Monday, January 7, 2008

Part Four: Changing Politics in Mississippi

The Voter Registration Drive in 1964
by Charlie Leck

This is Part Four of a Six Part series written for my youngest child.
As a Christmas gift, she asked me to remember the sixties and write
about them for her – especially my involvement in the civil rights
movement of that decade. So, I will do that in a series of essays
here on my blog.
You can begin with the first part of the
series by going to
Remembering the Sixties: Part One

These words can be found on a plaque next to a reconstructed Mount Zion Methodist Church, in Neshoba County, Mississippi:

"On June 21, 1964, voting rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who had come here to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Church, were murdered. Victims of a Klan conspiracy, their deaths provoked national outrage and led to the first successful prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi."

You will notice that in every part of this series, the specter of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner hangs over the theme. That's the way it was for us in Mississippi and I am trying to recreate that in this series. The volunteers thought about the three missing guys every day and we talked about them constantly and we reminded ourselves regularly that it could happen to anyone who wasn't careful.

To understand the tension and atmosphere of conflict in Canton, one has to realize that the move toward freedom started here before the volunteers came down from the north. Various African-American civil rights organizations had targeted Canton as an important location in the coming battle for freedom and equality. Late in 1963, local blacks had cooperated with enthusiasm in a venture to boycott white merchants in a selective buying program. The retail business owners in the downtown district were in a panic. Reports came out of Canton in early 1964 that the program was nearly 100 percent effective. The white community began to fight back. Quite a few black men and women, employed by white business owners, lost their jobs. Police cruisers spent most of their time in the black neighborhoods looking for any misdemeanor excuse to arrest African Americans. If anyone visited Freedom House too often, he or she was subject to arrest on any of a dozen or so trumped up charges. The state's legislature passed a goofy law making it far easier for municipalities to suppress riots and civil disturbances.

Right at the first of the year in 1964, the residents of Mississippi were reading a startling story in their newspapers. On the 30th of December, right at the end of the previous year, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had approved a proposal for a summer voter registration project all over the state. The stories indicated that hundreds of young, white volunteers would be coming to Mississippi to conduct the drive. The organization also announced that dozens of Freedom Schools would be set up to educate black children who were lagging far behind white children. It was Charles Cobb who conceived of the idea of the Freedom Schools. He saw them as places where "students could freely ask questions about all those things, political as well as academic, which troubled them and excited them."

The pressure on Mississippi and its "closed society" was nothing new. The Freedom Rider buses had started coming there in 1961 and the hatred for these "hippies" in the white community was nearly unanimous. They were "outside agitators" and they were often arrested and thrown in jail.

I had watched these TV accounts, and read the news stories about these activities, very carefully. They were matters of high priority in conversations with my fellow students and professors.

Most African-Americans in Mississippi were poor and uneducated and whites intended to keep them that way. Black folks had pretty much given up on the possibility of ever voting and wielding the power of the ballot. In 2004, Unita Blackwell, thinking back, wrote about rumor of the voter registration volunteers coming to her community in the great summer of '64.

"The truth is, I'd never really thought much about voting or about registering to vote. In 1964, only three percent of voting age black people in the entire state…were registered to vote. Not a one of those was in Issaquena County. A few brave black veterans of World War II…had quietly begun trying to get voters registered and suggesting the possibility of change. …Their efforts appealed primarily to the small black middle class – teachers, the few professional blacks and small businessmen in the state. The vast majority of Mississippi black people were like me, poor and uneducated, and not aware of their activities."

"About the only time the subject of voting ever came up in my life in the Mississippi Delta was when you heard that somebody's boss made it clear to his workers that he would not allow 'his niggers' to vote. This was one of those 'understood' rules in Mississippi: voting was for white people only. So ignorance and fear kept most of us right where we'd always been. I didn't even really know, in fact, how voting was supposed to help me, but the more I heard about white people beings so against it, the more I started thinking there must be something to this voting."
[Jackson Free Press story]

Mickey Schwerner had arrived in Mississippi early and, with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, began making preparations for the arrival of the students being trained in Ohio. Late in the evening on June 20, Schwerner and Chaney were picked up in Meridian by Andrew Goodman. On the afternoon of the 21st they were arrested in Neshoba County. While my colleagues and I were riding southward on "the train they call the Spirit of New Orleans," the three young men sat in a jail cell. They were released at 10:30 that night and simply disappeared.

The mother of James Chaney, Fannie Lee Chaney, spoke sharply in 1965 about the murder of her son and his co-workers:

"I am here to tell you about Meridian, Mississippi. That's my home. I have been there all of my days. I know the white man; I know the black man. The white man is not for the black man. We are just there. Everything to be done, to be said, the white man is going to do it; he is going to say it, right or wrong. We hadn't, from the time that I know of, been able to vote or register in Meridian. Now, since the civil rights workers have been down in Mississippi working, they have allowed a lot of them to go register. A lot of our people are scared, afraid. They are still backward. 'I can't do that; I never have,' they claimed. 'I have been here too long. I will lose my job; I won't have any job.' So, that is just the way it is. My son, James, when he went out with the civil rights workers around the first of '64 felt it was something he wanted to do, and he enjoyed working in the civil rights movement. He stayed in Canton, Mississippi, working on voter registration from February through March. When he came home he told me how he worked and lived those few weeks he was there; he said, 'Mother, one half of the time, I was out behind houses or churches waiting to get the opportunity to talk to people about what they needed and what they ought to do.' …I just wish it was so you could just come down there and be able to see; just try to live there just for one day, and you will know just how it is there."

Fannie Lee Chaney was correct. We were here but for a day and we could see how it is here. Mississippi was truly a closed society.

During 1964, 44 black churches in Mississippi were bombed. So were the homes of ordinary black people (like Angelina Davis). Some folks just simply disappeared. People have begun to forget about these incidents during the summer of '64. The movie, Mississippi Burning, tried to remind people just how awful it was there.

We who were on the job early each day during the first two weeks in Mississippi never forgot how awful it was and how dangerous it was. Angelina always fixed us something of a breakfast and we started giving her some money to cover the costs she was incurring. We had only a short walk to Freedom House. We sat through the brief daily organizational meetings and then watched the young men and women head out.

We were charged by the National Council of Churches to keep things cool and under control in our particular regions. We were to meet with and hold conversations with the leading citizens of the community. We were also to look for sympathy and support from southern clergy in the community. We had little success in this. Only one clergyman was willing to meet with us and that conversation went poorly. "Now my congregation mustn't know I have sympathies for the Negro, or I would lose all influence or might even be fired." The sweet, innocent dentist was the only community leader who spoke with us. Black families were happy to see us, however, and they always waved to us from their porches and greeted us kindly, with shouts of 'Hi, y'all.' We were slow in recognizing this as a southern greeting, meaning 'How are you doing?" Instead we'd always shout back: 'Hi." And the appropriate answer was always returned to us: "Jest fine, thank you!" After a number of days we finally caught on.

James Findlay, writing in the Christian Century, in 1988 said, perhaps a bit hyperbolicly: "On a small but important stage, that band of ministers in Mississippi in 1964 represented one of mainline Protestantism's finest moments."
[The Christian Century: June 8, 1988, pp 574-576]

The more the white folks of the city came to hate us and our presence in their community, the more we came to cherish the friendship and hospitality of the black families. We were welcome in their homes, their stores, their restaurants and in their churches. There were plenty of black folks, too, who invited us to eat with them in their homes or who brought platters of fried chicken and trimmings to Freedom House.

Across the street from Freedom House, drinking cokes amid the faint aroma of pot at George Washington Junior's store, is where everyone really gathered before setting out to urge black citizens to register to vote. The volunteers had been warned about possessing marijuana. Such a charge could get you sent to Parchman, a maximum security prison, for a long time; however, weed was a part of the culture of the time.

Though our job was to act as over-seers and observers, reporting acts of injustice or attempts to block citizens from registering, we decided early on to split up and get more involved. We joined registration teams, to watch how they worked and to see if we could help.

The process was both simple and complex. It was simple for the teams to get in to see people. Almost all the citizens of Canton had heard about the work of the northern volunteers. There were stories in the paper every day. Black citizens were curious and careful. If the coast looked clear, volunteers were ushered immediately into a home to chat. If, however, a resident saw a 'poe-lease' car cruising by, the volunteers were sent away. The police department and the county sheriff's deputies were seen as nothing more than an arm of the infamous KKK.

So much attention was being paid to the disappearance of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, that little national attention was given to another local killing. On May 2nd of 1964, a sheriff's deputy, James Seale, picked up two 19 year old hitch-hikers, Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, and took them to the Homochitto National Forest, in the southwestern part of the state. Seale held the two young men at gun point while other Klansmen beat them with tree branches, bound them, weighted them down by lashing them to an old engine block and some railroad ties, and dumped them into the Mississippi River to die. The bodies would not be found until two months later, while searchers were looking for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, but everyone knew of their disappearance and the message to the black community was clear.

In a typical home, the volunteers would sit down with a resident and explain the procedure they would need to follow in order to register. After carefully explaining, the volunteers would urge the resident to go with them, at that moment, to the county court house to fill out the registration papers. One minister who took black citizens down to the courthouse in Greenwood, a very volatile town in the state, wrote the following about the experience.

"There was the inevitable line-up of whites yelling at us, spitting at us. One guy even urinated in my direction once. I caught a bit of it on my pants. The hardest thing for me was not to respond in some physical manner. I had fought in the Golden Gloves in high school and I usually had a very aggressive manner in my lifestyle. I can remember thinking: 'You dirty S-O-B. I could take you out with one punch.' Not exactly the acceptable thoughts of a clergyman, but my rage was right under the surface and I had to keep remembering the mandate of our instructor – 'Don't lose your cool!'"

Most of the volunteers we tagged along with had been rather carefully trained in Oxford, Ohio, for just this specific task. They'd also been trained in the methods of non-violent protest and resistance to arrest. One of the volunteers sent a series of letters back to a progressive newsletter, called The Idler, and he described the mood among the volunteers when training ended on June 20.

"…most of the volunteers are gathering in the parking lot with their baggage, waiting for buses in which they will travel to their various destinations in the sovereign state of Mississippi. The mood is somber, the laughter is nervous rather than genuine, for what we have learned this week, above all, is the seriousness of the accusation that Mississippi is a police state, a domestic Nazi regime, and that each of the volunteers and staff members will be in real danger of harassment and intimidation in the form of arrests, beatings, jail terms, and even murder from the moment they enter the state."

The volunteers were easily frustrated. We observed that nearly all the residents were polite and heard the volunteers out completely. They nearly always nodded their agreement and congratulated the volunteers for the good work they were doing; however, going down to the court house was another question all together. They weren't very game for such a trip into the heart of white Madison County. One had to constantly remember that most of these black families depended on white employers. That was the trump card that the white community held. But others, like Unita Blackwell, were interested. Her friend, Corinne, warned her to be careful: "They'll get you killed, Unita. You know if white folks around here find out you mixed with Freedom Riders, you liable to be dead."

"I don't know what difference it would make, Corinne, I'm dying anyway."

The results were not dramatic, but it was a beginning. More importantly, it would go on beyond the summer of '64 and the African-American community would more and more come to understand the power that the ballot box held for them. Over the next decades some of their community members were elected to positions of importance – town councilperson, mayors, sheriffs, state legislators and congressional representatives.

The work of the volunteers and the focus that they brought upon the state also motivated federal legislation, like the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act, that forever brought down the walls that prevented certain citizens from voting.

I have never been prouder than the day, sitting in a poor, black church, way out in the countryside in rural Mississippi, when black folks stood, surrounding the volunteers, and cheered and applauded us for the work we were doing. Then they sang for us, as only they can, the extraordinary words that became for them their national anthem.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We'll walk hand in hand some day

We are not afraid, we are not afraid
We are not afraid today
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We'll are not afraid today

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free
The truth shall make us free some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
The truth shall make us free some day

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace
We shall live in peace some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall live in peace some day

END Part Four of Series

Next: Getting out into rural Mississippi and Praying for Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner

Part Six: Saying Goodbye to Angelina and Back Home on the Speaking Circuit

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