Journalist and professor Danny Duncan Collum remembers well the sight of priests and nuns on the picket lines during the civil-rights era.
“It was 1968, the heart of the civil-rights movement. The Franciscan mission to the black community in my hometown of Greenwood, Miss., had become an organizing center for the black community’s boycott of downtown merchants,” he said. “I belonged to the First Baptist Church, and they had ushers posted outside the door to keep black people from coming into the church during services. The ushers were needed at that time because the civil-rights workers would try to attend the churches as part of their forced desegregation campaign. I was 14 years old and starting to have my own ideas. I knew this wasn’t right.”
Duncan Collum’s experience led him on a 20-year journey to the Catholic Church. Along the way he read the writings of Dorothy Day, journalist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and the major documents of the Second Vatican Council. These writings encouraged his desire to work with the poor, first in Washington, D.C., and then in rural Mississippi.
In Mississippi, he and his wife, Polly, founded St. Matthew’s parish in the town of Ripley through the Glenmary Mission. Polly was the pastoral coordinator and Danny, who is a professor of literature and journalism at Kentucky State University and a regular contributor to Sojourners magazine and U.S. Catholic did research for his “Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South: The Stuff That Makes Community” (Paulist Press). The book compiles the oral histories of members of Holy Family Church in Natchez, Miss. Established in 1890, it was the first black parish in Mississippi.
“The Catholic Church had a huge role in creating a core of leaders for the civil-rights movement. The priests and religious who taught in the mission schools in the South were generally well educated, and because it was a mission, had come from someplace else. The resources and connections they provided had the effect of giving their students and parishioners confidence,” he said.
One of the by-products from the U.S. Catholic Church’s decision to start separate ethnic parishes for the newly free African Americans was that it created a place to gather. It should be noted that the Church’s decision to start ethnic parishes was consistent with how it handled the immigrant population in the North.
Many of the ethnic African-American parishes opened schools that were open to the larger community, which also began to draw in converts. Racism was not one of the three R’s that the sisters taught at the schools, said Duncan Collum.
“Many of the guys that I interviewed for the Holy Family book said that the nuns wouldn’t let the students call them ‘ma’am.’ They had to look the sister in the eye and say, ‘Yes, Sister’ or ‘No, Sister.’ This had an effect when they had to deal with other white people in the large community. They knew how to deal with white people as equals. There were no other places where this daily intimate contact took place. This didn’t happen in the black public schools because none of the teachers were white,” he said.
The Duncan Collums are no longer missionaries in north Mississippi, but St. Matthew’s continues to grow.
“We thought that we would slowly build a parish through conversions, but right when we got there the furniture factory that employees 2,000 of the 20,000 people that live in Tippah country hired hundreds of Mexicans who had lost their jobs in southern California. We would have 30 people at a typical English mass on Sunday. If there was a baptism in the Mexican community we would have 200 people show up — which is unheard of for a rural parish.”
This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on July 8, 2007.