Historic march, jailing will be remembered in project
NATCHEZ — On Oct. 2, 1965, hundreds of black Natchez and Adams County residents were forced onto buses by law enforcement officers and taken to Parchman Penitentiary, where they were detained — some for days, some longer — and endured unspeakable treatment and conditions.
Their crime: Walking the streets of Natchez in protest of being denied their Constitutional right to register to vote, said Darrell White, director of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.
“They were never charged with any crime. They never saw a judge or a magistrate. They were arrested and sent directly to the penitentiary,” White said.
Hundreds more were detained in the Natchez City Auditorium and in overflowing area jails.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of this event, the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American History and Culture has earned a $1,500 grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council to document the “Parchman Ordeal” through an oral history project.
“We’ve already been in contact with a number of survivors of the incident,” White said. “We are still compiling names and getting in touch with folks.”
The Parchman Ordeal project will become part of the state’s oral history archives, which currently resides at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The protest in Natchez followed the atrocities that occurred on and following Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., in March 1965.
The beatings and killings in Selma during and after marches that followed Bloody Sunday, pressured Lyndon Johnson to push through Congress the Voting Rights Act of 1965, White said.
“The impact in Natchez was, even though the voting rights act had been enacted by the federal government, people were still having difficulty being able to register to vote in Adams County,” he said.
Former Natchez Mayor Tony Byrne, who in 1965 worked for the chamber of commerce in Natchez, recalls the mood at the time as one of fear and confusion.
“We, the business community at the time, didn’t know what to do. No one had ever been confronted with anything like this before. We had no history of protests here. We didn’t even know what civil rights were,” Byrne said.
The Natchez chapter of the NAACP was then under the leadership of George Metcalfe, who with the support of Charles Evers, was organizing the Natchez community to be able to “exercise the rights that had been granted them by way of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” White said.
On Aug. 27, 1965, Metcalfe was a victim of a car bombing when his car exploded as he got in it to leave after his shift at Armstrong Tire and Rubber Co.
“His bombing further galvanized the community,” he said.
Plans were being made to take to the streets in protest. However, the City of Natchez had enacted legislation forbidding people from marching through the streets.
“As folks gathered at various black churches throughout the community, plans were to come together at some point on the route and march to the county courthouse. We’re still trying to get clarification on the details of how the marchers were corralled and taken to the city auditorium,” White said. “March protesters had no intention of going to the city auditorium.”
Once at the auditorium, marchers were arrested for parading without a permit.
“Arrangements were made in advance for people to be held at Parchman. We are still working on exact figures of exactly how many protesters from Natchez were taken there, but I have seen and have copies of hundreds of arrest records from Parchman for that day. It was busloads of folks that were transported there,” White said.
The Natchez detainees were held in the maximum-security portion of Parchman and forced to endure maximum-security protocol.
“By that time, the folks at Parchman had extensive experience on how to handle civil rights workers, thanks to the Freedom Riders who began coming into Mississippi in 1961. By 1965, the people at Parchman had their routine down,” he said.
Some of the protesters spent two nights and three days in Parchman. Others spent longer and were not released until they or their families could come up with “bond” money.
“A part of what I am learning, which I still find mind boggling, is that some were held until they could be bonded out. If they never went before a magistrate at all and were never charged with a crime, where did the bonding come in? How did it come in? It doesn’t add up,” he said.
Byrne was elected to the Natchez Board of Aldermen in 1966 and became mayor of Natchez in 1968.
“In 1968, the city was still defending lawsuits filed by some of those who were sent to Parchman,” Byrne said. “Joe Zuccaro was city attorney at the time and had to defend them.”
Also in 1965 was the boycott of downtown merchants by the black community, which Byrne said killed many downtown businesses, “including my family business, H.F. Byrne. It never recovered from that time,” he said.
In October, the community will have an opportunity to come together with survivors of the Parchman Ordeal and their families to acknowledge the event and their sacrifices.
“Many of those who endured that experience 50 years ago still carry the pain and burden of what they experienced,” White said. “The oral history project is so we can document in their own words their experiences and feelings about what they endured then. Just to hear some of the details will bring tears and concern to any sensible mind.
“As our community prepares for its tricentennial, we should not neglect the opportunity to finally put some of the dark chapters of our past to rest by honoring those who stepped forward when others were thinking backward. These people took a tremendous personal sacrifice and no one has officially acknowledged the fact that they endured that abuse, which is why it has continued to be painful for the African American community in Natchez,” White said.
Any surviving participant of the protest march in Natchez in October 1965 or family member who participated, who wishes to be included in the project is encouraged to call White at 601-445-0728 for more information.