Aug. 27 a shameful anniversary for Natchez

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 28, 2021

Friday was the anniversary of one of the saddest and most shameful days in our city’s history.

Jerry Mitchell, the long-time, award-winning reporter for the Clarion-Ledger and investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, reminded his Facebook followers with a post about what happened in Natchez on Aug. 27, 1965.

“On this day in 1965: Natchez NAACP President George Metcalfe had been so successful in leading voter registration efforts that more than 8,000 Black Mississippians had been added to the voting rolls,” Mitchell wrote in his post.

Metcalfe had also petitioned the school board to integrate the schools, he wrote.

Mitchell wrote, “Members of the Ku Klux Klan, some of whom worked with Metcalfe at the Armstrong Tire plant at Natchez, decided to attack him, planting a bomb inside his car. When he turned on the engine, the bomb exploded.

“The phone rang at the NAACP office with news that Metcalfe had been killed, but it was a lie,” he wrote. “He miraculously survived.”

According to Mitchell, more than 1,000 people lined the streets in Natchez. The Deacons of Defense came in and provided protection for African Americans in the area, he said.

Mitchell wrote The Silver Dollar Group was believed to be responsible for the assassination attempt.

No one was ever charged.

Mitchell wrote, “The day after the bombing, Black leaders presented demands to city officials, calling for them to denounce the KKK, desegregate schools and other public facilities, use courtesy titles such as Mr. and Mrs. with Black men and women and appoint Black members to the school board.”

Those changes helped pave the way for change in Natchez, he wrote.

I was three years old at the time, and remember none of it, of course. The first time I heard about this hateful event was reading Greg Iles’ first Natchez novel, and never heard of the Silver Dollar Group until reading one of his later novels. (Greg, we’re all waiting for another book.)

I do recall after the Christmas break of my first grade year at Montebello, which I think would have been in January 1968, my mother taking my hand and walking me into my classroom. That’s not something she did regularly. Typically, she would just drop us off and leave. On this day, she parked and walked me inside and walked my little brother, Bubba, to his kindergarten class.

On the corner of the school property, a handful of protesters carried signs. I asked my mother what was going on and she just told me it wasn’t anything to worry about.

I had a new first-grade teacher after the Christmas break. Her name was Mrs. Bobbie Ridley and she was Black. She taught me to read and write and was one of my most beloved teachers. The next year, she taught Bubba, and those two adored each other for many years. She kept up with him until well after he graduated from high school.

I was fortunate enough to have been taught by excellent Black teachers in the Natchez-Adams public school system throughout my education, who to this day hold special places in my heart — Georgia Scott, Mrs. Smith, Mr. Scott, Mr. Oliver, Ophelia Nelson. Oh, Mrs. Nelson! I am so ashamed I cannot remember some of their names.

What I never thought about is, what was it like for them? I don’t know what they went through during that difficult time, but they handled it with strength and dignity.

Thinking back on it, I am proud of my parents, too, who did not see desegregation as something terrible, but rather something which time had come, something that made us stronger and better. It surely did that.

Hate and terror never got us anywhere.

One would think we would have learned that lesson by now.

Jan Griffey is editor of The Natchez Democrat. You may reach her at jan.griffey@natchezdemocrat.com.