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.]
Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC organizer, used to tell the story - I always thought I needed a dictionary to hear him talk, because he liked using big words. But he had a story about a young man who prayed to God and said:
"God, I'm going to organize America for good."
And God said:"I am behind you, young man."
And then he said:"God, I'm going to go to the South and organize the South for good."
And God said:"Son, I'm right behind you."
And he said: God,"I'm going to go to Mississippi and organize."
And God said:"I'll go as far as Memphis." [Laughing]
When I talk, especially to young groups, about the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, I always start by telling them of life in San Francisco where I am from — liberal San Francisco — at the time we were in Mississippi. In San Francisco they were sitting in at the hotels, because the hotels would not hire people of color.
In liberal San Francisco we were picketing Auto Row, Van Ness, Cadillac and Ford and Chevrolet, because in 1964 they would not hire people of color to work on the floor. While I was in Mississippi in 1964, November, to my embarrassment, the people of the great State of California voted by a 63% majority, to pass Proposition 14 which specifically stated it would be legal to discriminate against people in selling your home. You could say: "No, I won't sell to you because you're Black and I don't want to break up my block." Fortunately, within six months, that law was overturned by the State of California. The point being, Mississippi was not the only place of the sin of segregation and hatred. It was right here at home and in all of the communities that we lived in.
Bob Moses used to remind us of that and say: "But we choose Mississippi because it's so easy. It is so blatant that there is no division of Black and white. It is absolute segregation." So we could work there a lot easier and get the attention necessary to spread the word and the consciousness to the world. And that world included South Africa and other places that would benefit from the Movement of that time.
I am proud to say that I got to eat at the table of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. I knew her. I worked in Sunflower County while I was there. Early on in June of '64 when we arrived, I was sitting on the front porch of Mrs. Hamer's home. It was a hot Mississippi day. And it was twilight, and it was sultry, and she and I were sitting there, and a lady walked by and she said: "Mrs. Wilson, come, come join us." And she said: "Mrs. Wilson, have you registered to vote yet?"
And Mrs. Wilson said: "No! I'm afraid. If I register to vote, I'll lose my job. If I register to vote, they might bomb my home. I'm afraid."
And Mrs. Hamer said: "But if you do, someday we'll have a Black mayor. Some day we'll have Black aldermen. Some day we'll have a Black policeman." Well, Mrs. Wilson was afraid, and the evening went on. But it's hard to imagine, we all can walk right over here a block away and register to vote without consequences. In those days, to register to vote meant loss of job and possible death and destruction of your home. It seems insane that that was a reality in America at that time.
From Ruleville I went on to Shaw for awhile. My position was handyman. I was a plumber, and I had tools and I could help build up a Freedom School. So in Ruleville we built the Freedom School. We took an existing house and made it a Freedom School with a library. And in Shaw I did the same, and then I was asked to go to Indianola where I spent the rest of my year there. I made a Freedom School and did other work while I was there.
I met Mrs. Irene Magruder who remains in my heart to this day. She was my landlady. She was best described as just a very nice, common, quiet, industrious individual. In her lifetime, she had started and built the White Rose Cafe which was the hot spot in town. She had sold that, and by this time, she was living on her Social Security, her savings, and she day-cared some nieces and nephews.
When the apostles went out, they were directed to go out and live in homes and teach. When our union organizers in the '30s in this country went out, they lived in homes and spread the word and organized. We in SNCC went into communities, tried to get an anchor-hold, tried to get places to stay, and took the Movement from there. Mrs. Irene Magruder was the first person brave enough in Indianola, Mississippi, the county seat of Sunflower County, to let us in. She had had a boarding house. We paid 10 dollars a week, and in return, we had shelter; we could cook our own breakfast out of her refrigerator; and for dinner — you must remember that in the South, dinner is the noon-time meal and supper is the evening meal — for dinner, she would prepare a meal, fried chicken, fried pork chops maybe, collard greens, okra — that's a food you have got to get accustomed to — and always what she called pan bread which I would call corn bread. And we fed ourselves when we came around during the day, and sometimes that was our supper. And the evening time we'd go party at the White Rose.
Mrs. Magruder gave me chores. I was to take out the garbage, and there, you don't take the garbage out front. You take the garbage out back. The things that can burn go in the trash can. The things that are still edible are fed to the chickens, and anything else goes in a pile of which we would call compost now. She had a truck garden where she grew corn and okra and collard greens and tomatoes, and sometimes I'd go out, and she'd ask me to help her chop the weeds out of her garden. Another chore she gave me was to feed the chickens, and it was a joy every day. I went out and fed the chickens the scraps from the table, some chicken-feed that she had, and in the morning, I would go out, and when I entered the chicken yard, the chickens would gather round, because they knew what I was going to do.
She had scrap, useless plywood, on the ground, and I would go and pick it up real fast and the chickens would dash under, because there were the vermin in this subtropical climate that had hidden under there for the night. So roaches and crawlies and climbers and other things were free protein for the chickens.
Come Wednesday night, the house stopped, because that was Gunsmoke, and Mrs. Magruder loved Marshall Dillon. Nothing else went on. Shut up, sit down, and she sat there in her chair with her can and her snuff, and she watched the love of her life, Matt Dillon, go about and do whatever he was going to do that night.
She also talked about growing up in the South and being Black in the South, and she talked about how Sundays, when she was younger and would deck out for Sunday Church, you know how the ladies can get dressed for Sunday. But she said she'd have to go out and walk along the wooden sidewalks, and if white people came along, she would have to step off of the sidewalk in her Sunday shoes into the mud to allow the white people to walk by. A tragedy. She also talked about Emmett Till a fourteen year old boy, who at that time, only nine years before, had been murdered in the next county up. He had been beaten to death simply because he didn't know social mores of the South. He was from Chicago and had dared whistle at a white woman.
On May 2, we had a lot of volunteers — May 2, 1965 — a lot of volunteers had come down from the North, and we were working on voter registration in Drew, Mississippi which is at the top of Sunflower County. I was driving up to Drew, alone, and it was about twilight, to bring people back. And as I was approaching, along comes a pickup truck, with the gun hanging in the back, and the meanest face I've ever seen in my life, giving me the hardest finger he possibly could, and yelling words I could not hear through the windshield at me, the embodiment of hate.
So I picked everyone up, and we headed back down, and I said: "You know, I feel real scared. We should all stay in tonight."
They said: "Oh, no, no. Listen. We got to party. We've got these visiting volunteers down, and we want to go to the Rose tonight."
I said: "Oh, okay. You all go to the Rose. I'm going to stay home and sit by the phone." And I did. And they went, and they did what young people do. They partied, and they drank white lightening and had a nice time. And instead of going to sleep in my bed, I feel asleep on the couch. And along about midnight, a couple of them came in, and that woke me up. And as soon as they got in the door, we heard an explosion. And I ran in my bedroom, and it was aflame. My bed was on fire from gasoline. A Molotov cocktail had been thrown through the window.
We managed to get everyone out, into the back yard, because we couldn't go out the front as it was burning. And then I remembered, and I ran back into the fire to get the cash box, and my father's Bible that he had carried through World War II.
Somebody yelled: "They got the Freedom House!" A block away, you could see the flames in a window. We pushed the back fence down, and we got up to the front of the house, and somebody came running up and said: "They got Giles' Store!" And in that time, I got arrested and miraculously released. The cop arrested me because I accused him of starting the fire. But a few minutes later he came to his car and told me that he feared a riot, and that it would be better if I was out of his car to hopefully contain the crowd. I grabbed a bicycle. I was infuriated, because the firemen were taking such a slow time to hook it their hoses. I rode down to Mr. Giles' store, and there he was, alone, no fire engines. And he was just finishing extinguishing the fire. And I said to him: "Where are the fire engines?"
He said: "I sent them off. I would not let them come into my store to fight the fire, knowing that the same ilk that had thrown the bomb were probably the same ilk that were there to put out the fire." So he saved his own place single handedly.
And I could see over there another fire. And I rode over to Mr. Wilder's house. He was a one-armed World War II vet, and his house was aflame, and he was reaching down for his garden hose. And he looked up at me, and smiled, and he said: "Hi, Bright. How you doing?" And he started to spray, an impossible task of putting out this fire with his hose.
We survived the night. Mrs. Magruder had insurance. She lived for two years in her bedroom and bathroom which was the only thing that had survived the fire, and rebuilt and lived on into her eighties.
Thirty-five years later, I came back, and we had a Civil Rights reunion, and we stood at Mrs. Hamer's grave site and sang, We Shall Overcome. I walked over, and there was the mayor, and I said: "Ma'am, I'd like to tell you a story." And I told her the story of my first few nights in Mississippi, about Mrs. Hamer and Mrs. Wilson. And the mayor began to cry, because she was Black. And the Alderman standing next to her was Black, and the Chief of Police next to him was Black. And so what did my Mrs. Magruder give in losing her home? Today, in the State of Mississippi, there are more elected Black officials than in any place else in the Union.
Copyright © Bright Winn, 2010
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the this story belongs to Bright Winn.