In an era of fear, blacks and whites worked for equality

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

Being black in Natchez in the 1960s meant being scared, but when fear turned to action unity wasn’t far behind.

“During the ’50s, ’60s and to a certain extent, the ’70s, the one thing that most all black people had in common was that we had to live in fear — a constant state of fear that came from being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” former Natchez Mayor Phillip West said.

The community had more than its fair share of deaths and violence, but brave blacks and willing whites turned things around faster than in some other communities, Mississippi Civil Rights leader Charles Evers said.

Gathering support

Evers first came to Natchez in 1963, after his brother Medgar’s murder, as part of a movement to register black voters in communities across the state.

Evers said the situation he found in Natchez was different than in other places in the nation where he helped fight for justice as the field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“In Natchez things were a little different — people weren’t as harsh, I think,” Evers said. “They weren’t that old, crazy, bigot type.”

When the NAACP needed a place to meet, Natchez resident Mamie Mazique stepped up to the plate, organizing meetings at her sister’s café.

Small steps that grew into leaps were key to seeing unity grow in Natchez, former Mayor Phillip West said.

“If (Mamie Mazique) had not allowed (the NAACP) to meet, where would they have gone in Natchez?” said West, who was a teenager in the ’60s. “It took someone with guts to (offer to) do that kind of thing.”

Mazique said it wasn’t an issue of guts as much as it was one of principle.

“A lot of people were afraid, but you just had to stay there and remain focused on what you were trying to do,” she said.

Surviving tragedy

The newly organized NAACP quickly met tragedy in Natchez though.

Shortly after his appointment as chapter president, George Metcalfe’s car exploded, in 1965, from a planted bomb.

“(The NAACP) was already meeting monthly and (the attack on Metcalfe) accelerated our activity to the point that we began to meet nightly,” member Mary Toles said.

Their work couldn’t prevent the 1967 death of Wharlest Jackson, though, who was serving as treasurer for the group.

Jackson died when a car bomb planted under his vehicle exploded.

After Jackson’s murder, tension built to new heights in Natchez, and by 1968 a showdown was being planned between all peoples — white and black.

But as Toles pointed out, with the effort to register voters and an onslaught of black voters came a new consideration from white politicians.

Opening lines of communication

Tony Byrne didn’t like the new trend developing around him in the 1960s.

White residents and black residents had a growing distrust for each other, he said.

“I’d worked for the chamber of commerce which was heavily involved in trying to diffuse what was going in with integration,” Byrne said.

In 1968, Byrne — a white alderman — ran for mayor and shocked the city with a move that was unexpected and politically sound.

“I went to the black churches and asked for their vote,” Byrne said. “We won, primarily through the black vote.”

A month before Byrne took office, a riot broke out in downtown Natchez.

According to West, the riot on the corner of St. Catherine Street and present-day Martin Luther King Street started with an altercation between a black man and a white gas station owner and continued into the night.

“(The riot) tore up the city. I was at Lake St. John at the time,” Byrne said. “I had to go back in to Natchez. We got to the bridge and the National Guard was there with guns trained on us, and they had taken over the entire city.”

The riot resulted in store fires along St. Catherine Street and present-day Martin Luther King Street with some white storeowners reportedly shooting at black activists, Byrne said.

“The black leaders didn’t want to meet with (current mayor John) Nosser so I had to go to the chamber and meet with them,” Byrne said.

“I couldn’t calm them down. They were emotional, so I called Charles (Evers). He was in California on the Johnny Carson Show, but he came back in (to Natchez), and we met at the chamber and he got everyone calmed down.

“For a week after everyone was on pins and needles as to what was going to happen next.”

Turning point?

The riot led many local leaders and leading black activists to look for a solution to end the hatred and fear both races were experiencing.

Evers said it was during this time Natchez changed greatly.

“Fear precedes change,” Evers said.

“Finally, we began to realize that this wasn’t helping anyone. We began to meet and discuss our problems, and we began to see that we were hurting each other.”

Byrne said sitting down and sharing ideas opened up a world of insight for both black and white communities.

“There is no way to solve a problem unless you sit down and talk about it,” Byrne said.

“Through talking, we realized (neither race of people) was as bad as the other thought.”

Mazique said near the end of the 1960s, she and her fellow equality warriors began seeing improvement in the community.

“I think (black and white people) were working together. That’s the only reason we were able to make change,” she said.

One of the changes brought about by the open communication fostered by the efforts of progressive thinking leaders in Natchez was more integrated city and county committees.

“I went into office with a new board of aldermen and we started appointing blacks to commissions and committees,” Byrne said.

“It wound up being one of the best things we’ve ever done because there was communication among the black and white communities.”

Of course, while some white residents were ready to embrace the social changes coming to Natchez, some were not.

“A lot of my so-called white friends dropped off of those commissions and refused to serve with black people,” Byrne said.

“It probably took a good three years or maybe four to settle down.”

Evers said while he’d seen his fair share of hatred, Byrne and other progressive-thinking, white, local leaders in place by 1968 helped set the stage to bring civility into the Civil Rights movement.

“It could have been much worse, but because of (Byrne’s) leadership it wasn’t,” Evers said. “Whenever he called me I always tried to respond.”

West said while life was hard for black people in Natchez when segregation was accepted, the bond formed through their hardships and resilient natures brought about a sense of camaraderie to the black community.

“I can appreciate where we were then, where we were in the ’80s and where we are now,” West said.

“It was a dangerous time and a difficult time, but it was also a good time.

“It was a tremendous experience in a way to live through that time and still be living in this day in time. You get a clear vision of how far we’ve really come.”

While there are still social issues for Natchez to tackle, Toles said the city continues to press forward.

“To some extent, Natchez is still a tale of two cities, but I think blacks feel more comfortable now than they used to.”