Mary Barnes and the Louisiana Civil Rights Movement
Mary has led a fascinating life. Originally from Long Island, she followed her Catholic faith into a life of activism that ultimately brought her to Louisiana. While in high school in the late 1950s, she’d developed an awareness of racial injustice, and started to read Dorothy Day’s newspaper, the Catholic Worker, which heavily promoted civil rights. After graduating from the College of St. Elizabeth (now St. Elizabeth University) in May 1964, Mary packed her typewriter and tennis racket and traveled down to Louisiana in order to join the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement on the front lines. She joined with a lay Catholic women’s organization called the Grail and started teaching Native Americans in Melville, Louisiana.
While in Melville, Mary received an unusual phone call. NAACP attorney Marion Overton White, one of the legendary lawyers of the Civil Rights Movement in Louisiana, called to ask if Mary, a white woman, was willing to be the test case to desegregate Grambling College (now Grambling State University), a historically Black university. Grambling was legally restricted to serving only African American students by the state legislature when it became a state school. The NAACP, feeling that this situation was inappropriate, moved to desegregate Grambling; the brilliant civil rights attorney A. P. Tureaud handled the case and sued Grambling to admit Mary. (The NAACP’s exact reasons for picking Mary remain unclear.)
On our podcast Mary describes the case, and how she prepared a “stirring antiracist” speech that she intended to give from the witness stand. She was crushed to discover that the only questions asked of her were about her racial ancestry. The State did not even bother to mount a defense, so she won her case by default. Neither I nor the law librarians at the University of Arkansas School of Law have been able to find a single other case in which a Historically Black College or University was desegregated by court order.
Once Mary got into Grambling, she then had to actually attend. Since she had planned to take some education courses that summer anyway, at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, she enrolled and signed up for summer classes beginning in June 1965. To help her feel a little more comfortable, A. P. Tureaud arranged for his daughter to be her roommate. He hoped they would enjoy playing tennis together—a favorite pastime for them both.
Mary packed her typewriter and tennis racket and traveled down to Louisiana in order to join the burgeoning civil rights movement on the front lines.
On her arrival, Mary stuck out. The college’s president, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, made her uncomfortable at the opening convocation when he announced her presence and claimed that she thought she was more racially enlightened than everyone else at Grambling. Mary—brimming with the self-confidence of youth—stood up and explained that Jones was wrong. She told the assembled students and faculty that rather than viewing herself as a white savior, she viewed herself as just the same as all the other students. She received a standing ovation and made “many friends that day.”
Among the friends she made was her future husband, Woody Barnes, and a group of three Franciscan seminarians. Woody was a student leader of civil rights protests on campus and in the neighboring town of Ruston. The three seminarians, Michael Mooney, Gael Stahl, and James Lyke, also participated in civil rights protests with Mary. (Lyke would become the first African American archbishop of Atlanta, and only the second African American archbishop in the country.)
At Grambling, Mary participated in the civil rights work of a number of groups including Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, significantly, the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons, co-founded by former Grambling quarterback Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, were heavily involved in some of the most intense civil rights action in North Louisiana. With many Army veterans in their ranks, the Deacons provided armed defense of civil rights protestors, and, especially in Jonesboro, they directly confronted the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Among other experiences, Mary and other Grambling students protested segregated stores and lunch counters in Ruston. When the summer semester ended, Mary left Grambling to travel to New Orleans and take a position as State Field Director for the NAACP. She stayed in that position for a little less than a year, after which she left Louisiana to follow other pursuits within the Civil Rights Movement.
As someone who has never self-identified as an activist, I found Mary’s story awe-inspiring. She not only had powerful convictions as a young woman, but she had the rare driving passion of someone who truly believes dying for a cause is noble. Mary reminded me that the history of civil rights in this country depended on thousands of young men and women like her, who saw injustice and fought it. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders were famous—but it was masses of Americans like Mary who made it a movement.
Brian McGowan received his BA from Villanova University and his PhD from Tulane University. He spent fifteen years as a professor at Grambling State University in Louisiana, where he held the William I. McIntosh Endowed Chair of Liberal Arts, and is now an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. He is the co-editor of Sport and Protest in the Black Atlantic (2022) and is currently working on a monograph about Grambling State University’s struggle against white supremacy across the twentieth century.