As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
I'm Rick Tuttle, and I was, until a moment or two ago, going to tell an anecdote about the Chatham County Jail in Savannah, Georgia, but I think I'll begin with some comments about Wazir Peacock and Fannie Lou Hamer and a role I played, essentially, as the lieutenant to Wazir Peacock, who is a giant — I think everyone here in the Bay Area Friends of SNCC knows he's a giant of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. What made me think of it was that I was just reminded with the vocal we just heard was Mrs. Hamer's voice in one of her songs. Her name has come up. Mike Miller had mentioned her name a few minutes ago and others, and it's appropriate to begin there.
To frame this for some of the younger people, my summer of 1963 was spent in Mississippi and in Georgia working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, "Snick" as we've heard it called. And I was motivated by an article which appeared in — I believe it was Collier's magazine by a man named John Poppy who wrote about voter registration in Mississippi that highlighted the work of Sam Block — may he rest in peace — and also Charles McLaurin who were registering voters in the Delta, and Willie Peacock was also mentioned.
Then Birmingham happened with the big demonstrations, the fire hoses — everyone in school has seen pictures of those. And I said unto myself: If I'm ever going to become involved — I had missed the Freedom Rides, literally the rides in 1961 had pulled out before my friends and I (at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut) were able to be part of the East Coast Freedom Rides in which Wesleyan Instructor John Maguire and Dean David Swift participated.
I'm at the time at UCLA and beginning graduate school, and through a series of circumstances, Steve McNichols, who cannot be with us here today, was a Freedom Rider in 1961, and he coupled me up with Sam Block and Charles McLaurin who happened to be in town. They had been visiting the Bay Area Friends of SNCC, and then they'd come down to raise some funds.
We drove into 708 Avenue N in Greenwood, Mississippi where I met Willie Peacock. Bob Moses was out of town at the time. I bunked in at a Freedom House with Lawrence Guyot, whose name was mentioned earlier today, and we literally slept in the same bed. We were bunked in, tucked in.
That morning he got up and had gotten word that Mrs. Hamer and five young ladies — one of whom, June Johnson passed a couple of years ago — and Annell Ponder and two others had been at a Citizenship School visit over in Eastern Georgia, the Sea Islands, and had been arrested in Winona, Mississippi which is about 45 minutes east of Greenwood, and were in custody. And bad things were happening.
Lawrence Guyot went over to bring the bail money. He was either in charge of the office or one of the people in charge of the office, but in any event, he mentioned to me as he went out the door — this is before a cup of coffee, he just went right out to do it — he mentioned to me, "I have to go bail them out." They took him in front of the Baptist Church in Winona, an hour or so later — it was a Sunday — and they brutally beat him with a baseball bat, and they pounded him in the head. His head, by all reports, was swelled up this big. There was no local remedy.
This is 1963. Remember, no one was sure who was going to win this struggle for Civil Rights. But what we did know in much of the South, and certainly in Mississippi, is the FBI had folded its arms, stepped back. In fact, the local FBI fellow was running for the State Legislature in a lily white primary in Mississippi. Then the sheriff, the police, and so on were either folding their arms or in some cases some of their individuals were complicit with this.
What to do? I basically did what Willie Peacock told me to do. And we had a lot of different tasks to perform. What we did have were two reporters we could count on — it's all we had, by the way. We had Carl Fleming over at Newsweek, and Claude Sitton at the New York Times. And Julian Bond, who I believe Willie — I'm going to refer to you contemporarily as Willie, Wazir. And then you had me call Medgar Evers.
There were a lot of things happening at once. We were moving fast. I reached Mr. Evers who said to me — I explained we were looking for bail money, again. I explained what had happened. He said to me — I remember his voice — it was calm; it was business-like; he had been there, been involved, going back years; Emmett Till. I knew who he was from the Emmett Till matter, or knew about him. I explained to Mr. Evers why I was calling. I was calling on Willie Peacock's behalf, calling from the COFO office. SNCC was part of the Council of Federated Organizations which was a coalition of CORE, NAACP, SNCC. SNCC did most of the staffing, much of the work, but not all of it. Others were involved. And he said: "I will call you back. I have to go to a meeting. And I'll call you." And I had no reason to doubt that as he got out of his car and reached for his keys a little later that evening, he said: Oh, I have to call that fellow, meaning me, or someone back up at the Civil Rights office. And that's when Byron De La Beckwith shot him in the back and murdered him.
Now what to do? All hell breaks loose in Jackson. Major demonstrations and so on, and so forth, were mounting. People were very, very upset, understandably, but meanwhile, Mr. Guyot, Mrs. Hamer, and the young ladies were still in custody, and we didn't quite know where they were. We had some feel, but we were very worried, because as you heard from other stories, there was some danger they were being moved around, that everyone's responsible and no one's responsible, that sort of thing.
Oh, and about that time, something else is happening at the University of Alabama about the integrations, that whole choreography was taking place in one state to the east of us. So recognizing all that, and one of the more brilliant acts of engagement I've ever witnessed, Mr. Willie Peacock suggested that I call Governor Ross Barnett. I said, of course, what probably anyone else would say: "Well, why? Why me? I'm certainly willing to do it." He said: Your voice can get through. I have a white voice.
I call Governor Barnett. I explained exactly who I was, and I got through! One secretary and then another, and I got through to him. There have to be tapes around here somewhere on this. And I did exactly — I didn't have a written script, but it might as well have been written. I mean, Willie basically told me what to say, which I said: "Listen, we know you're busy in Jackson, but if we don't hear by sundown where they are," meaning Mr. Guyot, Mrs. Hamer and the others, "we will mount major demonstrations up here in the Delta, here in Greenwood. And we know you have put in every resource you have: Fish and Game wardens, Highway Patrol, State Police. Police generally have been mobilized because of the difficulties you're having in Jackson."
He said: "Son, are you threatening me?" I said: "No, governor, I am reporting to you what will happen." And about an hour and a half later, the phone rang from highway patrol. Last time I knew, in the state government, the highway patrol does report to the governor. Highway patrol phoned and informed the office — I didn't take the call, so I assume Mr. Peacock took the call, as to where they were and where we could get them. And then Andrew Young, Reverend Young came over, arrived, and went and bailed them out.
I've never had reason to publicly reminisce very much about this. So this gathering is the first opportunity I've had to tell this part of the story. As Wazir Peacock said years later to me — I could not have put it better remembering the Mississippi at that time what it was like, Emmett Till and so on, on and on and on. "We kept them alive. What we did was to keep them alive."
Because Mrs. Hamer was kept alive, a year later, she appeared at the Credential Committee of the seating of the Mississippi Delegation. For anyone here who lived through the period or will read about it, I can strongly recommend it to the younger people here, to hear her encapsulate what happened to the Democratic National Convention and Credentials Committee with all the TV cameras on it, helped make vivid the Mississippi experience and the Southern experience of the Civil Rights.
Fannie Lou Hamer's Testimony at Democratic Convention]
So it's a great privilege to be here today. The Chatham County Jail story will wait until another time. I want to also congratulate — I'll miss someone. Bruce Hartford and Don Jelinek and Mike Miller and everyone else who put on this program. I appreciate them. Mike, you're somewhere around here. I appreciate the invitation to come here today. I'm down in Los Angeles these days. For everyone here who's walked the walk, and it was a, to use a term you hear occasionally, a great privilege to have walked with you along the way. Thank you.
Wazir : Just one quick note is that there were a lot of things that went on between me and Rick Tuttle while we were doing that while we were keeping them alive, about three or four days. And we designed questions. They finally let us talk to Ms. Hamer and everybody who was in the jail, and we designed questions whereby they only had to say yes or no. And with those yes and no questions, we found out everything that had happened to them and that was going on in that jail.
Copyright © Rick Tuttle, 2010
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