Sheriff Capps & the Shaw Freedom School
Wally Roberts

See Mississippi Summer Project for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.

Our Freedom School in Shaw was in Sheriff Capps jurisdiction, Boliver County. On our first or second day there in July, 1964, a deputy showed up at the school and said the sheriff wanted whoever was our leader to meet with him at his office. Three of us went in our own car. When we got there, Capps said he was going to protect us for the summer because he did not want bad publicity for the county "like there was in Neshoba." We didn't know he was the head of the county's White Citizens council.

We didn't believe him, but later on in the summer when we had a bomb scare, we called his office (as well as the FBI) and deputies showed up and kept watch from their cars throughout the night.

Then, in early August, we had a chance to push the envelope. From my memoirs:

Once we were set up and ready to start (the Freedom School) ... we discovered that in this part of Mississippi, the students had no summer vacation because they were given a month vacation in the spring to chop cotton (weed the new plants) and then another month of "vacation" in the fall when they were needed to pick the cotton. What this meant for us was that after a full day of regular classes in an un-airconditioned school in the torrid heat of July and August, the students were not about to attend another school after 3 P.M., even if it was a Freedom School.

At first, we were at a loss about what to do, but the students themselves solved that problem by coming to us and saying, "Look, we appreciate what you want to do, but what we want you to do is to help us become Freedom Fighters. We want to go on picket lines and do protests. Teach us how to do that." We were in a quandary because we had been instructed by the SNCC staff not to let the kids get involved in these kinds of activities because they were so dangerous, especially in the Delta, and because there were not enough experienced SNCC staff members to help out. We discussed this all with Staughton Lynd, the director of the Freedom Schools for the state, and with Stokley Carmichael, who was the SNCC staff person in charge of the Delta, and they both agreed we should go ahead, train the students in nonviolent protest tactics, work out a protest strategy with them, and go from there.

Which we did. Our strategy was to ask the county Board of Supervisors for a permit to distribute pamphlets outside the county courthouse in Cleveland, urging people to register to vote. Our request was denied, as we expected, so on August 3, most of the Freedom School teachers and a dozen students mounted a picket line outside the county courthouse, protesting the denial of the permit and the discrimination in the voter registration process. We also passed out the leaflets, which guaranteed our arrest. The kids were delighted to get arrested — it was kind of like a graduation ceremony. Stokley, who had come to observe but had done nothing illegal, was recognized by the police and was also arrested. He was furious.

As we were being photographed and fingerprinted, Capps asked me, "Well, Wallace, are you happy now?" I said nothing, but thought, "I won't be happy until there's a black man wearing that badge of yours." (The county was 66% black, and got a black sheriff in the 1980s. Today, almost every elected office in the county is help by an African American.)

We were in jail for only 24 hours and then released and the charges dropped. We were released quickly because we volunteers all used our one phone call from jail to call our Congressmen or the television network news programs, and similar places to tell them what happened. Capps soon began to get telephone calls from Washington and television reporters in New York, and he quickly caved in.

After we were released from jail, we found that support in the community for what we had done had increased significantly, so we stopped education at the Freedom Schools and began to hold mass meetings around the county and going door-to-door to register members for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, ... By the end of the Summer Project in the third week of August, local leaders had begun to emerge and take responsibility for guiding the civil rights work in Boliver County. Our work was done, and Charlie Capps had done his part.

When I was back in Shaw a few years ago to look up some of the people we worked with that summer, I was tempted to visit Capps, but I let myself be deflected by my schedule. I gather from the obit and the other information John and Thomas have posted that he would not have received me gladly, nor does it appeared he mellowed any with time. Unreconstructed to the end.

Goodbye, Charlie

Copyright © Wally Roberts. 2014

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