From the Mayor’s Desk: Honoring Tony Byrne, 36th Mayor of Natchez

Published 1:45 pm Sunday, June 16, 2024

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Thursday night, it was my honor to recognize five outstanding Natchezians during our 4th Annual “Kick Back at NAPAC” event, a time when we gather at our city’s Museum of African American History to recognize those who have contributed so much to our city and who have helped in significant ways to move our city forward in the cause of civil rights. Five outstanding honorees were given Keys to the City Thursday: Local Pastor, Elder Elijah Lewis; Musician and Educator Alvin Shelby; Local Barber, Don Gordon; Teacher, Tamla Hughes; and former Mayor of Natchez, Tony Byrne.

Mayor Byrne’s recognition came as a surprise to everyone for, in the four years we have been doing this, he became the first Caucasian to be so honored. His recognition underscored the fact that the cause of civil rights has not been entirely the work of one race, but the work of many, of all races, who have long been engaged in the cause to bring about true equality in our nation – and in our city. As a tribute to Mayor Byrne, I am sharing the narrative of his Key to the City.

MAYOR TONY BYRNE – Athlete, Statesman, Husband, Father and Friend. In recognition and appreciation of his many years of service to the citizens of Natchez, we are grateful to honor the 36th Mayor of Natchez, the Honorable Tony Byrne. Born May 18, 1936, Mayor Byrne, even as a child, loved two things: people and sports. Growing up in a loving home on North Pearl Street, he spent many a summer evening enjoying the simple joys of childhood, honing his athletic talents to eventually become a standout people are still talking about. During his senior year of high school, Mayor Byrne became the only person to win a scoring title in both football and basketball in the former Big Eight Conference, constituting all the large high schools in Mississippi at that time. In 1953, as a senior, he scored a record 32 touchdowns: 192 points. In 1954, also as a senior, he led Natchez to its second straight league basketball championship, setting another record: 716 points. He went on to more athletic success as a student athlete at his alma mater, Mississippi State University. In the year 2000, Mayor Byrne was overwhelmingly voted “Athlete of the Century” in the Miss-Lou. No wonder. And little did he know the teamwork he learned in sports would translate one day into making a difference for his other love: people.

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By the year 1968, Mayor Byrne was 32, starting a family, working in the Natchez Chamber of Commerce, and already serving as a two-year alderman of Natchez. He had been elected during a special election, much to the help of African Americans who responded positively to his speeches at African American churches in 1966, something unheard of at that time for Caucasian politicians to do. Answering a call to run for mayor, Mayor Byrne surprised many when he narrowly defeated a popular incumbent to become the 36th Mayor of Natchez, a title he would hold for the next twenty years – again with much thanks to the support of African Americans who supported him. And he never forgot. Immediately thrown into a city embroiled in rioting and under martial law, even before his first inauguration, Mayor Byrne found himself leading Natchez during some of its darkest hours. Willing to work with friend and neighboring Mayor Charles Evers of Fayette to ease tensions, Mayor Byrne gradually began leading the city in the way of progress. He hired the first African American employee at City Hall and went on to eventually appoint African American citizens to every city committee and commission, and city departments to include the Police and Fire Departments. While his actions angered white supremacists, and for a time he was under constant threat of violence by the Ku Klux Klan, Mayor Byrne persevered knowing “it was the right thing to do”, and he was returned to office every time for the next two decades. In addition to his leadership during the city’s civil rights era, Mayor Byrne led the way for the four-laning of Highways 61 and 84, the extension of Main Street and creation and beautification of Quitman Parkway and Liberty Road, and the construction of the second Mississippi River Bridge.

In the fifty-plus years since his time in office, Mayor Byrne has continued to play an active role in the city he loves, spending time with Annette, his lovely wife of 32 years, his adoring children and grandchildren, and countless friends who continually meet him for tennis matches, group lunches, and time at his beloved Lake Saint John. Words are inadequate to describe the debt Natchez owes to this great Statesman. Now therefore, in my capacity as Mayor of Natchez, and on behalf of our Board of Aldermen, it is my pleasure to present to Mayor Tony Byrne this Key to the City. Because Natchez Deserves More.

Dan M. Gibson is mayor of Natchez.