Southern Pilgrimage

Time of Trial
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Coming up from New Orleans to Baton Rouge—home of the Legislature which has five times fired the school board and appointed a new one, none of which has been accepted by the people—the highway is an ugly one, plastered with billboards and service stations and motels. Later on you come to a long, shaded road, shaded with live oaks, Spanish moss, a bayou on one side with turtles and cranes and yellow flowers among the patches of green along the water. But the town of Kenner, where Father Jerome Drolet lives, is still amidst the billboards. You turn to the left of them, go down a little main street and there, one block to the right, are the school, convent, rectory and white frame church. There is a lovely flower garden around the rectory, with sweet peas climbing up the wire fence, roses in bloom, yellow calendulas, and many other flowers.

Father Drolet had his picture on the first page of the New York Times in December, for joining in protest with a Methodist minister who went out to preach the gospel to the creatures who made up a screaming mob to persecute the colored parents escorting their children to the two integrated schools in New Orleans. Father Drolet, who is the pastor of his church, is a tall, good-looking man with a deeply lined face, still young. I first met him in 1937 during the seamen's strike, when he went around the waterfront collecting aid for the striking seamen in the strike which led to the formation of the National Maritime Union. He visited them in prison and in hospitals. "Blessed is he who remembers the needy and the poor," and they certainly were poor and persecuted that winter of the big strike.

Originally from Illinois, Father Drolet came to Louisiana and went through the seminary and was ordained priest to preach the gospel to the poor. Knowing that the gospel cannot be preached to men with empty stomachs, he turned to the works of mercy. But pastors often complain of the zeal of young curates, and Father Drolet found himself in Houma, Louisiana, among the sugar cane workers and shrimp fishers and cannery workers. (The minimum wage there is still fifty-eight cents an hour, he says.) Then he started a house of hospitality in a store front, opened up an integrated ball park and playground for the children, took in the wayfarer, but soon this too came to an end.

Time after time, too numerous to count, Father Drolet has made his voice heard, and time after time he has been transferred. I often think what good bishops these young priests would make. Being transferred all over the diocese, they get to know it as few others can.

I can see Father Drolet, rising up from his breakfast table, after Mass, after reading the daily paper, and going along that ugly highway to the beautiful city of New Orleans and passing through those streets of such beautiful names—Elysian Fields, Gentilly, Justice, Piety, Plenty, Benefit, Agriculture, Pleasure, Humanity, Desire. I see him standing there beside that intrepid Methodist minister whose house and church have been defiled, whose wife and children have been threatened, whose phone rings with obscenity in the dead of the night. And I am proud of this Methodist minister and this Catholic priest.

The opposition to integration, led by Catholics, sad to say, filled the Civic auditorium. The White Citizens Council takes the place now of the Ku Klux Klan. "It reminds you of the early days of Nazism," Father Drolet said. "They have a well-organized public relations department which provides material for press and radio. And people are afraid, afraid for their jobs. The press reported that it was the parents of the children going to the two schools where they were beginning token integration who were making the protest, making up the mob, but one should not believe them! They were not young parents but a group of much older women from other parts of town, manipulated to make a mob. Everyone is afraid and the police do not stop them."

"There is fear of course of physical violence," Father Drolet went on, "but mostly it is fear of losing jobs. And those people up North who read about these things should look to themselves too," he said, smiling. "We read down here about New Rochelle and Levittown, and Chicago, the housing projects, the discrimination practiced there in housing, jobs and schools."

Had he suffered from telephone calls and violence, we asked Father Drolet. No, but the White Citizens Council circulated leaflets outside of his church after every Mass on Sunday, stating that he was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He and his custodian and his parishioners had tried to collect the leaflets from the windshields of the cars around. The custodian had been arrested. That's the heartbreaking thing about it, that it is the Negroes who are made to suffer, just as in South Africa when the priests and ministers open the churches to them and beg them to come in.

I was told by another priest who had seen the leaflet that Father Drolet was accused of circulating the Daily Worker when he was in the seminary. It was the Catholic Worker they were referring to, perhaps.

 

HERE IN BATON ROUGE I am staying in a colored parish, with members of Caritas, which is a new secular institute in formation, made up of Negroes and whites. We had been with the Caritas branch in New Orleans and had seen some bad slums—unpaved streets, sewerless neighborhoods, and sinking houses in the inadequately filled-in land of the town dump and the swamps. Now we were in the outskirts of Baton Rouge, in a more picturesque section, where the church, St. Paul's, is just around a bend in the road, and is a rebuilt movie house. The parish hall is a rebuilt saloon and it is there I am going to speak this "evening," as they say, though it will be only two p.m.

Father Osborne, the pastor here, has long been a friend, whom I first met at Collegeville, in Minnesota. When I arrived at the hall, there were some of his former parishioners from the little parish across the river where he had been for seven years. He has been only seven months in this parish but has already accomplished wonders.

Father Osborne is a large man of great dignity, especially in his magnificent vestments, hand-woven of raw silk, made in Switzerland and in Prinknash Abbey in Gloucester, England. Over the altar of his church there is a great crucifix, painted by Dom Gregory de Witte, a Swiss artist, who painted the colorful refectory at St. Joseph's Abbey at Covington, Louisiana. There are paintings of St. Paul on one side and Our Lady on the other.

There was a baptism here this morning before the six-thirty Mass, and the tall, young colored man wore a white garment rather like a chasuble, but simpler since it was two pieces of white linen cloth, hanging down front and back and joined at the shoulders by tapes tied. There have been seventy-four baptisms these last seven months. Converts have come from Southern University (colored), as well as from the neighborhood.

One might say that Father Osborne's parish is the first integrated parish under a Negro pastor. Perhaps his white parishioners from his former parish, where the white priest Father James Clement was his former pastor, led the way. The parish covers three little towns, Rosedale, Marin Gouin ("big mosquito") and Grosse Tete ("big head").

One of the teachers at the Shady Grove High School here was staying at Caritas with us this week end, and she told me about a small group of the teachers at her school. When the trouble started, they recognized the danger of violence and loss of job, but they resolved on a course of action. They sent a telegram, also signed by twenty-five others, to the Legislature, which is made up mostly of northern and rural people who are against integration, and said firmly that they upheld the ruling of the Supreme Court.

Since then there have been community meetings discussing this, the latest a week ago. A town committee has been set up within the community to investigate the teachers, and smear tactics have been used. The additional twenty-five signers have been brainwashed, the committee says, but threats are made against them too. The community involved numbers only about two thousand people, which makes it all the more courageous for the thirty-one involved to take the stand they did.

Another outstanding figure in the struggle is Doug Manship, who owns the Baton Rouge broadcasting company and the television station. He reaches the public on the side of the few courageous ones with editorials which come out weekly.

One must not forget to mention Rudolph Lombard, student at Xavier University of New Orleans, which is run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. He was arrested in the sit-ins, and is now under sentence of sixty days and two hundred and fifty dollar fine, which is being appealed. He is a member of CORE, the Committee for Racial Equality. He is a tall young Negro, a good student and well-liked by his companions. There are also the demonstrations of the thousands of Southern University students who marched on the State Capitol at Baton Rouge, and the eighteen who were arrested there.

 

I FELT WHEN I left New Orleans that I had scarcely scratched the surface in finding out what was going on. Then, picking up the paper this morning, I read of fighting in Ruanda and Angola, in Laos and in Ecuador, where herdsmen and agricultural workers are battling the landowners with spears and war drums. Scattered and sporadic, these revolts are part of a world movement among the poor and despised.

Here in America, these educated students are using the weapons of non-violence against discrimination, and we who are writing and reporting must tell of these things to give courage to other isolated groups who feel alone and ineffectual.

The National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice concluded a two-day meeting in Washington, D.C., with this statement, referring to the 1960 Bishops' statement on personal responsibility. "There comes a time, and this is one in Louisiana, when private attitude and action is an insufficient display of just attitudes and of a willingness to do right . . . Give open support to constructive steps forward, otherwise the racist will lead; and if such is the case, the right thinking but silent man shares the responsibility for this evil."

Father Jerome Drolet has done this. Father Osborne has done this, and so have these teachers and students I have written about. They have risked physical violence and loss of job. I have met with these people and without doubt there are more we don't read about in the press.

"Perhaps," said Father Drolet, the "South will lead yet, in this struggle, in spite of everything."

Certainly, and best of all, it is the Negroes who have furnished the inspired leadership of the countless thousands in the Montgomery bus strike and in the sit-in strikes which are still going on all over the South. The imprisonments of so many, the buffetings, the being spat upon, burned with cigarette butts, the ordeal of facing even with their little children the screaming hatred of mobs—all this gives so great a demonstration of non-violence that it blinds us, perhaps, to the importance of what is going on. These are the weapons of the spirit, these sufferings.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

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