The civil rights movement came later in Natchez than in many of Mississippi’s other towns and cities but had moments of drama and violence, made demands with clarity and conviction, and ended with considerable success. After George Metcalf, the president of the Natchez chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), survived a nearly fatal car bombing, Natchez’s African American community began a boycott of white-owned businesses that ended late in 1965 with an agreement that stood as a rather dramatic success in mid-1960s Mississippi.
A group of leaders had started the city’s chapter of the NAACP in the 1940s and sustained it through the 1950s and early 1960s. Male and female church leaders and owners of businesses such as funeral homes, groceries, and the African American newspaper, the Bluff City Bulletin, made up much of the early NAACP membership. Activists called for legal and political equality, job training, and improvements in education.
On 27 August 1965 Metcalfe, a union member who worked at Armstrong Tire and Rubber, was seriously injured when his car exploded at the Armstrong plant. The longtime NAACP leader had already been in the news twice that week, once for appearing at a school board meeting to ask that Natchez implement the Supreme Court’s decade-old Brown v. Board of Education decision by desegregating its schools, once for leading a boycott against the Jitney Jungle stores owned by Mayor John Nosser.
The assault on Metcalfe inspired the local civil rights community to call in statewide leaders, especially NAACP field secretary Charles Evers, and the group quickly issued a list of demands: the Board of Aldermen should denounce the Ku Klux Klan and the Citizens’ Council; the police should end acts of brutality and offer protection for African American funerals; the school board should immediately desegregate the schools; the welfare and social security offices should stop withholding or threatening to withhold checks from people involved in protests; store employees should use the courtesy titles Mr., Mrs., and Miss when dealing with all customers; and stores should hire more African American employees. In addition, the city should hire African Americans, desegregate swimming pools and parks, appoint African Americans to the school board, equalize services such as sewers and street sweeping in all neighborhoods, enact new housing standards to govern relations between landlords and renters, and guarantee that all citizens could engage in free speech and political protest without the fear of arrest.
At least two groups of activists were at work in Natchez—the NAACP, which continued to call for discussions with the Natchez aldermen, and younger protesters, including Dorie Ladner, Rudy Shields, and Chuck McDew from the Council of Federated Organizations, who combined voter registration with marching, picketing, and other forms of direct action. Both groups called on African Americans in Natchez and Adams County to boycott white-owned businesses until the city complied with the activists’ demands. The mayor and aldermen, who had long envisioned Natchez as an exceptionally peaceful community, called for calm and planned negotiations with protest leaders but stressed that they would not negotiate under the threat of violence. Scattered violence, especially bombings and rock-throwing incidents, and fears that it would escalate inspired Gov. Paul Johnson to send six units of the Mississippi National Guard to the city—the first time the state had used the Guard since the fall of 1962 at the University of Mississippi.
Street picketing continued in September and October 1965, with dozens of protesters arrested every day for parading without a permit. The city’s jail overflowed, and city police started sending some prisoners to Parchman Prison.
In October and again in early December, protest leaders Evers, minister Shead Baldwin, and businessman Archie Curtis met with the Natchez aldermen. The first meeting failed when city officials declared that many of the protest demands fell outside their control, so the boycott continued, with African Americans staying away from the downtown shopping area. Many Natchez whites wanted to crush the boycott and its leaders, whom they labeled “outside agitators.” At a November meeting of about 175 businesspeople affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, some white leaders suggested firing all African Americans, including household workers, who participated in the boycott. Another group that started in Natchez, the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, condemned the protests and called for Mississippi and Louisiana whites to take part in a “buy-in” campaign to shop in Natchez that would counteract the boycott. Many business leaders, however, wanted the protests to end and hoped to restore what they could of the small city’s peaceful reputation.
At the beginning of December 1965, city officials met again with protest leaders. On 4 December, the Natchez Democrat announced, “Agreement Reached Ending Negro Boycott in Natchez.” The story detailed the city’s plans to meet the demands point by point. According to Evers, “Everything we asked for we have gotten concessions on, and then some.”
The end of the boycott certainly did not resolve all civil rights issues in the area. The NAACP and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee continued to disagree over protest strategy. Americans for the Preservation of the White Race took their buy-in strategy to nearby Fayette. Violence returned to Natchez in 1967 when NAACP member Wharlest Jackson was killed in a car bombing shortly after he had been promoted to a job once open only to whites at Armstrong Tire and Rubber. Still, the Natchez movement stands as a success in the sense that activists made specific demands with the support of the African American community and local authorities eventually agreed to meet those demands.
- Marjorie Baroni Papers, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
- Bluff City Bulletin, 1964–65
- Jack E. Davis, Race against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez since 1930 (2001)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013)