The last two weeks of September and the month of October 1963 were spent organizing and campaigning for a mock election in which Negroes throughout the state of Mississippi were asked to participate.
[See Freedom Ballot in MS for more information.]
SNCC, in cooperation with other civil rights organizations, canvassed the entire state in an effort to bring the issue of the importance of political power to the Negro community. In many ways, both Negroes in various communities and SNCC field workers, were harassed and intimidated by the local police in an effort to discourage political activities of any kind. The following is an example of one of the methods that local police, under the direction of local political power structures, seek to make sure that workers are discouraged from taking part in political activity.
Charles Cobb and I arrived at the Jackson, Mississippi office (Henry-for-Governor Campaign Headquarters) at approximately 7pm to talk with Bob Moses (Mississippi SNCC leader) about the possibility of getting more manpower and a better means of transportation in and around the counties we were assigned to canvass. We had spent the entire day canvassing in Issaquena and Sharkey Counties. Moses decided that he would rent some cars to supplement the need to be more mobile in the counties. He asked us to wait around and go with him to the airport to pick up a couple of rented cars later that night. Around 11:15, Cobb, Jessie Harris, and I met with Moses in the office and left for the airport. We got into a 1963 Oldsmobile that Moses had rented earlier. We were to pick up two 1963 Ford Galaxies and leave the Oldsmobile for Moses. (He was taking a plane flight and would return in a few hours.)
We pulled into the parking space reserved for rented cars at the Jackson Municipal Airport. A green Valiant police car was parked with the motor running just a few cars away. As we got out of the car, a policeman came over and checked out the license on our car and told Bob Moses to "come here." The rest of us walked inside the terminal building where Moses joined us in a couple of minutes. Moses reported that the cop asked him if the Olds was rented. Bob then gave Jessie Harris one set of keys for the two rented cars (Fords) and myself the other set. Then he discovered that he only had papers for one Ford. Bob tried to call the office several times but the line either went dead or someone answered and said it was the wrong number. Finally we got a line through and someone from the office was to bring out the papers for the other Ford.
The policeman who had previously questioned Bob was now wandering around the terminal watching him board his plane. We returned downstairs to wait for the other papers. The policeman told us we would have to leave the airport or be arrested for vagrancy. Although we explained that we were waiting for someone, he threatened to arrest us again.
We all got into the white rented Ford for which I had papers and was driving. The policeman also got into his car and followed us out of the airport onto the highway. While we were on the highway the green Valiant police car passed us and two other police cars, both white, started following us. About a half mile from the Jackson City limits, one of the police cars flagged me off the road. One of the policemen got out of the car and told me to pullover to the gas station across the highway. All of us were ordered out of the car and searched. I gave the police my license.
There were four policemen. They told us to put our hands up. During this time, the policemen started a series of verbal harassments and intimidations. They threw in a couple of threatening gestures for good measure. Their language was abusive and vile: ... "Nigger, where you from? ... Boy! what's your name? ... Goddamned nigger twenty years old, ain't old enough to register himself, come down here to get other niggers to register. ... If you stay down here long enough, you gonna make a mistake. ... Just like your mother paddled your behind, I'm going to have to paddle yours. ... Goddamned NAACP Communist trouble maker, ain't you, Boy? ..."
After about twenty minutes of that and other forms of routine Mississippi cop interrogation, one of the policemen told me I was under arrest for having illegal plates on the car. I got into the back of one of the police cars while one of the policemen got in the front of the other car. The other three fellows were still standing in front of the gas station with their hands up. A policeman got into the front of the car in which I was sitting and turned around and looked at me as we were driving off. It seemed as though the harassment was to begin again.
"... Nigger, what's your mamma's name?" I didn't answer. " Boy, if you feel so God damned sorry for these black son of a bitches, why don't you take them all up north with you? ... Nigger, if I had your god damned ass over in Branden I'd kill you. Before you goddamned black Communist son of a bitch, started coming down here, everything was all right. Niggers down here don't need to vote — ain't supposed to vote."
All during this period of time I was just sitting, only answering questions which seemed half-way reasonable and that I felt were in his jurisdiction to ask. Finally, he told me that if the federal government ever sent troops down to Jackson, he would kill every nigger he met. "Boy, don't you know that whites are better than niggers?" I told him "No." He unbuckled his holster, pulled out his gun and swung it at me. It caught me across the knuckles of my right hand.
"God damned black bastards think they're going to be taking over around here. Well, you and the other god damned Moses' niggers around here ain't gonna git nuthin' but a bullet in the haid!" With that, he swung his gun at me again and caught me on the other hand. "Black son of a bitch, I'm gonna kill you, nigger. God damn it, I'm gonna kill you!" He was almost hysterical as he lifted his gun and put it just inches from my face. He cocked the hammer and for a couple of seconds I felt it was just about all over. Just about the same time he was cocking the hammer, one of the other three policemen who were outside with the fellows, came in and told the other cop, "You just can't kill that nigger, heah."
They both just stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. I noticed that the other policemen were in the car and the fellows I was with had gotten back into the Ford. Finally, the cop who had arrested me threw my license in my face. "Don't let me catch your ass here in Rankin County agin, nigger, evah agin, or Ah'll kill you."
I got back into the driver's seat of my car and tried to calm my nerves which felt like they were about to explode. I explained to the fellows what happened. It was already after two o'clock. Moses had taken off at 12:32, so we had been out here on the highway for nearly two hours.
As I drove back to the office, I reflected over the incident just narrated. There was simply nothing to do except to chalk it up as something to be expected, especially when you're trying to bring the vote to the black man in Mississippi.
Copyright © Ivanhoe Donaldson, 1963.
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