[After participating in sitins and protests in Jackson MS, at the age of 21 Charles McLaurin joined SNCC's voter-registration/community-organizing project in the Mississippi Delta in 1962. He because a key organzer in Sunflower County, and when Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer's ran for Congress in 1964 he was her campaign manager. He continued to work and organize in Sunflower County and was still living there at the time of this interview.]
See 1964 Mississippi Summer
Project for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.
Charlie Cobb:. When you first heard about the idea of the 1964 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, what did you think of the idea?
Charles McLaurin: Well right away I was against it because I thought that it would kind of interfere with the work we'd being doing. We'd been trying to work with the Black sharecroppers and others, trying to get them to get rid of that mentality that a white person was always right; that they always had to do what a white person told them to do, and that they in some degree feared to challenge. and now here we were about to bring a lot of young white people in.
I thought that would cause a problem with these Blacks thinking that these people were superior to them. Because even in Mississippi the older Blacks had to treat young white kids the same as they treated their parents, the old white people, so they had to give them respect and I thought that would be counterproductive for what we were trying to do to get them to overcome the fear and the hesitance to speak up.
Cobb: Now you were working pretty closely with Mrs. Fanniie Lou Hamer, and I know that she was very much for the Summer Project because she hemmed me up on the wall and said, "Charlie, I'm glad you came here, so why are you opposed to other young people coming down here from the North." Did she speak to you about your opposition to the project?
McLaurin: Yeah, we talked about it and she said, "Mac, it's not gonna have the same effect as a local white person talking because these are northern people and we need them to help make the nation respect us, treat us fair and these people are in position to do that . So just leave it alone Mac, and let this happen." She told me to trust her and that it would work.
And then Bob [Moses] was saying it's gonna happen, the summer project is gonna happen; so I had a choice of going along with it or getting out. And I didn't wanna get out because I had found a home, you know. I'd gotten used to these people that I was working with. They were afraid I was gonna leave and go back to Jackson [Mississippi] where I'm from. When they were telling me that, I'd say no I'm gonna be here through the end. So I wanted to stay there — had to stay.
But now, hey, it turned out to be to be one the best things that happened in the Delta and in places like Ruleville. We brought these young white kids in — a few like Tracy Sugarman the artist weren't even kids — and they treated these Blacks with respect. Many of these kids who came down were from — in fact all of them were from — middle class families but like Congressman Don Edwards' son they lived with the people. He lived in a shanty shack with some older Blacks where they didn't have running water in the house; had to go outdoors where he had to bathe in a little foot tub or a tin tub.
So a relationship developed between these young kids and the older Blacks where it taught the community that there were different white people in the nation; that all white people were not like the white Mississippians that they worked for or that they would meet every day on the street.
Cobb: By the time the discussions about the Summer Project began, Mrs. Hamer was on SNCC's staff and active in the Movement. What was the reaction of other people in Ruleville and Sunflower County when they first heard about this Summer Project? What was their attitude about this idea?
McLaurin: There was some excitement especially among young people in Ruleville. We had a pretty good group of them. You know, even when we started out we had young people who were just graduating from high school. But by the summer of '64 about two years had passed and many of these kids had either gone to college or they were married or they were just gone north. So there was a new group in Ruleville and it was exciting to them because I had made friends with Eddie Fair who is now a tax collector here in Jackson, and Tommy Allen who's an automobile dealer here in Jackson.
They were coming around and involving themselves in the movement. I got about six girls in Ruleville put in jail in Drew in 1964 by taking them up there to canvass, Ora Doss and Ruby Doss and Betty Surney, all got locked up. Ruleville was excited. When the volunteers were coming in June between June 25 and June 28th or 29th they all came to Fannie Lou Hamer's house. Before I left Oxford [Ohio] we had designated the big pecan tree at Mrs. Hamer's house as where they should come. So, all of these young people standing or sitting under that tree on a Sunday was exciting. The community kinda came around and stood around, and Mrs. Hamer came out and talked to them and it was exciting. That was a good introduction to the community for them. I never heard a discouraging word from any Black people about it. It was a good thing.
Cobb: Of course, the flip side of that question is, what do you remember about how white people were reacting once the word got out that you were gonna have these students coming in to Ruleville or Sunflower County?
McLaurin: If you recall, right here in Jackson they set up tanks, the Allen Thompson tank. They got tanks ready up in Sunflower County too. They put on a lot of auxiliary policemen. The sheriff up there at that time was W.I. Hollowell, and he and I had had a lot of confrontations, mostly verbal, and he had been to the FBI Academy. And he came up on the same day that the volunteers arrived and just rode through the community. Local whites drove by too, yelling obscenities.
Cobb: Driving by where?
McLaurin: By Mrs. Hamer's house around the Ruleville Sanctified Quarters; and a lot of phone calls came to Mrs. Hamer's house from whites. They did cancel the insurance on the church and threatened to burn it down.
Cobb: On Williams Chapel?
McLaurin: On Williams Chapel, yeah. And then they did firebomb Williams Chapel a few days after the kids were there, but the bomb just damaged the front of the church and didn't do a lot of damage. But all the white community was up in arms about the whole project, but Hollowell, the sheriff promised us that there would be no violence. He told me he was not for the Freedom Summer Project, he was not for integration, but he was gonna make sure that he protected everybody with no violence. And we didn't have any, for the first few weeks, we didn't really encounter violence until we got into Indianola [the county seat].
Before Freedom Summer I had had a lot of trouble trying to get out of Ruleville and spread out across the county to Drew, to Indianola. So what I did was stationed, spread some of my kids out in Indianola. Jim Dann — in fact there's a book — Jim wrote a new book about his experiences, memories of Freedom Summer, and just came out a couple of months ago. It's called, Challenging the Mississippi Firebombers: Memories of Mississippi 1964-65, by Jim Dann.
Cobb: I'll have to look for it. I didn't know that.
McLaurin: And you know Tracy Sugarman wrote three books and drawings of the summer.
[Stranger At the Gates: A Summer in Mississippi and We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi.]
It turned out real well. Fannie Lou Hamer was real excited. She got into that, worked very hard. A lot of these volunteers really spent a lot of time around with Mrs. Hamer under that tree and walking through the communities canvassing and everything. But there was always a threat of some kind from the white community. All summer. But nothing really seriously happened till we got to Indianola where they firebombed Mr. Giles' house, beat up Charles Scattergood at the library. But we cracked the town. Cracked Drew too; we got a lot of people put in jail in Drew.
Cobb: In that little, bitty jail; is it still there?
McLaurin: It's still there and they promised to save it for historic purposes.
Cobb: How many volunteers did you have in the county?
McLaurin: At one time I had 29. I think we went up as high as, at the beginning of the summer of '64 I think we had about 22. But then we had two to three others come and then toward the end in the summer of '65 we had as many as 30, 32. I got 20 of them put in jail and all of us got put in jail in Drew. Tracy had to raise money to get us out of jail. We had, in fact we had the first reunion we had, I think we had around about 18 or 19 to attend.
Cobb: Talk some about then how you organized such a group to work. I mean ranging from where they stayed, who puts them up and how you organize putting them up. Did you have rules that they had to follow in order to be working with you?
McLaurin: Yeah, one was that I was always in charge of the group. That and then we had rules like that they were not to be out at night outside of the community where they lived. And they had to report to, we set up an office and a Freedom School there in Ruleville. Anybody leaving had to report the communicator, a guy — Dale — a writer who was in charge of that office, so they had to report: when they left to go home, once they got to where they were staying if there was a phone there, they had to report back and then we would canvassing everyday as a team.
We would never send them out by themselves and it was always myself, or some of the local kids or people like Irene Johnson and Willie Mae Foster who went with them. So one of the things I think at the beginning, some of our [local] people talked about the whites coming down being better educated. They worried that being this way that they may want to take over, or wanna be in charge, not be led by SNCC people. But I made that clear from the start that I was in charge. I did run off a couple of people.
Cobb: Really? For what reason?
McLaurin: Just violated the rules. Got bigheaded, and I sent them on to Jackson. I called down to Jackson and made arrangements for them to go down there. Because I remember one of the people, I'm not gonna call her name, she was a teacher at the Freedom School in Ruleville. She organized a group. We were COFO [Council of Federated organizations], she was gonna call this one COCO.
Cobb: Where did that come from?
McLaurin: That was some name she gave us. And so I shipped her out. People were telling me, we're having trouble out of her; she don't wanna listen to us. She says that she got a right to do this. I say, "well she has got a right to do it in Jackson" and I had Jim Dan to load her in the car and carry her to Jackson. We called Jessie Morris and told him we were sending her there. And we had another, a guy, sent him out of there too. But the point was that they couldn't come to my territory and take over. I was in charge there. I knew the people, the people knew me and I was gonna be there. They were going home eventually.
So the rule was to stay tight as possible. Don't wander off by yourself. Every day we canvassed. Every day I took a crew out myself. Took a crew to Drew. We worked up there. Took a crew to Cleveland in Bolivar County to visit Amzie [Moore]. I took part of my group from Ruleville and stationed them in Indianola. And they all lived with a lady by the name of Mrs. [Irene] Magrouder. They burned her house down.
So these volunteers really gave me an opportunity to do some things that I had been wanting to do, but didn't have the resources and the people to do it. And I had a plan from the beginning. Fannie Lou and I had been trying to get a place in Indianola to speak for a good little while. And the speech she gave is called "Stand Up." There's a book called with that speech [The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To tell It Like It Is].
Cobb: So in the beginning you had difficulty with the idea, opposed the idea, but in the end it worked out. Mrs. Hamer was right essentially.
McLaurin: Look, what it did, it helped the older people and young overcome the hesitancy to look at and speak up to a white person. You know the mentality was that you don't look a white man in the face when he's talking to you, especially a man; a Black man don't look him in the face. Now, Tracy Sugarman lived in a house with Rennie Williams and her husband and granddaughter. And Tracy drove them to a store in Cleveland to shop.
Linda Davis would get about one day, scared me to death. She had about 10 little Black kids because she was one of the Freedom School teachers [with] her. She had a big roadmaster Buick. Yellow and black, high yellow, canary yellow and one day she was driving right down through Ruleville about 20 of these little kids hanging all out of the windows in that Buick.
You know, so the idea was it helped changed the attitude of Blacks about whites being nasty and bad and treating them wrong. I mean they just now felt that they had a connection with these white people. Even when they came back, Tracy Sugarman came back 10 [or a] dozen times, and you know he made movies and was always welcomed. So Freedom Summer in Sunflower County turned out to be a very good thing because a lot of people who were fearful of white people now learned to talk with them.
You know most of them had never sat at the table and ate their breakfast or their lunch with a white person at the table. Now here's Sugarman at the table with Rennie Williams; she's 60-something years old and her husband 70-something years old, with her little granddaughter who's a little baby. Tracy drew a picture of this little girl sitting in the chair and then of her husband sitting in the chair, and then her out in the yard.
The whites learned too just because they had to do things they had never had to do before. Tracy Sugarman: Here's this middle class white guy living up in Westport, Connecticut. He has to go outdoors to take a bath. He gotta go outdoors to the toilet. Congressman Don Edwards came from California because his son Len Edwards was on the project. Here this Congressman is in among these people. He's at the Freedom House acting just like ordinary people. Yet these are white middle-class people. It was really, it was a change and kind of thing that took place. Yeah, in the end to me, Freedom Summer was the best thing that happened. But at the beginning I thought it was going to be the worst thing.
Cobb: So if you had to tell somebody what they needed to understand about the Summer Project, didn't know about the Summer Project, and you just said, "You need to know this about the Summer Project," what would that be?
McLaurin: First of all it made the local communities that the people work in feel that they were not alone. Dr. King once said, don't think that all white people were against us. I think it showed us another side of whites. The other thing was that it brought an awareness of what was happening in Mississippi. It kinda gave us a help get the word out that there were needs in Mississippi and especially on the part of Blacks that needed to be addressed and these people were writing back home. Freedom Summer, Fannie Lou Hamer said, was God sent. She said that, "Mac, this was God sent."
Cobb: One last thing I want you to talk about because, and you may be of all the people I'm talking to the only one for whom this is true, you were an MFDP delegate to the Atlantic City conference. You helped organize the MFDP, but you were also a delegate. How important is, how should we be looking at the MFDP? What was it like for you?
McLaurin: At first, I was really unaware of the importance of MFDP. Even though we were organized in a parallel pod, I liked that idea, and then we were gonna challenge the seating of the all-white delegation in the convention at Atlantic City, New Jersey. Our purpose was to get those seats. But I didn't see the politics of it because at that time I was not as politically aware of how politics worked. I thought that once you got there and presented our evidence, that we were gonna get seated.
In other words, because we got everything here that says that these people are disqualified, they should be disqualified legally. I was in the Hearing Room when Fannie Lou Hamer spoke to the Credentials Committee. I was there and you know I didn't realize the importance of that until after the Convention was over. That the speech that Fannie Lou Hamer made and the President was trying to hide it and cut it off.
Cobb: And that's the speech where she talking about getting beat up in Winona and all of that.
McLaurin: And all the other stuff that was happening to us down here. The compromise that they were offering, two seats at-large representing nobody. Not even telling us if we accepted that what that meant. Or what kind of power would we have back home. We weren't even going to be seated among the Mississippi white delegation. So when we met we voted against it. It was unanimous. Fannie Lou Hamer was the one people were looking at. But it was unanimous. Even Aaron Henry didn't vote against Mrs. Hamer's decision. He may have done it over there with Hubert Humphrey, but he didn't do it as far as the delegation was concerned. Stayed tight.
And then I think my, I was just kind of there and didn't really, really truly understand this until we were on our way back home. We'd come back to Mississippi and Fannie Lou Hamer and I was not disillusioned. Some of the SNCC people got disillusioned and then kind of went their way and kind of disbanded. This [challenge] was a growth thing for me. I really just kind of came to realize how important a delegate to that, or to any convention was. But now here we are, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which was really SNCC, CORE, COFO. That's what I tell people all the time that had it not been for SNCC there would never, ever been the challenge because we didn't have any other organizations that were I guess radical enough to put something like that together and think it would work.
But I really thought it was gonna work. When I found out, we went to Atlantic City, we stayed in a hotel then they would shuttle us over to the convention hall where we had to go and, I was kind of in the bunch. But then toward the end I began to realize that it, because when they rejected it, now I know that there's, power does that. You know when you got all the evidence and you present it, only power can shoot you down. And the President had the power, he sent his henchmen. I got a chance to meet Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and (inaudible) and Joe Rauh and Walter Ruther and these people. Powerful folk.
Then I read about these folks later because I didn't really know who Walter Ruther was. I didn't know he represented the United Auto Workers. And then when I realized that I'd been there and was in the presence of these people and the kind of power they wielded, I was really excited. And as a delegate, I put my chest out. I grew. Right after '64, right after the Summer of '64 I went to Valley State [College] for a year. And then I came back and I assumed my project back and then transferred to Jackson State. I commuted back and forth between Jackson State and the Delta.
Being a delegate became really important to me, so that when Jessie Jackson ran they made me a delegate to something Jessie Jackson was at, I now understood the significance of being a part of the inner circle of, if you can call it that, of politics. I spent a lot of time studying about, I took this course called International Relations in order to learn about how, what I liked about the course it was a course where a lot of dialogue, people talked and you had to write a few things, but you had to read a lot. And I got a chance to, it was a growing situation.
The Movement was a whole growing thing for me. That whole early part of the Movement in '63 and '64 was really a learning experience for me. I even got to the point where I didn't think there was no better organizer than me because I always bragged about my teachers. I had Amzie, had Jim Bevel, you know Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers. I worked with all them and they were the best. So I was the best organizer that was around. Still feel that way.
Copyright © Charles McLaurin & Charlie Cobb. 2014
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