By Bill Minor
The slightly-built Episcopal priest in clerical collar pleaded with Army Gen. Edwin Walker at the Confederate monument in Ole Miss’ Grove to urge students – and non-students – to stop the raging riot after federal marshals escorted James Meredith to the campus Sept. 30, 1962.
Not only did Walker (who weeks before had urged people to protest Meredith’s admission) refuse, but he demanded that the clergyman identify himself. “I’m Duncan Gray, a local Episcopal minister,” said the priest. The tall Texan snapped: “You are the kind of Episcopal minister that makes me ashamed of being an Episcopalian.”
Gray’s confrontation with Walker during what would become an insurrection over admitting one African-American student to the prestigious all-white university would become his first hands-on involvement in the struggle of Mississippi’s black citizens for civil rights. Over the next 40 years this son of an Episcopal bishop, who would himself become a bishop, would in his quiet way become a spokesman for racial equality.
His lifetime of service to his native Mississippi has been captured in a biography, “And One Was a Priest,” just published by the University Press of Mississippi. Araminta Stone Johnston, a professor of religion at Queens University in North Carolina, is the biographer.
What immediately caught my eye was that Gray, fresh out of Jackson’s Central High School in 1944 (subject to the military draft) was selected for the Navy’s V-12 officer college training program and sent to my alma mater, Tulane University.
While at Tulane, The Times-Picayune (my old paper) had run a photograph of Gray in the chow line and identified him as son of the Episcopal bishop of Mississippi. In the cutline under the photo, Gray was quoted as saying “no more bishops in the Gray family.”
Though he expected to become an engineer, almost inevitably Gray would wind up at Sewanee seminary and be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1953. His commitment to human rights made him a significant behind-the-scenes player in the struggle by Mississippi blacks for racial equality. Oddly, he would cross paths with two of Mississippi’s most violent racists of the 1960s and 1970s, Byron De La Beckwith and Tommy Tarrants.
When Gray became pastor at Cleveland in the late 1950s, he befriended Amzie Moore, who later became president of the Coahoma NAACP, and offered his assistance in organizing a Sharecroppers Fund. Once, Gray was invited to Moore’s home to meet Medgar Evers, the state NAACP field secretary.
When Gray was seen by some prominent whites sitting on the porch with Evers and Moore, some of Gray’s parishioners complained to then-Bishop Gray, urging him to get his young pastor-son to “cool it.”
Duncan had gotten to know Beckwith when the fertilizer salesman was a member of his father’s parish church in Greenwood. When a shot was fired into the home of a Greenwood member of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations (MCHR), Gray said most townspeople dismissed it as a prank by “Delay” (the nickname for Beckwith). When Beckwith was later linked (and eventually convicted) to the murder of Medgar Evers, Gray recalls “we realized we should have taken him seriously.”
Tarrants was a 19-year-old Klansman who became involved in a bizarre shootout with Meridian police and FBI agents in 1968 when he attempted to plant a bomb in the driveway of a prominent Jewish businessman. At the time Gray was pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and headed the local Head Start program. Later, when massive integration came to Meridian’s schools, Gray’s son, Lloyd, remained in the public high school and was elected president of the biracial student body.
Unfortunately, readers may find the sequence of events involving the two bishops hard to follow in Johnston’s book. Still, there is important Mississippi history to be distilled from the biography.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.