastal counties. Although now the Diocese of Biloxi, these areas were a part of the diocese during Bishop Gerow’s time.
These photos capture not only church history but, on a greater scale, the story of Mississippi and the surrounding region. The diocesan archives contains papers on the development of Mississippi’s journey to statehood from the earliest times.
For this reason the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL) awarded the diocese its 2016 Cultural Heritage Digitization Award (CHDA).The MDL is hosted by the University of Southern Mississippi.
According to its website, the MDL provides an online space to search and explore the wealth of materials available in Mississippi. Its board includes digital preservationists, archivists, librarians and experts in the field of history from around the state, including the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, The University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and Delta State University.
The award, given annually, offers 80 hours of scanning of historic documents and photos by MDL staff and partners. Lisa Jones, MDL director, described how excited they were to see the Bishop R.O. Gerow collection of photos and documents when she came for the onsite visit during the application process. Staff and board members were impressed with the breadth of material reflecting a unique angle of the history of Mississippi through the lens of a Catholic bishop.
During the week of Aug. 8 – 12, Nicole Lawrence, coordinator of MDL, and Susan Ivey, digital initiatives librarian, from Ole Miss, spent eight  hours each day scanning 614 items from Bishop Gerow’s collection. Notable items included several papal Bulls, including the decree establishing the original diocese of Natchez by Pope Gregory XVI. Sue Anne Booth and Donna King, staff of the chancellor’s office, worked tirelessly to get all the photos and documents in order and wrote metadata for each object.
Each day, members of MDL’s board offered training sessions for chancery staff on topics including: archiving digitally born records such as emails, texts and recent photos; best practices for digitization, digital storage space on servers and using cloud-based services and prioritizing documents and collections in archives for digitization.
As Chancellor for the diocese, it is my responsibility to maintain on behalf of the bishop all diocesan records as well as the historical part of the archives. The opportunity to partner with the MDL gives our collection better exposure to researchers, teachers and students who are studying the growth and changes in state history. It is an opportunity to educate more people on the Catholic faith and its contributions to the overall community, state and region over the past 200-plus years.
In the coming months, the scanned items will be housed on the MDL website in a collection named for Bishop Gerow. More items will be added as time goes on. So stay tuned to and Mississippi Catholic for updates.
(Mary Woodward is the Diocesan Chancellor.)