Reflections on Growing Up In Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1960's
Clarence L. Johnson
April, 2013

[See Mississippi Voter Registration — Greenwood for background & more information.]

"What do you want?" The question was asked at a Mass Meeting by "Movement" leaders.

The correct response, "FREEDOM!"

The follow-up question, "When do you want it?" No prompting necessary for this answer... "NOW!!!"

At twelve years of age, I joined the Youth Chapter of the NAACP and thus began my awakening to the realities of Democracy, Civil Rights, Social Justice and the struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom. Along the journey came SNCC, SCLC, CORE & NUL.

By August of 1963 (twenty days past my 13th birthday), I was on a Greyhound Bus riding to the March on Washington for Jobs, Justice & Equality with [NAACP] State President Aaron Henry et al.

There are three categories which come to mind as I reflect on growing up in Greenwood during the turbulent years of the 1960's. They are: (1) The People; (2) The Songs and (3) The Movement.

The people — Brother Jordan, who wore both a belt and suspenders (braces) to hold up his pants, yet the conservative style of dress did not give a true picture of this passionate advocate for Civil Rights as he opened most Mass meeting with fiery speeches.

Freedom was his nick-name. I never knew his real name but he turned-out for every march and Mass Meeting I attended.

Lula Bell Johnson (a local housewife and mother of ten children) was as vocal & courageous as Brother Jordan & Freedom. She died early in the Movement but one of her daughters, June Johnson, picked up the mantle and carried it wonderfully for more than 30 years.

Medgar Evers giving a $100.00 check to a sharecropper's family who were kicked off the plantation because they dared to attempt to register to vote.

Dick Gregory, the comedian who brought humor and reason to his appearances at the Mass Meetings. Fannie Lou Hamer's (Mrs. Hamer) words, "I'm sick & tired and sick & tired of being sick & tired" are still fresh. Paul & Wendy Kline were married in Greenwood during the Summer of 1964 while working as Freedom School Teachers. Stokely Carmichael, A. Philip Randolph, James Foreman, Jim Farmer, Sam Block, Dave Dennis, Roy Wilkens, Jim Bevel, Willie Ricks, Willie Peacock, The Actors from the Free Southern Theater & Dr. King. WOW!!!

All of these people and many more came to Greenwood & to Mississippi to help...and what a difference their presence made.

The Songs..."This Little Light of Mine, I'm Gonna Let It Shine!" "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, I'm gonna keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking marching up that Freedom-way!"

"We've been 'buked and we're been scorned. We've been talked about as sure as you're born. BUT we'll never turn back. NO, we'll never turn back."

"They say that Freedom is a lonesome struggle! Oh Lord, we've struggled so long we must be free!"

Over my head, I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere!

The music was part entertainment, part motivation & inspiration but always hopeful and always insightful.

Finally, there was The Movement...God-inspired, God-led and God-daring. Mass Meetings held in Churches had an air of Revival as vital information was shared to encourage, uplift and equip all who were preparing to live in this new way in a new day. The words were ringing like the singing...Courage, Faith, Freedom, Justice, Equality, Voter Registration, Non-violent Protests, Integration, Freedom Riders, Canvassing, Door-to-Door Conversations, Leafleting, Picketing, Buttons & Pins, Respect for the Dignity of All Human Life. These all led to arrests, jail, bail, beatings, death and facing down fear.

It was because people came, sang songs and shared in the work of the Movement that opportunities to vote, visit places of public accommodations heretofore that were off-limits, attend schools/colleges/universities now integrated, get decent jobs & fair wages, hold elected office, buy homes and participate more fully in the democratic process.

Those who came, many of them were so young yet so determined to make this country a better place for all to live. The change that was ushered in was nothing short of miraculous. The struggle continues for a more perfect Union but with the template given and the lessons of history learned we've come to far from where we started from to turn back now.

What do you want? Freedom!!! When do you want it? NOW!!!

Copyright © Clarence L. Johnson. 2013

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