Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
Frankye Adams-Johnson was born in Pocahontas, Mississippi, a small town outside of Jackson, Mississippi. She was born to a sharecropper's family, and she is the fourth of seven children.]
See: Jackson Sit-in & Protests, 1963 for background.
When and where were you born?
I was born in Pocahontas, Mississippi. It's a small town outside of Jackson, Mississippi.
Could you tell us about your family and childhood?
I was born to a sharecropper's family. I was the daughter of a sharecropper. A sharecropper is when you live on the farm that belongs to someone else, and you rent part of the land out and help farm the land, that's what a sharecropper is. It's like living in a tenement apartment. It doesn't belong to you; you just rent your little space. So, as a sharecropper you rent the space and work that land. So, I was born to a sharecropper, I am the daughter of a sharecropper family. And I am the fourth child of seven.
Next, we would like you to tell us the story of what you experienced during the civil rights movement.
When I was growing up, I was the daughter of a sharecropper, it was not an easy life, it was very difficult life. And so sometimes children, like me, were not privileged to go to school every day, because we had to stay out and work the farm, pick the cotton, and that prevented us from going to school. That began to have a profound effect on me because I wanted to get on the school bus to go to school like most children.
We also grew up in very separate environments, so blacks lived in one part of town and whites in the other part of town. Black folks were not treated very nicely, and so as a child I observed those things and hearing my parents talking about the bad things that happened to black folks caused me to wonder about why things were, why there was black and white and whites were treated seemingly better and why God allowed these things to happen. If God loves everybody, why he did not love black people and that caused me to wonder if God was a white God like the people who were the bad people that treated the black people badly and poorly.
I grew with all those things wondering around in my head, with all the bad things that I heard of what all happened to black people because of the color of their skin. I began to wonder about those things, when I was seventeen years old, I had moved away from the farm life and my parents, moved into the city, Jackson, Mississippi. And during that time, the time I moved into the city, there was a movement going on in Jackson. The movement that was going on in Jackson was the civil rights movement, which I was not familiar with but there were a lot of movements going on in Jackson. People were fighting for their rights, for the right to be equal, for the right to sit wherever they wanted, for the right to vote and all those things.
I became conscious of those things going on and so when I was seventeen years old, there were students at the nearest college that were protesting and they were doing boycotts and in the city and they were sitting at the lunch counter. One of those students happened to be a member of my church. So I began to get involved with the NAACP youth council and I began to understand things that were going on and wanted to be a part of them.
In 1963, I was one of the students that organized a walk out of my high school in support of the students that were sitting in from the nearby college. During that march in 1963, the students that marched from the high school, we had three black high schools, and I was a student out of Salman Brinkley High School. There were three black high schools. We went to segregated schools in those days, so black folks went to black high schools and white folks went to white schools.
So to support the students that were demonstrating and the students that were sitting in at lunch counters, the students that had gone to jail, we were going to march down to support those students. But we didn't get very far because we were arrested and then put into jail, then put into garbage trucks, there were not enough paddy wagons. A paddy wagon is where you put people when you take them off to jail. They were called paddy wagons. There were not enough paddy wagons to put the students in, so they brought up garbage trucks and the students were hauled off to the fairgrounds and the students were placed in compounds where they kept livestock. So we became the human livestock. They put us in the compound where they kept the livestock.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you during the civil rights movement?
I got hit across my back. Before I got hit across my back, I had told the officer, the guard that got us after our arrest. We got in the paddy wagon and I was sitting in there and it was a hot day in the summer, a very hot day in July. And we sat waiting to get booked. That means you have to wait and go through a process where they get your name and fingerprint you and lock you up. And so we were waiting in the paddy wagon to get processed for jail. I got down from the truck to pick up something that I had dropped, to get my writing pad. As I got back up into the truck the police officer hit me across the back and pulled his rifle on me. His rifle, he cocked his rifle and I guess he was going to shoot my back but the other demonstrators pulled me inside. The other demonstrators pulled me very quickly into the paddy wagon. But that was pretty scary and it also made me very, very angry.
And then I think one time, I was driving around Jackson for a couple hours and some officers threatened that they were going to do terrible things to me. They were going to stop me somewhere and no one would ever know, so that was pretty scary. Before they took me off to the city jail, they drove me around for a couple hours and threatened to leave me some place and do terrible things to me and no one would ever know. So that was pretty scary and there were other incidence that were kind of scary. When we went to the March on Washington, we stayed in this town called Meridian, and when we came back we were attacked by gang members. They came out and they were throwing stuff at us. That was pretty scary. There was a mob of people attacking us when we had just got back from the March on Washington. So, there have been a few scary incidents.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
No, I don't think there was ever a time when I felt like giving up. I always felt that we were fighting for something. We were fighting for our freedom, we were fighting for justice, we were fighting for human rights, we were fighting for civil rights, and that became so important that the thought of giving up never really occurred. We had a song that we used to sing, We will never turn back until we are all been free, until we have equality.' It's that kind of thing, like a song, that gives you courage and keeps you going. So no, I don't know that there was ever a time I thought about giving up. It mostly inspired me to keep fighting on. Even today I don't feel like things are different and even today, I don't feel like giving up. I suspect I get discouraged sometimes but I never say, oh let me throw my hands up and just nothing is ever going to change.' I've always believed that things change if we help make them change.
How did the assassination of Martin Luther King impact the movement?
Oh, now you're asking me how did the assassination of Martin Luther King impact the movement? I would rather respond to if you asked me how the assassination of Medgar Evers impacted our lives here in Mississippi. Have you ever heard of Medgar Evers?
I'd rather talk about, most of the time we hear so much about Martin Luther King, but I'd like to talk about people that you don't hear that much about. I'd like to respond to your question now and use it about how the assassination of Medgar Evers had an effect on my life. How about that?
How did the assassination of Medgar Evers affect your life?
Medgar Evers was the NAACP field secretary here in Jackson, Mississippi, and Medgar Evers was one of the youth leaders. His assassination was the first death, in terms of nationally known leaders, that impacted my life and had an impact on our life here in Mississippi. In the sense that being very young, 17 years old and knowing someone closer had been killed. We knew Medgar Evers closer; it wasn't like someone that we read about, he was someone that we knew. He was someone that we spent time with; he was someone that taught us what it was to stand up for what you believe in and someone who encouraged us. So when you grow up here, you hear about people getting killed and hearing about bad things that happen to black people and bad things that happen to people who stand up and fight for their human rights and the civil rights, and this is the first time that I actually knew someone closer. I was with that someone less than an hour before his assassination, and so the impact of that was very, very devastating. It was the first time that I really realized what it meant to get killed, to be gunned down, to be assassinated for what you believe in, so the impact of that was devastating, the impact of that left many of us very saddened because that was the very first time that it was the reality, bad things can really happen. It was not what you hear but what you know now, that bad things can happen. The impact of that was devastating but even with the death of, you say Martin Luther King , but I like to say Medgar Evers was devastating. He was assassinated before Martin Luther King. But then you know these things are real and they really can happen to people like me, that they can kill these very peaceful people and they can also kill me. But it did not make you want to give up, the impact of that. You want to, in spite of the threat, in spite of knowing that you could die. It made you want to still fight on. "Before I'll be a slave, I'll be in my grave" is another song that used to keep us going because you know that even though these bad things are happening, even though these great people are being gunned down and being assassinated, that was part of the sacrifice you made. And so the impact of that made you sad and scared but also gave you courage that you wanted to fight harder, you know? So it was that kind of impact, that you're saddened and you're scared but these people were willing to sacrifice their lives. That was just part of you begin to realize that's just part of what you do when you say that you will stand up and fight for something.
Do you think there is still segregation today?
Oh, please honey, I've probably seen it being just as segregated. I don't know where it's not. It's probably segregated where you are. So let me ask you, are there black students on your team doing this interview?
Are there many black people in your school?
A very minority of it.
Probably in the minority. When you go to school, you probably see about five or six black people in a class if that many. So now I'll put the question back on you, do you think it's still segregated?
Yes, a little.
So things are still very segregated, that black folks still live on their side of the town even though you have places where it seems to be a good mix. But, when you put it all together, when you shake it all up and say, well now,' and see how much is integrated and how much is segregated, it's probably 80 percent would be segregated. Now, whether that's by choice. It's not as overtly by force, there's no laws that says that you cannot live at a certain place, but then you have economics and you have other things. Situations that force people to be segregated so, if there's a mix it's usually where is economic basis, is class based. So, if you're a very low class person of certain economic status, I should say then you cannot afford to live certain in places, so in a sense then economic situations force people to live separately. So we don't have the laws that say that black people cannot live on the streets in that town, you have situations that dictate where people live.
Were you ever afraid to lose anything while protesting like family, friends, or your job?
Well, my family could possibly lose their job. When I was protesting, my mother was sometimes hesitant when she let her children go out and protest. She could also lose her job and that was the threat our family had to live by. The majority of people's parents would not let them go back out because they could possibly lose their jobs. Did you see the movie that just recently came out about families during the civil rights movement? It definitely depended on the amount of participation or how much input they had in the movement because of the parents losing their jobs. The cost or threat of losing your job was always there. It was just happening all around you. You guys have probably seen the book, Eyes on the Prize. That is a documentary about young people going out to demonstrate the threats. You always knew the things that could happen to you, that you could end up in jail, might not come out alive. Those were real things that we were faced with.
Would you ever go back and change something that you did? Do you have any regrets?
No, I don't know that I would have any regrets but I think that the one thing we did is the day we started to fight. I would not go back and change any of that because it is making me the woman that I am, the conscientious person I am. They make me the courageous person I am. Equipped me with knowledge and I can pass it down to the younger generation and be a role model for the young generation to tell them that it is better to stand for something, than spend your life never trying. You and I knew we stood for something but there is not much I have changed. There are things I can pass down. I am a grandmother now so I can pass down these stories to them and show them that human beings, we constantly have things that confront us in life and stuff; those wonderful opportunities to make change, to make a difference in our lives, to be a person of courage and of faith. So, I don't know if there is anything that I would change.
How did you feel at the time about the national leadership or the president, or how about the regard for the civil rights action?
Kennedy was still very alive during those days, I think probably the president, I wouldn't give much credit to him. The national leaders I think were forced to listen to the people. They were put in a position where they had to listen. In 1964, are you informed about the Mississippi Reformation Party? They had powerful people put pressure on the political system at the time, so I don't know that I would say well about all that because Kennedy was so sympathetic towards the movement that things changed. I think what happened, there were so many people concerned about the injustice that people forced on political people who had the power to actually do something, to make a change. So, in response to what you asked me, a lot of people today think that Barrack Obama is a black man, he is going to do so much for the underdogs, for the poor people or the less fortunate people. That is not necessarily so, that's not how that works. People get tired of our situations, but the one thing that came out of the Civil Rights Movement is that it's not so much the national government, it's that the change needed to be people standing up and some of the people did put change. So I don't know if I give credit to our national leaders, or if they made a change, people just insisted that we want change and they needed to respond to our needs, people had a democracy that decided who is going to be our national leader and if people decide that then people should decide what surely they should be doing.
Were you ever harassed by people you knew or didn't know?
I don't know if I was harassed by people who knew me or didn't. It was mostly as a child, as a young child growing up in Pocahontas, Mississippi, every time I would walk through the white side of town to get to my colored school, which was on the other side of town. I had to walk through the meanest neighborhood and every day we were harassed. We were called the "N" word every day. A little white kid would come out and just call us the "N" word multiple times. He would do this every day. Also I had several experiences coming through that side of town. Sometimes the dogs were let out on us by a particular woman who lived on the little white strip we would have to pass through. So there was harassment. Also on the March to Washington, we were often called names and people would hurl and throw things at us. They would also hurl racial slurs at us. I don't know that I've ever been harassed by anyone that I know.
How much different do you think your life would be if you weren't involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
Now there is a profound question! I think that my life would be very shallow. I think that I would be like some people, unconscious of what's going on today. I think that I would be selfish. Look at people who are selfish today and some are not from that experience. They should feel secure with their own needs and essentials. I would be probably one of those people you know, satisfied with my domain, content with that I have a nice home, that I have a nice car to drive, content that I have a job. I'm hearing that right around the corner from me are people who suffer. There are people who still don't have the right to the treat of life. There still don't have decent houses for their shelter, people who are not getting a quality education. They are still people who are getting charged with crimes that perhaps they didn't commit, and so had I not gone through the Civil Rights Movement, knowing what it means to have equality, what injustice means, I would now not be able to process the injustices that I still see exist today. I wouldn't have the desire to encourage young people to be concerned about injustices. I think that it was an educational process for me; it gave me an opportunity to become caring about what happened to my fellow man.
What life lessons did you learn during that time period?
The most important thing that I learned is that if you don't stand for something, then you will fall for anything. That if you don't fight for your freedom, that if you don't fight for your rights and you don't know where it is that you came from, that is certainly about to repeat, that you could end up being a slave. That the life lessons that I learned is that you must stand and you must fight for the things that you believe in, you must stand on those no matter what is up against you. You must stand for what it is that you believe in.
Frankye Adams Johnson currently is an English teacher at Jackson State University. She is a poet, speaker, and fiction writer. She is now writing a novel/memoir about her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.]
Interviewed and Transcribed: Karl Bauman, Amanda Brown, Emily Bauman
Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013