This is my last Black History Month piece. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more. I have learned SO MUCH. I was born in 1964 at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. For some strange, probably deliberate, reason, the Civil Rights Movement was not taught in either American History class that I took. Over the years, I have learned bits and pieces, but nothing as comprehensive as what I have learned this month. I have no doubt that those of you who are significantly older than me could write a book on the subject. And maybe those of you who were younger were lucky enough to learn about it in school. I envy you. 53 is late to learn this stuff, but better late than never. I hope you also have learned a few things that you didn’t know before, and have a better picture of all that went on, because there was SO MUCH. And perhaps you will be inspired to read more.
Happy Black History Month!
I really didn’t think it could get worse than Alabama… until I started reading about Mississippi. (And yes, this is another long one.) The white people of Mississippi were so committed to segregation that they didn’t even need Jim Crow laws. Integration simply wasn’t permitted, and the level of force and violence that was used to enforce these codes was horrific. As historian Charles Payne recounts in detail, Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings of any state, recording 539 between the end of Reconstruction and the early 1960s. And in the state’s plantation economy, conditions for many black farm workers weren’t much better than slavery. African Americans had virtually no education, no rights and no legal recourse against whites who exploited, cheated or attacked them. In the early 1960’s, Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation and 86% of all non-white families lived below the poverty line.
This was the backdrop of the actions of thousands of civil rights activists who, between 1956 and 1968, made the effort to integrate Mississippi and secure African-Americans the right to register, vote and elect black representatives to Congress.
I want to start with an acknowledgement of Mississippi’s civil rights martyrs:
1955: NAACP leader Rev. George Wesley Lee was shot in the face and killed in Belzoni, MS for urging blacks to vote. Lamar Smith, sixty-three-year-old farmer and World War II veteran, was shot in cold blood on the crowded courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi, for urging blacks to vote. Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting family from Chicago, was kidnapped and murdered near Money, MS, allegedly for whistling at a white woman… who has recently admitted that she lied. And Black businessman Clinton Melton was gunned down at a Glendora gas in an apparent follow-up to the Emmett Till case.
1957: Clyde Kennard attempted to enroll at Mississippi Southern College. He was arrested and convicted on false charges of possession of liquor. He was sentenced to seven years at Parchman Penitentiary, where he was denied proper care for serious health conditions that eventually led to his death.
1959: Mack Charles Parker, a resident of Poplarville, Mississippi, was jailed for allegedly raping a white woman. A white mob abducted Mr. Parker from his jail cell, beat him, took him to Louisiana, and then shot him
1961 farmer Herbert Lee was shot and killed in Liberty, Mississippi, by E.H. Hurst, a member of the Mississippi State Legislature, because of Lee’s participation in the voter registration campaign.
1963: NAACP State Director Medgar Evers was gunned down in 1963 in his Jackson driveway by Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith from Greenwood, Mississippi
1964: CORE workers James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner (white) and volunteer Andrew Goodman (white) disappeared near Philadelphia, MS. After several weeks of searching and recovering more than a dozen other bodies, the authorities finally found the civil rights workers buried under an earthen dam. Later that year, the lower half of Charles Eddie Moore’s body and the headless body of Henry Hezekiah Dee are pulled from the Mississippi River near Tallulah, LA; FBI believes they were kidnapped near Meadville, Mississippi, and murdered by Klansmen, 2 months prior. 14-year-old Herbert Oarsby’s body was pulled from the Big Black River near Canton, MS, dressed in a CORE t-shirt.
Additionally, in the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer:
- 1,062 people were arrested (out-of-state volunteers and locals)
- 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten
- 37 churches were bombed or burned
- 30 Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned
- 4 people were critically wounded
1966: Local NAACP President Vernon Dahmer was killed in a dynamite blast to his home in Hattiesburg and Ben Chester White was killed by Klansmen in Natchez.
1967: NAACP activist Wharlest Jackson was killed by bomb after promotion to a “white” job in Natchez and National Guardsmen fired on a black student protest at Jackson State University, killing civil rights worker Benjamin Brown.
On the first day that I presented information about the Civil Rights movement, I noted that one of the catalysts was WWII. Interestingly enough, James Meredith and Medgar Evers were both veterans who felt that it was time for change to come to Mississippi. Social transformations following World War II that affected all of the South were especially potent in Mississippi. The increasing mechanization of farm work made for substantial dislocation among whites and blacks in the state. Thousands upon thousands left the land to find work. “In cities, blacks and whites competed for jobs, housing, recreation and seats on public transportation, and the problem of the color line assumed pressing urgency,” historian Pete Daniel writes. Like African Americans across the South, many returning to Mississippi from military service had experienced life in other countries with far less racial prejudice. Having fought to secure democratic freedoms abroad, they were determined to fight for freedom at home.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education was ruled on by the Supreme Court, pronouncing that school segregation was unconstitutional. In response, in 1956, the Southern Manifesto was signed by 19 U.S. Senators and 82 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including the entire congressional delegations of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia. The Manifesto, written in response to the Brown decisions, accused the Supreme Court of “clear abuse of judicial power.” It further promised to use “all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”
Mississippi whites took their efforts to prevent integration to new levels. With all levels of government involved, two organizations came into being: the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the White Citizens’ Council. . These white supremacy organizations used many techniques, including surveillance, severe economic reprisals, and brutal violence to thwart civil rights activists; they also were quick to ostracize whites who didn’t openly join their ranks or support their cause. Those whites who retained a moderate or even liberal perspective were targeted by extremists. Some were forced to leave the state; others remained, but under constant threat. And the political process was blatantly affected. . “The fear was that black people would take over and destroy the [Southern] way of life. And the politicians jumped on it. ‘Elect me and we will maintain segregation.’ That’s all you had to say to get elected.” By 1956, the Citizens’ Council had chapters in a majority of Mississippi counties and had attracted some 80,000 members. Central to the Council’s message was the widely-held conviction that the civil rights movement was run by communists and that northern participants such as CORE members were ‘outside agitators’ in the truest sense of the term, representing forces hostile and alien to American values.” Membership tended to be highest in counties where the population was more than 50 percent black. Headed by the most prominent local businessmen, professionals and governing officials, the goal of the Citizens’ Council was to use every possible means to lawfully resist desegregation. The Council routinely used the economic “squeeze” to punish black agitators. For instance, when African Americans signed a petition to desegregate schools in Yazoo County in 1955, the Citizens’ Council moved quickly. It paid for a local newspaper ad listing the names of the petitioners. The Council then coordinated reprisals against the signers. Charles Bolton writes:
The president of one local bank called all his customers on the list “and told them to come down and get their money out, that the bank did not want to do business with them any longer.” James Wright, a plumber with primarily white customers, not only lost his patrons but also was refused plumbing supplies by a wholesale house, and notified by his grocer that a loaf of bread would cost him a dollar. He soon left for Detroit.
The danger of challenging Jim Crow in Mississippi led the state to produce more than its share of powerful civil rights leaders, including Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry and many others. These seemingly ordinary people were propelled by a conviction that the racial order had to change. Activist and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer described her determination: “Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off that and no one will have to cover the ground I walk as far as freedom is concerned.”
NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was a force to be reckoned with in Mississippi as early as the 1950’s when he helped organize a boycott of gasoline stations that denied blacks the use of the stations’ restrooms. Named field secretary in 1954, he organized boycotts and set up new local chapters of the NAACP all over the state, with both efforts toward voter registration, and legal defense. Evers also organized demonstrations, and economic boycotts of white-owned companies that practiced discrimination. Within three years he had nearly doubled NAACP membership in Mississippi to more than 15,000. Evers played a pivotal role in investigating Emmett Till’s death in 1955 helping to launch a separate investigation and find witnesses to Till’s abduction.
The first and little known event in Mississippi civil rights history was the Biloxi Wade-ins, where a black physician, Gilbert Mason, and 7 friends tried to integrate the Biloxi waterfront beaches. Turned away while swimming in 1959, they asked to see the law saying that they couldn’t be there. There was none. A protest with 125 people was held a year later; violence erupted in what has become known as “Bloody Sunday or the Bloody Wade-in. Shots were fired, rocks were thrown, and there was fighting in the streets over the entire weekend. Ten people were shot and a large number were injured in fights. Gilbert Mason was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace for his role in the protest.
The another notable event by African Americans to make a difference in civil rights was in 1961, when nine students from Tougaloo College, members of the NAACP Youth Council, were arrested for attempting to desegregate the “white only” Jackson Public Library. The group became known as the Tougaloo Nine. Students from Jackson State marched to the jail in support and were met and attacked with clubs, tear gas and dogs.
Next, in 1962, James Meredith applied to University of Mississippi. When James Meredith set his sights on integrating The University of Mississippi he intentionally targeted what was perhaps the most hallowed symbol of white prestige in Mississippi. No African American had ever been knowingly admitted (at least one, brief instance is known of a light-skinned man passing as white in the 1940s). Plantation owners and the rest of the Mississippi gentry sent their children to what they called affectionately Ole’ Miss for the finest education the state could offer. Although his application was rejected, the Supreme Court ordered his admittance. On September 13, 1962, Mississippi Governer Ross Barnett rallied his people on statewide television and radio. “I speak to you now in the moment of our greatest crisis since the War Between the States,” Barnett declared. “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them, never! I submit to you tonight, no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor!” When Meredith tried to register on September 20, 1962, he found the entrance to the office blocked by Barnett. On September 28, the governor was found guilty of civil contempt and was ordered to cease his interference with desegregation at the university or face arrest and a fine of $10,000 a day. On Sunday, September 30, Meredith arrived at the campus in Oxford with an escort of federal officials. Southern radio stations broadcast a call to arms and carloads of people rolled into town to defend Ole’ Miss against what they called an invasion by Meredith and the feds. A mob started pelting federal marshals with rocks, bottles and bricks. The phalanx of marshals responded with tear gas. Two people were killed and more wounded. Kennedy wound up sending 30,000 army troops to Oxford and the next morning Meredith walked across the debris-strewn campus to register. None of the rioters were ever prosecuted. Federal marshals protected Meredith during his time at Ole’ Miss. In 1963, Meredith, who was a transfer student from all-black Jackson State College, graduated with a degree in political science.
As a result of the riots of Ole Miss, the Citizens’ Council began to erode and in their place, came the Klan. Within 6 months of the riots, one man organized chapters in 76 counties in the state. These were the United Klans of America. But a rival Klan emerged in Mississippi at the same time, the White Knights of the KKK. They were more secretive than the UKA, and more deadly. In the summer of 1964, the White Knights soon attracted a following of nearly 10,000 white Mississippians. The racial terrorism ranged from cross-burnings and church-bombings to beatings and murder. According to sociologist David Cunningham: “The White Knights were responsible for most of the highly visible acts of violence in MS throughout ‘60s,”.
But as the Klan intensified its reign of terror, civil rights activists pumped up the pressure for change in Mississippi.
The efforts at voter registration escalated in the 1960’s. Mississippi had a terrible record of black voting rights violations. In the 1950s, Mississippi was 45% black, but only 5% of voting age blacks were registered to vote. Some counties did not have a single registered black voter. Whites insisted that blacks did not want to vote, but this was not true. Many blacks wanted to vote, but they worried, and rightfully so, that they might lose their job. In 1962, over 260 blacks in Madison County overcame this fear and waited in line to register. 50 more came the next day. Only seven got in to take the test over the two days, walking past a sticker on the registrar’s office door that bore a Confederate battle flag next to the message “Support Your Citizens’ Council.” Once they got in, they had to take a test designed to prevent them from becoming registered. In 1954, in response to increasing literacy among blacks, the test, which originally asked applicants to “read or interpret” a section of the state constitution, was changed to ask applicants to “read and interpret” that document. This allowed white registrars to decide whether or not a person passed the test. Most blacks, even those with doctoral degrees, “failed.” In contrast, most whites passed, no matter what their education level.
In July 1960, SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) came to Mississippi to begin a month-long voter registration campaign in the town of McComb, in conjunction with C.C. Bryant of the NAACP. SNCC organized a voter registration education program, teaching a weekly class that showed people how to register. SNCC worker Marion Barry (yes, the notorious DC mayor) arrived on August 18 and started workshops to teach young blacks nonviolent protest methods. Many of the blacks, too young to vote, jumped at the opportunity to join the movement. They began holding sit-ins. Some were arrested and expelled from school. . At sit-ins which began on May 28, 1963, participants were sprayed with paint and had pepper thrown in their eyes. Students who sang movement songs during lunch after the bombing of NAACP field director Medgar Evers’ home were beaten. After Evers was killed in 1963, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella organization of local and national civil rights groups founded in 1962, organized the Freedom Vote.
The Freedom Vote had two main goals:
- To show Mississippi whites and the nation that blacks wanted to vote and
- To give blacks, many of whom had never voted, practice in casting a ballot
The mock vote pitted the actual candidates against candidates from the interracial Freedom Party. 60 white students from Yale and Stanford Universities came to Mississippi to help spread word of the Freedom Vote. 93,000 voted on the mock election day, and the Freedom Party candidates easily won. After the success of the Freedom Vote, SNCC decided to send volunteers into Mississippi during the summer of 1964, a presidential election year, for a voter registration drive. It became known as Freedom Summer. Bob Moses outlined the goals of Freedom Summer to prospective volunteers at Stanford University:
- to expand black voter registration in the state
- to organize a legally constituted “Freedom Democratic Party” that would challenge the whites-only Mississippi Democratic party
- to establish “freedom schools” to teach reading and math to black children
- to open community centers where indigent blacks could obtain legal and medical assistance
800 students gathered for a week-long orientation session at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, that June. They were mostly white and young, with an average age of 21. They were also from well-to-do families, as the volunteers had to bring $500 for bail as well as money for living expenses, medical bills, and transportation home. SNCC’s James Forman told them to be prepared for death. “I may be killed. You may be killed. The whole staff may go.” He also told them to go quietly to jail if arrested, because “Mississippi is not the place to start conducting constitutional law classes for the policemen, many of whom don’t have a fifth-grade education.” The volunteers helped provide basic services to blacks in the South. “Freedom clinics” provided health care, Northern lawyers worked in legal clinics to secure basic constitutional rights, and “Freedom Schools,” though illegal, taught blacks of all ages traditional subjects as well as black history. The Freedom Schools were a great success. The proposal was a network of schools that would foster political participation among Mississippi elementary and high school students, in addition to offering academic courses and discussions. A curriculum planning conference was held in March 1964. The three sections of the Freedom School curriculum were the Academic Curriculum, the Citizenship Curriculum, and the Recreational Curriculum. The purpose of these sections was to teach students social change within the school; regional history; black history; how to answer open-ended questions; and the development of academic skills. The Academic Curriculum consisted of reading, writing, and verbal activities that were based on the student’s own experiences. The Citizenship Curriculum was to encourage the students to ask questions about the society. The Recreational Curriculum required the student to be physically active.
. Over the course of Freedom Summer, more than 40 Freedom Schools were set up in black communities throughout Mississippi. Students were encouraged to become active citizens and socially involved within the community. Over 3,000 African American students attended these schools in the summer of 1964. Students ranged in age from small children to the very elderly. Freedom Schools were established with the help and commitment of local communities, who provided various buildings for schools and housing for the volunteer teachers. While some of the schools were held in parks, kitchens, residential homes, and under trees, most classes were held in churches or church basements with the average approximately 15 years old. Teachers were volunteers, most of whom were college students themselves.
Approximately fifty Freedom Libraries were also established throughout Mississippi. These libraries provided library services and literacy guidance for many African Americans, some who had never had access to libraries before. Freedom Libraries ranged in size from a few hundred volumes to more than 20,000. The Freedom Libraries operated on small budgets and were usually run by volunteers. Some libraries were housed in newly constructed facilities while others were located in abandoned buildings
One of Freedom Summer’s most important projects was the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white regular Democratic party in the state. In June, the names of four MFDP candidates were on the Democratic primary ballot as delegates to be sent to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, but all four lost. Later that month, the regular Democratic party adopted a platform that explicitly rejected the national party platform in the area of civil rights. The MFDP held a convention two days after the bodies of the CORE workers were found and selected a 68-person delegation, which included four whites and the formidable Fannie Lou Hamer, to go to the national convention. The delegates wanted to be seated instead of the regular delegates at the convention. To do so, they had to persuade eleven of the more than 100 members of the Credentials Committee to vote in their favor. Senator Hubert Humphrey offered a compromise, with the blessing of the president. The white delegates would be seated if they pledged loyalty to the party platform. Two MFDP delegates, Aaron Henry and Ed King would also be seated, but as at-large delegates, not Mississippi delegates. Neither side liked the agreement, but in the end, both sides accepted. The trouble, however, was not over. When all but three of the Mississippi delegates refused to pledge allegiance to the party, the MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic delegates and took the seats vacated by the Mississippi delegates until they were thrown out. Though the MFDP did not fully accomplish its goals, it showed blacks that they could have political power.
There is no denying the effect that Freedom Summer had on Mississippi’s blacks. In 1964, 6.7% of Mississippi’s voting-age blacks were registered to vote, 16.3% below the national average. By 1969, that number had leaped to 66.5%, 5.5% above the national average.
The last pivotal event in Mississippi’s Civil Rights history was in 1966, when James Meredith organized a March against Fear. It was meant to be a solidary march from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS, a distance of 220 miles, to counter the continuing racism he saw in the South and to encourage African Americans to register to vote. He invited only black men to join him and did not want it to be a large media event dominated by major organizations, but Meredith was shot on the second day of the march. He was shot with buckshot, and survived, but could not continue the march. By 1966, there was tremendous infighting between the SNCC, SCLC, MFDP and CORE, but they came together for the march. While, they struggled over tactics and goals, they were able to cooperate in community organizing and voter registration. They registered over 4,000 African Americans for voting in counties along the way. Ordinary people, both black and white, came from across the South and all parts of the country to participate. The marchers slept on the ground outside or in large tents, and were fed mainly by local black communities. Some people marched for a short time, others stayed through all the events; some national leaders took part in intermittent fashion, having commitments in other cities. On the early evening of June 16, when the marchers arrived in Greenwood, and tried to set up camp at Stone Street Negro Elementary School, Stokely Carmichael was arrested for trespassing on public property. He was held for several hours by police before rejoining the marchers at a local park, where they had set up camp and were beginning a night-time rally. According to one civil rights historian, an angry Carmichael took the speaker’s platform, delivering his famous “Black Power” speech, arguing that blacks had to build their own political and economic power to attain independence: “This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power!”.
In Canton on June 23, the march was attacked and tear-gassed by the Mississippi State Police who were joined by other police agencies, after marchers tried to erect tents on the grounds of McNeal Elementary School. As the march headed south, the number of participants grew. The march stopped at HBCU Tougaloo College before entering Jackson. Marchers could rest and get food and showers. Many more people joined the march at that point; national leaders returned to it from commitments in other parts of the country. The growing crowd was entertained by James Brown, Dick Gregory and other major musicians and entertainment figures, including actor Marlon Brando who spoke briefly.
Finally, an estimated 15,000 mostly black marchers entered Jackson on June 26, making it the largest civil rights march in the history of the state. The march served as a catalyst for continued community organizing and political growth over the following years among African Americans in the state. They have maintained a high rate of voting and participation in politics since then.
And that ends my notes on Mississippi’s Civil Rights History. Long and bloody. My husband says it hasn’t changed much. I have no intention of going down there and testing his theory. If you read all the way to the end, I commend you because, as I said, it was long. But I hope it was worth it. With knowledge comes power.