In 1964, the value of a black man's life weighed on the minds of a handful of white people daring enough to speak out and take a stand at a time of widespread Klan violence against blacks and the white people who supported Civil Rights.
One who did both was Marge Baroni, a 40-year-old white activist from Natchez who was upset when the local Catholic priest failed to stand before his congregation and preach against the murder of a black man in Ferriday. Frank Morris died on Dec. 14, 1964, four days after his shoe shop was set on fire while he was still inside.
A three-year Sentinel investigation indicates Morris, 51, was killed as a result of a Klan/law enforcement conspiracy. His murder case, investigated by the FBI in the mid-1960s, was reopened by the bureau in 2007 and remains active today.
Marge Baroni died in 1986, but left behind essays, notes and other documents which provide a behind-the-scenes history of the Civil Rights era in Natchez. In one essay, Baroni recalled when news reached Natchez that Morris "was held at gunpoint by Klansmen while their henchmen set his little shoe shop afire." She wrote that his attackers also set Morris on fire before "they let him run."
By then, she wrote, "It was too late when he ran for help. The flames had already nearly burned him to death."
Baroni's observations on the Morris case are part of a collection of her writing housed at the University of Mississippi. She wrote that after a year of Klan-related beatings, arsons and murders on both sides of the Mississippi River in 1964, she "begged" Monsignor Thomas Fullam, pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in Natchez, to "preach about it." Her heartsick emotional state was fueled by the actions and words of many, including George Metcalfe, President of the Natchez NAACP who survived a carbombing in 1965 only to see his best friend, Wharlest Jackson, killed by a carbomb in 1967.
Baroni wrote that as the Natchez NAACP emerged from the underground in 1964, Metcalfe attempted to reach out to the white community: "He wanted so desperately to let the white community know that it had nothing to fear from giving the Negro a better education and the right to vote."
Often, she said, Metcalfe asked her: "Why do they hate us so?"
She said she "had to confess I simply did not know." Not long before she died, she lamented in an essay that she still couldn't answer the question.
With such concerns fresh on her mind, Baroni was offended when, instead of preaching about the Morris murder, Father Fullam told her: "He (Morris) asked for baptism before he died." Baroni wrote that she was shocked at the remark, which "was not alleviated when I learned that Monsignor did indeed preach on the subject (of Morris' death) -- to the nuns at the six a.m. Mass."
Susan Stevenot Sullivan of Atlanta, Ga., who played a major role in the late 1990s in the research, collection and placement of Baroni's papers in Special Collections at the University of Mississippi, said Baroni's written comments "illustrated the reality she found so tragic. The priest assures her that the reception of the sacrament of baptism administered to the dying victim is evidence of religious concern for his soul and eternal life. But the practice of the same faith is not extended to preaching from the pulpit to those gathered each Sunday about the evil actions which took his life."
Sullivan, who is writing a book on Baroni's life, is a former reporter and editor who is now Director of Parish & Social Justice ministries for Catholic Charities in Atlanta. She never met Marge Baroni, but met with Louis Baroni, her husband, who subsequently gave her permission to check through his late wife's papers and possessions.
Sullivan explained that Marge Baroni was upset that "the practice of the same faith is not extended to preaching from the pulpit to those gathered each Sunday about the evil actions which took his (Morris') life. The fact that the parish priest evidently did preach about the murder to some of the nuns who taught at the Catholic school (in Natchez) showed he understood the importance of speaking out, yet it was too dangerous to do so to the congregation at large. This is an example of what Marge commented on -- that it was acceptable only to quote the Bible, to privately lament the criminal acts and racial discrimination, but not to do anything about it, not to live the love of God and neighbor in public, daily life."
Baroni grew up in Adams County, said Sullivan, "the eldest daughter of a white sharecropping family in Mississippi. I think her childhood played a critical role in her understanding of victimization and racism. Later, her religious conversion further strengthened her empathetic understanding of God's love as applied to equality and human relations, which was then nearly shattered with disillusionment at the lack of religious integrity she observed and experienced."
Baroni, however, indicated that Father Fullam's comments on Morris requesting baptism was the only time she was upset with him because he was a man she admired.
"Years later I could sympathize with him," she wrote, "because I had come to see what a great responsibility he had. He was considered the most powerful...deeply spiritual man in the community. But he had to toe the line, had to be careful not to further alienate the white men and women in the parish who were already almost consumed with hatred."
Baroni credited Fullam, who died in 1993, with integrating the white Catholic school a year before local public schools were integrated in 1966. She said because of community respect for him "the Cathedral was not bombed."
But Baroni raised a question still unanswered: Did Frank Morris, who friends and family say was a member of the Mercy Seat Baptist Church in Ferriday, request baptism as he lay dying in a hospital room in Ferriday?
Two Catholic priests visited with Morris during his final hours -- Father August Thompson, who was then priest at St. Charles in Ferriday, a Catholic church for blacks, and Father John Gayer, who was then priest at St. Patrick's in the white part of town.
Gayer, a white priest, is dead. Thompson, who is black and retired, lives in Rapides Parish.
"I am just surprised that this is the first time I am hearing this," said Thompson on the baptism issue. "I talked to Frank the morning after the fire. He asked me to come back and see him and I told him I would. Yet, I knew I was going to leave for New Orleans and not be back until late the next night."
Father Gayer accompanied Father Thompson on his second visit to Morris' hospital room. Unable to talk due to a tracheotomy, Morris was asked to respond with his fingers as the priests called out possible suspects in the attack on him. Thompson said Morris was asked to raised one finger for a "yes" response, two fingers for "no."
"Yet, once we began to call out names he would not raise up any fingers," said Thompson. "We thought he thought there was someone else in the room with us."
Concerning a baptism request by Morris, Thompson, who knew both Father Fullam and Marge Baroni, said, "It could have happened, but I am just skeptical because of hearing it now for the first time, especially since it was not long after Frank was in the hospital that the trachea was performed. However, they could have used sign language as we did."
Thompson added that if Father William Morrissey, the white pastor of the black Catholic church in Natchez, had been asked to perform the baptism "that he would have told me about it I am sure. The only place it could have been recorded was at the church where he was. Then too he might have done it and decided not to record it in the white church because he told himself that it was recorded in heaven where it really counted and Frank was going to die anyway so why start talk?"
Baroni doesn't mention in her papers if Father Fullam baptized Morris. Morris' family members are unaware of any baptism occurring while Morris was hospitalized.
The Sentinel was unable to verify Morris' baptism in Catholic records in either Louisiana or Mississippi, although church officials universally said that if it happened the record would be found in Louisiana since that is where the baptism would have been performed.