Our Fight for the Right to Preach
As told by Grace Marsh
A few years ago, Professor Newton, then associated with Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, interviewed me about things that happened over 50 years ago. In 1946 a court case involving my activity as a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. Professor Newton’s interest in what happened brought back many memories. Let me begin with my childhood.
I WAS born in 1906, in Randolph, Alabama, U.S.A., a fourth-generation Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. My great-grandfather Lewis Waldrop and my grandfather Sim Waldrop were baptized as Bible Students in the late 1800’s.
Sim Waldrop’s son Joseph was my father. Joseph made an impression on a girl named Belle by giving her a booklet that exposed the church teaching of hellfire. Belle was so delighted with what she read that she shared the booklet with her father, who was also intrigued by it. Later Joseph married Belle, and they had six children. I was the second oldest.
Each night, Father would gather the family around the fireplace and read aloud from the Bible and the Watchtower magazine. When he had finished reading, we would all kneel as Father said a heartfelt prayer. Every week, we traveled several miles in a horse-drawn wagon to Grandfather Sim’s home for a meeting with fellow Bible Students.
At school our classmates often ridiculed us, calling us Russellites. That wasn’t the insult that they meant it to be, for I highly regarded Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. How thrilled I was actually to see him at an assembly in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914! I can still remember him standing on the platform explaining the picture presentation called the “Photo-Drama of Creation.”
In 1920 our family moved to Robertsdale, a small town east of Mobile, Alabama. Five years later I married Herbert Marsh. Herbert and I moved to Chicago, Illinois, and our son, Joseph Harold, was born there soon afterward. Sadly, I drifted away from the religion of my childhood, but it was still in my heart.
My Stand for Bible Truth
One day in 1930, I was shocked to my senses when I saw our landlord violently throw a Bible Student down the steps. I was enraged and spoke to our landlord about his behavior. He informed me that if I invited this man into our apartment, my husband and I could no longer live there. Needless to say, I promptly invited the Bible Student in for a cup of tea.
My husband and I attended a meeting of the Bible Students the following Sunday and were delighted to meet Joseph F. Rutherford, who had become president of the Watch Tower Society following Russell’s death. Rutherford happened to be visiting Chicago at the time. These events stirred me to become active again in the Christian ministry. Soon thereafter, we moved back to Robertsdale, Alabama.
At a convention in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937, I made up my mind to become a pioneer, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. In time, my husband, Herbert, was baptized, and soon he began serving as presiding overseer in the Robertsdale Congregation. Our son, Harold, was often my companion in the house-to-house ministry.
In 1941, I received an invitation to serve as a special pioneer in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Violet Babin, a Christian sister from New Orleans, was my partner. We accepted the challenge and took our trailer and our children with us to establish a foothold in Brookhaven. Our husbands were to join us later.
At first, we had success in our ministry, and Violet’s daughter and Harold were doing well in school. However, after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in December of 1941 and the United States declared war, reaction to our work changed dramatically. There was a spirit of superpatriotism and a fear of conspiracy. Because of our political neutrality, people were suspicious of us, even accusing us of being German spies.
Harold was expelled from school because of his refusal to share in the flag ceremony. His teacher told me that Harold was smart and well-mannered, but the principal felt that he was a bad example because he did not salute the flag. The superintendent of schools was so upset with the principal and the school board’s decision on this matter that he resigned and offered to pay for sending Harold to a private school!
We received threats of mob violence daily. On one occasion the police shoved us out of a lady’s doorway, smashed our phonographs against a tree, broke our records of Bible lectures, tore our Bibles and literature to shreds, and finally set fire to everything they had confiscated. They told us to leave town before dark or we would be driven out by a mob. We quickly wrote and hand delivered letters to the town’s officials, asking for protection. But they refused to provide any. I even called the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Jackson, Mississippi, and asked for help. They also advised us to leave town.
That night nearly one hundred angry men surrounded our trailer. We were two women alone with our children. We locked the doors, turned out the lights, and prayed fervently to Jehovah. Eventually, the crowd dispersed without harming us.
In view of these events, Herbert decided to join us in Brookhaven immediately. We took Harold back to his grandparents in Robertsdale, where the local school principal assured us that he would receive an education. When we returned to Brookhaven, the trailer had been vandalized and a warrant for our arrest had been nailed to one of the walls inside. Despite this opposition, we stood firm and continued in our ministry.
Arrested and Mistreated
In February of 1942, Herbert and I were arrested while we were conducting a Bible study in a modest little home. The man of the house was so angry at the treatment we received that he reached for his gun on the wall and threatened to shoot the policeman! We were charged with trespassing and were found guilty at the trial held the next day.
We were placed in a filthy, cold cell for 11 days. A local Baptist minister visited us while we were there, assuring us that if we agreed to leave town, he would use his influence to set us free. We thought this was ironic, since his influence had put us there in the first place.
One corner of our cell had previously served as a toilet. The place was infested with bedbugs. Food was served on unwashed, dirty tin pans. As a result of these conditions, I became ill with pneumonia. A doctor was called in to see me, and we were released. That night a mob appeared at our trailer, so we went home to Robertsdale to await our trial.
Baptists from all over the state came to Brookhaven for our trial, to lend support to the Baptist minister responsible for our arrest. This moved me to write a letter to my brother-in-law Oscar Skooglund, a staunch Baptist deacon. It was an impassioned letter and not very tactful. However, the treatment I received and what I wrote must have influenced Oscar for good, for in a short time, he became a strong Witness of Jehovah.
Our attorneys, G. C. Clark and Victor Blackwell, fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses, were convinced that we would be unable to receive a fair trial in Brookhaven. So they decided to object the case out of court. Every time the prosecutor opened his mouth, one of our attorneys objected. They objected at least 50 times. Finally, the judge dismissed all charges.
A New Preaching Assignment
After resting up and regaining my health, I resumed pioneering, with my son Harold. In 1943 we were given an assignment closer to home, Whistler and Chickasaw, small communities near Mobile, Alabama. I thought that these new territories would be less hazardous, since the U.S. Supreme Court had just rendered a number of rulings favorable to Jehovah’s Witnesses and public attitudes toward our work had begun to improve.
Soon we had a group of Bible students in Whistler, and we needed our own meeting place. Anyone who could drive a nail worked on building our small Kingdom Hall, and 16 were in attendance for our first meeting. Chickasaw, however, was a different story, for it was a company town, owned by Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation. Yet, it looked like any other small town, with its business block, post office, and shopping center.
One day in December of 1943, Aileen Stephens, a fellow pioneer, and I were offering the latest copies of our Bible magazines to passersby in Chickasaw when Deputy Chatham told us that we had no right to preach, since we were on private property. We explained that we were not peddling and that our work was religious and was protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
More Arrests and Imprisonments
The following week Aileen and I met with E. B. Peebles, the vice president of Gulf Shipbuilding, and we explained the importance of our religious activity. He warned us that the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses would not be permitted in Chickasaw. We explained that people had gladly received us into their homes. Could he deny them the right to study the Bible? He became hostile and threatened to throw us into jail for trespassing.
I returned to Chickasaw time and again and was arrested each time. But, each time, I was released on bond. Eventually, the bond was raised to exorbitant levels, and I would spend more and more time in jail until we could raise the needed money. The jail conditions were unsanitary—no toilet facilities, filthy mattresses without sheets, and one dirty blanket for cover. As a result, my health problems resurfaced.
On January 27, 1944, the cases of six Witnesses arrested on December 24, 1943, were tried together, and my testimony was considered representative of the other defendants. Even though the trial revealed open discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was found guilty. We appealed the decision.
On January 15, 1945, the court of appeals announced its verdict: I was guilty of trespassing. Furthermore, the Alabama Supreme Court refused to hear my case. On May 3, 1945, Hayden Covington, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a bold and energetic attorney, petitioned for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While Aileen and I were waiting to hear from the Supreme Court, we turned the tables on our accusers by filing a civil suit against E. B. Peebles and his allies in the sheriff’s department, asking for damages. Our accusers tried to change the charge they had used against us from trespassing to obstructing traffic, but when I was in jail, I had smuggled out a paper signed by Deputy Chatham, charging us with trespassing. When this evidence was presented in court, Sheriff Holcombe jumped to his feet and almost swallowed his cigar! The trial, in February 1945, ended with a deadlocked jury.
The Supreme Court Decides
The U.S. Supreme Court was interested in my case because trespassing on private property introduced a new aspect of the question of religious freedom. Covington proved that Chickasaw’s regulation violated the liberties not only of the defendants but of the community as a whole.
On January 7, 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling and rendered a historic decision in our favor. Justice Black delivered the decision, which included these words: “Insofar as the State [of Alabama] has attempted to impose criminal punishment on appellant [Grace Marsh] for undertaking to distribute religious literature in a company town, its action cannot stand.”
An Ongoing Fight
Herbert and I finally settled in Fairhope, Alabama, and continued to work for Kingdom interests throughout the years. I lost Herbert in 1981, but I have many happy memories of our times together. My son, Harold, stopped serving Jehovah later in life and died soon thereafter, in 1984. This was one of my life’s greatest heartaches.
I am thankful, though, that Harold and his wife, Elsie, gave me three wonderful granddaughters and that I now also have great-grandchildren who are baptized Witnesses. Three of my sisters, Margaret, Ellen Jo, and Crystal, are still living and continue as faithful servants of Jehovah. Crystal married Lyman Swingle, who is a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They live at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Brooklyn, New York. In spite of severe health problems during the past few years, Crystal has remained a wonderful example and an encouragement to me.
In my more than 90 years, I have learned never to fear what man can do, for Jehovah is stronger than any sheriff, any judge, any man. As I reflect on these past events, I highly esteem the privilege of having had a share in ‘defending and legally establishing the good news’!—Philippians 1:7.
[Box on page 22]
Armed With the Constitution
In 1995, Merlin Owen Newton wrote Armed With the Constitution, a book that documents the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in clarifying the application of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the time, Mrs. Newton was associate professor of history and political science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Her thoroughly researched and well-documented book reviews two Alabama court cases that were carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of these Supreme Court cases involved Grace Marsh, whose first-person story appears in the accompanying article. The other case, Jones v. City of Opelika, dealt with the right to disseminate religious beliefs through distribution of literature. Rosco and Thelma Jones, a black married couple, were full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In preparing her book, Professor Newton used contemporary periodicals and legal journals, Witnesses’ memoirs and letters, interviews with and material published by the Witnesses themselves, and scholarly studies of Witness activities. The fascinating details and personal reflections provided by the defendants, attorneys, and judges in Armed With the Constitution have brought a piece of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal history to life.
[Picture on page 20]
With my grandfather Sim Waldrop
[Picture on page 23]
Grace Marsh today