Marge Baroni: The Awakening of Activism

Marge Baroni: The Awakening of Activism

By Susan Stevenot Sullivan

Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002 pp. 9-12

Marjorie Rushing Baroni (1942-1986) was in many ways an ordinary Southern woman of the last century. A housewife and resident of Natchez, Mississippi, she was neither wealthy nor famous. She was not killed in the civil rights days, nor were members of her family. She was willing, however, to live what she believed about the dignity of all people. She was an ordinary person who took an extraordinary stance for her time and paid a social and personal price for the rest of her life.

The daughter of poor, white, Mississippi sharecroppers and the mother of six children, Marge Baroni departed from her cultural upbringing to become a civil rights activist in one of the most active Ku Klux Klan areas in Mississippi. By living her faith in God’s equal love for all races, she endangered herself and her family and was ostracized by white society–including relatives, friends, co-workers, and members of her Catholic parish.

Books like Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer;Silver Rights by Constance Curry; and Civil Rights Chronicle by Clarice Campbell testify to the heroic actions of ordinary people who have helped transform life as it is now lived in the United States. The sacrifices of such people, many acting in isolation and in the face overwhelming pressure to be silent and conform, helped to construct platforms upon which the highly-publicized people and events featured in history books have stood. These stories bring us history with flesh and bone, with feelings and particularity.

The central mystery for all such ordinary, extraordinary lives is “how” and “why.” How is it that Mrs. Baroni stepped-out despite the risks involved, to live her belief that all people are equal in the sight of God? Why did she persist, risking her life and the lives of those she loved?

The clues are in her life and her writings. They are uncovered in the remembrances of friends, family members, civil rights co-workers, and in the recorded history of the South. This article is a first attempt to scratch the surface of the mystery of Marjorie Rushing Baroni’s life.

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The Commerce of Natchez

The world into which Marge Baroni was born had been built, long before, on the backs of slaves. According to Ronald L.F. Davis, in The Black Experience in Natchez 1720-1880, by the 1790s slaves were arriving in Natchez in increasing numbers. He writes, “With the development of the cotton gin, the trickle of slaves coming into the neighborhood became a cascade. By 1810, more than 8,000 slaves lived in Adams County… That number increased to 14,292 on the eve of the Civil War… The old Natchez district had become a slave-populated, plantation economy.”

This plantation economy led to the erection of numerous estate mansions in and around Natchez. Davis describes the economic impact of slave labor in Natchez: “Students of Natchez history contend that district planters ranked among the richest slave masters in the South as well as–in many cases–the nation’s wealthiest citizens.”

As generations passed, the trappings of slavery were discarded, but the system of second-class status remained. Describing the evolution of 20th century race relations in Natchez, John Dittmer in Local People wrote:

“Before World War II, race relations in Natchez resembled the paternalism of the old regime, with organizations like the NAACP tolerated as long as blacks did not challenge the caste system. Now, however, Natchez had become a ‘New South’ city boasting an industrial base anchored by Armstrong Tire and Rubber, the International Paper Company, and the Johns-Manville Corporation. When in the early 1960s black activists began to press for social change, whites responded as they had during the days of first Reconstruction. With a substantial white working-class base, the Ku Klux Klan, under the leadership of E. L. McDaniel, was stronger in Natchez than in any other Mississippi community, even McComb.”

Childhood Challenges

Marjorie Raye Rushing was born August 16, 1924, to Percy Rushing and Clementine Loften Rushing. Margie, the oldest of their five children, was born in Brookhaven, just outside Natchez, on a farm the couple sharecropped.

One of Marge Baroni’s daughters, Mary Jane (Baroni) Tarver said that her mother’s family had a “hard life.” Problems between her grandfather, an often-violent alcoholic, and her grandmother, a “hard-shell Baptist,” created turmoil for the children in addition to the economic challenges.

In an essay entitled, “Whatever Happened to Joseph Edwards,” probably written in the 1980s as the start of her unfinished master’s thesis, Baroni wrote about her upbringing. “When I was growing up, my father moved us often. He was always looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We lived in a succession of rental houses in Natchez and in a number of tenant shacks on various farms in Adams County.”

While her hands became callused from months of hard, hot labor. Margie Rushing escaped into her fluid imagination. “My brother and I, as the eldest children in the family–we were eleven and thirteen respectively–were expected to do the work of farm hands, and we did. I remember picking cotton, sticking sweet potato slips into the ground, laying stalks of seed cane along the furrow our father ploughed for them… It was a hard life at times, especially for an adolescent, but in the hot days between the laying of the crops and harvest time, I was able to read for many hours. I always day dreamed, no matter what the chore, and had to be reprimanded often.”

At the age of forty-nine, Marge Baroni recalled the childhood foundations of her profound search for meaning and love.

“I have wanted, so intensely all my life, to live fully. Lying on my back in the middle of the peanut patch–looking at the September clouds and wondering what the future held for me. . . I was twelve years old, a dreamer, romantic, and irrepressible.”

The stress inflicted by her dysfunctional family added urgency to the search for transcendence and new perspectives amid the daily difficulties. It may also have created a sense of solidarity with those targeted by rage-filled abusers who need scapegoats.

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“I knew a little about corporal punishment,” she continued. “We always told each other, ‘You’re going to get a whipping.’ I think I got the most. For one thing I was the oldest of five children and my brother, next to me, was the only son. This automatically acted in his favor. . . . The sense of disapproval, the tension and violence, hysteria and clenched teeth that emanated from my parents’ unhappiness with each other kept my core from forming unscarred.

“. . . At any rate it is this spirit of exploration that has motivated my entire life. This and the search for evidences of love–the love of man for man, for woman, for child, for earth, for every growing thing, every created thing. . . even now the pattern is still growing, it is still becoming clearer.”

The pattern of noticing a difference in the way certain people were treated may have started in the immediate family, with her brother, but it soon widened to include the larger community.

In “Whatever Happened to Joseph Edwards,” she wrote about her growing awareness of inequality. “I knew, when I was a little girl, that something stood in the way of free intercourse among people. Before I recognized differences in skin pigment and came to know what it meant, I knew there was a barrier. I had noted the high, strained pitch of the shopkeeper’s voice when he spoke to a black customer. In the department stores I had seen handsome, dark women poised and austere, their faces closed against the loud questioning of the clerks. . . . “Although my mother never jerked me closer to her when we met blacks on the street, as she did when we passed the Chinese family who ran the grocery store down on Franklin Street, I could tell there was a special etiquette in her conversation with black men and women–even children. She became jocularly condescending, not natural as she when she was among her white friends and relatives.”

Leaving Natchez High School before she graduated, Marge married nineteen-year-old Louis Baroni, the son of an Italian sharecropper family who lived in Adams County. She was seventeen. Louis and Marge relocated as he searched for welding work in booming shipyards of World War II. The first of their six children, Neil, was born within a year. According to Louis, Marge insisted on returning to Natchez for the birth of their first child in August of 1942. The couple would live in Natchez for the rest of Marge’s life.

The Awakening of Activism

A process of personal transformation led to Marge’s conversion to Catholicism in 1947. By the mid-1950s, she became a friend of internationally-known peace and justice activist Dorothy Day, also a Catholic. More than two decades of correspondence and visits testify to a mother-daughter sort of relationship between the two women. The relationship influenced Marge’s activism.

By 1957, Marge stopped attending local concerts and theater events, which she loved and reviewed for the local paper. “The fact that (concerts and plays) were segregated became too much for me,” she wrote. “What was I doing there? How could I justify my belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man if I had no qualms about enjoying privilege because of the color of my skin?”

By 1962, Marge Baroni quit her job as an editor of the , because of their racist editorial policies. She informed her employer, “I could no longer work for a newspaper that purposely overlooked one-half the population, unless there was a murder, rape, or robbery implicating a member of that community.”

She began a public involvement in anti-segregation and civil rights organizations, such as the Mississippi Council on Human Relations. During this decade she established important relationships with such local activists as Father William Morrissey, a Josephite priest and the white pastor of the black Catholic church in Natchez, and others, such as Mamie Lee Mazique, activist and member of the parish. The courageous stories of these local people are intertwined with her own. Like them, Marge felt compelled to conform her life to her beliefs, whatever the cost.

In a 1977 oral history interview, Marge remarked on the challenge of integrity. “The thing is, it was perfectly acceptable for white people to sit down and talk about how black people were mistreated, so long as one didn’t do anything about it, so long as one didn’t attempt to change it. You could deplore it. You could be upset about it. You could say it was wrong. You could point to the Bible. . . You could read the Bible and study your religion, but you couldn’t practice it.”

For Marge, Mississippi’s litany of beatings and murders, legal challenges, and years of struggle all coalesced in the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer. Scores of students poured into Mississippi, as she put it, “to help break the bonds under which black Mississippians labored. . . It was the beginning of the end for the old Mississippi. . . Never before had it been so blatantly obvious that church, state, and local governments, educational and press organizations, and business institutions were dedicated in our state to the status quo based on separation of the races. This condition had existed in every area of life since the territory was first settled by the white man, and the land brought under control by his black slave.”

Her activities in 1964 included integrating the white library in Natchez with Chock Mazique, Mamie Lee Mazique’s son; attending Civil Rights Commission hearings; joining the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, which was meeting at Tougaloo College where she met

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Mickey Schwerner a month before he was murdered; and meeting at Natchez’s Eola Hotel to help integrate the dining room.

Ostracism and Threats

By December of 1964, her efforts triggered ostracism, first by extended family members, then by white Catholic parishioners and the white community as a whole. KKK smear campaigns and threats became common. At least one bombing attempt targeting the family home is acknowledged and shots were fired at the house. “We were always concerned about bombings,” Louis Baroni, her husband, said in an oral history interview in 2000 at his home on Monroe Street.

Louis Baroni who worked at the same Armstrong plant as bombing victim Wharlest Jackson, went in fear of his life for years. Each evening he inspected small pebbles he had placed on the hood of his car at the beginning of the shift, in the hope of detecting the tampering necessary to place a similar bomb in his car, ready to detonate on the drive home from work. For three years, no one at the Armstrong plant spoke to Louis Baroni. He may have kept his job due to his union membership.

In recent oral history interviews, it is clear that the Baroni offspring are, decades later, beginning to come to grips with the impact of these events on their childhoods. Their experiences vary with their ages at the time of the most harrowing events. Some of the younger children were taunted and insulted at times and all were conscious of the family’s isolation and being “different.”

Despite the impact on the children, their mother did not change her beliefs or her activities. Marge Baroni helped spearhead a drive to form the Adams Jefferson County Improvement Corporation (AJIC), a community-action agency conforming to Title II of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964–pioneering outreach efforts included Head Start, high school work programs, and adult literacy programs.

In 1969, Marge left her post as assistant director of AJIC to accept a job as an aide to Mayor Charles Evers of Fayette, the first African American to be elected mayor of a biracial town in Mississippi since Reconstruction. She worked for him for ten years.

The ostracism continued long after the defining years of the Civil Rights Movement ended. The isolation took an emotional and physical toll, which she candidly revealed in correspondence. It is possible that she suffered a nervous breakdown in the early 1970s. She went away for several weeks and two of her sons remember there was uncertainty about whether she would return. She did.

Dorothy Day, her friend and mentor, died in 1980. In 1981, Marge Baroni was diagnosed with colon cancer, a struggle which ended with her death in 1986.

Until the end, she continued her vocation as an activist. Several months before her death, an emaciated Marge Baroni was featured in an article in the weekly paper of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. The story detailed her work to secure housing for a one hundred-year-old African-American woman.

Questions Remain

Who was Marge Baroni? Much more research is needed to answer that question. She was one of the very human, very ordinary people who took extraordinary risks. Much more of her story, and the stories of people like Father William Morrissey and Mamie Lee Mazique, remains to be told.

Perhaps history is made and hearts are changed one ordinary person at a time. To follow their example, we need to know who they are. “Who our heroes are and whether they are presented in a way that makes them lifelike, hence usable as role models, could have a significant bearing on our conduct in the world,” writes James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Attempting to understand how Marge Baroni, and others, joined this company of extraordinary/ordinary people can help all of us see our own roles more clearly in the challenges that continue today.

A note from Dorothy Day in November of 1974 reads, “Dearest Marge, do excuse my long silence–but I’ve been thinking of you and our plans for the South–a farm in Mississippi somewhere between Natchez and Fayette. Idle dreams maybe but your energies and desires to serve the Lord, your love of people and interracial justice should find expression. . . .You have been a voice in the wilderness and a shining light to the blind!”

Susan Stevenot Sullivan lives in Atlanta, working as a writer and photographer with groups in ministry in the South. She was instrumental in the placement of Marge Baroni’s papers in the archives at the University of Mississippi.

Sullivan continues to piece together Marge Baroni’s story and would appreciate hearing from anyone who can add additional information (write to Susan Stevenot Sullivan c/o Southern Changes at 133 Carnegie Way, NW, Suite 900, Atlanta, GA 30303)