Some Random Notes From the Leflore County Jail
James Forman, SNCC
March-April, 1963

[These notes were written during a period in the movement when the tactic of "jail without bail" was being developed in an effort to dramatize the struggle for civil rights. Jail without bail was also an attempt to deal with the problem of soaring costs of the fight for justice — bail and other legal expenses. Forman and his co-prisoners had been attempting to help the Negroes of Greenwood, Miss. register to vote. During this campaign in 1963 police first used dogs against civil rights demonstrators. The selection is printed here for the first time with permission of James Forman, who at that time executive was Executive Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

As reprinted from Black Protest: 350 Years of History, Documents, and Analyses, by Joanne Grant.

See Rock Hill SC, "Jail-No-Bail" Sit-ins and Marching For Freedom in Greenwood for background & more information.

We have been in jail one week today. Our morale is good, although there are serious undertones of a desire to be free among some members of the group. Now and then, the jokes of one or two turn to the outside. John Doar of the Justice Department received some sharp, but still humorous comments from some of the fellows. They actually believed the Justice Department would have had them out by Monday. When we received news that the temporary injunction had been denied [we] were somewhat disappointed. Some of us tried to explain that we must prepare ourselves psychologically to spend six months in this jail.

The cell in which we are being held is not bad so far as American prisons go. (The entire penal system needs reforming.) We are eight in a cell with six bunks. We have two mattresses on the floor. There is an open shower, a sink, a stool. It took us two days to get a broom and five days to get some salt for our food. The inner cell in which we are "contained" is approximately 15'x12'. Not much room; is there? ...

People outside send us food. When we were in the city jail, we got food twice a day. Here we received a great deal Sunday, enough to last us till today. We are counting on someone to replenish our supply. However, [my doctor] has been to see me three times since I have been in the county jail. Each time she brings some food which I share with the fellows.

So far as my own diet is concerned, I have had sufficient eggs and bananas to sustain me. I must guard against giving these away since I don't want to become ill. They, the prison officials, have allowed me to take medicine and the doctor keeps me supplied. I am really not suffering due to my ulcers, although my sickness helps the group — through the visit of the doctor.

We are also improving our minds. We have been allowed to keep our books and we have sufficient cigarettes. I even have my pipe and some tobacco. Personally, I have tried to organize our lives. Do you expect anything else of me? We have occasional classes. [Bob] Moses gave us an excellent math lecture the other day. I gave one lesson in writing and english. [Lawrence] Guyot has delivered several in biology. We are always having discussions. Sometimes one of us will read a passage from a book and then we will discuss the meaning of it. We have had several stimulating conversations based on Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience and N'krumah's thoughts on positive action. ...

Around eleven o'clock we usually turn out the one large light in the middle of the room. We do not have sheets or blankets. We sleep in our underclothes. I suppose if it got cold we would put on our clothes.

In the morning when we get up we have grits, biscuits, and a piece of salt pork for breakfast. Then we sweep the cell. Some Random Notes from the Leflore County Jail 331 For the last two days Bob, Guyot and I have swept the cell and scrubbed it on our hands and knees. During the morning we usually have discussions, showers, play chess, talk and wait for beans or peas and cornbread which arrive around two o'clock. We do not have any more meals from the county until the next rooming.

My personal opinions as to the significance of our staying in jail follow. I am convinced that all the people connected with SNCC are busily engaged in protesting our unjust imprisonment. This is as it should be. I am also convinced that others sympathetic to the cause of Freedom are also alarmed at this travesty of justice.

Perhaps more important is that only our bodies are confined to this cell. Our minds are free to think what we wish and we know our stay here will also pass away. Our imprisonment serves to dramatize to the nation and to the world that the black man does not even have the right to try to be an American citizen in some parts of our so-called democracy.

Our jail without bail may also serve to remind others in the movement of the need for some of us to stay in jail to dramatize the situation.

On a local and state level it is important that we stay in jail, for people are remembered more by what they do than by what they say. We have been telling Mississippians that we must prepare to die. We have encouraged them to accept our beliefs. Thus it follows that we must lead by example rather than by words.

Moreover, many acts of violence have been committed in Greenwood. The people are not afraid, but when, perhaps, they see our spirit and determination, they will have more courage. Then too, the government must assume its responsibility for our release. If the Civil Rights Act of 1960 is ever to mean anything, then those arrested in connection with voter registration activities must be released by the efforts of the U.S. Government.

When our people were arrested in Sunflower county for passing out leaflets announcing a voter registration meeting, it was really the government which should have sought their release. Instead of this, bond was posted and then the government moved slowly to get the cases dropped and some consent agreement from local officials about future arrests and interference with voter registration workers. Perhaps more important than these social and political reasons is the personal significance that our imprisonment has for us. I have not yet asked each person for his personal reaction. As for myself, I am glad to make a witness for a cause in which I believe. I am glad for the chance to meditate, to think of many things, and to see the world continue as I sit here. ...

All of us are determined that once we are out we will walk to the courthouse with some more people. We have been discussing the dogs which most Mississippi officials try to use to halt demonstrations. I personally feel that I must be bitten by one of these dogs for I don't believe we can continue to run from them. It must come to this, for the officials really believe and the record proves them correct, that Negro demonstrators or peaceful citizens are not willing for dogs to bite them. ...

We sing of course. We are singing now. We love "We'll never turn back." We have added a new verse. "We have served our time in jail with no money for to go our bail."

We place this as the second stanza.

Every night when the lights are out we sing this song. It is beautiful and it symbolizes our state-the entire song. Please tell Bertha [Gober, one of the Freedom Singers] to keep writing songs. She has a talent which should not be wasted. ...

There is so much noise in the cell at times. We are trying to work out a schedule. [Willie (Wazir)] Peacock suggested last night that our time might be better spent if we had a schedule. Concurrently with this idea Guyot was suggesting that if ever a dispute arose two people should take one side, two the other and the remaining four should decide. Consequently the question of a schedule was put before the floor. [LaFayette] Surney and [Frank] Smith objected to the schedule. Forman, [Charles] McLaurin and Guyot favored it. All arguments were presented as if we were speaking before a court. James Jones just consented to act as judge. He resigned and Peacock accepted the judgeship.

Smith presented some reductio ad absurdum arguments which were easily shattered. Finally the judge ruled in favor of the schedule. By this time LaFayette was sleeping. The next incident around which there was disagreement was the light bulb. There is one light bulb in the middle of the room. Each night it seems that someone has objections to it being turned out. Usually a compromise is worked out.

Interestingly, people are quoting Thoreau — Government is best which governs least — and then applying it to the cell. There are many divergent wills operating in this cell; a few people seek to have their own way at all times and seldom, if ever, indicate a willingness to understand others and give a little.

From these random notes you will perhaps catch a glimpse of what life is like in the cell. It is this that I am trying to portray.

We seem to have a morale problem. ...[One person] wants to leave the cell and says if he is not out by Sunday he wants bail. We have to constantly remind him and a few others that one cannot depend upon the Justice Department. One must prepare himself psychologically to stay here six months. If the government gets us out, fine. If not, then we ought to be prepared to stay for the reasons I mentioned earlier...

I am hungry; I just asked Guyot for a biscuit. It is cold not very appetizing. I can only eat a small piece and drink two cups of water. I now have a plastic cup from which to drink. Last night Annell Ponder sent Moses some tomato juice in a pitcher along with a plastic cup.

We have just had breakfast. ... Rice, biscuits and a piece of oil sausage. I don't know if I am supposed to eat the sausage, but I did. I was very hungry. My supply of eggs is out. I have one left. I only have three small,bananas. The next meal is at two o'clock. ...

John Doar paid us a visit this morning and said that we would probably be taken to Greenville this afternoon or tomorrow morning. ...

Doar ... felt that their complaint was not sufficiently prepared to get the order Monday.

Also they [the Justice Department] did not have affidavits supporting the events of last Wednesday. He takes the position that people working on voter registration have the right to peaceful protest of incidents such as the last shooting. He also suggested that Judge Clayton was not going to let anyone take advantage of us but at the same time he was not going to allow anyone to be cute in his courtroom. Clayton is known to run a strict courtroom. We were also asked to be clean in the courtroom. Therefore we are sending for some more clothes, for we are in bad shape. ...

12:30 pm: Sather of the Justice Department interviewed me about the events and while we were talking I heard some singing on the outside and our fellows yelling. Later we found out that 19 more people had been arrested. We sang and sang. There are five women in the cell next door. One old woman is now praying as the old folks pray in the South. Her voice has a musical quality as she appeals and prays to God, she is praying for freedom in Greenwood, she is praying for mercy on Greenwood, she is praying for forgiveness in Greenwood, please she cries, go into the hospital, hold the church of God, you told us to love one another, there does not seem to be any love in this, look this town over Jesus and do something about the condition. Whatsoever a man soweth, that also shall he reap, that we might have our equal rights. ...

8:07 pm Wednesday, April 3, 1963.

We are now in the Washington County jail. We have been transferred so that we might testify in the injunction hearing tomorrow morning.

We were brought from Leflore County by Federal Marshals. When we came down from our cell we saw these Federal Marshals with handcuffs and chains. Each person had a chain placed around him and was handcuffed to the chain. Serious protests were made about this treatment. Such remarks as "the powerful Federal government" were uttered. It was somewhat ironic because upstairs we were all depending upon the federal government. It was even more ironic because I am sure the local officials were against the government taking us to Greenville and interfering with their affairs. Perhaps it seemed strange to them that we were complaining about the same forces to which they were opposed. ...

An interesting thing happened when the boys from the Justice Department were interviewing us this morning. Boll Weavill Styles locked them up also in the room. They were somewhat furious.

Well, when I was handcuffed, I asked the Deputy Marshal Hubert Jones to pick up my personal papers and my bag. He shoved the papers under my arms, put the tall shopping bag in my hands. I already had my suit hanging on my handcuffs. I had a hard time commg down the stairs trying to balance the bag. I asked Jones if he could help me with my bag. He simply gave me a slight shove on the back. ...

The prisoners are now requesting that we sing songs.

Our plan has worked: We wanted to get them in the freedom mood. One wonders what the preachers are doing, today. They are not in the Mississippi struggle, nor do they visit the jails. These prisoners are not really prisoners; they are starving for companionship and some fresh insights to make a dull, routine life more pleasant. ...

8:30 am: Thursday, April 4, 1963. We have been up for two hours and a half.

8:45 am: We are all dressed up in our best clothes, which is not to say very much, for most of them are borrowed clothes and hand-me-downs. Clothes in the movement are not very important. We often interchange from necessity. Most of the people working now complain that they have lost a few items in the movement. Peacock says he came into the movement with six pairs of shorts, now he has one. James Jones says that if Jessie Harris came up here now and demanded his clothes he would be naked. ...

Let us discuss sanitation. Last night we were given large clean towels here and a blanket. In Greenwood, we had to beg for toilet paper and, imagine, they would never give us a towel. Frank Smith has a cold from the lack of a blanket in the Greenwood jail. There is something of a decent shower here — a shabby one in Greenwood. Even the cells, five to a block and a large playroom, makes for better sanitation.

11:45 am: We are Free!

We sang this morning at the request of the prisoners. Many of them joined us. Each has the stories of many prisoners and I will get that from him. One of the things we have all discovered is that much prison reform is needed. There is absolutely no justification for the length of time people without bail must stay in jail waiting for their trial. I am reminded that I'm supposed to appear at some convention of criminologists in Louisville. I forget the date, but they are supposed to discuss some problems of race and jail procedure in the south. I imagine there are many whites who must stay in jail a long time waiting for their trial.

We had a good breakfast this morning. Rice, butter, jelly, light bread, eggs, gravy, coffee, and an orange. Compared to the diet of the Greenwood jail, it was a sumptuous meal. There is no justification for not feeding prisoners a balanced diet. Greenwood should be ashamed. We never had a cup of coffee during the entire week we spent there. I shall speak to the sheriff about this.

Copyright © James Forman, 1963

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