1965 (Remainder)

1966 (July-Dec)

1966 (Jan-June)

War on Poverty
The Murder of Sammy Younge (Jan)
Vietnam and the Draft: Taking a Stand
Julian Bond Denied Seat in GA Legislature (Jan)
The Murder of Vernon Dahmer (Jan)
Greenville Air Force Base Occupation (Feb)
State Poll Taxes Ruled Unconstitutional (Mar)
Lowndes County: Roar of the Panther
White House Conference on Civil Rights (June)
Meredith Mississippi March and Black Power (June)
 
1966 (July-Dec)
Chicago Freedom Movement & the War Against Slums
Grenada MS Movement (July-Nov)
Clarence Triggs Murdered (July)
Civil Rights Act of 1966 Killed by Senate Fillibuster (Sept)
ASCS Elections in Alabama — The Struggle Continues (Sept)
1966 Alabama Elections
     The Election in Lowndes County
     The Election in Dallas County (Selma)
     The Election in Macon County (Tuskegee)
Keeping On — From Cooperatives to Pigford

The War on Poverty

[This is a huge and controversial topic that may be too large and complex for a History & Timeline article.]

In the mid-1960s, Freedom Movement activists hold a wide range of views on LBJ's War on Poverty program (WoP):

These conflicting views result in sharp debates and bitter divisions among Freedom Movement activists at all levels.

(A more detailed and analytic description & discussion to be written someday — we hope.)

 

The Murder of Sammy Younge (Jan)

See Tuskegee Merchant Boycott (1957-1960) for preceding events.

Born in 1944, Samuel "Sammy" Younge grows up in Tuskegee Alabama, population 7,000. It's the seat of Macon County — 84% Black yet under the economic and political control of a white power-structure. The town, also overwhelmingly Afro-American, is home to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama's premier Black college, and a segregated Veterans Administration hospital which cares for Alabama's Black servicemen. These two institutions provide a significant number of jobs for Tuskegee's Black professional-class of doctors, professors, researchers and administrators, most of whom live in a distinct, self-contained enclave that is socially & culturally separate from the town's working-class Blacks, and largely insulated from the Jim Crow realities they endure.

The main Afro-American political organization in Macon County is the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA) whose leaders are primarily drawn from the college and hospital professional-class. Over the years, Tuskegee Blacks have won and negotiated some concessions and accommodations from local whites. So much so that the national media describes Tuskegee as a "model town" of racial harmony. Few rural Blacks in Macon County are registered to vote, but within the town limits Afro-American voters are now in a solid majority. The conservative leaders who control the TCA, however, fear that electing too many Blacks to office will alienate local whites and trigger harsh retaliation from the all-white state government in Montgomery. So they ensure that whites retain a voting majority on all municiple councils, boards, commissions, and other governing bodies. Two of the four city councilmen are Black, for example, with the white mayor presiding and holding the tie-breaker vote.

Upon graduating high school in 1962, Sammy joins the Navy. After falling ill and losing a kidney, he returns home and receives a medical discharge in 1964. At the beginning of 1965, he enrolls in the Tuskegee Institute. With the Selma Voting Rights Campaign erupting just a 90-minute drive to the west on US-80, he quickly becomes active in the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL), the student civil rights organization that is supporting the Selma struggle and beginning to raise local issues. After "Bloody Sunday," he is one of the thousand or so Tuskegee and Alabama State College students who protest on March 10th in Montgomery where they are confronted and attacked by police, state troopers, and mounted possemen. Tuskegee professor and later SNCC member Jean Wiley later recalled:

At first, Sammy was just another one of the several hundred students who went to Montgomery. When I returned to Tuskegee, I was told that a student had stood before a group the night before and had begun to talk about the very pressing racial questions in Alabama. He defined the student role as he saw it. Most of the people were faculty members and they were very impressed with this kid, as they called him. From the time that he returned to Montgomery, Sammy became one of the major students in civil rights on the campus. He started organizing students, became one of the major people in TIAL. — Jean Wiley, SNCC. [7]

Sammy and some of the other student activists of TIAL form close associations with SNCC organizers. Over the Easter break in the Spring of 1965, Sammy volunteers to help Fannie Lou Hamer register voters in Sunflower County, Mississippi, a SNCC stronghold and Freedom Movement battleground in the heart of the Delta since 1962. When he returns to Tuskegee, Sammy begins doing voter-registration work in rural, poverty-stricken areas of Macon County.

After we had gone to Mississippi to help Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer get those people registered ... I remember that he was on fire to work Macon County when we got back. I used to go out in the county with him. We would be going to places in Macon County all the time after we got back from Mississippi. — Wazir (Willie) Peacock, SNCC & Tuskegee student.[12]

Soon Sammy is working on issues of hunger, commodity food distribution, and segregation in public low-cost housing. Sammy joins with other TIAL students in desegregating public facilities, both to defy racism and force compliance with the Civil Rights Act. They also engage in local anti-racism actions such as boycotting the local A&P grocery store because of hiring discrimination.

Bringing protests and confrontation to Tuskegee stirs tension and conflict with segregationist whites. It also alarms Institute administrators and professional-class Blacks who have comfortable positions to protect and who prize the absence of overt racial strife in their "model town." For many of them it is an article of faith that educational achievement, middle-class careers, and accommodation to the status quo exempts them from the rigors of segregation and the brutal realities of Alabama-style white-supremacy.

Everything [Sammy] did in Macon County with TIAL — Tuskegee Institute Advancement League — he took on the politics of Macon County. Some of the elitist Black people had cojourned with the old white leadership there and set up a hard fight for TIAL. It brought out the real what was going on in Macon County and Tuskegee. ... And these Black leaders and white were joined together hip to hip, they really were.  — Wazir (Willie) Peacock, SNCC & Tuskegee student.[12]

The class and generational tensions between the young militants and the old guard leaders are replicated among Tuskegee students — many of whom are focused on getting their degrees and then leaving the South for comfortable careers in the North.

TIAL had its internal conflicts as well, and they dated back to the Montgomery demonstrations. The group identity thing was gone; the old leadership had faded; personality and power conflicts developed, sometimes between TIAL and SNCC people. When there was a hassle in TIAL, it tended to produce factions instead of compromise. A number of TIAL activists were also torn by personal conflicts. They simply could not deal with the contradiction between Tuskegee Institute and the life for which it was preparing them, and the events which had taken place only thirty minutes away in Montgomery. Tuskegee said: Get an education and you won't be a nigger. Montgomery had said: You're a nigger no matter what you do. Tuskegee said: Join our safe little middle class and forget what's outside. Montgomery had said: Black people are oppressed in this state, and you cannot turn your back on that. There was no connection between the campus classroom and what had happened in front of the State Capitol. Which was real? — James Forman, SNCC.[7]

As spring evolves into summer and the school semester ends, protests, confrontations, and tensions ratchet upwards in Tuskegee. Conflicts with the Institute administration force TIAL to move its office off campus. In late May, Alabama Governor George Wallace is invited to speak at the graduation ceremony of a segregated private high school for whites only. The event is held in the National Guard armory — a public building subject to the Civil Rights Act — but Black students are blocked when they try to enter to hear their Governor's address. One of them is a recent military veteran, "I've just come from Vietnam fighting for freedom in this country and I can't even come into a National Guard Armory."

In the sweltering heat of an Alabama summer, TIAL activists desegregating the white-only swimming pool are met with resistance and harassment. Despite the year-old Civil Rights Act, the pool is drained and closed to prevent Blacks from using it. Students picket the town's main bank owned by City Councilman Allen Parker. When they try to attend services at white churches they are met with violence and death threats. The school superintendent warns Sammy's mother that her teaching job is at risk if her son continues leading civil rights protests in Tuskegee. TIAL forces a meeting with the city government over the closed swimming pool. Black TCA leaders also participate, and Sammy angrily confronts both them and the whites. Funded by a federal anti-poverty grant, hundreds of Tuskegee and northern students are hired for a summer program tutoring Black children in rural areas. Tuskegee administrators pressure them, warning that if they participate in demonstrations they may lose their jobs and be expelled from their campus housing.

When school resumes in the Fall of '65, Sammy is placed on academic probation. If he doesn't improve his grades and take a heavier class load he'll be dropped. He tries to cut back on civil rights activities to focus on his studies. But he's known to both white racists and the local power structure as a leading "troublemaker." Hostility and death threats continue. Nor is he able to completely withdraw from Freedom Movement activities. In September, an all-white jury in Lowndes County acquits the man who gunned down Jonathan Daniels and Sammy organizes a protest march of more than 50 students to the Confederate monument on the town square. By December, he's once again setting school work aside for voter registration work in rural areas of the county.

Monday, January 3rd, 1966, is one of the two days per month when people can register to vote at the courthouse.

We had brought a lot of people down to register — we had 118 people at the courthouse. The registrar decided that he wasn't going to register people because we had too many down there. He said he had to "purge" the list that day — take off the names of people who had died or moved out of the county. I asked him, "Couldn't you find some other time to purge the list? Today is registration day, and we only have two registration days a month." ... "We're not going to be registering people today." He just kept on saying that. I said, "Well, you're going to be registering us today." ... He said, "You've been causing me trouble all morning. If you don't get out of here, I'm going to spill your guts all over the floor." ... I went to the telephone and called the Atlanta SNCC office and had them call the FBI and the Justice Department. While I was gone, Sammy had come up with Eldridge Burns and [Wendell] Paris. — Jimmy Rogers, TIAL & SNCC.[7]

The registrar pulls a knife, but Sammy and the other TIAL/SNCC workers are not intimidated, they keep demanding that the registrar do his job and register the people who have been waiting all day in the courthouse. An FBI agent arrives. He takes no action to enforce the law.

[By January of 1966, the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) which is supposed to prevent denial and intimidation of voters has been the law of the land for five months, but in Macon County (as elsewhere in Alabama) local authorities feel free to ignore it because federal enforcement is weak and half-hearted.]

[Photographer unknown] After the courthouse closes for the day, the TIAL and SNCC activists hold strategy meetings and then begin to party. Around midnight, Sammy goes out to buy cigarettes. He never returns.

Sammy's body is discovered in a dark driveway between the bus depot and adjacent gas station. Shot in the back of the head. There is no shortage of witnesses and no doubt that Marvin Segrest, the white attendant at the Standard Oil station, shot him. Segrest admits to the police that he fired the bullet. He is arrested. A week later he is released on bail.

I've read five affidavits, and they all say basically the same thing about what happened. Sammy was at the gas station that evening when a group of Tuskegee students drove up into a sort of alley between the gas station and the bus depot. As far as they could gather, he was going in to buy a package of cigarettes and he also asked to use the restroom. The man at the station, a white man, pointed to the back. The bathroom for Negroes is there, the one for whites is inside. Sammy said — they heard him say this — "You haven't heard of the Civil Rights Act." Sammy wasn't going around to the back. Harsh words were exchanged and the man started waving his gun. He told Sammy to get off his property.

Sammy got in his car and moved it over near the bus station which is next to the gas station. ... They still had this exchange of words. At that point, the man waved the gun and then raised it. There were some golf clubs standing beside the bus station — they belonged to a passenger waiting for the late bus to Atlanta — and Sammy pulled one out. The man looked as though he was coming at Sammy. Sammy ran and the man fired. He missed. Sammy ran onto the Greyhound bus standing there — the bus to Atlanta. He shouted, "Would you shoot me on this bus?" The bus driver got off and went to talk to the man, told him he'd better not do that. Sammy got off the bus and it pulled away. ... The man raised his gun again and shot. Sammy fell, hit in the head. — Gwen Patton, Tuskegee student body president and TIAL leader.[7]

Several thousand people — students, faculty, and members of Tuskegee's working-class Black community — march in the rain to protest the murder and demand justice. The mayor assures them that he "deplores" the incident, but his trite phrases do not mollify the angry crowd. "The students at Tuskegee will tear this town to bits, if justice is not sought. If any people out there wish to take us on, we welcome you," says student body president Gwen Patton.[8]

Protest marches continue for the rest of the week. The Tuskegee Institute president reverses his long-standing opposition and encourages students to participate in civil rights activities. Faculty, students, and community leaders form an Ad Hoc Committee for Justice in Macon County to push for badly needed reforms. TIAL and the Ad Hoc Committee draft a set of 14 demands related to voter registration, school desegregation, hiring of Black cops, civilian review of police, segregation, jury integration, and welfare issues. When a march downtown is blocked by cops on Saturday, January 8th, a thousand demonstrators vote to push through the police line. The cops allow the marchers to reach the downtown district where they sit on the sidewalks impeding entrance to white-owned stores. Pickets, protests, and meetings with town officials continue until mid-month amid rising tension and increased threat from white racists determined keep Blacks "in their place" at all costs.

After a decade of police brutality, Klan bombings, and racist murderers acquitted by all-white juries, many in SNCC and TIAL no longer accept nonviolence as either a strategy or a tactic. Even those most firmly committed to nonviolence are expressing their frustration:

If the federal government cannot provide protection for people seeking civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution, then people will have no protection but themselves. We find it increasingly difficult to ask the people of the Black Belt to remain nonviolent. We have asked the President for federal marshals for over three years. If our plea is not answered, we have no choice. — John Lewis, SNCC.[7]

On Saturday, January 15, a small number of TIAL members are picketing stores. One, a high-school student, is shoved by a white store owner. The cops arrest the Black picket. Rage on both sides boils over, verbal and physical altercations break out between protesters and police & white civilians. When they hear that TIAL chairman Wendell Paris is being beaten, students pour off campus and rush downtown to join angry community folk who are fed up. Bricks and punches are thrown, some windows are broken.

Many Tuskegee students and community people are becoming increasingly angry at the delay in indicting Segrest for Sammy's murder. Just as infuriating is the stark contrast in concern and action on the part of the White House and Justice Department regarding the murder of Blacks like Jimmy Lee Jackson and Sammy Younge and the murder of whites like Rev. Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels. Others, however, blame SNCC and TIAL "troublemakers" for encouraging violence, stoking racial tensions, and fomenting civic strife. Institute administrators revert to discouraging and opposing student involvement in Freedom Movement activities, an attitude that resonates among some students who had participated in previous actions, but who have been alienated by violence and are now refocusing on their studies. The unity forged in the immediate aftermath of Sammy's death dissolves.

With support dwindling, marches and protests cease, though political education, meetings, and negotiations continue. On February 3rd, the Ad Hoc Committee holds a Conference on Alabama Justice.

Voter registration by TIAL/SNCC activists in cooperation with the Ad Hoc committee also continues, and though federal enforcement of the VRA continues to lag, the number of Black voters rises steadily. By the Spring of 1966, enough rural Blacks have been added to the voting roll that in combination with those in Tuskegee, Afro-Americans now have a county-wide majority and it becomes feasible to elect Blacks to county offices, not just municiple positions. Lucius Amerson, a 32-year old Black Korean War veteran and former Tuskegee student announces his candidacy for sheriff in the May 3rd primary.

Amerson steers a careful middle-course in the conflicting currents of Tuskegee Black politics. Though TIAL members support his campaign as individuals, he does not seek SNCC or TIAL's endorsement. Nor does he run as a militant. Nevertheless, the old guard TCA leaders decline to support him — he's too young, he's not under their control, and they believe that electing a Black sheriff risks alienating local whites with whom they have economic ties. They also fear it might trigger punitive retaliation from Governor Wallace and the state legislature. Amerson does receive support from SCLC, including a team of Black and white civil rights workers who assist with his campaign. He wins the May Democratic primary 53% to 47% to become the first Afro-American sheriff elected in the South since Reconstruction — though he will not assume office until January 1967.

[In 1966, local politics in Alabama were still completely dominated by the Democratic Party, so winning the party primary inevitably led to victory in the November general election. This remained the case until 1972 when President Nixon and the Republican Party adopted a "southern strategy" of appealing to racist whites. A successful strategy they continue to persue.]

Meanwhile, months and more months drag slowly by while the county grand jury deliberates what, if any, charges to file against Segrest who has already admitted to the police that he fired the fatal shot. It is not until November, 10 months after Sammy's death, that they finally indict him on a charge of 2nd-degree murder. He pleads "Not Guilty."

In Alabama at this time, jurors are selected from the voting rolls. Given the large number of Blacks who have registered in Macon County, there is no chance that the white power-structure will be able to ensure that the case is tried by an all-white jury. After a brief, unpublicized hearing, the local judge declares that Segrest cannot get a fair trial in Tuskegee because of "professional agitators" stirring up racial strife. He means SNCC and TIAL activists. He transfers the case to Lee County which is only 30% Black, few of whom are registered to vote. The Macon County prosecutor whose sworn duty is to seek justice for Sammy makes no serious effort to oppose this change of venue.

Movement lawyers file suit in federal court against the Lee County jury system that excludes Blacks and poor whites. It is to be heard on December 10. The case against Segrest, which has been moving with glacial slowness, suddenly accelerates to lightening speed. To prevent the federal court from intervening, Segrest's trial is set for December 7.

As expected, Segrest is tried by an all-white jury. He claims self-defense, that Sammy tried to run him over with a car, and then assault him on foot. The case goes to the jury after two days of testimony. Ignoring the Black witnesses who described how Sammy was walking away from Segrest when he was shot in the back of the head, and paying no attention to the forensic evidence that the fatal bullet was fired at a distance, the jury takes just 90 minutes to return a verdict of "Not Guilty."

At nightfall, word of the verdict reaches Tuskegee.

The students were very angry, very frustrated. The girls went to all the dorms, went to the boys' dorms, everybody's dorm. By midnight, it wasn't two hundred people. It wasn't three hundred or five hundred. It was a thousand, fifteen hundred, two thousand. They were coming in. ... They said, "Damn the president. Damn the curfew. We're going downtown." And they went. — Scott B. Smith, SNCC.[7]

We had no form, which was beautiful. We had no pattern, which was beautiful. People were just filling the streets, and they weren't singing no freedom songs. They were mad. People would try and strike up a freedom song, but it wouldn't work. All of a sudden you heard this "Black Power, Black Power." People felt what was going on. They were tired of doing this whole nonviolent bit. They were tired of this organized demonstration-type thing. They were going to do something. We got to the square. The beautiful thing was that people who did the talking were mainly black men: black men were speaking; black men came up with the ideas; and black men wanted to do something about the whole situation. The black leaders of the past wanted to have an all-night vigil. That wasn't what students wanted to do. They went down there with their minds set on destroying that city. It was obvious and everybody knew it. We didn't contact nobody, no professors, and there were no white people there. — Gwen Patton. [7]

At the center of the town square stands the statue of a Confederate soldier. The students paint his face black, a yellow stripe running down his back, and "Black Power" and "Sam Younge" on the pedestle. Rocks are thrown, windows are broken, some piles of dead leaves are set on fire. The out-numbered police do not intervene.

Come daylight, controversy over the protest roils both campus and community.

This community is responsible for Sammy's death ... We are all responsible because we have allowed white people to think that they can kill black people and go free ... — Activist leaflet. [9]

Mobs cannot be tolerated. It is a very sad thing for the people of Tuskegee Institute to have to face ... the evidence of wanton physical destruction caused by a very few people in a rather large group of Tuskegee students and others. All who were there share the blame, ...  — Luther Foster, Tuskegee Institute President. [9]

We have, ... stated our case against mob vandalism, but we have said very little concerning why the vandalism took place ... 350 years of abuse, intimidation, subjection, and oppression were released ... It is healthy that windows were broken instead of lives taken. [The demonstrators] do not share the full blame for the violence, The real blame is focused upon the Negro and white leadership who failed to take a firm stand on the side of justice. — Rev. Lawrence Haygood.[9]

See Election in Macon County (Tuskegee) for continuation.

For more information:
Book: Sammy Younge, Jr: The First Black College Student to Die ....
Web: Martyrs of the Movement

 

Vietnam and the Draft: Taking a Stand

See Vietnam and the Assembly of Unrepresented People for Vietnam War background and preceding events.

Opposition to the War

As the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam continues to rapidly increase, a poll in August of 1965 reports that 61% of Americans support the war. Only 25% believe military intervention in Vietnam is a mistake, while 14% have no opinion. President Johnson is riding high at the peak of his popularity and his Vietnam policies enjoy solid support from both establishment-liberals and conservatives. Echoing LBJ's war rationale, Vice President Hubert Humphrey who is the chief spokesman for the northern wing of the Democratic Party hawkishly condemns, "Militant, aggressive Asian Communism with its headquarters in Peking, China."

The majority of Blacks at this time also support both the war and President Johnson, though with somewhat lower numbers and greater opposition than whites. Within the Freedom Movement however, anti-war sentiment among activists is rising fast. Many react viscerally to white America forcing Black and Brown GIs to fight and die for democracy 10,000 miles away when it is denied to them at home. Others are angered that "War on Poverty" promises are dying in Vietnam rice paddies as funds that might have been used for education and scholarships, jobs and job-training, adequate housing, and improved health care are being diverted and squandered on bombs, bullets, and war-profits.

Civil rights workers who come to oppose the war do so for a variety of reasons. Some are devoted to pacifism or nonviolence in all aspects of their lives, others oppose war and violence except in cases of immediate self-defense. Some Movement folk view the Vietnam War in racial terms as a white super-power suppressing the aspirations of nonwhite Vietnamese, others view it more broadly as yet another military intervention in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean aimed at thwarting anti-colonial liberation struggles and imposing American neo-colonial control over Third World nations.

[As used in the 1960s, the term "Third World" had different connotations depending on context. In a diplomatic context the "First World" was the political bloc formed by the industrialized democracies of Europe, North America, Japan, etc; the "Second World" was the socialist-bloc centered around the Soviet Union and China; and the "Third World" were those nations not politically aligned with either of the first two blocs. In a political-economic-historic context, "Third World" referred to the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America who were emerging from, or struggling against, various forms of colonialism. In a racial context, "Third World" referred to nonwhite populations or to populations historically subject to ethnic prejudice and discrimination by white Europeans and Americans. Depending on context, the bloc/world that some nations were considered part of might vary.]

But opposition to the Vietnam War is far from universal in the Freedom Movement. Some support the war as their patriotic duty, others from deeply held anti-Communist beliefs, and some out of sincere loyalty to President Johnson and the Democratic Party. And in some instances leaders stifle their private reservations, voicing support for the war out of fear that public opposition will cause LBJ and the national power-elite to cease supporting Black civil rights or cause them to directly retaliate against organizations and individuals who don't toe the establishment line.

Organizationally, Urban League and NAACP leaders publicly support both Johnson and the war and condemn those who take an anti-war stand — as do many of the Black politicians and community power-brokers allied with LBJ and the northern Democratic Party. But as time and the war go on, by the late '60s some of those who initially supported the war and condemned opponents come to adopt anti-war positions themselves — others do not. Bitter and divisive controversies over Vietnam continue within the Afro-American community, among Black leaders, and between Movement organizations for years.

The Draft

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the lives of young adults are enormously affected by the military draft (also known as "Selective Service" and "Universal Military Training"). The realities of conscription profoundly affect people's education, careers, marriages, life choices, and family relations between young and old.

When Johnson converts an Indo-Chinese civil war into an overseas American invasion in March of 1965 he initiates the nation's largest military mobilization since WWII a generation earlier. The number of men drafted into the service soars upward and continues to climb. A majority of the 3,400,000 uniformed Americans who eventually serve in the war zone are directly or indirectly coerced into uniform by conscription.

But the Selective Service System which runs the draft is both racially and class biased. Blacks, Latinos and poor-whites are far more likely to be drafted than middle and upper-class whites.

Under the Selective Service System, men with "1A" classifications can be drafted into the Army at any time while those with "2S" student deferments are exempt from conscription. Despite what is euphemistically referred to as "Universal Military Training," in actual fact, the number of men using student deferments to avoid combat in Vietnam well outnumber those conscripted into the military.

Because of long-standing race and income-related disparities in public education, Afro-Americans and Latinos are less likely than whites to meet college entrance requirements and despite Brown v Board of Education many schools in the mid-1960s still racially discriminate against nonwhites. And as a general rule, most nonwhites and most poor-whites cannot afford the cost of college even if they are admitted as students. The result is that the sons of the affluent can usually avoid both the draft and the war by attending college while most Blacks, Browns, and poor-whites cannot.

In theory, college graduates whose military service has been "deferred" so they could complete their education become draft-eligible upon matriculation, but the system provides loopholes such as post-graduate study or occupational deferments that can be used to indefinitely forestall being sent to Vietnam. And in some cases young men from wealthy families with elite political connections are given preference in joining "weekend warrior" National Guard units that will never be sent to Vietnam — George Bush being the most famous example.

Once drafted into the service, nonwhite enlisted men often find themselves shunted into the most onerous and least desirable jobs or assigned to serve under blatantly racist officers and sergeants. And due to educational disparities and long-standing patterns of racial discrimination within the service, higher proportions of nonwhites are assigned to dangerous front-line combat jobs like infantry ("grunts" or "snuffies" as they are referred to in the slang of the era) which result in proportionally higher casualties for Black and Brown GIs than for whites.

And when nonwhite soldiers and sailors return to "the world," they came back to denial of voting rights, southern segregation, and myriad forms of racial discrimination nationwide. Eventually, anger over these issues becomes summed up in the slogan, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger!"

When young men without college deferments who don't want to fight in Vietnam are faced with imminent conscription some try to find a way to fail the physical or be rejected by the Army, others attempt the very difficult process of becoming Conscientious Objectors. Such efforts rarely succeed, leaving then with three profoundly life-altering choices:

The draft is a highly charged emotional issue. Men who avoid or refuse military service are excoriated and condemned as "cowards," "draft dodgers" "traitors," and "Communists." Fathers and uncles who had served with honor and pride in WWII and Korea are often bewildered and outraged at sons determined not to fight a war they oppose on political, moral, or religious grounds. In extreme cases parents cast their sons out of the family, refusing to speak to, or even acknowledge their existence for years — and in some cases forever.

Local draft boards determine each man's classification and choose which 1A men to call up for induction each month. Despite the Civil Rights Act, southern draft boards are still all white and they often work with the White Citizens Council to call up Movement activists as a way of removing them from the communities they're organizing. And from a practical Freedom Movement point of view, male college students are unable to take a year or semester off to do Freedom Movement work for fear of losing their student deferments.

As with the Vietnam War itself, civil rights organizations are split over the draft. SNCC and CORE both speak out against conscription and explicitly support men who refuse induction even though that could be interpreted as a federal crime. Dr. King (and therefore by implication SCLC) urges draft-age men to oppose the war on religious grounds and legally seek exemption from military service as Conscientious Objectors. The NAACP and Urban League disassociate themselves from SNCC, CORE, and SCLC and stress their patriotic support of LBJ and military service.

Rising Opposition

By the mid-1960s, the Freedom Movement is expanding its focus beyond segregation and voting rights to address issues of economic justice, poverty, political power, colonialism, war, and the draft. Some Movement activists and leaders have begun to speak out against the war and draft as individuals, but in the summer of 1965 no major civil rights organization has yet taken an official anti-war, anti-draft stand as an organization. (See Vietnam and the Assembly of Unrepresented People for events up to mid-August 1965.)

A few days after the Vietnam protests at the Assembly of Unrepresented People, the annual SCLC convention is held in Birmingham AL. In his address to the convention delegates, Dr. King calls for an end to the war through a negotiated settlement with the NLF or through U.N. mediation. To encourage negotiations, he calls on LBJ to halt the bombing of North Vietnam and for Hanoi to drop it's demand for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The furious condemnation of the Assembly's anti-war protest is still fresh in everyone's mind and the SCLC Board of Directors balks at involving the organization in foreign policy and military affairs. "I don't think SCLC is structured to go into this kind of complex, difficult and confusing area," says senior board member Rev. Joseph Lowery. Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin and others hurriedly devise an alternate resolution that distances SCLC as an organization from King's personal stand — a move that has little practical effect since most people assume that King speaks for the organization he heads. King is not deterred by the board's reluctance to support his anti-war stand. In a speech to a Birmingham crowd he says:

"Neither the American people nor the people of North Vietnam is the enemy. The true enemy is war itself, and people on both sides are trapped in its inexorable destruction. ... It is this belief that compels me to speak on this issue, that the conscience of our nation may be aroused to see that war as a means of solving problems is obsolete. ... Every effort should be made toward some courageous and creative solution to this potentially catastrophic situation. The American people and our government can find this solution if reason can triumph over pride, and statesmanship conquer condition. I further urge that the United Nations be empowered with the authority to mediate this conflict in negotiations involving all parties, including the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam." — Martin Luther King.[1]

Compared to the recently released "Declaration of Conscience" from the Assembly of Unrepresented People and the uncompromising position of the McComb branch of the MFDP, King's positions are mild and well within the scope of traditional Christian, pro-peace, anti-war theology. Though white religious leaders have previously expressed the same sentiments without significant rebuke, both King and SCLC are harshly condemned by the press and excoriated by moderate Black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP.

In September, Dr. King meets with America's U.N. ambassador to urge a negotiated settlement of the war. In answer to a reporter's question after the meeting, King says the U.S. should allow China to join the United Nations and that, "800 million people are not going to disappear because we refuse to admit their existence."

[Until Nixon's surprise trip to China in 1972, the United States refused to "recognize" China because doing so might be seen as granting to Mao Tse Tung's government some form of legal or moral legitimacy and the U.S. used its position on the Security Council to bar China from membership in the United Nations. American diplomats asserted that the remnants of the old regime who had fled to Taiwan after being toppled by the Red Army were the "legitimate" government of China even though it was only the U.S. Navy that prevented them from being utterly swept away. America's entire political establishment, Republicans and Democrats both, accepted and defended the "Red China does not exist" orthodoxy. Dissenters were reviled as heretics and treated accordingly.]

King's dissent from Cold War orthodoxy provokes another wave of condemnation from the Johnson administration and politicians ranging from right-wing segregationists like Senator Strom Thurmond (SC) to Democrats like Thomas Dodd of Connecticut who asserts, "He has absolutely no competence to speak about complex matters of foreign policy. And it is nothing short of arrogance when Dr. King takes it upon himself to undermine the policies of the President of the United States..."

National NAACP leaders, Black office holders, and the Afro-American press rush to separate themselves from King. A Newsweek poll reports that the majority of Blacks still support the war and only 18% advocate U.S. withdrawal. Afro-American intellectuals in Harlem tell Bayard Rustin that King should stop talking about Vietnam and focus on racial discrimination. King concludes that there is no chance of passing national Fair Housing legislation if he doesn't stop infuriating LBJ and the Cold War-liberal Democrats (to say nothing of conservative Republicans and southern segregationists). An FBI wiretap records a weary King telling an aide, "I really don't have the strength to fight this issue and keep my civil rights fight going."

Nevertheless, King perseveres. In October of 1965 he joins other religious leaders and theologians in forming Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). Among the CALCAV founders are civil rights allies like Robert McAffe Brown, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, William Sloan Coffin and Father Daniel Berrigan. The influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr states, "We are making South Vietnam into an American colony by transmuting a civil war into one in which Americans fight Asians while China, the presumed enemy, risks not a single life."

Politically, CALCAV is a "moderate" organization initially leaning towards a "negotiated settlement" stand rather than "immediate withdrawal" as advocated by the more radical wing of the growing anti-war movement. CALCAV chapters begin to spring up in cities across the county, significantly expanding the anti-war movement beyond college campuses.

Vietnam and the draft are important topics of discussion at a SNCC conference in November. Opposition to the war is fierce and uncompromising. And for most speakers, their anti-war position is based on principles of liberation and self-determination — for Vietnamese in Vietnam, Africans in Africa, and Blacks in the U.S. — rather than peace or nonviolence. Opposition among SNCC members to the military draft is also strong and vocal. Some SNCC men are already facing the choice of induction into the Army, or a year in prison for draft refusal, or fleeing the country. Though they know that such stands will incite increased attacks from both the political right and Cold War liberals, there is general agreement that SNCC should publicly come out against the Vietnam War as an organization. (Heretofore, SNCC leaders and activists have opposed the war as individuals, not as representatives of SNCC.)

But in the urgent crush of SNCC's ongoing work, neither the anti-war statement nor a proposed anti-draft program are actively implemented. Outside of SNCC itself, SNCC's new organizational stand is largely unknown.

During the night of January 3-4, 1966, SNCC volunteer and Tuskegee student Sammy Young is murdered in Alabama for refusing to accept segregation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he has led voter registration efforts in Macon County and assisted SNCC in Mississippi. Earlier on the day he is shot, the Macon County registrar of voters threatens him with a knife when he demands that Black citizens he has brought to the courthouse be registered. That night, a white gas station attendant shoots him during an altercation over segregated restrooms.

This murder of a military veteran killed while fighting for freedom in Alabama galvanizes SNCC into action against the Vietnam War. There are sharp debates in SNCC's Atlanta office over how best to respond. Working from a draft by Gloria Larry House that incorporates positions and arguments articulated at the November meeting, Gloria, James Forman, Charlie Cobb, and several others hammer out a coherent Statement on Vietnam that is issued on January 6th.

The Statement asserts SNCC's, "... right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee now states its opposition to the United States' involvement in Vietnam ...." It declares that, "The murder of Samuel Young in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam," and that, "Samuel Young was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The statement also directly challenges the draft, "We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the "freedom" we find so false in this country."[11]

A reporter asks newly-elected state assemblyman and SNCC leader Julian Bond if he supports SNCC's position. He does. Political hysteria, charges of "treason," and accusations of "subversion" sweep through the white members of the Georgia legislature who refuse to allow Bond to take his seat as the elected representative of his district. (See Julian Bond Denied Seat in GA Legislature details.)

Dr. King is one of Bond's constituents. He cuts short a fund-raising trip to participate in protests defending the free speech rights of both SNCC and Bond to dissent against government policy. King does not endorse SNCC's encouragement of draft resistance, but neither does he condemn the SNCC statement. He leads a march from Ebenezer Baptist Church to join a SNCC-led march from Atlanta University Center demanding that Bond be allowed to take his seat and represent the voters who elected him. King tells reporters, "It is ironic that some of the prominent persons who now question Mr. Bond's willingness to uphold the Constitution of the U.S. have failed miserably in this regard." Two members of SCLC's board resign rather than continue to be associated with Dr. King and his anti-war views. Again there's a media uproar.

In April of 1966, King convinces the SCLC board to pass a stronger anti-war statement than the vague one they reluctantly agreed to at the Birmingham convention the previous August. The new position calls on the U.S. to stop aiding the Saigon junta against the "manifestly vigorous popular opposition" of the Vietnamese people. King tells reporters it is time, "to reassess our position and seriously examine the wisdom of a prompt withdrawal," and that he intends to, "intensify my personal activity against this war." A few days later he meets with President Johnson to discuss the pending Civil Rights Act of 1966. LBJ is cold and hostile. The meeting is short. They never meet again.

In June, LBJ hosts the White House Conference on Civil Rights, a massive gathering of more than 2,000 participants from business, government, labor, religion, and the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement. It's entirely orchestrated and controlled by Johnson and his political allies. Though he's a conference delegate, King is not invited to speak nor is he given any significant role at all. Many Freedom Movement activists believe that King is snubbed to prevent him from speaking out on Vietnam. SNCC boycotts the conference as "useless." CORE sends a delegation who hope they can raise the war as an issue. Their efforts are quickly squashed.

Back in July of 1965, CORE had narrowly passed, but then shelved, a resolution condemning the Vietnam War. Since then, individual CORE leaders and chapters — particularly the student-based campus chapters — have increasingly involved themselves in anti-war protests. When the organization convenes again in the summer of 1966, convention delegates pass and publicize a strong anti-war position.

While most liberal "doves" welcome and applaud the anti-war sentiments of civil rights leaders and organizations, conservatives, moderates, and establishment-liberals denounce the actions of King, CORE, and especially SNCC, as "close to treason." Dixiecrat segregationists, who have long opposed the Freedom Movement, charge that the groups are "Communist front organizations." Civil rights activists opposing the war are accused of being "un-American." Outraged politicians demand that SNCC leaders be indicted for encouraging men to refuse the draft.

In mid-September, the Civil Rights Act of 1966 is killed by a Senate filibuster led by segregationist Democrats and conservative Republicans. Hopes that nonviolent direct action and a united Civil Rights Movement could once again pass major civil rights legislation — legislation that for the first time would address economic racism and northern segregation — are dashed.

Black urban unrest and challenges to economic racism are causing former liberal allies to fall away. LBJ is consumed by Vietnam and will not tolerate dissent. Divisions within the Movement are growing wider. SNCC and CORE leaders criticize King for not speaking out more forcefully on Vietnam and the draft. Yet with just a few exceptions, King's inner-circle of advisors and SCLC's board of directors remain opposed to King taking a stronger anti-war stand because doing so, they believe, risks future Black political and economic advances and an even more intense white-backlash against gains already achieved — sentiments shared by many NAACP and Urban League leaders and a majority within the Afro-American community as a whole.

By the fall of 1966, the broad Civil Rights Movement has splintered over Vietnam. The national leadership of the NAACP and Urban League and other Black leaders who are closely allied with LBJ — or hope to become so — condemn those who are now opposing the war. They avow their loyal support for the president. As do some Afro-American newspapers. The Atlanta Daily World, for example, which had previously opposed SNCC's Atlanta sit-ins, castigates SNCC's position as "...deplorable, misleading, and incorrect..." while going on to say, "Negroes must continue to be loyal to America, particularly when they are on the threshold of receiving full equality before the law." [13]

Though now growing rapidly, the anti-war movement is also divided. SNCC, CORE, SDS, and other "anti-imperialists" vehemently oppose both the war and conscription while supporting the right of self-determination and armed struggle for the Vietnamese fighting against U.S. troops. They call for immediate, unconditional withdrawal of American forces and for active resistance to the draft. Dr. King, along with CALCAV and other "moderates," oppose the war on traditional grounds of peace, nonviolence, and bread-not-bombs. They call for a suspension of bombing and negotiations leading to a peace settlement. King continues to urge young men to legally file for Conscientious Objector status.

As both the war and the anti-war movement expand, the different positions championed by King and CORE/SNCC are visibly evident at the large mass marches opposing the war that take place with increasing frequency in Washington, New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Protesters oriented around nonviolence, peace, and opposition to war in general wear the traditional circular peace symbol and sing, "All we are saying is give peace a chance." Smaller in numbers but fiercer in anger, those opposing U.S. imperialism and calling for self-determination chant, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, N-L-F is going to win!" They carry Viet Cong flags, and wear clenched-fist symbols (often based on a design by SNCC field secretary Frank Cieciorka).

As 1966 draws to a close there are more than 400,000 American troops fighting in Vietnam, roughly 60,000 of them Black. Afro-Americans — particularly the young — are beginning to turn against the war. When Dr. King testifies before a Senate subcommittee on poverty and the plight of the urban poor he contrasts the very real war in Vietnam with the so-called "War on Poverty."

"Instead of joyfully committing ourselves to the war on poverty, a grudging parsimonious allocation of resources is measured out as if we feared to overkill. ... While the antipoverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised, and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for ill-considered warfare. The recently revealed misestimate of the war budget amounts to $10 billion for a single year. [That accounting] error alone is more than five times the amount committed to antipoverty programs. ...

The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home — they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America. ... When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans." — Martin Luther King. [3]

See A Time to Break Silence, Dr. King and Vietnam for continuation.

For more information:
Web: Vietnam War & Civil Rights Movement
Documents: SNCC Position Paper: On Vietnam

 

Julian Bond Denied Seat in GA Legislature (Jan)

See Vietnam War: Taking a Stand for preceding events.

Prior to 1964, the districts used to elect members of congress and state legislatures varied widely in population. Like other southern states, Georgia had many thinly populated rural districts that politically dominated the few heavily-populated urban districts. In the rural areas, few (if any) Blacks were registered to vote, but the urban areas — particularly Atlanta — had a significant number of Afro-American voters. In 1964, a series of Supreme Court reapportionment cases (most notably Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims) require that electoral voting districts have roughly equal populations. In 1965, these "One Person, One Vote" rulings force Georgia to create a number of new state assembly districts, several of which are in Atlanta. A special election is scheduled for June 15, 1965, to fill these new seats for the 1966 session of the legislative term.

One of these new districts is the 136th, in the heart of Atlanta's Black community. Some 90% of the 6500 voters in this district are Afro-American, with a large number still unregistered. Among those voters are SNCC Communications Director Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King. After some debate, SNCC decides to run Julian on the Democratic ticket. And to use the campaign as an experiment in issue-oriented, community organizing in an urban environment (as opposed to the rural areas where most SNCC work is focused).

Negro politics in Georgia is still new enough and open enough for Negroes to force a whole new concept of what politics is. ... We wanted people to use their own politics. We had a tool for them to use — Julian. ... Like most communities, the 136th has been ripped and torn apart. Julian was/is like a sewing needle. Using him, we hoped the district could begin to sew itself together again. ... We need to disprove "voter apathy," which really is election irrelevancy. — Charlie Cobb, SNCC. [14]

I'd like to see people organized across the District. I'd like to see a community advisory board that would tell their representative what to do in the Georgia House and would give them opportunity to plan what they can do for themselves in the community. — Judy Richardson, SNCC. [15]

Staffing Julian's campaign are SNCC field workers and volunteers who go door-to-door talking to people and discussing issues such as raising the state minimum wage to $2.00 an hour (equal to $15.11 in 2014), repealing anti-union "right to work" laws, and challenging urban renewal programs that are used to destroy and displace Black communities. They ask district residents — voters and non-voters alike — what they expect from a state Representative? And what are they prepared to do themselves?

This was SNCC's entry into traditional politics, but in a non-traditional way. A sense of the movement really did imbue that campaign. I mean, Ivanhoe [Donaldson] and Charlie [Cobb] had just come back from Mississippi & Alabama and they ran it like a Movement election. Our office was next door to a barber shop, and down the street from Paschal's [restaurant & SNCC hangout] and the SNCC office.

I remember going with Julian to a meeting of the Red Rosebud Savings Club — a group of lower-income church-lady types who were just so pleased that this "nice young man" (Julian) was coming to talk with them about their problems & concerns. Most of the meetings were like that. And Julian was seen, by a number of the older folks in that new district as part of "The Bond" family, which, as you know, was prominent in Atlanta, through both his mother and his father. I don't think we could have run just anyone. In black Atlanta, many folks in the district didn't have a real sense of him in SNCC — but they knew him in the context of his family. — Judy Richardson, SNCC. [17]

After decisively winning the Democratic primary, Bond faces an Atlanta University dean running as a Black Republican in the June election. Julian receives 82% of the vote. Prior to this election there had been only one Afro-American in the Georgia legislature. Now the June balloting sends nine Blacks to the Georgia House (one of whom is Julian) and three to the state Senate. The newly elected officials are to take their seats when the legislature reconvenes in January of 1966.

On the night of January 3-4, 1966, Navy veteran and SNCC activist Sammy Younge is murdered by a white racist in Tuskegee Alabama. Two dates later, on January 6, the SNCC office in Atlanta issues a statement condemning the Vietnam War and opposing the military draft. A reporter for radio station WGST calls Julian Bond and asks him if he endorses the SNCC statement. Though Julian was not involved in drafting it, he unequivocally supports it:

I endorse it, first, because I like to think of myself as a pacifist, and one who opposes that war and any other war, and eager and anxious to encourage people not to participate in it for any reason that they choose. And secondly, I agree with this statement because of the reason set forth in it — because I think it is sorta hypocritical for us to maintain that we are fighting for liberty in other places and we are not guaranteeing liberty to citizens inside the continental United States." — Julian Bond. [16]

When asked about the statement's opposition to the draft, he replies:

Well, I think that the fact that the United States Government fights a war in Vietnam, I don't think that I, as a second class citizen of the United States, have a requirement to support that war. I think my responsibility is to oppose things that I think are wrong if they are in Vietnam or New York, or Chicago, or Atlanta, or wherever. ... I'm not taking a stand against stopping World Communism, and I'm not taking a stand in favor of the Viet Cong. What I'm saying that is, first, that I don't believe in that war. That particular war. I'm against all war. I'm against that war in particular, and I don't think people ought to participate in it. Because I'm against war, I'm against the draft. I think that other countries in the World get along without a draft — England is one — and I don't see why we couldn't, too. — Julian Bond. [16]

Elected officials and the establishment media erupt in a firestorm of criticism against both SNCC and Bond for opposing the war and the draft. Charges of "disloyalty," "treason," and "subversion" are hurled. Some 75 white members of the Georgia House — most of whom are staunch segregationists opposed to everything the Freedom Movement stands for — challenge Bond's right to represent the people of the 136th District because (they claim) his statements, "[Give] aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and Georgia, [violate] the Selective Service laws, and [tend] to bring discredit and disrespect on the House." They assert that since his position, "Is totally and completely repugnant to and inconsistent with the mandatory oath prescribed by the Constitution of Georgia for a Member of the House of Representatives" he cannot be seated.

The barrage of political and personal attacks on SNCC and Bond are still raging when the Georgia House of Representatives convenes on January 10, 1966. Bond is not permitted to take the oath of office or to assume his seat. Backed by SNCC and other civil rights supporters, Julian disputes the charges against him, viewing them as a racially-motivated and unconstitutional attempt to deprive him of his First Amendment rights and deny the voters of the 136th District the representative of their choice. He states his willingness to take the oath and argues that he can do so in good faith. A special House committee is appointed to hear the case and recommend action to the body.

Dr. King, one of Julian's constituents, cuts short a fund-raising trip to join protests demanding that Bond be allowed to take his seat. "It is ironic that some of the the prominent persons who now question Mr. Bond's willingness to uphold the Constitution of the U.S. have failed miserably in this regard, King tells reporters. In cold winter weather, he leads a march from Ebenezer Baptist Church to join a SNCC-led march from Atlanta University Center. The 1500 marchers snarl traffic as they converge on the Georgia State Capitol and circle the building. A small break-away group attempts to force their way inside and is met with police clubs. Media reports focus their attention on the violence and the small band of militants rather than the large number of marchers or the fundamental issues (the Atlanta Constitution headline reads: "Troopers Repel Pickets Trying to Rush Capitol").

Most of the white legislators condemn Bond, but the newly elected Blacks come to his support. The two Black men whom Julian defeated in the election speak out in his defense. Representative J.C. Daugherty, a Bond defender, exposes the inherent racism underlying the anti-Bond sentiment by repeating what a white political leader told him: "This boy has got to come before the committee, recant, and just plain beg a little."

Julian Bond refuses to bend or beg. He tells the hearing committee:

I stand before you today charged with entering into public discussion on matters of National interest. I hesitate to offer explanations for my actions or deeds where no charge has been levied against me other than the charge that I have chosen to speak my mind and no explanation is called for, for no member of this House, has ever, to my knowledge, been called upon to explain his public statements or public postures as a prerequisite to admission to that Body.

I therefore, offer to my constituents a statement of my views. I have not counseled burning draft cards, nor have I burned mine. I have suggested that congressionally outlined alternatives to military service be extended to building democracy at home. The posture of my life for the past five years has been calculated to give Negroes the ability to participate in formulation of public policies. The fact of my election to public office does not lessen my duty or desire to express my opinions even when they differ from those held by others. As to the current controversy, because of convictions that I have arrived at through examination of my conscience, I have decided I personally cannot participate in war." — Julian Bond. [16]

The committee report supports and echoes the segregationist charges. By a vote of 184 to 12, the Georgia House of Representatives adopts a motion that: "Bond shall not be allowed to take the oath of office as a member of the House of Representatives and that Representative-Elect Julian Bond shall not be seated as a member of the House of Representatives." The vote is on clear racial lines — white vs Black.

With Dr. King as co-plaintiff, Julian files suit in federal court.

The Georgia governor calls a special election to fill the "empty" 136th District seat. Julian wins the election by an overwhelming margin. He again refuses to abandon his opposition to the Vietnam War. The white members of the Georgia House again deny him his seat. In the November, 1966, election for the new legislative term, the people of the 136th District again, for the third time, choose him as their representative by a huge margin.

On December 5, 1966, the United State Supreme Court unanimously rules in Bond v Floyd, that the Georgia House of Representatives denied Bond his freedom of speech. When the Georgia House convenes in January of 1967, Julian takes the oath of office as the duly-elected representative of the 136th District. He serves in that capacity for four terms during which he organizes the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and opposes the legislative appointment of the avowed racist Lester Maddox as governor. In 1975 he is elected to the Georgia Senate where he serves for six terms.

 

The Murder of Vernon Dahmer (Jan)

See Freedom Day in Hattiesburg for preceding events.

Under the laws and customs of the "southern way of life," if just one of your great-grandparents was Black — then so are you. Therefore, as the child of a mixed-race marriage, Vernon Dahmer is considered "Colored" by everyone in the Hattiesburg area. He is raised in Forrest County as an Afro-American, attends segregated schools, and drinks from Colored water fountains. In the terminology of the times, he is "bright," or "light-skinned." So much so that he could live as a white man anywhere else in the country. Instead, he chooses to remain and lead the struggle for civil and human rights in Southeast Mississippi.

On land passed down through the family, Vernon and Ellie Dahmer farm 200 acres in the rural Kelly Settlement area north of Hattiesburg. They own a small store and an independent saw mill. With seven sons and a daughter, they are one of the few prosperous Black families in Southeast Mississippi, providing jobs and assistance for others in the community.

He is also a leader and prime-mover of the Forrest County NAACP. " If you don't vote, you don't count," he tells his friends and neighbors. Inspired by his example, an NAACP Youth Council becomes active. Among the young council members are high-school students Joyce and Dorie Ladner who travel with Mr. Dahmer to state-wide NAACP meetings in Jackson.

With Mr. Dahmer's support, military veteran and Youth Council activist Clyde Kennard applies for admission to Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg (now University of Southern Mississippi). Under the Brown v Board of Education decision, Kennard cannot be legally barred, so to prevent him from attending the all-white school, he is framed on trumped-up charges of stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. He is sentenced to seven years in Parchman prison.

When NAACP leader Medgar Evers declares that Kennard's trial was "a mockery of judicial justice," Evers is sentenced to 30-days in jail for contempt of court. Dahmer, Evers, and the Ladner sisters (who are now attending college in Jackson) struggle for years to clear Kennard's name and free him from prison.

In December of 1961, the SNCC organizers who had been working in Southwest Mississippi are released from jail. A few months later, two of them — Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes (Muhammad), are invited by Mr. Dahmer to set up a voter registration project in Forrest County. In exchange for part-time work on his farm and in his sawmill, he provides them with room and board, local contacts, and political guidance.

Now, black people were afraid to go down [to register]. They were afraid that the same things would happen that did happen to Vernon; that they would be killed. There were many persons who would like to go and register but would just tell you, "I'm afraid to go down there." Rather to give their lives, they just let it go. ... [Vernon, Hollis, and Curtis] would go around and talk with people and try to get them to [take] the test and [tell them] that it was nothing to be afraid of. ... to go down and take it. If they failed it, go back and take it again. If the man talked harsh to them, it would be all right and sometimes they would go with people down there. In fact, Vernon carried several carloads down to register who were just afraid to go. — Ellie Dahmer.[19]

Fear in Forrest County is palpable. Only one-tenth of one percent (0.001) of eligible Blacks are registered. The registrar, Theron Lynd, is notorious for his racist hostility to Afro-Americans who seek to become voters. The police are quick to arrest "troublemakers" on trumped up charges, the White Citizens Council stands ready to inflict economic retaliation, and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — the most violent of all the Klan factions in the state — is based in nearby Laurel, just half an hour up the road.

Progress is slow and hard-won. For a time, local churches are afraid to open their doors for any sort of voting rights activity. Eventually, a little church in the unincorporated community of Palmers Crossing on the south side of Hattiesburg agrees to let the young organizers address a meeting:

... a couple of young men, really teenagers, came to Hattiesburg. Those young men were very dear to my heart, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes. And there was a meeting called in my area. This meeting took place at the St John Methodist Church ... the only [one] that opened up to them was the St John Methodist Church, which I happened to be a member of. That night we gathered there at St John's and the Reverend Ponder prepared the audience for what was about to take place.

Then he introduced these two young men, who shared their mission with the people there, and then offered the altar call, the invitation for people to come and participate in seeking first-class citizenship. I saw Reverend Ponder's hand go up and then my hand went up, and in the few brief moments that it took for me to get my hand up, I had another vision, another turning point. Because somehow intuitively I knew that my entire life was going to be changed as a result of this. I knew that I might even lose my life because of raising my hand, but I knew that I had to do what I had done, and that brought the most important turning point in my life. — Victoria Gray Adams. [18]

The work is hard and progress is slow, but step by step through '62 and '63, Mr. Dahmer, Vicky Gray, J.C. Fairly, Peggy Jean Connor, John Henry Gould, Johnnie Mae Walker, Mrs. Lewis, other local leaders, and a growing band of SNCC field secretaries nurture a budding Freedom Movement in the Hattiesburg area. The Kelly Settlement and Palmers Crossing become hotbeds of freedom spirit and a Forrest County Voters League comes to life.

SNCC transfers Hollis and Curtis to the Delta area and Vicky Gray assumes leadership of the Voters League. SNCC stalwart Lawrence Guyot becomes project director for an expanding staff that includes among others, John O'Neal, Gerald Bray, and Jean Wheeler. During the statewide Freedom Ballot campaign in the Fall of '63, nearly half the county's eligible Blacks defiantly cast their votes in the mock election — the biggest turnout of any county in the state.

January 22nd, 1964, is Freedom Day in Hattiesburg, a mobilization of would-be Black voters attempting to register en mass at the county courthouse. The night before, more than 600 people jam St. Paul's Methodist church and overflow outside to hear addresses by Vernon Dahmer, James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, Ella Baker and many other freedom fighters. Some 50 northern clergymen, most of them white, answer SNCC's call for outside support. A cold rain falls as local students and the northern supporters picket the courthouse while more than 150 courageous Black citizens defiantly line up to register. Only a handful are allowed in the building, and few — if any — are added to the voting rolls. Some of those attempting to register are fired from their jobs, others are threatened with violence.

We got threatening phone calls all day long and at night, too. Most of the time they would ask for him, but I could always listen in when he would be talking. They would say, "Nigger, you're going to get killed." ... It was nothing for the phone to ring at twelve or ten o'clock or something like that, late in the night, where they would holler, "Nigger, you're going to get killed if you keep on what you're doing." — Ellie Dahmer. [19]

Come summer, Vernon Dahmer and what is by now a thriving, broad-based Hattiesburg movement host the largest Freedom Summer project in the state with more than 50 volunteers and SNCC staff working on voter registration and Freedom Schools. The plan calls for 100 Freedom School students, but more than 600 show up ranging in age from 8 to 82. Retaliatory violence by white racists increase, as do death threats against the Dahmer family.

Cars would pull out in the yard, run up in the driveway, and turn around. In fact, we slept in shifts. I usually slept the first part of the night and Vernon slept the last part of the night, so that we could watch and protect our home. — Ellie Dahmer.[19]

Throughout 1965, the struggle for voting rights continues in Forrest County. Passage of the Voting Rights Act in early August leads to a surge in Blacks applicants. The Act outlaws tricks and gimmicks such as the so-called "literacy test," but economic retaliation, physical threats, violence, and official harassment hinder and slow Black registration. The Act allows the Justice Department to send federal examiners into counties with clear histories of voting-related racial discrimination, but Washington is reluctant to offend white southerners by doing so. In a few Mississippi counties, federal officials ensure that Blacks can actually get registered if they are willing risk trying — but Forrest County is not one of them. Nevertheless, the number of Afro-American voters in Forrest starts to slowly climb, with 300 or so courageous citizens added to the rolls in August and September.

Though Mississippi's poll tax can no longer be applied to presidential and congressional elections, voters still have to pay in order to vote for state and local offices. For Blacks, the county courthouse — lair of the sheriff and his deputies — remains a place of intimidation and fear. By past practice, local civic groups like the Jaycees are allowed to collect poll taxes and issue the receipts that allow voters to cast their ballots. As an officer of the Forrest County Voters League, Mr. Dahmer obtains the necessary materials. On January 9, 1966, he airs a radio advertisement telling people they can pay their poll tax at his store in the Kelly Settlement, and if a registered voter can't afford the tax, he'll pay it for them.

That night, two carloads of Klan terrorists attack the Dahmer farm with guns and fire bombs:

... when I waked up, I heard shooting and blazes; it looked like the house was on fire. ... you could hear gunshots coming in the house. I jumped up and got [10-year old daughter Betty] out of bed ... The eaves of the house was on fire. Betty's room was right next to ours. So, after I got Vernon aroused, he jumped up and got the guns. He kept guns loaded all the time with buckshot. ... the shots were coming in so fast ... By that time, I looked and the living room was just in a ball of fire. Nobody was able to get [on] shoes or anything, it happened so fast. — Ellie Dahmer. [19]

Firing from window to window through the smoke at the masked terrorists, Vernon Dahmer manages to drive them off.

I knew we had to get out. ... Vernon was handing Betty out the window to me. She was burning; she had got burned and he was burning. Betty just rolled over in the grass out there, she was hurting so. ... Vernon was hurting so bad that by that time, he went on over to the barn to get out of the light. He was afraid they would come back and shoot us. — Ellie Dahmer.[19]

The Dahmer home and store are burned to the ground, nothing left but ashes. The following day, January 11, Vernon Dahmer dies of smoke inhalation and severe burns (daughter Betty recovers). More than 500 people attend his funeral service.

For generations, the Klan has used violent terror to intimidate and suppress, but now times are finally beginning to slowly change. Not only is Mr. Dahmer a beloved leader in the Black community, he is also a successful businessman and as such he is widely respected among significant segments of the white community. The Hattiesburg City Council and Chamber of Commerce collect money to rebuild the Dahmer home and a white-owned bank makes the first donation. Both whites and Blacks donate furniture, clothes and building materials. Local unions and students from Mississippi Southern College donate construction labor.

Fourteen men connected to the Klan are indicted on charges related to the assault on the Dahmer's home. One pleads guilty to arson, and thirteen are tried. Three of them are convicted of arson and murder charges, the others are freed by hung juries. It is well known that Sam Bowers, the "Imperial Wizard" of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, ordered the attack. He is tried four times with each trial ending in a hung jury. (In 1970, Bowers is convicted of civil rights charges stemming from the Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner, & Goodman in 1964 and serves seven years in federal prison.) The Dahmer case is reopened in the 1990s and in 1998, some 32 years after the crime, he is tried for the fifth time and convicted of ordering the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He is sentenced to life in prison where he dies in 2006.

Though most of the attackers go free, for Mississippi juries in the 1960s to convict any Klansman for killing a Black man is a sign of at least some progress. And today in Hattiesburg there is both a street and a park named after Mr. Dahmer.

Well, about the only way I can look at Vernon's death and not cry about it is when I walk in the bank, I see black faces there. You see buses driving, you see black faces on them. You see the police force, you see black faces. You see the relationships, how the police treat people. Now, during my time, I [knew] a time you'd be called a name ... just because your face was black. But, by the fact that he died — when we look at these things and go out to [University of Southern Mississippi] — ... and you go out to Southern and see all these children out there at Southern and then you look at his death and say, "Well, his dying did all this." Then, it's worth it and he would have done it again. — Ellie Dahmer.[19]

For more information:
Books: Mississippi Movement
Web: Vernon Dahmer Murder

 

Greenville Air Force Base Occupation (Feb)

Photos For preceding events see:

Issues of Poverty, Exploitation, and Economic Justice
Mississippi Freedom Labor Union (Jan)

By 1966, the economic plight of Afro-American sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and seasonal workers has become ever more desperate — particularly in Mississippi.

The White Citizens Council is determined to drive poor Blacks off the land and out of the state before they can register to vote and win some share of political power. To accomplish this, they wage economic warfare against those who have labored in the fields for generations. Loans for machinery that can pick cotton cheaper than Black field "hands," along with chemical herbicides that eliminate the need for hand "chopping" of weeds, allow plantation owners to eliminate the need for unskilled, ill-educated, hand-labor. Technical and business assistance encourages white land-owners to switch from cotton to less labor-intensive alternatives such as livestock (catfish, cattle, and chickens), row-crops like corn and soy, and timber for pulp mills.

Klan terror reinforces Citizens Council economic warfare. In January of 1966, Vernon Dahmer is murdered, and 50 crosses are burned across the state in a coordinated show of force and intimidation. In the dead of an unusually cold winter, thousands of rural Blacks — the very people who have been the main focus of SNCC organizing in Mississippi — are being evicted and dispossessed from their homes in the Mississippi Delta.

On Saturday, January 29, 1966, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, and the Delta Ministry organize a Poor Peoples Conference at the Ministry's Mount Beulah center. Some 700 people attend, many of them already homeless and unemployed. News comes in that two former sharecroppers have been found frozen to death. President Lyndon Johnson is Commander-in-Chief of the "War on Poverty." The conference sends him a telegram pleading for jobs and housing. There is no answer.

Plans were made at the Poor Peoples Conference to occupy one of the over 300 empty buildings at the Greenville Air Base. Described as a civil rights demonstration by the press, it was simply an attempt by the poor and dispossessed to make use of living facilities that were sitting empty. While confusion reigned among state, county, and Air Force officials about what to do and who was to do it, the people moved mattresses, quilts and stoves, and hung out a sign "This is our home; please knock before entering." — Sue Thrasher, SSOC. [20]

Some 40 or so dispossessed sharecroppers accompanied by 10 Movement activists drive through the night. Arriving at dawn on January 31st, they pass by the sleepy civilian security guard, to enter the empty base which has been unused since 1960. They pry open the door of an abandoned barracks and move in with their old blankets, a few boxes of skimpy rations, some jugs of water, mops, and brooms. The men and women (along with a few children) elect a leadership council headed by MFDP activist Unita Blackwell of nearby Issaquena County, and including Issac Foster an MFLU organizer, and Ida Mae Lawrence from Bolivar County. As word gets out, others join them. By nightfall, they number close to 100.

The lone Air Force officer in charge of the derelict base orders them to leave. They refuse, telling him: "We are here because we are hungry and cold and we have no jobs or land. We don't want charity. We are willing to work for ourselves if given a chance. They hand him a list of seven demands.

1. We demand food. We are here because we are hungry. Our children can't be taught in school because they are hungry. They can't even get food in school because they have to buy it and don't have the money.

2. We demand jobs. Many of us have been thrown off the plantation where we worked for nothing all our lives. We don't want charity. We demand our right to jobs so that we can do something with our lives ...

3. We demand job training. We demand that people be trained for things that they want to do and that they be paid while they are being trained.

4. We demand income. We demand that poor people be given the income they deserve. But until we get an income we want [food] commodities that are fit to eat. The commodities we get now are old and full of bugs and weevils. We want fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat. We want to decide what food we eat. The federal government tells us to go directly to the state and county for food, but when we get there they do not know what we are talking about.

5. We demand land. There are thousands of acres here that the government owns. We are supposed to be part of that government. We want the clear and the unclear land, and we'll clear the unclear land ourselves.

6. We want Operation Help* to be stopped. We don't want the Mississippi county Board of Supervisors to have another chance to decide whether poor people should get food. We don't recognize the county boards because they don't recognize us. We want the Office of Economic Opportunity and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire poor people who we say represent us. We, the poor people, want to distribute the food.

7. We demand that Operation Headstart schools be started now. We demand that OEO give us the money which they promised us last September so that our children can be taught in Headstart schools.

We are now ready to ask President Johnson, "Whose side are you on — the poor people's or the millionaires?"

*["Operation Help" refers to an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) program that had promised to hire 500 unemployed people — mostly Black — to distribute surplus commodity food to those in desperate need. Local county officials blocked the program because it required them to hire Blacks in counties where all public employees were — and always had been — white.]

With obvious glee, state and county officials inform Washington that since the base is still under military jurisdiction, the federal government will have to handle the protesters — and bear the public shame of evicting hungry women and children into the freezing cold. During the night, 150 military police led by a major general, three colonels, two lieutenant colonels, and two majors are mobilized from distant military installations to retake Greenville Air Force base from a shivering band of nonviolent protesters.

On Tuesday, February 1st — the anniversary of the The Greensboro Sit-Ins — the United States Air Force surrounds the old wooden barracks building. Major General Puryear tells the protesters that they have to leave. They tell him they have nowhere to go. He says they should leave because they don't have heat or basic plumbing. We've never had that, replies Unita Blackwell, "If that's all you got to say, I guess we'll stay right here."

The Air Police enter the building. Half the protesters allow themselves to be escorted off the base, most of the others go limp and are dragged out the gates and left by the side of the road. A few kick and bite and struggle to no avail. News coverage focuses attention on the few who kicked and cursed.

No charges are filed against the occupiers. They take temporary refuge at the MFLU's Strike City, then move on to Black-owned land in Issaquena County until freezing rain, mud, and sickness force them to move on. Eventually they return to Mt. Beulah while the Delta Ministry tries to find some place they can live and work.

Up in Washington, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach tells LBJ:

"... the situation demonstrated by the invasion of the Greenville Air base ... is potentially explosive. Many thousands of poor Negro workers are losing their jobs, and, in many instances, their homes as well. [The situation is] even more acute because of the unwillingness of the white community to attempt to deal with the problem even at the welfare level. ... [Which had resulted in] great delays in getting federal programs carried out by state officials. [He further urges Johnson to], "Deal with this problem expeditiously and directly through surplus food distribution, crash employment programs, and as many poverty programs as we can fund. If we do not do this, there is a real possibility that Mississippi will be the Selma, Alabama of 1966" — Nicholas Katzenbach.[21]

Federal funds are quickly released for Operation Help, and by the end of the program six months later, some 500,000 hungry people have received some food assistance, though few Blacks are hired to perform the work and control is left in the hands of local white officials. Funding for the Head Start program is also released, and for a time the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) manages to survive, providing pre-school education and nutrition to Afro-American children. But eventually it is destroyed by the state's white power-structure who furiously oppose programs that encourage poor parents to take active decision-making roles in the education of their children and broader community affairs. And also CDGM's practice of hiring and training actual poor people to staff the Head Start centers as opposed to professional (mostly white) educators with college degrees.

Dr. King urges Johnson to turn the Greenville base into, "a huge center for providing training, housing and supportive programs" for the poor. But Mississippi Senator John Stennis — a member of the crucial Senate Appropriations Committee — kills that idea. Today, the old air base is the Mid-Delta Regional Airport.

Long-term, Washington's soothing promises of job-training, employment opportunities, business development, and land retention either never materialize or soon founder on the rock of political control by economic elites determined to prevent any fundamental changes to the status-quo. Gradually, over time, charity, welfare, and other forms of poverty-assistance slowly become a little more acceptable to Mississippi power-brokers who have always opposed any form of government assistance that might offer rural Blacks some means of survival other than starvation wages in the cotton fields. But their acquiescence is limited to programs where most of the funds go to white businesses and credentialled professionals providing food, clothing, shelter, and services to impoverished clients who are kept dependent and powerless. The Johnson administration does not challenge this dependency paradigm in Mississippi — or anywhere else..

Tens of thousands of rural poor are forced to leave Mississippi for urban slums in the North, but the Citizens Council ethnic-cleansing campaign ultimately fails to eliminate majority-Black counties. Yet through economic power, control of government programs, and alliances with upwardly mobile Black professionals they do largely succeed in preventing impoverished Blacks from gaining any significant share of political power. It is out of this context (and similar situations elsewhere) that six months later the cry for "Black Power" rises from a freedom rally in Greenwood, just an hour's drive from the still empty Greenville Air Force Base.

I feel that the federal government have proven that it don't care about poor people. Everything that we asked for through these years has been handed down on paper. It's never been a reality. We the poor people of Mississippi is tired. We're tired of it, so we're going to build for ourselves, because we don't have a government that represents us. — Unita Blackwell, MFDP.[20]
For continuation see
ASCS Elections in Alabama — The Struggle Continues
From Co-Ops to Pigford
Poor People's Campaign Launched
Memphis Garbage Workers Strike

For more information:
Books: Economics, Class, and Race.
Web: Mississippi Movement
Documents: Documents From Poverty & Economic Justice Projects, 1964-68

 

State Poll Taxes Ruled Unconstitutional (March)

See 24th Amendment Ends Poll Tax in Federal Elections for preceding events.

A "poll tax" is a tax you have to pay in order to vote. At one time, state and local poll taxes were common throughout the country, but by the mid-20th Century they are mainly limited to the South as a means of preventing Blacks and poor whites from voting. (The only non-South state with a poll tax is Vermont.)

Southern poll taxes range from $1 to $5 per year, and some towns and counties levy additional local poll taxes. In Mississippi, for example, the state's poll tax is $2 per year (equal to about $15 in 2014). That might not sound like a lot of money, but for impoverished Blacks (and whites) who have to feed their children on free federal "commodity" food donations it's a sum that forces many to choose between voting and necessities of life. And in the mid- 20th Century South, some of those at the bottom of the economic ladder exist entirely outside the cash economy. Many sharecroppers, tenant farmers, agricultural laborers, coal miners, timber workers, and others buy their necessities on credit at over-priced plantation or company stores and their pay goes directly to the store. They receive little or no cash. In the words of 16 Tons by Merle Travis:

You haul Sixteen Tons, and whadaya get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

To make matters worse, the tax has to be paid every year whether there is an election or not, and in many states the tax is cumulative, so if you can't afford it one year you have to pay double the next year, and triple the year after, and so on. In some states, the tax has to be paid in February before the candidates to be voted on in November are even nominated. As one anti-tax activist puts it: "[That's] like buying a ticket to a show nine months ahead of time, and before you know who's playing, or really what the thing is all about."

For decades, civil rights organizations — particularly the NAACP and Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF)  — fought with some success to end the poll tax outside of the Deep South. In 1962 Congress passed the 24th Amendment prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections. It was ratified by the states, and went into effect in January of 1964. But that amendment only affected federal elections (Congress and the President). Poll taxes could still be levied as a requirement for voting in state and local elections.

During the congressional debates over passage of the Voting Rights Act, eliminating poll taxes in state elections became a central issue. Senator Ted Kennedy proposed an amendment to eliminate poll taxes in all elections, but conservatives objected. In their view, the rights of states to levy taxes had to be held sacrosanct from federal "meddling." If the federal government was allowed to legislate against a state poll tax, might not other matters of state tax policy someday come under federal scrutiny? The enormous disparities between funding for "rich" and "poor" school districts, for example? There was also an unspoken partisan subtext to the poll tax debate. Historically, affluent voters tend to favor Republicans while the poor are more likely to vote for Democrats. In the South of the 1960s, of course, elections were polarized around race, not class — a situation that still holds true today. But as a matter of habit and principle, many conservative Republicans favored anything that discouraged or restricted low-income voters.

Kennedy's proposal failed in the Senate. It was not included in the bill the Senate passed. But in the House, liberals from districts with large numbers of Black or Jewish voters didn't want to be seen as laggards on civil rights, so they fought for a total ban on all poll taxes everywhere. They won, and the House passed an anti-poll tax version of the bill. Because the Senate and House versions didn't match, the bill was sent to a conference committee to resolve the differences. The House negotiators refused to budge — repeal all poll taxes now! The Senate negotiators refuse to budge — the Senate won't accept a bill that outlaws poll taxes! Deadlock.

Impatient at the delay, President Johnson rammed through a compromise. The conference committee would accept the Senate's poll tax language, but add a "declaration" that poll taxes abridge the right to vote. Also included was a directive ordering the Attorney General to immediately move against state poll taxes in federal court, along with congressional instructions that the courts were to expedite hearing the cases at "the earliest practical dates." With hundreds of SCLC-SCOPE summer volunteers in six southern states waiting for the Act to become law, King assured the House negotiators that the new language was acceptable, and the final Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law August 6, 1965.

As Chief Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall argued and won decisive Supreme Court civil rights cases such as Brown v Board of Education. In August of 1965, the same month that the Voting Rights Act is signed into law, President Johnson appoints Marshall to be Solicitor General — the lawyer who represents the United States in Supreme Court cases. He moves quickly to challenge the constitutionality of state poll tax laws. Virginia levies an annual $1.50 poll tax. Three years of the tax must be paid by anyone who wants to vote in a state or local election. Back in November of 1963, Evelyn Butts a Black civil rights activist in Norfolk VA sued in federal court, arguing that the tax violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In March 1964, Annie Harper and several others in Fairfax County also sued when they were told they had to pay the tax before they could register to vote. The two cases were consolidated under the name Harper v Virginia State Board of Elections. Based on previous Supreme Court rulings, the district court rules against them. They then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall and attorneys for Butts, Harper, and the other plaintiffs argue the case before the Supreme Court in January of 1966. In a 6-3 decision on March 24, 1966, the court rules that all poll taxes are unconstitutional on grounds that, "Once the franchise is granted to the electorate, lines which determine who may vote may not be drawn so as to cause invidious discrimination," and "Fee payments or wealth, like race, creed, or color, are unrelated to the citizen's ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process." This ruling effectively ends all poll taxes on all elections in the United States.

[Today in 2015, Harper v Virginia is being cited by those who oppose laws that require a photo-ID in order to vote. They argue that for the poor and elderly who may not own a car (and therefore don't already have a drivers license) the cost of obtaining such ID constitutes a kind of defacto poll tax.]

For more information:
Web: Poll Taxes

 

Lowndes County: Roar of the Panther

See Cracking Lowndes County and Murder of Jonathan Daniels for preceding events.

By the time the Voting Rights Act is signed into law on August 6, 1965, the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) has been active for almost six months. In that time they have managed to register over 200 Black voters in a county that at the beginning of the year had not a single Afro-American on the voting rolls. After the Act goes into effect, the so-called "literacy test" can no longer be used to deny Blacks the vote. Led by John Hulett, and supported by Stokely Carmichael and a team of SNCC organizers, the LCCMHR steps up its registration efforts.

Getting people registered to vote — a priority of our work — involved workers canvassing daily along long stretches of white-owned plantations. We rose early to find the sharecroppers as they left their homes for the fields. In the small towns we did door-to-door canvassing to encourage people to register. We prepared for weekly mass meetings on Sunday and evening meetings during the week. We taught people to read and write; we conducted political education workshops for those aspiring to run for office. We maintained a Freedom School and library for the children. We helped to organize food co-ops and crafts co-ops; we distributed information on government-sponsored farm programs whose benefits had been withheld from black farmers for generations. — Gloria Larry House, SNCC.[24]

Lowndes becomes the first county in Alabama where federal registrars (known as "examiners") are dispatched to ensure that Blacks willing to risk registering can actually get on the voting rolls. But the local white power-structure convinces the examiners to work out of Fort Deposit — a Klan stronghold — rather than Hayneville the county seat. Despite the ever-present threat of KKK violence, the number of Black voters begins to steadily rise. So too does intimidation, violence, evictions, and firings.

For transgressing against the southern way of life, at least 75 Black families are evicted from the land they had farmed for years, in some cases for generations. Many have no choice but to leave Lowndes and seek work and shelter elsewhere, others join a "tent city" that SNCC helps them erect on Black-owned land near Highway-80. The cold rains of fall and winter turn the field where their tents are pitched into a swamp of oozing mud — but they endure.

It was like the [Mississippi] Delta back in 1961, an attempt to drive out the African population before they became voters. African workers were run off the plantations for registering. Sharecropper families were run off the land, their crops abandoned in the fields. It was cruel to see. ... A black farmer volunteered some land and we moved the families into tents. Then we used all the techniques SNCC had developed in Mississippi. We set up freedom schools. We had literacy and political education classes. We played tapes of Malcolm. Taught African history. I remember we developed comic books to teach local politics. The role of the tax assessor, of the sheriff, and like that. These comics were very effective. ... Once the people were out from under the oppressive plantation system, they just blossomed and developed. ... When night riders started driving by firing guns, the men and boys posted sentries along the road and returned fire. The night-riding stopped. — Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). [22]

We were always conscious of danger. In Lowndes County we learned to hit the ground or find cover when white men drove by at night shooting at the freedom house. Or at the tent city where we lived with sharecropping families who had been evicted because they registered to vote or took part in the Movement. Fortunately, no one was wounded in these terroristic assaults in Lowndes when I was there. But they happened regularly enough to keep us alert. — Gloria Larry House, SNCC. [24]

Nevertheless, despite economic retaliation and violent terrorism, as summer turns to fall and fall to winter, the number of Black voters in Lowndes County continues to climb. Though struggles, danger, and hardship still lie ahead, the writing is on the wall, Black folk in Lowndes — and across the South — are going to have an electoral voice.

At this point, SNCC had been struggling around the vote issue going on five years, with what results you've seen. But that one we gonna win. That's clear. Then what? How should we, could we, how must we, move to maximize the effect of that victory? In the South? In the nation? How could we stretch and remake the electoral system to do justice to our interests? Africans were and would always be a minority nationally. So what would this vote that people had sacrificed so much for, some even died for, really mean? Only a fool would think that winning the right to vote would automatically free anybody. Remember, Africans in Cambridge, Maryland, could vote and you saw how much good that by itself had done them. — Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). [22]

[SNCC image]Alabama in '65 is still a one-party state and Lowndes is a one-party county. Democrats rule. There is no Republican opposition. The Democratic Party primary is the real election, candidates who win the primary run unopposed or against token opposition in the general election. The Democrats are the party of George Wallace and segregation, their politics are all-white all the time. The party symbol is a rooster with the slogan, "White Supremacy For the Right." In theory, once Blacks have a voting majority in Lowndes they could take over the county-level Democratic Party. But that would probably require time-consuming and expensive litigation, to say nothing of endless procedural battles with local and state-level party bosses. And in the end, they would still find themselves in endless conflict with the party's white majority from other areas of the state.

Lowndes County Blacks could organize themselves as Republicans. But nationally, the Republican Party is aligning itself with "states rights" ideology and the racist "white-backlash." Lowndes County Afro-Americans are poor, and historically the Republican Party has represented the interests of wealth in opposition to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Black Republicans in Lowndes would find themselves enmeshed in futile political battles with the state and national party leadership.

These political realities are driven home in November of 1965. Working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, white political operators rig the vote so that no Black farmers anywhere in Alabama are elected to the economically crucial ASCS county committees. These are the committees that determine which farmers get federal farm assistance — and therefore, who will prosper and who will be marginalized or driven under. In Lowndes County, two-thirds of the farmers eligible to vote in the ASCS election are Afro-American, yet despite arduous organizing and a determined election campaign, no Black candidates are elected. "We did it fair and square, Stokely reports to a mass meeting. "We believed in them, and they cheated us."

From SNCC's perspective, Lowndes County Blacks need a party that will represent them, a party they control, a party that will fight for poor people regardless of race.

When you have a situation where the community is 80 percent black, why complain about police brutality when you can be the sheriff yourself? Why complain about substandard education when you could be the Board of Education? Why complain about the courthouse when you could move to take it over yourself? There was a certain logic to that position. That is to say, in places where you could exercise the control, why complain about it? Why protest when you can exercise power?" — Courtland Cox, SNCC.[18]

Jack Minnis, the head of SNCC's research department, delves into Alabama law. Buried in the dusty tomes of the Alabama Code of Laws he discovers Title 17, Section 337, an old relic of the Reconstruction era that allows voters in a county to create their own independent political party. It was originally intended to help former Confederate soldiers regain political power after the Civil War, but it's still on the books and anyone can use it. In essence, it says that if voters in a county hold a convention on primary day and nominate a slate of candidates, that party and its candidates will then be on the ballot for the next general election. If those candidates receive 20% of the vote in the general election, it must be officially recognized as an established political party for future elections.

But it's an "either-or" situation. Voters who participate in the independent party nominating convention are not allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary — the election that historically has been the key to political power and influence at both the county and state levels. This means that newly-registered voters in Lowndes County will have to voluntarily forego casting ballots at the traditional polling places where whites have voted for generations. And they won't be able to vote in any state-wide primary races such as the contest between "racial moderate" Richmond Flowers and Lurleen Wallace who is standing in for her husband who cannot run for reelection because of term-limits.

SNCC argues, however, that real political power comes from political organization rather than individual candidates.

The energy for this political thrust has to come from the victims of this country's political exclusion. It now becomes necessary to develop a political environment where the organization and organizational participation of people becomes more important than the politicians' platform. As it now stands, politics is defined as the art of the possible, inclusive of few, exclusive of many. The right of people to make decisions about their own lives is the most fundamental right that a member of a democratic society can have. And this is the perspective from which the concept of freedom organizations evolved. — Courtland Cox, SNCC.[23]

In December of 1965, SNCC begins holding a series of workshops for field organizers and local Lowndes County activists on election rules and procedures, the structure and powers of county government, and what could be done for poor folk if officials were elected by the Afro-American majority and held accountable by a strong political organization.

Since many people in the county could not read and write, SNCC drew up picture-stories about each office. They showed what each official was supposed to do, and what the people could do if they controlled those offices. These picture stories were mimeographed and widely distributed throughout the county. They not only taught the people what the duties of the various county officials were, but also what the rights of the private citizen were. — Jack Minnis, SNCC. [26]

Among both Blacks and whites, Alabama has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the nation. Until passage of the Voting Rights Act, Blacks had to pass a so-called "literacy test" in order to register, but whites were generally not required to prove their literacy. Because so many white voters are unable to read candidate names on the ballot, state law requires every political party to adopt a symbol that people can use to vote for the party slate. The Democrats, for example, tell their voters to mark their "X" under the rooster. The Republicans use an elephant for the same purpose.

[From the collection of Gwen Patton] After much discussion, the new Lowndes County Freedom Organization adopts a black panther as its symbol. The drawing by SNCC field secretary Ruth Howard is based on the logo of the Clark College football team in Atlanta. Soon almost everyone is referring to the LCFO as the "Black Panther Party" rather than its formal official name. (In 1966, the unrelated Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, asks for, and is granted, permission to use the LCFO panther as their symbol too.)

The black panther is an animal that when it is pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting for life or death. We felt we had been pushed back long enough and that it was time for Negroes to come out and take over. — John Hulett, LCFO. [25]

The local white power-structure is making its own preparations for elections that will now, for the first time in living memory, include a significant number of Black voters. The words "White Supremacy" are removed from the Democratic Party emblem state-wide, but the essence does not change.

In Lowndes County, there is a committee in the Democratic Party. This committee not only controls the courthouse, it controls the entire county. When they found out that the Negroes were going to run candidates in the primary of the Democratic Party on May 3 [1966], they assembled themselves together and began to talk about what they were going to do. Knowing this is one of the poorest counties in the nation, what they decided to do was change the registration fees in the county. Two years ago, if a person wanted to run for sheriff, tax collector or tax assessor, all he had to do was pay $50 and then they qualified to be the candidate [in the Democratic primary]. This year, the entrance fee is about $500 (equal to $3,600 in 2014). If a person wants to run, he has to pay $500 to run for office. In the primary, when they get through cheating and stealing, then the candidate is eliminated. So we decided that we wouldn't get into such a primary because we were tired of being tricked by the southern whites. — John Hulett, LCFO. [27]

As the new year begins, Black voter registration steadily climbs and organizing continues apace. Political education primers are created to teach the civil government basics (and other subjects) that the Lowndes County school board refused to include in segregated Colored school curriculums.

Meanwhile, outside of Lowndes County, the Watts revolt in August of 1965, shocks and angers a large segment of white America. And ongoing protests in the North against job & housing discrimination, segregated schools, and police brutality, stir resentment and resistance among many northern whites. Reflecting (and to some degree instigating) this "white-backlash," are significant portions of the national news media that by 1966 are shifting their emphasis, focusing less on the oppression and injustice of southern segregationists and more on "black militants," "black nationalism," and even "black racism."

We were criticized, we were called communists, we were called everything else, black nationalists and what not, because we did this. Any group which starts at a time like this to speak out for what is right — they are going to be ridiculed. ... I would like to let the people here tonight know why we chose this black panther as our emblem. ... Our political group is open to whoever wants to come in, who would like to work with us. But we aren't begging anyone to come in. It's open, you come, at your own free will and accord. — John Hulett, LCFO. [27]

And for some in the liberal wing of the national press, thoughts of breaking away from the Democratic Party are anathema. Says the New York Times in an April 21st 1966 editorial titled, "Sabotage in Alabama:"

Extremist elements in Alabama's civil rights movement have adopted a rule-or-ruin attitude toward the forthcoming Democratic primary there that can only produce frustration and defeat for the state's Negroes. ... Under these circumstances, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's call for Negro voters to boycott the primary is destructive mischief-making. It derives from the same attitude of extremism for the sake of extremism that prevailed in the senseless demonstration against Sargent Shriver in last week's anti-poverty conference in Washington and in the refusal of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats to accept a generous compromise worked out in their behalf at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.[29]

While the gentlemen from the Times have little influence among Lowndes County residents (Black or white), they do have significant sway among the northern liberals who provide a major portion of SNCC's funding. A funding base that has been steadily eroding ever since the MFDP defiantly rejected LBJ's so-called "compromise" at the Democratic convention, and urban revolts in Harlem and Watts forcefully confronted liberals about the institutionalized racism in their own businesses, schools, and backyards.

But all that is far from Lowndes County where the heart, soul, and backbone of the Freedom Movement are the men, women, and children of the Black community.

I am thinking of people like Mr. Jackson, who did not run for any office, but he was the key to SNCC's success in Lowndes County. Mr Jackson allowed the SNCC staff to live in a place next to his house with no rental costs. He also stood guard at night in the field between his house and the Freedom House. As you know, SNCC could not afford to pay weekly the staff salaries of $9.60, after taxes, on a regular basis. However, it was the residents of Lowndes who fed us on the weekdays and we would load up on food on Sunday's when we visited the churches so that we were able to survive. Ms. Strickland, was [also] one of the best local volunteers that we had; however, she would stop every day to make sure that she stayed abreast of her soap operas.  — Courtland Cox, SNCC.[30]

On Sunday, March 27, a mass rally is held at a rural Black church to mark the year that has passed since John Hulett led the first courageous group through a driving rainstorm to the voter registration office in the Lowndes County courthouse. They were tricked and denied then, and none were registered. But now some 500 Afro-Americans and a swarm of SNCC organizers and supporters from around the region celebrate gains that a year earlier seemed almost inconceivable. Rosa Parks speaks to them as does Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, and John Hulett.

A week later, on Saturday, April 2, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) holds a mass meeting at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to begin the formalities of establishing its legal identity as an independent political party. Some 60 local activists participate. Bylaws and the Black Panther symbol are officially adopted and party officers are elected. John Hulett is elected LCFO president, Robert Strickland, becomes vice president, Sidney Logan treasurer, Ruthie Mae Jones financial secretary, Alice Moore recording secretary, and Frank Miles chaplain. Most of the LCFO officers come from the ranks of the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR), which as a tax-exempt, non-partisan organization cannot run or endorse candidates.

Some at the meeting express concern about giving up their chance to vote in the Democratic Party primary which has always been the most important election in the state. By choosing not to participate, are they not throwing away the very vote they've been fighting for?

Hulett argues that in May more white voters might show up at the polls than Blacks, and therefore white candidates running in the Democratic Primary would defeat any Black candidates, but by the November general election Black registration will be much higher. However, to be on the November ballot, Black candidates will either have to win the Democratic Primary in May — which, given the current registration numbers is risky, or be nominated by an independent party which is the strategy of the LCFO.

Stokely and Hulett then zero in on the essential point, that the collective needs of Afro-Americans as a group transcended the candidacies of individuals. "This meeting is very different from any other meeting taking place in the state because the candidates are not important. It is the organization that is important," Stokely tells the group. "We feel in Lowndes County that the power does not lie in the person who runs for office but in the organization around the person," adds Hulett.[28]

But the new party does have to have candidates. Someone must directly challenge the sheriff and the other county officers — and that places their lives on the line to a far greater extent than simply registering to vote. John Hulett is the obvious first choice to run against Sheriff Ryals, but he is needed at the head of LCFO, building it into a strong, effective organization.

At a mass meeting three weeks later, courageous Lowndes County activists announce their intention to seek the Black Panther party nomination as candidates in the November general election. Sidney Logan and Jesse Favors will run against each other for the sheriff nomination. Frank Miles and Josephine Waginer will vie for tax collector. Emory Ross decides to run for coroner, and Alice Moore for tax assessor. Contending for the three school board slots are Robert Logan, John Hinson, Bernice Kelly, Virginia White, Willie Mae Strickland, and Annie Bell Scott. For the next two weeks the Panther candidates campaign for the nomination, speaking to churches, meeting voters, and urging potential voters to register because only registered voters will be able to participate in the nominating convention.

The law requires that party conventions be held at an official polling place. Other than the courthouse, all of those places are at white-owned locations, so the courthouse in Hayneville is the only option for the Black Panther convention. By long custom, political meetings have been held in the courthouse square, but Sheriff Ryals refuses to allow Blacks to gather there because, he claims, he "cannot protect" them. Through the grapevine, LCFO activists hear he is "deputizing" armed white men, many of them KKK members, to prevent "his" courthouse from being used by Afro-Americans for political organizing. But Lowndes County Blacks are no longer intimidated by threats of white violence. Says one old man in a mass meeting, "We been walkin' with dropped down heads, with a scrunched-up heart, and a timid body in the bushes. But we ain't scared any more. Don't meddle, don't pick a fight, but fight back! If you have to die, die for something, and take somebody before you."[26]

Justice Department officials warn of a "race war" and urge that the convention be called off. "If the sheriff cannot protect us, then we are going to protect ourselves," declares LCFO leader John Hulett. But necessary self-defense is one thing, deliberately courting bloodshed is quite another — if it can be avoided. The Black Panthers stand firm, the convention will be held, but they also offer a reasonable compromise. If they are given written assurance from Alabama Attorney General (and governor candidate) Richmond Flowers that they can legally hold their party convention somewhere other than the courthouse, they'll move it to a nearby church. They get that assurance. "When people are together, they can do a lot of things, but when you are alone you cannot do anything," comments Hulett.

Tuesday, May 3rd, 1966, is the date of the Alabama primary and LCFO nominating convention. The convention convenes at First Baptist Church not far from the courthouse. "We must use the vote to get out of the cotton fields and we can't do that by voting for the boss man," says one Black farmer.

[The convention] was wide open. Anyone in the county who wanted to could run for nomination to any of the offices that were open. There were at least two candidates for each of the offices. Voting in the nominating convention was by secret paper ballot. A regular registration procedure was set up to make sure that only persons who were qualified to vote under Alabama law could vote in the convention. All of the convention rules and procedures were set up by the Lowndes County people, themselves. The SNCC organizer only helped the people determine whether the procedures met all the requirements of the law. — Jack Minnis, SNCC.[26]

Armed sentries guard the area against white violence. Taking shotgun shells from his pocket a 67-year-old military veteran says, "I remember when that minister got shot here [referring to the murder of Jonathan Daniels]. He had his arms folded and just got shot down. We gonna protect our friends this time"[28]

Some 900 Black voters, most of them wearing their Sunday-best suits and dresses, cast their ballots for LCFO candidates at the convention. A different group of roughly 700, vote in the Democratic Party primary at the regular polling places. In a county where little more than a year earlier there had been no registered Afro-American voters at all, some 1,600 defy the southern way of life by showing up to vote — but on very different ballots. All of the state and local candidates running in the Democratic primary are white. All the Panther candidates are Black.

For the Panthers, Sidney Logan wins the nomination for sheriff. Emory Ross takes the race for coroner, Alice Moore will be on the November ballot for tax assessor and Frank Miles for tax collector. John Hinson, Robert Logan, and Willie Mae Strickland are the LCFO candidates for school board.

We've decided to stop begging. We've decided to stop asking for integration. Once we control the courthouse, once we control the board of education, we can build our school system where our boys and girls can get an education in Lowndes County. There are 89 prominent families in this county who own 90 percent of the land. These people will be taxed. And we will collect these taxes. And if they don't pay them, we'll take their property and sell it to whoever wants to buy it.  — John Hulett, LCFO. [27]

We have our candidates. Their names will be on the ballot November 8 along with our symbol, the black panther. All the people have to do is pull the lever under the panther. November 8 we vote. November 9 we take over the courthouse. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [28]

See 1966 Alabama Elections and Election in Lowndes County for continuation.

For more information:
Books:
     Alabama Movement
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Black Power
Web: Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO)

 

White House Conference on Civil Rights (June)

In mid-1965, the Freedom Movement is riding a tide of success. After the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and March to Montgomery, and now with strong support from the Johnson administration, the new Voting Rights Act is slowly working its way through Congress. It's only a question of how long the Dixiecrats can delay its inevitable passage. For his part, LBJ is also riding high. There's a groundswell of support for his new war in Vietnam and in addition he basks in public acclaim for his parallel declarations of support for civil rights and a war against poverty.

On June 4, 1965, President Johnson gives the commencement address at Howard University, an historically Black college in Washington. Titled, "To Fulfill These Rights" it begins, "Our earth is the home of revolution. In every corner of every continent men charged with hope contend with ancient ways in the pursuit of justice." He goes on to speak eloquently of justice and racism, freedom and equality; of poverty and its roots in society, of "the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed," and the "devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice."

During his address, he announces a large-scale White House conference on civil and economic rights whose theme and title will also be "To Fulfill These Rights." It will bring together government officials, Movement leaders and grassroots activists, and representatives from business, labor, academia and religion. He tells officials: "I want a quivering conference. I want every damn delegate quivering with excitement and anticipation about the future of civil rights and their future opportunities in this country.

But it takes a year to plan and organize the conference and over that time the political winds dramatically shift. The bloody Watts Revolt and other violent urban uprisings raise fears of Black violence among northern whites. And as the Freedom Movement begins addressing northern style, defacto segregation, white anger and resistance to "forced integration" of schools and residential neighborhoods begins to spike upwards.

For their part, Republicans are crying "law and order" over urban unrest while stoking a "white backlash" of racial fears and resentments among whites. They condemn War on Poverty programs and additional civil rights laws as "appeasing" and "rewarding" violent rioters. Among white voters and office-holders in the South there is widespread anger over the civil rights laws and policies enacted by northern Democrats. The number of southern whites are switching parties from Democrat to Republican is steadily increasing. And in the North, Democratic leaders are starting to fear that race issues may cause northern white working-class voters to also abandon the party of FDR for the party of Nixon.

As the Movement shifts its focus from voting rights to issues of economic justice, it begins to impact powerful business interests, corporations, financial institutions, and labor unions who are influential, deep-pocket contributors to the Democratic Party. They respond by bringing pressure to bear on Johnson and other party leaders. Meanwhile Assistant Secretary of Labor (and later NY Senator) Daniel Moynihan issues his controversial "Moynihan Report" in which he links Black poverty and unemployment to the rise within Negro communities of single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births. Many in the Civil Rights Movement angrily condemn his thesis as "blaming the victim" and "confusing symptom with cause."

LBJ wants to reach a consensus on the future direction of civil rights and anti-poverty efforts, but as SNCC Chairman John Lewis would later write: "A consensus. He must have used that word a dozen times. And there was no consensus anymore. Not among his own party. Not among Americans. Not among black Americans."

Nor is there any consensus within the broadly-defined Civil Rights Movement. Long-standing differences between organizations and individuals are beginning to widen — in some cases into unbridgeable chasms. Until passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the common goals of dismantling formal, de jure, segregation in the South, winning voting rights for Blacks and other nonwhites, and the necessity of mutual support against state repression, economic retaliation, and terrorist violence had functioned as a kind of gravity holding people and groups together in a degree of limited unity. But now that cohesive gravity is beginning to weaken as court victories have begun to dismantle the legal assault against the NAACP, the federal government is finally, at long last, taking action against Klan violence, and passage of the two civil rights acts signals a major milestone in regards to ending segregation and denial of voting rights. As external realities forceing unity fade, inherent ideologic differences and competition for prestige, funds, and public support begin to exert increased divisive pressure.

As has always been the case, the NAACP and Urban League champion litigation, legislation, and lobbying while opposing the direct action tactics of CORE, SNCC, and SCLC. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, SCLC, and the NAACP remain committed to both nonviolence and integration as strategies and goals, SNCC and CORE are moving away from integration and nonviolent strategies towards nationalism and revolutionary rhetoric.

Distrust and hostility towards Johnson and the national Democratic Party establishment are growing ever stronger among SNCC and CORE activists, more and more they are now viewing the federal government as an enemy to be protested and opposed rather than a potential ally to be beseeched and courted. SCLC, Randolph, NAACP, and Urban League continue their strategy of pressuring Washington for stronger action against racist policies and practices and more effective anti-poverty programs. But Urban League and NAACP leaders go farther, seeking to forge close ties and political/electoral partnership with the White House while maneuvering to reap funds, patronage, access, and concessions from the liberal power-elite. That leaves King, Randolph, Rustin and SCLC trying to hold together some kind of middle ground between total opposition and co-opted alliance.

Randolph, Rustin, CORE, SNCC, and SCLC, are all increasingly focusing their efforts on poverty and economic justice, (see Background Paper: White House Planning Conference). While the NAACP and Urban League also speak about issues of poverty, they mainly continue their traditional programs aimed at serving and expanding the small Black middle-class (teachers, ministers, professionals, land-owning small farmers, and business proprietors). These different class perspectives are reflected in their respective political positions. As just one example, around the critical issue of jobs and employment-discrimination the Urban League advocates an "equal opportunity" strategy, while CORE presses for preferential hiring quotas and other forms of remedial affirmative action.

During the conference planning phase, there is sharp contention over who will be invited to participate. There are disagreements over how many delegates each organization and constituency will be allocated, and also disagreements over what kind of people should be invited? Government and academic "experts? Those with power to make societal change? Or activists and people from the grassroots who are challenging from below the powers that be?

Initially, some 2000 people are invited, roughly broken down as follows:

Sector Num.    Pct.   
Civil Rights & Grass Roots 350 18%
Labor Unions 100  5%
Government Officials    600 30%
Business, Industry, & Mass Media 380 19%
Academic, Foundations, & Religious    240 12%
Other & Miscellaneous 330 16%

These numbers are eventually increased to a total conference attendance of around 2400, but government, business, and academic delegates continue to numerically dominate Freedom Movement and community activists. Moreover, it is decided not to include any representatives from Latino, Native American, or Asian communities or organizations. So the conference is one where the dissatisfied "have-nots" are outnumbered (and some say marginalized) by the comfortable "haves." To conference critics, the delegate demographics confirm that Johnson's goal is to shift control over civil rights, poverty and social-change issues into establishment hands. Conference supporters on the other hand counter that in order to achieve actual changes those with the power to make those changes have to be a big part of the effort.

Before the conference takes place in June of 1966, James Farmer resigns as CORE National Director over the organization's move away from strict adherence to nonviolence and its drift towards nationalism. He is replaced by Floyd McKissick whose criticisms of the Johnson administration are much sharper than Farmer's. CORE considers boycotting the conference, but decides instead to participate in order to raise issues related to northern ghettos and oppose the Vietnam War. When McKissick arrives he tells reporters, "There's a prevailing sentiment that the conference has been rigged by the administration." Well-prepared for political battle, CORE delegates come equipped with a cohesive set of analyses and resolutions around issues such as police repression, employment discrimination, welfare rights, opening up federal programs for nonwhites — and Vietnam.

In a close and contentious election held during May of 1966, Stokely Carmichael replaces John Lewis as the head of SNCC. One of the criticisms made against Lewis by his opponents is his participation in planning the White House Conference which they view as an effort by the national power-structure to co-opt and blunt the Freedom Movement. With Lewis out, SNCC publicly opposes the conference and decides to boycott it (see SNCC Statement on White House Conference).

The White House Conference on Civil Rights takes place in Washington hotels on June 1-2, 1966. For most of the time it is divided into a dozen discussion groups of around 200 people each. Each group debates a set of liberal-progressive policy and action proposals in four broad areas: poverty & welfare, education, housing, and police & courts. Transcripts of each group's discussion and resolutions are then passed on to the White House for consideration.

The group discussions at the conference are characterized by wide-ranging debate among the various individuals, organizations, and constituencies. Some of the debates center on the conference process itself — who was invited, how the topics and proposals were developed, who was appointed to speak on panels, the discussion format, how conference conclusions (if any) will be implemented, and so on.

But the sharpest disagreements are over substance — poverty & powerlessness, role of the Black family, urban violence, police & repression, unions & worker rights, business and profit, role of the federal government and expansion of its powers, and equal opportunity versus affirmative action. With SCLC's campaign against northern residential segregation in Chicago beginning its direct action phase and fierce debates in the House of Representatives over the proposed Fair Housing Act, issues of defacto segregation, human rights versus property rights, "forced integration," and the need for a massive federal low-cost housing program are all hot topics. Some of the conflicting points of view reflect debates over black nationalism and separatism (the "Black Power" slogan does not erupt into national consciousness until a few weeks after the conference). And running like two underground rivers of conflict are the future of the Civil Rights Movement (and who will control it) — and the Vietnam War which by June of 1966 has become an increasingly bitter and divisive subject.

Contention over these issues both foreshadow and shape the ideologic conflicts that will rage within the broadly-defined Civil Rights Movement, and between radicals, liberals, moderates, and conservatives in the nation as a whole for the remainder of the decade and well into the 1970s.

The Vietnam War is an especially sore point at the conference, and in the months that follow it becomes a bitterly divisive issue throughout the nation. To the surprise of the Cold-War liberals running the White House, the Vietnamese have not folded in the face of U.S. military might. Not only have they refused to surrender, their resistance is stiffening. American casualties are mounting, and more soldiers and Marines are being deployed than Pentagon planners had originally estimated. Which means that draft call-ups are rapidly rising — as is anti-war and anti-draft sentiment.

Never someone to accept dissent or criticism with easy grace, LBJ digs in his heels. There will be no questioning of his foreign policy at his civil rights conference. When Floyd McKissick and other CORE delegates try to raise Vietnam resolutions in the discussion groups, the group chairs shut them down.

Prior to the conference, Dr. King had begun to publicly question the war, and in an act of political-heresy that violates liberal anti-communist orthodoxy he has called for negotiations with communist North Vietnam and the "Viet Cong." He also refuses to condemn SNCC's statement opposing the war and he supports Julian Bond's fight for his seat in the Georgia assembly. Though King is a delegate to the conference, he is not invited to give an address and his participation is severely curtailed. The keynote speeches are given by NAACP leaders Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins both of whom snub King, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC by completely ignoring the roll of protest and direct action in the Civil Rights Movement while posing legislation and litigation as the only legitimate and viable civil rights strategies.

With delegates so divided over so many issues it's no surprise that assessments of the conference vary widely. Predictably, the White House calls it a great success. The NAACP and Urban League concur, calling for state and local conferences and a national follow-up conference to be held in June of 1967. On the other hand, many of the "grassroots" delegates are deeply disappointed. Says Bogalusa Movement leader Robert Hicks, "The Negro people in Bogalusa will be peeved ... They spent $500 to send me to this big show, this come-on, this waste of time. I hoped I could come back and tell them some kind of action would be taken immediately." SNCC, which opposed and boycotted the conference continues to condemn it, while Floyd McKissick of CORE tells reporters that he thinks, "no longer that the conference is rigged, but that it is in reality a hoax."

In the end, the conference has little noticeable effect. Two months after the conference ends, the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1966 which contains legislation strongly supported by conference delegates is defeated by a Senate filibuster. Other national legislation called for by conference resolutions is either defeated or never even considered by an increasingly hostile Congress. Existing anti-poverty programs starve and wither as federal funds are shifted to finance the expanding Vietnam War — and new initiatives die unborn. With the nation increasingly divided by Vietnam, urban unrest, Black Power, and "white backlash" politics, there are no follow-up conferences. Among Movement activists working in hardship and danger throughout the rural South many didn't even know it was taking place, and among those who did few considered it significant. In his autobiography written after he is driven from office over Vietnam, LBJ makes no mention of his White House Conference on Civil Rights.

For more information:
    Background Paper: White House Planning Conference
    SNCC Statement on White House Conference

 

Meredith Mississippi March and Black Power (June)

Photos

Contents:

The Situation
Meredith Begins His March
The March Coalition
Marching Through Mississippi
The March and the Media
Murder of Ben Chester White
Batesville Mississippi
Marching Down Highway-51
Grenada Mississippi
Greenwood Mississippi
The Cry for Black Power
Marching Through the Delta
Controversy Over Black Power
Ordeal in Philadelphia Mississippi
Holding Together
Canton: Tear Gas & Rifle Butts
Return to Philadelphia
On the Streets of Canton Mississippi
Marching on Jackson
Assessing the Meredith March

The Situation, Spring 1966

For decades the NAACP, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, and other Afro-American organizations fought to win voting rights for Mississippi Blacks. But against adamant white resistance, the so-called "literacy test," police harassment, economic retaliation, and violent terrorism, little progress was been made.

Building on those earlier efforts, in the summer of 1961 young SNCC organizers began voter registration campaigns using community-organizing and direct action strategies and tactics. They were soon joined by the NAACP, CORE, and SCLC under the umbrella of COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations.

During the Freedom Summer of 1964, more than 1,000 outside volunteers were brought into the state to "crack the wall of fear." By the end of 1964, after three and a half years of hard, dangerous work, many Afro-American communities had been organized and set into political motion, young Blacks were increasingly defying white-supremacy, and denial of voting rights and white terrorism had begun to be topics of national attention.

But few Afro-American voters in Mississippi had actually been registered.

The Selma Voting Rights Campaign and March to Montgomery in 1965 finally forced Johnson and Congress to enact meaningful voting rights legislation. Though sluggishly enforced at first, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) eliminated the literacy test and the number of Afro-American voters in Mississippi finally began to rise, from 28,500 in 1964 (roughly 6% of those eligible) to more than 130,000 (31%) in April of 1966.

That's more than a four-fold increase, but it's not enough to elect Afro-American candidates to political office. White power — economic and political — remains dominant even in Black-majority counties and the power-structure is determined to maintain white-supremacy by whatever means they find necessary including police action, economic retaliation, and brutal Klan terrorism that continues to hold most Afro-Americans in a grip of fear.

Meredith Begins His March, June 5-6

Back in 1962, James Meredith garnered both national fame and ferocious hatred from southern whites when he became the first Afro-American to integrate 'Ole Miss, Mississippi's hallowed university. It took court intervention, personal attention by President Kennedy, several hundred federal Marshals, and more than 1,000 armed soldiers of the U.S. Army to finally enroll him as a student. Three people were killed by rioting whites determined to block his admission. After Meredith graduated in 1963, he continued his education in Nigeria, not returning to the states until 1965 when he enrolled in Columbia University Law School.

As the June 1966 White House Conference on Civil Rights in Washington DC draws to a close, James Meredith holds a press conference to announce that he intends to march from Memphis to Jackson through the heart of Mississippi. He tells the few reporters in attendance that his march has two goals: first to "...challenge all-pervasive fear that dominates the day to day life of the Negro United States, especially in the South, and particularly in Mississippi;" and second to "...encourage the 450,000 unregistered Negroes in Mississippi to go to the polls and register."

Meredith is a loner who sets himself apart from the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement — "a man who marches to the beat of his own drum, as some activists characterize him. He hopes to run for political office in Mississippi and the march he plans for law school's summer break is a step on that path, both by raising his public profile and increasing the number of Black voters. Meredith sends notice to Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson and the county sheriffs along his planned route informing them of what he intends to do.

He does not view his effort as a mass protest march, but rather as a statement by a few courageous men, "Absolutely no women or children should be allowed. I am sick and tired of Negro men hiding behind their women and children," he says. Meredith informs SCLC and CORE of his intentions but neither invites their participation nor seeks assistance from them.

Departing from the storied Peabody Hotel on the edge of the Memphis Blues district, Meredith begins his march on Sunday afternoon, June 5, with a Bible in his hand. He is accompanied by six others, four Black and two white — record producer Claude Sterrett, businessman and occasional activist Joseph Crittenden, NAACP officers Maxine and Vasco Smith, and Sherwood Ross who is the march press liaison and Rev. Robert Weeks an Episcopalian minister.

Soon they are walking south through rural Tennessee on the two-lane highway blacktop of US-51. Hostile whites, some waving Confederate battle flags, heckle and harass them, zipping past in speeding cars just barely missing vehicular mayhem. The Tennessee Highway Patrol clears a small crowd of segregationists from their path. A couple of hours before sunset, the marchers halt just short of the Mississippi line and return to Memphis for the night.

The next morning Meredith resumes his march with a prayer at the big "Welcome to Mississippi" sign just across the state line. The handful of marchers are accompanied by county sheriffs deputies, Mississippi State Troopers, and FBI agents. The first town they come to is Hernando MS the county seat of DeSoto County with a population around 2000, Defying tradition and white-supremacy, some 150 Afro-Americans bravely gather on the town square to welcome Meredith and his tiny band of freedom marchers.

Through stifling afternoon heat, the marchers continue down Highway-51 south of Hernando. Just past four o'clock and 14 miles below the Mississippi line, Aubrey Norvell, a white man with a shotgun, steps out of the brush shouting "I only want James Meredith." He closes the distance to Meredith at a calm walking pace. The State Troopers, DeSoto County sheriffs, and FBI agents accompanying Meredith do nothing to stop him. He opens fire, shooting three times. Meredith is hit and knocked down. Norvell then amiably surrenders himself to the local Sheriff. The wounded Meredith is rushed by ambulance to a Memphis hospital.

 

The March Coalition, June 7-8

Word flashes around the world — "Meredith Shot!" President Johnson and members of his cabinet condemn the attack as do many other national political, community, and religious leaders in the North.

For some Black freedom activists in communities across the nation the striking failure of law enforcement to protect a Black man from a violent white racist is the final straw. They declare that for them "turn-the-other-cheek" nonviolence is over — from now on they will defend themselves against terrorist attacks. And for some, gone too is their last shred of hope in interracial brotherhood belief in the American dream. Other Afro-American leaders equally condemn the attack but remain committed to both nonviolence as a strategy and tactic and integration as a goal.

Led by former SNCC Chairman Marion Barry, 50 protesters from the Free DC Movement picket the White House. Arriving in Memphis in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday June 7, comedian/activist Dick Gregory declares he will resume Meredith's march from the point where he was gunned down. "How much longer will America stand for [this]?" he asks. "I am one American who intends to find out for myself or die standing up for it."

It has long been an established principle of the Freedom Movement that racist violence must not be allowed to halt protests. If violence succeeds in suppressing nonviolent action in one place it will put all Movement activity everywhere at risk of similar attack. So leaders of the major civil rights organizations converge on Memphis to plan a united response.

In previous years, the direct action wing of the Movement — CORE, SCLC, SNCC — responded to terrorist violence by mobilizing their maximum resources at the point of attack. But now they are all struggling financially.

In '64 and '65 during Freedom Summer, Selma, and the March to Montgomery donations poured in and they rapidly expanded staff and projects. But by the summer of '66 fundraising has fallen off drastically for a number of reasons — the violent urban uprisings in northern cities frightened off many white liberals, the MFDP's rejection of the phony "compromise" at the Atlantic City convention alienated significant segments of the Democratic Party establishment, and the Movement's turn towards addressing northern racism and economic issues has proven unpalatable to some of the institutions who had in the past contributed to campaigns against southern segregation and for voting rights. At the same time, campus support groups and college activists have begun to shift their energy and money towards opposing the Vietnam War.

With funds dwindling, all three groups are now faced with laying off organizers and downsizing or closing projects. They have scant resources for a new large scale march through Mississippi.

Floyd McKissick is newly elected as CORE's National Director, replacing James Farmer who has recently resigned over the organization's drift away from strict Gandhian-style nonviolence. And CORE is primarily a northern organization with just a small (and shrinking) field staff in a few corners of the South.

Dr. King and SCLC are also spread thin. His time and the organization's staff are deeply committed to an anti-slumlord, open-housing campaign in Chicago. Nor has SCLC ever had much presence in Mississippi other than a few church affiliates and the Citizenship Schools coordinated by Annell Ponder that teach adult literacy and voting rights. Yet the imperative is clear:

Meredith had begun his lonely pilgrimage against fear. Wouldn't failure to continue only intensify the fears of the oppressed and deprived Negroes of Mississippi? Would this not be a setback for the whole Civil Rights Movement and a blow to nonviolent discipline? — Martin Luther King [31]

Accompanied by Rev. James Lawson who pastors the large Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, King and McKissick meet with the wounded Meredith in his hospital room. Though recovering from surgery and still a bit groggy, Meredith grudgingly grants permission for them to begin a tribute march in his name.

SNCC too is struggling financially. In the months after Freedom Summer in 1964, they had more than 300 paid staff concentrated in four southern states — Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, but by the summer of 1966 that number has fallen to barely over 100. And SNCC is also — as usual — in the process of redefining itself. It's become an organization of organizers, many of whom distrust and oppose large-scale protests that appeal to "the conscience of the nation" with little tangible result. And they believe that high-profile marches, mass arrests, and big-foot, famous-name leaders hinder and derail the deep community organizing that is now their primary concern.

Relations between SNCC and SCLC remain badly frayed after the conflicts in Selma the previous year. Tension that was exacerbated by the opposing strategies the two organizations applied to the 1966 Alabama Elections. In a close vote, long-time SNCC Chairman John Lewis has recently been replaced by Stokely Carmichael. When he, Cleveland Sellers, and Stanley Wise arrive in Memphis they tell King and McKissick that SNCC as an organization cannot immediately commit to supporting a continuation of Meredith's march.

Later that afternoon, King, McKissick, Stokely, and about 20 others drive to the spot on Highway-51 where Meredith had been shot. From there they try to symbolically continue the march. They are blocked by a line of Mississippi State Troopers who order them off the blacktop. The cops shove the marchers onto the sloping dirt shoulder and down into a soggy drainage ditch, knocking Cleve Sellers into the mud and striking Dr. King. Stokely tries to protect King and an enraged Trooper grips his pistol, ready to draw and shoot. The moment trembles on a knife-edge of incipient violence before King manages to calm the situation.

Forced to slog through mud, wiregrass, and tangled shrubbery the marchers continue to the edge of Coldwater MS, a small hamlet 21 miles south of the Tennessee line. After driving back to Memphis, King issues a national call for people to join and continue Meredith's march.

Stokely and his SNCC compañeros debate what their organization response should be.

At first we were unanimous. Have nothing to do with the madness. ... what exactly was a "march against fear" anyway? I mean in political terms? A symbolic act, a media event, a fund-raising operation? It was all of those and nothing. ... But after a while that wasn't so clear. The march would be going through the Mississippi Delta. ... Our turf. Our people were bound to be on the line. How could SNCC let the other organizations march through and we be absent? No way we could explain that to the local people we'd worked with. No way.

The more we talked, something else slowly began to emerge ... None of us had had much sleep, maybe that was it. ... [But] what if we could give [the march] some serious political meaning? ... Our folk would be doing the marching. SNCC projects would be doing the organizing. We could turn it into a moving Freedom Day. Doing voter registration at every courthouse we passed. Have a rally every night. We could involve the local communities. Address their needs. A very different proposition from the previous promenades of the prominent. ...

I wanted this march to demonstrate the new SNCC approach in action. ... In everything the local communities and leadership would have to be centrally involved. Everything. That way we could showcase our approach. We wouldn't just talk about empowerment, about black communities controlling their political destiny, and overcoming fear. We would demonstrate it. The march would register voters by the hundreds. Local people would organize it, would help decide on objectives, and, to the extent they could, provide resources and generally take responsibility. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [22]

That evening more than 600 people jam into Rev. Lawson's Centenary Methodist church for a spirited mass meeting. In the coming days his church becomes march headquarters. Later that night and into the post-midnight hours of June 8 a Freedom Movement summit of national, Mississippi, and Memphis leaders gather in Dr. King's crowded room at the Lorraine Motel — NAACP, CORE, SCLC, SNCC, MFDP, MCHR, Delta Ministry, Deacons for Defense, Urban League, Dick Gregory, and others of note. All of the participants are Black. All of the national leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are men — the National Council of Negro Women and its leader Dorothy Height having been, as usual, omitted even though her organization is as active in civil rights as the Urban League and through their Wednesdays in Mississippi program have a greater presence in that state. There is, however, a least one woman present — the indomitable Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of the MFDP.

The meeting is long and contentious with several fierce debates, one of which is should the march be all-Black or should sympathetic whites be encouraged (or allowed) to participate?

The role of white people on the march began to be discussed. There was a decision on the part of some of the blacks in SNCC that we don't just want to get people free, we want to develop indigenous black leadership. And one of the ways to force the development of indigenous black leadership is to get rid of all this paternalism. Now, they and we were paternalists ourselves in many ways, because we were outsiders just as whites were. That's the reason SCLC never went along with that. We felt yes, we have to develop local leadership, but you don't want to blame the frustrations of local leadership development on whites alone. We were also partially responsible for usurping some of the leadership. — Andrew Young, SCLC. [32]

Dr. King clearly opposes any hint that white supporters are unwelcome. Though some SNCC members are now ardent Black nationalists and some are separatists, Stokely accepts King's position — with one proviso: — whites can march but not tell SNCC what to do or say. "We were very strong about this because of the inferiority imposed upon our people through exploitation that makes it appear as if we are not capable of leading ourselves." [32]

A more divisive issue is the political stance and purpose of the resumed march. With the support of the Urban League's Whitney Young, NAACP leader Roy Wilkins argues that the sole focus of the march must be to support LBJ's proposed Civil Rights Act of 1966 which is being fiercely debated in Congress (it later fails to pass). He insists that nothing be done to embarrass or irritate the administration in Washington — no violence, no civil disobedience, and by implication nothing that would further inflame the national white backlash against Afro- American progress.

SNCC and CORE argue that rather than focus on Washington through the mass media, the march must become a local organizing tool to counter fear and intimidation, register Black voters, build Afro-American political strength, reinvigorate the MFDP, empower local communities & leaders, and condemn government inaction and failures — in Mississippi and in DC. And that public defiance, and if necessary civil disobedience, have to be the response if Mississippi tries to block the march or prevent Blacks from fully and freely exercising their civil and political rights including registering to vote. If whites, North or South, are offended that's their problem.

In the end, a March Manifesto is largely written by SNCC and adopted over the objections of Wilkins and Young. It declares: "The march will be a massive public indictment and protest of the failure of the American society, the government of the United States, and the state of Mississippi 'to fulfill these rights.'" The phrase "to fulfill these rights" is a mocking rebuke to LBJ and his just concluded White House Conference on Civil Rights — an event that SNCC boycotted, CORE walked out of, and Dr. King was isolated at, disrespected, and dismissed by Washington's elite — both white and Black.

Nonviolence, however, is the most intense area of disagreement. SNCC and CORE insist that Deacons for Defense & Justice leader Earnest "Chilly Willy" Thomas be included in the Lorraine Motel summit meeting and that the Deacons provide security for the march. As has just been proven by the unwillingness of Mississippi law-enforcement to protect James Meredith, the Freedom Movement has to protect its own from white terrorism and Klan assassins.

The Deacons have a solid history of mutual cooperation with nonviolent CORE protesters in Louisiana. They don't picket or march themselves, nor do they engage in suicidal gun battles with the police, but they do protect nonviolent demonstrators and the Black community from KKK terrorism — with guns if necessary. "I don't have no intention of marching one block in Mississippi," Thomas assures the meeting. "But we're going to be up and down the highways and byways. And if somebody gets shot again, they going to have somebody to give account to for that."

SNCC leader Cleveland Sellers later recalled:

The Deacons for Defense was a group whose responsibility was to defend their communities or themselves against attack. It was never a group of retaliation. We involved them to protect the marchers. They were in fact armed and their responsibility was to make sure that the march was safe. ... They would go into the wooded areas. They would check cars out. They would keep their eyes on all of these things, but the spirit was around self-defense. — Cleveland Sellers, SNCC. [32]

Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young are adamantly opposed to any role whatsoever for the Deacons and they insist on the purist form of pacifist nonviolence. They know that many whites — including many of the white liberals, business leaders, and Democratic Party elites whom they rely on for funding and political influence — equate armed Afro-Americans with aggressive race-war violence, "burn-baby-burn" urban uprisings, and their imagined specter of "Black guerrilla warfare." They adamantly refuse to have anything to do with the march if the Deacons are in any way involved.

When we got on the Meredith March, the Deacons for Defense and Justice came to protect the marchers from attacks when the law enforcement officers would not respond. They were armed. And the question was: Are we going to tell the Deacons to go home? ... I said, "No, I refuse to tell them to go home. I think they have a right to be on the march. I think we should tell them, as we tell everybody else, that we believe in nonviolence, but I'll not tell these people to go home, because they have a right to be here and protect themselves and other people." In other words, I don't believe in a standard for white and a standard for black. I think that violence and nonviolence is equally distributed among all races. — Floyd McKissick, CORE. [32]

The final word is Dr. King's:

I tried to make it clear that besides opposing violence on principle, I could imagine nothing more impractical and disastrous than for any of us, through misguided judgment, to precipitate a violent confrontation in Mississippi. We had neither the resources nor the techniques to win. Furthermore, I asserted, many Mississippi whites, from the government on down, would enjoy nothing more than for us to turn to violence in order to use this as an excuse to wipe out scores of Negroes in and out of the march.

Finally, I contended that the debate over the question of self-defense was unnecessary since few people suggested that Negroes should not defend themselves as individuals when attacked. The question was not whether one should use his gun when his home was attacked, but whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized demonstration. — Martin Luther King [33.]

King, Deacons, CORE, SNCC, MFDP, and most of the others in the room come to a consensus that for strategic and tactical reasons the actual marchers on the road will be unarmed and nonviolent in the face of police harassment or attack — but the Deacons will guard them from white terrorists like Aubrey Norvell, Byron de la Beckwith, and other Klan killers.

Speaking for the National NAACP and Urban League, Wilkins and Young balk. They stalk out of the room, disavowing the march and disassociating themselves and their organizations from it. Mississippi NAACP leader Aaron Henry, however, stands with his people and supports the march as do most of the local NAACP chapters in the state — Mississippi state Director Charles Evers, however refuses to endorse the manifesto because it is too critical of President Johnson.

As a practical matter, the withdrawal of the National NAACP leaves tactical and strategic leadership of a resource-starved march in the hands of the Freedom Movement's direct-action & community organizing wing — SNCC, CORE, SCLC — Carmichael, McKissick, and King. Now it's now up to them to organize and lead a march 177 miles from Coldwater to Jackson through the heart of Klan country, register voters, and encourage local organizations who can fight for Black political power.

 

Marching Through Mississippi, June 8-9

Though few Afro-Americans from Memphis physically join the march, it is overwhelmingly supported by the city's Black community who feed out-of-town marchers, open their homes to them, ferry people and supplies back and forth, and host mass meetings in their churches. In command of march headquarters at Centenary Methodist is Hosea Williams of SCLC, CORE's Don Smith labors long into the night as press liaison and fundraiser, while Bob Smith of SNCC coordinates the endless details of transportation. Hustle and faith have to substitute for scarce coin — tents and portable toilets must be rented, volunteer drivers reimbursed for their gas, and trucks borrowed or leased. All three organizations are essentially broke and soon the march is almost $5,000 in debt (equal to about $38,000 in 2018) and AT&T is demanding a $2,000 deposit to run four bulk-calling WATS phones lines into the church.

By mid-morning on Wednesday the 8th, marchers are gathering at Centenary Church in Memphis and boarding cars and busses to Coldwater where the trek is to resume. Before departing, King and McKissick visit Meredith in the hospital to inform him of what is underway. He refuses to endorse the new manifesto — not out of opposition to it but rather because he is no longer in day-to-day command of the operation and he doesn't want to take responsibility for something he has no control over.

Though Meredith's attending physician believes he needs to remain hospitalized for at least one more day, hospital administrators are under pressure from hostile whites to discharge Meredith immediately — which they do over the doctor's objection. King, McKissick, and local Memphis leaders decry this as a violation of the wounded man's constitutional rights. Still suffering the effects of his injuries, when Meredith tries to speak to the press from his wheelchair he collapses. He is flown back to New York to recuperate.

It's mid-afternoon by the time the leaders and marchers from Memphis arrive at the Coldwater bridge to join a group of local Black folk who have been waiting for hours in the sweltering heat. McKissick reads the manifesto aloud for benefit of the 120 or so marchers and the press.

McKissick, King and Carmichael lead the march south through Coldwater and on down Highway-51. Roughly 90% of the marchers are Afro-American, the remainder mostly white. In the late afternoon they halt just outside of Senatobia about 5 miles down the road. March organizers have not had time to arrange for a campsite or tents, so the local marchers disperse to their homes and the outsiders are ferried back to Memphis. On the following day, June 9, some 200 march the 11 miles from Senatobia to Como, another small town.

Still without tents for camping, the 75 non-local marchers are driven south to Batesville where they are fed and housed by local Afro-American families. Advance scouts are by now ranging ahead to locate campsites down the road and arrange for local churches to provide meals to hungry marchers, while in Memphis, Jackson, and elsewhere, others attend to the logistic work of renting tents, equipment, trucks and vans.

Meanwhile, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC organizers have begun traveling the side roads, going door-to-door on the dirt lanes, encouraging local Blacks to attend nightly mass meetings, join the march, and assemble at the Panola County courthouse in Batesville to register.

The three groups — SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC — began to pool our legal resources and contact the people for setting up mass meetings and rallies along the highway. We began to get people involved. The idea of Martin Luther King marching against fear in Mississippi was an idea whose time had come, and many people responded from throughout the state. So we were successful in generating the interest and the crowds that we would not have generated if we had gone the other way and made the calls for a number of people to come in from the North. — Cleve Sellers, SNCC. [32]

Marchers, organizers, and aspiring voters are all under the quiet — and largely unseen — protection of the Deacons for Defense. Equipped with two-way radios, pistols and shotguns ready to hand, they patrol up and down the march line and along the rural roads that the door-to-door canvassers are trekking. They escort the cars ferrying out-of-town marchers from bus depots and airports, and guard campsites, churches, and homes at night. They don't flaunt their presence or engage in macho posturing, nor do they reveal their numbers or allow strangers to attend their meetings.

They would tell us certain things we needed to know along the way. They would go into the wooded areas. They would check cars out. They would keep their eyes on all of those things. — Cleve Sellers, SNCC. [32]

The route of the Meredith March is long, more than 200 miles from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis to the Mississippi Capitol building in Jackson. It's longer still in history and psychology. Fear instilled by state-sanctioned, terrorist violence, economic retaliation, and police repression is not easily conquered. Mississippi held its primary elections on the day after Meredith was shot, yet only a quarter of the 140,000 registered Afro-Americans dared cast their ballots.

To marchers and media alike, the courageous men and women who publicly defy white-supremacy are self-evident. But remaining in shadow are many others — the Afro-American farmer who refuses to share a sip of water with marchers and tells them, "Please go away, we don't want no trouble!" The Black woman who refuses to let Dr. King use her phone, "If anyone sees you come into my house, my family will have trouble with the Klan once you have gone. We just can't afford to take chances."

Yet some are willing to take a stand. The summer sun beats down on Highway-51 and the muggy heat is stifling and oppressive. Armistead Phipps, 58, gray-haired and rail-thin, sits with friends beneath the shade of a tree as they wait for the march to resume. He's the son of a Black sharecropper, and a sharecropper himself for all his life, but now heart disease and high blood pressure have forced him to retire from the fields. He lives in a three room shack in the tiny hamlet of West Marks on $110 month (equal to $840 in 2018) from Social Security and state welfare. He no longer has the strength to work cotton but he's a stalwart member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Beatrice, his wife, begs him not to march under the blazing sun. "I've got to go," he tells her. "This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to our people in Mississippi. Now they won't be afraid to vote any more. I'll only march for a little. But I've got to be part of it."

With Alex Shimkin, a white COFO worker from Illinois, he and others from Marks drive 40 miles to join the march  — now 250 strong — as it forms up and heads down Highway-51 towards distant Jackson. He ignores the angry whites waving their Confederate battle flags and yelling, "Niggers, go home!" He is home. But just south of Senatobia he stumbles out of line, falling to the grassy shoulder. Dr. Alvin Poussaint of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) rushes to his side. To no avail, Phipps breathes his last on the side of the road.

The marchers gather in sorrow and Dr. King puts Phipp's death in context. "This was a man who was not afraid," he tells them. "His death means that he was probably underfed, improperly nourished, overworked, and underpaid." In Phipp's wallet they find two precious, creased and folded mementos of his Freedom Movement activism —  an MFDP membership card and the poll tax receipt of a registered voter. Shimkin tells a Boston Globe reporter. "I feel honestly that if he'd known he was about to die he would have done it this way."

 

The March and the Media

As usual, most of the white-owned, southern mass media is implacably hostile to the march and the Freedom Movement in general, but reaction in the northern media is more complex. In the Movement's early years they responded to bus boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and school integration with cautious approval mixed with ominous fear of Communism, red-subversion, and negative consequences to American foreign policy. After Birmingham in 1963, northern coverage of the Movement became more clearly favorable as young Afro-Americans defied dogs, firehouses, and Klan mobs for their freedom. During 1964's Freedom Summer media interest shifted almost entirely to the northern white students from affluent families coming to South to aid oppressed Blacks, and during 1965's Selma campaign and March to Montgomery their narrative extolled both Afro-Americans struggling for basic American values and President Johnson's "magnanimous" efforts to bestow upon them a Voting Rights Act.

But in times of intense social struggle the political floods run swift and capricious. By the summer of 1966, it is urban uprisings, "Black militancy," and the surging power of a "white backlash" that chiefly concern northern pundits and editors. In 1966, the New York Post is still the most liberal of that city's major daily newspapers, yet in a June 9 column titled "Black Power on the March," Pete Hamill comments from Senatobia:

Once the kids who stormed the South were some of the most beautiful people in America. They endured because they were better than we were. They had more courage and more innocence and the belief in the basic principles of this country that seemed for a while to be bringing it redemption. [But now] "something ugly and vicious has burrowed its way into the civil rights movement."

Hamill goes on to decry Black marchers who glorify Malcolm X, refuse to shake hands with whites, who growl and mutter rude responses to polite reporters. Activists who insist on "Black" over "Negro." Militants who equally disdain white liberals, Afro-American moderates, and government institutions. Stokely Carmichael, he tells his readers is, "Singing out the sweet blind lies of racism."

Stokely, of course, has a different view:

I mean it's passing strange how just about everything I've read about the march completely miss the point. ... It's more what they didn't report, what they couldn't see, didn't see, or more likely, didn't want to see. Or equally what they were looking for and what they wanted to see. Hey, we read that the Deacons were there with (oh, horrors) guns. But after Meredith, no one else got shot and nobody was killed on our march. We read that whites were excluded. Not true. The [white] "leaders" weren't invited but quite a few white supporters did march. We read that the numbers were down, meaning that support had "waned," but not that thousands of black folk turned out along the way, and that almost five thousand of them registered to vote in Mississippi for the first time. ...

What we miss in nearly all historical accounts is the most important aspect. The incredible spirit of self-reliance, of taking responsibility, of taking courage, which local people demonstrated. That it really had become for all those local people their real march against fear. Somehow that got missed ... What the press saw, or thought it saw and reported stridently, and what has subsequently been recycled in second and third drafts of history, is that young militants turned on a beleaguered Dr. King. That an ideological struggle took place between SCLC and SNCC, between Dr. King and the "young firebrand" Carmichael. Gimme a break. That's not how it went. No way. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [32]

 

Murder of Ben Chester White, June 10

Meanwhile, down in Adams County 250 miles to the south, Ku Klux Klansmen Ernest Avants, Claude Fuller, and James Jones have a plan. They want to lure Martin Luther King to Natchez where they intend to assassinate him. On June 19th, the three white men go to the home of Ben Chester White, an elderly Afro-American man who has never participated in Freedom Movement activities. They say they want to hire him to help look for a missing dog. They drive him out to the low bridge over Pretty Creek and force him out of the car at gunpoint.

As the three Klansmen fire 17 bullets into him, White cries out, "Oh, Lord. What have I done to deserve this!" They toss his lifeless body into the water.

Their scheme quickly goes awry. It's three days before White's corpse is discovered, and Dr. King is up in Chicago unable to leave the intensifying open housing campaign. And in their orgy of gunfire, the Klansmen had carelessly peppered their own car with bullet holes. To hide the evidence they set the vehicle on fire in a remote spot, but it's soon found and linked to James Jones the registered owner. He's picked up by the police, fails a lie-detector test and then confesses his role, "His brains, his brains. When we shot him, his brains went all over. Fuller shot him with a machine gun, and Avants blowed his head off."

When Jones is put on trial in 1967, his confession and repentance is read to the jury of 9 whites and 3 Blacks. The jury deadlocks, the white jurors vote for acquittal, the Black jurors vote for conviction. Though Avants had told the FBI, "Yeah, I shot that nigger. I blew his head off with a shotgun," he is acquitted outright in his trial because his lawyer argues that it was Fuller who fired the fatal shot. State authorities decide not to try Fuller because he has arthritis and ulcers and trying a sick man would be quite unkind.

Some 35 years pass. By 2003, Jones and Fuller have died. "Cold case" justice activists force Washington to at long last take action. It finally occurs to the Department of Justice that since Ben White's murder took place on federal land he can be brought to court on federal charges even though he's been acquitted on state charges. Avant is convicted, sentenced to life imprisonment, and dies in federal prison a year later at the age of 72.

 

Batesville Mississippi, June 10-11

Bolstered by MFDP contingents from Meridian and Jackson led by Lawrence Guyot, 150 marchers continue south from Como on the 10th. Five miles down the road is the tiny town of Sardis where 100 local Blacks join the trek towards Batesville 10 miles further on.

The little town of Batesville — population 3,200 — is one of Panola County's two seats of government and the location of its voter registration office. A majority of the county's residents are Black and for several years Panola County and Batesville have been centers of Freedom Movement activity, with SNCC organizers and COFO volunteers, MFDP branches, and freedom schools. Before the Movement came, only 10 of the county's 7250 eligible Afro-Americans were registered to vote. By the time the footsore Meredith marchers arrive late in the afternoon of Friday June 10 that number has risen to 2,060 (28%) — a notable achievement in the face of intimidation and terrorism but one that still leaves them heavily outnumbered by the 6,419 registered whites.

The stores and businesses around the Batesville town square are owned by whites and all of them are closed, locked, and guarded by helmeted police as some 500 marchers turn off Highway-51 to proudly defy the hostile glares of more than a thousand antagonistic whites. They cross the broad square and continue on to Coleman Chapel AME Zion Church. There a feast of barbecue sandwiches, fried chicken, vegetables, cornbread, and cake await them, cooked up by Black women working in hot kitchens as their community's contribution to the Freedom Movement. A large tent has finally been acquired for the marchers, and after a spirited mass meeting they bed down for the night, curtains discreetly dividing the tent into separate men's and women's sections.

On Saturday morning June 11, the Meredith marchers form up at Coleman Chapel and then march down Panola Ave to the old Illinois Central railroad depot near the courthouse on the square. There they join hundreds of local Blacks for a voter registration rally — old men and women, working adults, and enthusiastic teenagers. For days SNCC & CORE organizers have been canvassing door-to-door and up and down the dusty dirt roads in rural areas encouraging unregistered Blacks to use the presence of the marchers to defy intimidation by registering. The rally is large, enthusiastic, and filled with spirited singing.

Saturday is shopping day in the South, and hostile whites in the town square observe the protesting Blacks with grim faces. The KKK distributes hate literature, teenagers heckle and wave Confederate battle flags, and riot equipped State Troopers glower.

With the attention of the national press and Justice Department observers now focused on Panola County, the power-structure refrains from halting either the march or the rally — though normally Black protests are quickly and brutally suppressed with clubs, arrests and police dogs. Nor do they impede or harass the Afro-Americans lining up to register. Their strategy is to ease the marchers out of town without publicity or drawing federal scrutiny — and then return immediately to business as usual.

A little after noon, some 300 Meredith marchers head out of town down Highway-51 as a determined line of Afro-Americans moves steadily through the Panola County courthouse to emerge as registered voters. Willie Middleton, an 85 year old Panola County freedom activist who had himself won a voting-rights case in federal court to become registered, later observed: "This march is waking not only Mississippi up, but waking the world up. If that man hadn't shot James Meredith, they'd have went on down to Jackson without anyone hardly noticing. But those shots were heard around the world." [33.]

 

Marching Down Highway-51, June 10-13

That Saturday afternoon, the march continues down Highway-51, covering seven miles from Batesville to Pope, then on Sunday 10 miles from Pope to Enid Dam. By now, the basic pattern has been set — protesters marching down Highway-51 from town to town, organizers working the surrounding area, evening mass meetings wherever the march halts for the night, and voter registration rallies in the courthouse towns.

MCHR nurses and health workers accompany the marchers — some in vehicles, others walking the line with tan first-aid satchels slung over their shoulders. They urge marchers to stay hydrated and distribute salt tablets, tend to blisters, heat rash and insect bites, wrap sprains, and respond to the multi-varied psychosomatic symptoms of intense and pervasive fear. They also watch for sunstroke and try to dissuade ailing and infirm marchers from hiking in the hot sun — usually with little success. MCHR is a sponsoring organization of the march and from its New York headquarters it mobilizes donations, supplies and volunteer medical professional from its dozen or more chapters. Former Tougaloo activist Joyce Ladner and white nurse Phyllis Cunningham coordinate from the MCHR office in Jackson, sending gauze, bandages, sunscreen, and antiseptic north up Highway-51.

A hard core of activists are committed to marching all the way to the Mississippi Capitol building in Jackson. On any given day they are joined by local Afro-Americans and out-of-town supporters who march for a few hours or a few days. On some days, march numbers might vary between 100-150, on others it might grow to 350-400 or so. Numbers are higher on weekends after supporters with workaday jobs drive in from distant areas on Friday night. On weekdays the proportion of whites on the line is usually somewhere between 10-15%, when weekend bus loads from the north arrive that might increase to as high as 30% on Saturdays and Sundays.

On Monday June 13, 200 marchers head south from Enid Dam. This is Klan country as messages scrawled on walls and pavement attest. One such with the word "read" misspelled as "red" says: RED NIGGER AND RUN. IF YOU CAN'T RED, RUN ANYWAY.

On most days, the distance marched is determined more by where a campsite and church for the mass meeting can be found than by the endurance and speed of the marchers. No campsite has been found for this stretch, so marchers make about half the distance to Grenada before being ferried back to the tents at Enid Dam. On Tuesday they resume the march from where they stopped in the wilderness of Yalabousha County.

Each evening the march leaders meet to plan (and argue) tactics, strategy and politics. King, McKissick, Carmichael, plus a shifting miscellany of other organizational leaders and local activists participate. Among them is a spy for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (SovCom) known to them as "Informant X" who regularly provides them detailed reports on march plans and participants.

The SovCom is the state's secretive political-police agency. Charged with destroying the Freedom Movement and maintaining segregation, it gathers information on civil rights activists and organizations and passes it on to the State Troopers, local law enforcement, the White Citizens Council, and from them to the Ku Klux Klan. It also spreads disinformation and disruption. "Informant X" — a long-time activist familiar to many in the Movement — has been on the Commission's payroll since 1964 to the tune of $500 per month (equal to $45,700 per year in 2018) and he ensures that the white power-structure is fully informed about strategy, tactics, and personalities. As do other, less well-placed (and poorer-paid) snitches.

Freedom Movement leaders and organizers, however, are well accustomed to living and working under close scrutiny. If there were no "Informant X" there would be an "Informant Y," along with bugs and taps and other forms of surveillance. So the main victims of such snitches are local folk who are identified to SovCom and then targeted by the White Citizens Council for economic retaliation — firings, evictions, foreclosures, boycotts and in some cases violent KKK terrorism.

Some of Informant X's reports describe the ongoing disputes and rivalry between SNCC & CORE field workers and SCLC staff — particularly SCLC's Executive Staff. Mostly young, all passionately committed to both the Freedom Movement and their respective organizations, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC folk verbally jostle and debate, challenge and disparage each other.

In part, this represents the sort of group-solidarity and competition so typical of young men. But the activists are also genuinely divided by real and substantive issues. SNCC and CORE are egalitarian, SCLC is hierarchical. Some SNCC members mock and disparage Dr. King, referring to him as "De Lawd," a snide disrespect that infuriates some in SCLC (though King himself does not take offense).

Some in SNCC and CORE are moving away from integration and towards nationalism and overt hostility to white Movement supporters, while SCLC remains committed to integration and a multi-racial movement. SCLC stands for the strict tactical nonviolence that has characterized the Movement since Montgomery, while some in CORE and SNCC are now vociferous in rejecting nonviolence.

SNCC and CORE are focused on deep community organizing while SCLC's primary strategy is influencing public opinion and government policy through nonviolent protest — which CORE & SNCC workers see as disruptive to their organizing. In Alabama and elsewhere, SNCC is organizing independent political parties separate from, and opposed to, the Democratic Party, while SCLC is supporting Afro-American participation in and support for the Democrats — which means that SNCC and SCLC are supporting rival Black candidates running for the same offices.

Still, organizational rivalry and contention are not the whole story. Some of SCLC's field workers such as Annell Ponder and James Orange have long-standing, mutually respectful relations with veteran SNCC and CORE field secretaries who they have worked with for years. And while Dr. King is the head of SCLC, his influence is far greater than his organization role.

I remember a great deal about that march with great satisfaction and pride. But the one thing that absolutely stands out about that campaign is the way our relationship with Dr. King deepened during the days we spent together on that march. In fact, the fondest memories I cherish of Dr. King come from that time. We'd always respected him, but this is when I, and a lot of other SNCC folk, came to really know him. I know Cleve [Sellers], Ralph [Featherstone], Stanley [Wise], and others felt that way too. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [22]

Though the SovCom and the mass media make much of these internal divisions — and in fact exacerbate them — the March's internal tensions are trivial compared to the hostility, antagonism, threats, and violence from Mississippi whites.

By day and by night the harassment never stopped, ceaseless. And, of course, the state troopers were a joke. They intervened only when some of our people were about to retaliate. All day, man, passing pickup trucks and cars would veer over, speed up, and zoom by, inches from where our people were walking. Folks had to jump off the highway. Not once did the troopers issue a ticket or a warning, not once. ... Then at night when we pitched the tents, crowds of armed whites would gather close as they could get and shout insults and threats. The [March] leaders would ask the cops to disperse them or move them back. That never happened.

Add to that, every night when the voter registration teams reported in, more harassment. In these little towns they were stoned with rocks, bottles, what have you. They be followed by groups with guns and clubs swearing to kill them. Cars veering over at them, chasing them down the highway. Those teams went through hell, man, yet they registered a lot of folks. But it was nerve-racking and you'd have folks saying the teams should be allowed to carry weapons. Before someone got killed. But the leadership counseled restraint, nonviolent discipline. But the debate went on ... inside the tents every night. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC.[22]

 

Grenada Mississippi, June 14

Grenada Mississippi (pop 8,000) is the seat of Grenada County (pop 18,000). In both town and county Blacks and whites are roughly equal in numbers, but they're divided into two separate — and unequal — social worlds.

As you drive through Grenada's well paved, tree-shaded, streets past red-brick homes and lush green lawns you know you are in Grenada's white world. Grenada's Negro world exists on dusty dirt roads, with small, weather-beaten "shotgun" shacks jam crammed side by side into every available inch of land. Negroes still sit in the rear of the four Greyhound busses that briefly pause each day at the bus depot. White women work behind the desks and cash registers of downtown Grenada, Negro women push the mops and scrub the floors. The median income for Black families is $1401 (equal to about $10,700 in 2018) and the great majority of them eke out livings below the federal poverty line. For whites the median income is around $4300 (equal to about $32,800 in 2018), comfortably above the poverty line.

Grenada county has always been a segregation stronghold. Few Afro-Americans are registered to vote, and fewer still dare cast ballots. Of 4300 eligible Blacks only 135 (3%) are registered while white registration is almost 95%. Over the previous century there have been a number of lynchings — four in one day in 1885. Blacks don't get "uppity" in Grenada, not if they want to stay. There has never been any significant Civil Rights Movement activity in the county, it was considered too tough a nut to crack. The NAACP is moribund, Freedom Summer did not touch Grenada, and an organizing effort by SNCC in 1965 was swiftly suppressed.

In June of 1966 Grenada still lives as if it is 1886.Two years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, every aspect of life, from lunch counters to the public swimming pool to the school system still remain completely segregated. Blacks are not permitted to enter or use the library, nor can they obtain jobs at the federal Post Office.

Grenada is the halfway point between Memphis and Jackson and at 3 o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, June 14, the Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear — and with it, the 20th Century — comes striding down Highway-51 into Grenada. No one knows what to expect.

Clapping hands and singing loud, some 200 spirited marchers cross over the Yalabousha River bridge. In 1966, the stretch of Highway-51 through Grenada town is called Commerce Street (today it's Martin Luther King Blvd). The marchers swing left on to Pearl Street and head downtown for the courthouse on the square. One of them is 71 year-old Nannie Washburn in an old sunbonnet, a white sharecropper's daughter from Georgia she had marched all the way from Selma to Montgomery the previous year. Vincent Young, an Afro-American bus driver from Brooklyn NY carries a "No Viet Cong Ever Called Me Nigger" sign.

Grenada's white power structure has adopted Batesville's strategy for handling this emergency — make promises and provide no pretext or reason for continued protest. See to it that these "outside" marchers have no issues to demonstrate about and assume that local Afro-Americans will "stay in their place." As City Manager John McEachin explains to a reporter, "All we want is to get these people through town and out of here. Good niggers don't want anything to do with this march. And there are more good niggers than sorry niggers."

McEachin's plan fails. The response of Grenada's Afro-American community is overwhelming, far more powerful than at any previous stop. A surge of local Blacks — women, men, young, old — come off their porches and pour out of their shanty shacks to join the march as it moves up Pearl Street. So many that an amazed State Trooper estimates to a reporter that, "About a mile of niggers" are marching up towards the town square.

Meredith Marchers and Grenadan Blacks rally on the square across from the courthouse. Robert Green of SCLC places a little American flag on the Confederate War Memorial, "We're tired of Confederate flags," he tells the crowd. "Give me the flag of the United States, the flag of freedom!"

Green's action infuriates the big crowd of white onlookers. To them, placing an American flag on a Confederate memorial is a "desecration." Up in Washington DC, Mississippi Senator James Eastland responds to Green's audacity from the well of the Senate by asserting, "I would not be surprised if Martin Luther King and these agitators next desecrate the graves of Confederate soldiers and drag their remains through the streets."

After the rally, Afro-Americans line up at the courthouse to be registered by four Afro-American registrars who have been temporarily hired by the county. When the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964 the courthouse toilets were relabeled from White and Colored to #1 and #2, though, of course, any Colored person who dared use #1 would quickly suffer the consequences. Now, grinning Black citizens make use of #1 for the first time in their lives. White onlookers and courthouse officials seethe in fury.

Later that evening, Fannie Lou Hamer leads the mass meeting in freedom songs and Dr. King tells them, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Afterwards, the weary Meredith marchers bed down in the men's and women's tents that Grenada officials have allowed them to set up on the playground of the Willie Wilson Colored Elementary school as part of McEachin's plan to quietly ease the march through Grenada without sparking unrest among local Blacks. When the march continues on it's way the following day, several members of SCLC's field staff remain behind to continue the voter registration drive and within a few days some 1300 Afro-Americans are registered, many times the number of Black voters in the county before the Meredith March arrived.

But the Afro-American registrars are quickly fired and the little American flag placed on the Confederate memorial is torn down by enraged whites. The power structure immediately rescinds all of the promises they had made in response to the march, including desegregation of public facilities as required by the Civil Rights Act — a law that clearly has not yet come to Grenada, Mississippi. It's then discovered that more than 700 of those just registered at the courthouse have been tricked. By some mysterious quirk of local law, all residents of Grenada town have to be given a slip of paper by the registrars at the courthouse which they then must take to the City Hall so that they can vote in city elections. No one was given those slips, or informed that they had to register twice, so they have no vote in municipal elections.

The SCLC organizers who remain behind continue efforts at voter registration and begin helping local leaders build an ongoing movement. But the reporters and TV cameras have followed the Meredith March out of town and Grenada quickly reverts to type. Black SCLC staff members are arrested for the crime of sitting in the "white" section of the Grenada Theater. Police and sheriffs deputies return to policies of intimidation and retaliation and newly registered Afro-American voters are fired and evicted. But now that Grenada's Black community has tasted freedom they're determined not to back down. In a well-attended mass meeting they vote to form the Grenada County Freedom Movement and affiliate with SCLC. For the following five months they mount one of the longest-sustained, most brutally attacked, and consistently courageous direct action movements of the 1960s.

 

Greenwood Mississippi, June 15-16

Led by Mrs. Hamer, the march leaves Grenada on Wednesday morning. But instead of continuing south down Highway-51 as Meredith had originally planned, it swings west towards Greenwood and the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is the state's Afro-American heartland and most of its counties and towns have Black majorities. South of Grenada, Highway-51 skirts the Delta to the east, traversing sparsely populated hill country. SNCC wants the march to cross the Delta counties where they have been organizing since 1962. CORE prefers that the route remain on Highway-51 which will bring it through Madison County and the town of Canton which has long been the center of their work.

SCLC's priority is to for the march to reach Jackson as quickly as possible where they hope a massive protest rally will spur passage of the new civil rights bill which is facing stiff opposition in Congress. SCLC is also footing the largest portion of march expenses, though like SNCC and CORE they are essentially broke. White-owned businesses won't extend credit to CORE or SNCC, but some will sell or rent to SCLC on credit. Or, more accurately, they'll extend credit to Martin Luther King because they trust him to make sure they'll eventually get paid. Costs for truck and tent rentals, food, gas, and phone bills are mounting higher every day and a longer march means more debt that SCLC will have to pay off. Yet to the dismay of some on SCLC's Executive Staff, King agrees to extend the march through the Delta and then return to Highway-51 through Madison County where CORE has its base.

Greenwood Mississippi, population 20,000, is the seat of Leflore County, population 47,000 in 1960. The town is roughly half Black, half white, but in the county Afro-Americans outnumber whites by almost two to one.

Greenwood is home to some of the most ruthless racists in the Deep South, one of whom is Byron de la Beckwith who assassinated Medgar Evers in 1963. There's a plaque in the police commissioner's office honoring "Tiger," a police attack-dog who savaged Afro-American men, women, and children who were peacefully marching for voting rights three years earlier. "We killed two-month-old Indian babies to take this country, and they want to give it away to the niggers," commented one local white segregationist at the time.

Greenwood and Leflore County are the heartland of "King Cotton" country. Some 800,000 bales pass through Greenwood each year. From time immemorial the plantations have been worked by Afro-American hand-labor — first as slaves and then as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and day-laborers precariously surviving conditions not that different from what was endured by their slave ancestors. Now with the rise of the Freedom Movement, the White Citizens Council has been working with landowners to replace Black field-hands with machines so they can be evicted. For Mississippi's white power-structure the new strategy is "Negro-removal" —  driving Afro-Americans out before they become a voting majority.

At the time the Meredith March enters the Delta, mechanical equipment is now harvesting almost 95% of the cotton crop, replacing Black "pickers," and herbicides are clearing the weeds that "choppers" used to control by hand with hoes. Between 1950 and 1960, some 200,000 Blacks have been forced to leave the Delta region and by 1964 the number of Black sharecroppers is half of what it had been just six years earlier. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to force the few Afro-American land owners out of business and off the land by reducing their cotton acreage allotments and denying them the subsidies that sustain and enrich white farmers.

By 1966, an estimated two-thirds of the Delta's former cotton labor force is now unemployed. Afro-Americans who remain in the area endure grinding poverty and unyielding oppression. According to the 1960 Census, annual median income for rural Blacks in the Delta is $452 (equal to $3,500 in 2018). The cracks in their wood plank "shotgun shacks" are patched with cardboard and old license plates. Few of them have any form of plumbing or running water. Their children suffer from malnutrition and lack of health care. They barely survive on the surplus "commodity" food supplies that the federal government distributes — when it's not blocked by white authorities.

The Delta plantation owners are the dominant political faction in Mississippi's white power-structure and they're furious when the marchers divert from Highway-51 into the Delta. Governor Johnson responds immediately to their complaints. From Coldwater to Grenada some 20 carloads of State Troopers had accompanied the march — though they provided little actual protection from white harassment. Now their number is reduced to just four cars because, as Governor Johnson explains to the press, "[The march had] "turned into a voter registration campaign. We are not going to be in the position of wet-nursing a bunch of showmen."

It takes two days, Wednesday and Thursday, for the marchers to cover the 40 mile stretch between Grenada and Greenwood. As the march moves west into the Delta, teams of organizers guarded by the Deacons travel the dusty back roads and the dirt streets of Black communities, canvassing door to door in counties like Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Quitman, Sunflower, and Tallahatchie that SNCC organizers and summer volunteers had worked in previous years.

Up to now many of these towns were too hot to touch. But the people are moving with us now — and even those who don't register this week are at least beginning to think about it for the first time. — Fannie Lou Hamer, SNCC/MFDP. [33.]

That Thursday, as the march continues down State Route-7 towards Greenwood, Stokely later recalled:

June Johnson, my little sister, came rushing up. She was visibly angry and agitated, and she'd been looking for me all over. "Stokely, I gotta talk to you. Now. In private." I'd never seen June so emotional. She had tears in her eyes. But she had reason. Turns out she'd recognized one of the state troopers. He was the white cop who had directed the beatings of June, Annell [Ponder], and Mrs. Hamer in the Winona jail the night Medgar Evers was murdered. The one who'd taken the blackjack from the prisoner and brutalized Mrs. Hamer. Oy trouble, blues and trouble, Jack. June was one of the most popular and admired teenagers in the community. Once that news got out, nobody, but nobody could stop some brothers from going home after their guns. And who could blame them? But the human and political consequences ...  — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [22]

Though filled with rage himself, as a march leader Stokely understands the human and political consequences to the marchers and the Movement as a whole if anyone attacks a Trooper — regardless of moral justification. He confronts the Highway Patrol commanding officer who agrees to quickly reassign the Trooper elsewhere and a potential crises is averted.

In Greenwood later that afternoon, the advance crew begins setting up the tents on the grounds of Stone Street Elementary School which is empty for summer vacation. In Grenada and Holcomb the march had been allowed to use Colored schoolyards, but Greenwood's all-white school board denies permission. Cops order the crew to leave.

Stokely arrives and demands that they be allowed to use public land maintained by Afro-American taxpayers. "We are the people and it belongs to us," argue the activists. When they persist, Carmichael along with Bruce Baines of CORE and Bob Smith of SNCC are arrested and hauled off to jail. The march halts just inside the Leflore County line a few miles north of Greenwood so that the marchers can be quickly driven into town to reinforce the tent crew. Vehicles hauling the marchers and their tents and supplies circle through the Black community until they come to Broad Street Park which is across the street from the charred rubble of what had once been a SNCC office before the Klan torched it. They drive onto the softball field and begin erecting the tents to cheers and approval of a gathering crowd.

Gripping their hardwood clubs, cops surround the park, but the crowd isn't intimidated. George Raymond of CORE shouts, "I don't care what the white people of Greenwood say, we're going to stay in this park tonight." And Robert Green of SCLC asks the Black onlookers, "If any of us have to go to jail we want all of Greenwood to go. Are you with us?" People roar their approval. Tension builds as the camp is set up while the police hover on the verge of violence. The white power-structure backs down. They decide a violent confrontation and costly mass arrests broadcast to the nation isn't in their interests. Greenwood Chief of Police Curtis Larry suddenly becomes friendly and cooperative and the three arrested at Stone Street School are released on low bail.

Though the tents are allowed and violence avoided (for now) the fundamental issue remains unresolved — whites, and whites alone, determine how public property and tax-supported resources are used or denied. Afro-American taxpayers and Black leaders have no power or influence though they are half the population in the city and two-thirds in the county.

Meanwhile, the field organizers canvassing door-to-door find the going hard. Cops aggressively tail them to intimidate the local Afro-Americans they meet with. Everyone knows how the information flows — from police to White Citizen Council and thence to employers, landlords, and businesses. Everyone knows that if they are seen talking to the "freedom riders" they face loss of job and eviction. And for those who own their own land or homes, there's termination of phone, gas, electricity, and other necessities.

 

The Cry for Black Power, June 16

The March Against Fear is as much a march against economic terrorism as it is against KKK assassins, but most of the mass media ignores such subtleties, preferring instead to focus on internal divisions, violence vs nonviolence, and the scariness of "Black Power" which some SNCC organizers are beginning to call for.

Brother Willie Ricks was sent ahead, as the advance scout, and as we grew bigger sometimes he would have twenty or forty people under his direction. His task was to spread them out to plantations, speak to the sharecroppers. Tell them the march was coming through and to give little Black Power speeches to get the reaction. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [22]

For some time there's been discussion among SNCC staff on the march over when (or whether) to publicly proclaim a call for "Black Power" by using the slogan in front of the national press. Field organizer Willie Ricks urges Stokely to "Drop it now" at the evening rally in Broad Street Park. With Dr. King in Chicago, Stokely is the last speaker after Floyd McKissick and local Movement leaders.

When Stokely moved forward to speak, the crowd greeted him with a huge roar. He acknowledged his reception with a raised arm and clenched fist. Realizing that he was in his element, Stokely let it all hang out. "This is the 27th time I have been arrested — and I ain't going to jail no more!" The crowd exploded into cheers and clapping. "The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. We been saying "freedom" for six years and we ain't got nothin.' What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" The crowd was right with him. They picked up his thoughts immediately. "BLACK POWER!" they roared in unison.

Jumping to the platform with Stokely, ["Willie Ricks] yelled to crowd,
"What do you want?" "BLACK POWER!"
"What do you want?" "BLACK POWER!"
"What do you want?"
"BLACK POWER!! BLACK POWER!!! BLACK POWER!!"
 — Cleveland Sellers, SNCC. [34]

Stokely later recalled...

I told them what they knew, that they could depend only on themselves, their own organized collective strength. Register and vote. The only rights they were likely to get were the ones they took for themselves. I raised the call for Black Power again. It was nothing new, we'd been talking about nothing else in the Delta for years. The only difference was that this time the national media were there. And most of them had never experienced the passion and fervor of a mass meeting before. That was the only difference. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC. [22]

The emotional resonance of "Black Power" is intense. Yet it's a slogan without any systematic explanation of its meaning so each person interprets it differently in the context of their individual experiences and beliefs — and those interpretations of what "Black Power" actually means vary significantly.

Floyd McKissick and many CORE staff members strongly support the call...

I liked the expression Black Power, and it was not the first time it had been used. It wasn't the first time that Stokely had used it. I had used the expression, and many other people had used it. ... Black Power is a movement dedicated to the exercise of American democracy in its highest tradition; it is a drive to mobilize the Black communities of this country in a monumental effort to remove the basic causes of alienation, frustration, despair, low self-esteem and hopelessness. ...

I think it scared people because they did not understand, they could not subtract violence from power. They could only see power as having a violent instrument accompanying it. In the last analysis, it was a question of how Black Power would be defined. And it was never really defined. ... [Some people] said, this is becoming too non-American. We're going back to our roots too much and SNCC was talking about nationalism at that time. ... After Greenwood, the media would not let go of the Black Power idea, and neither would Stokely Carmichael, night after night, he and the SNCC organizers called for "Black Power," while King's followers countered with "Freedom Now." — Floyd McKissick, CORE. [28][32]

Among local Afro-Americans, reaction to the call for Black Power is immediate, powerful, and overwhelmingly positive. The reaction from Freedom Movement activists and out-of-state marchers is more mixed, ranging from great enthusiasm to fierce opposition which reignites and intensifies ongoing debates over nonviolence, integration, nationalism and the role of whites in the freedom struggle.

The shift from racial integration to black power was a natural outgrowth of the changing political tide as well as frustration from SNCC members over the failure to achieve meaningful change [through] voter registration. The organization had engaged in sustained and protracted voter registration campaigns throughout the deep South including Mississippi, Alabama, and Southwest Georgia. ...

COFO launched Freedom Summer and it organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that would challenge the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. ...

The MFDP Challenge failed to achieve its goal of unseating the Mississippi segregated delegation. ... When Fannie Lou Hamer spoke on national television about the failure of the state to provide equal protection of its black citizens she asked the question, "Is this America — the land of the free and the home of the brave?" The longevity of her question resonates [today] in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum where there is an exhibition on Mrs. Hamer and the Freedom Democratic Party. ...

The failure of the DNC to seat the FDP was an enormous disappointment. For me, it was my loss of innocence and my temporary leave from believing in racial integration. I spent the summer of 1966 in Jackson, Mississippi where I worked for the Medical Committee for Human Rights. During the course of summer 1966, Mississippi civil rights activists defined Black Power. The young civil rights activists [of SNCC] defined Black Power in more abstract terms, whereas the Mississippi natives whom I called "locals" were interested in using the concept to gain political and economic power. — Joyce Ladner, SNCC. [37]

Some Blacks, including some of the northern Afro-Americans who had come down to participate in the march, interpret "Black Power" less as a matter of political and economic power and in varying degrees more as an endorsement of nationalism or separatism, as a rejection of integration as a goal, as a rejection of any cooperation or even friendship with white supporters, as a repudiation of tactical nonviolence, and as a call for retaliatory violence against whites and "burn baby burn" urban uprisings.

Some, though not all, of the white marchers experience the "Black Power" cry as hostile to them personally. A white activist who had come down from Michigan to join the march later recalled:

Everyone together was thundering, "Black Power, Black Power." And that was chilling. That was frightening. ... Suddenly I felt threatened. It seemed like a division between black and white. It seemed like a hit on well-intentioned northern whites like me, that the message from Willie Ricks was "Go home, white boy, we don't need you." Around the tents [later that day] after listening to Willie Ricks, the atmosphere was clearly different. There was a surface of more anger and more hostility. There was a release of more hostility toward whites. Suddenly, I was a "honky," not "David." — David Dawley. [32]

Outside of Mississippi, many prominent Afro-Americans fiercely condemn the Black Power slogan. At the NAACP's national convention in Los Angeles, Roy Wilkins condemns it as "...the father of hatred and the mother of violence." Whitney Young of the Urban League concurs, claiming that Black Power is "...indistinguishable from the bigotry of [Senators] Bilbo, Talmadge, and Eastland. Most elected Afro-American officials and the most important Black religious leaders in the North echo similar anti-Black Power sentiments.

Dr. King's response to Black Power is thoughtful and nuanced. For tactical reasons, he is critical of "Black Power" as a public slogan. But on the core issue of political and economic power for Afro-Americans he is eloquently clear.

Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to black people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals. No one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power. Indeed, one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny, he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. ... Black Power is also a call for the pooling of black financial resources to achieve economic security. If Black Power means the development of this kind of strength within the Negro community, then it is a quest for basic, necessary, legitimate power.

For people who had been crushed so long by white power and who had been taught that black was degrading, ["Black Power"] had a ready appeal. Immediately, however, I had reservations about its use. I had the deep feeling that it was an unfortunate choice of words for a slogan. Moreover, I saw it bringing about division within the ranks of the marchers. For a day or two there was fierce competition between those who were wedded to the Black Power slogan and those wedded to Freedom Now. Speakers on each side sought desperately to get the crowds to chant their slogan the loudest. ... We must use every constructive means to amass economic and political power. This is the kind of legitimate power we need. We must work to build racial pride and refute the notion that black is evil and ugly. But this must come through a program, not merely though a slogan. — Martin Luther King. [31]

 

Marching Through the Delta, June 17-20

The following day, Friday the 17th, there's large voter-registration march and rally led by Dr. King and Stokely. More than 600 people march from the Broad Street Park encampment to the Leflore County Courthouse — a gray stone building in the classic southern mode with magnolia trees, emerald lawn, and elaborate Confederate monument. A line of cops confine the marchers to the sidewalk, forbidding them the lawn on which stands their sacred altar to slain slaveholders. The white power- structure, white voters, and white lawmen are all grimly determined to protect their memorial from "desecration" by any American flag or "defilement" by the touch of Black hands as had occurred so recently in Grenada. Of course, Black hands touch the monument all the time, Afro- Americans do the menial work of regularly cleaning it, but their labor is in service to white-supremacy rather than in defiance of it.

Dr. King insists on the Black community's right to hold a rally and after a brief confrontation it's held on the courthouse steps while the police continue to guard the statue. County officials refuse to register any Afro-American voters — that office is "closed" — but 40 new voters are added to the rolls by federal registrars working out of the U.S. Post Office under the Voting Rights Act. King then drives over to Winona, the seat of Montgomery County for a previously scheduled registration rally where close to 100 new voters are registered.

Meanwhile, 150 or so marchers head west from Greenwood on US-82. Hostile whites waving Confederate battle flags and singing KKK songs harass them as they march. Byron de la Beckwith, the self-proclaimed assassin of Medgar Evers drives slowly past the line of marchers so that all can see him. None of the marchers are intimidated but some have to be restrained from attacking his car and thereby giving the cops an excuse to assault the march.

As evening falls, the marcher halt at the junction with State Route 7 leading south to Itta Bena, home of Mississippi Valley State College (today, University), a segregated Black college. They had intended to camp on its grounds, but the president is beholden to the white power structure for both his budget and his position so he denies permission to use the campus.

A sharp and acrimonious debate erupts among the marchers over how to respond. The most militant demand bold defiance, forcing a confrontation with the cops and troopers over the right to use public property that Black taxes paid for. Others oppose provoking a violent battle with lawmen that cannot possibly be won — a fight that will result in injuries and arrests at a time when there are no funds to bail large numbers of marchers out of jail. Local movement leaders argue that bloodied heads and prison terms for trespass on college property will reinforce fear and intimidation among Afro- Americans rather than achieving the "against fear" goal of the march. It's decided to ferry people back to Greenwood and camp there once again for the night.

On Saturday the 18th, some 100 marchers resume from where they left off the evening before, heading south down Route 7 past a burning KKK cross, through Itta Bena and the plantation land of Leflore and Humphreys counties. They are soon joined by an interracial busload of supporters from Chicago organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). For a time, three carloads of Klansmen wearing white battle helmets shadow the march line — while armed Deacons for Defense shadow them.

At day's end the marchers are bused to south to Belzoni, from their stopping place on Route-7 to a camp site on the grounds of Green Grove Baptist Church. Belzoni, population 4,000, is a Black majority town with a long Freedom Movement history. Joined by several hundred local Afro-Americans the marchers hold a spontaneous rally. Chanting "Black Power" and "Freedom Now!" they march downtown past the Humphrey's County courthouse to the U.S. Post Office were federal registrars work late to sign up 70 new voters. White hecklers threaten violence, waving baseball bats and shouting taunts like "Your mother's a nigger!" Some of the out-of-town marchers are about to respond in kind but long-time CORE organizer George Raymond and local movement leaders manage to dissuade them from provoking a violent altercation.

On Sunday the 19th, the march resumes from where it left off on Route-7 and by afternoon arrives back at the Belzoni outskirts where it's greeted by a large welcoming crowd dressed in their church finery who join in for the final stage into town and another rally at the church.

On Monday the 20th, Robert Green of SCLC leads a voter-registration rally at the stately county courthouse on the banks of the Yazoo River. More than 60 state troopers and local lawmen guard its Confederate memorial statue from any potential "desecration." After threatening a sit-in to successfully force the sheriff to unlock the "white" toilets for Afro-Americans to use, the Meredith marchers continue their sweltering trek south on US-49 and then state Route-149 to the farm of H.L. Montgomery near the tiny hamlet of Louise. He is one for the few remaining Afro-American landowners in the Delta, still grimly holding on to the 250 acres his father, a former slave, had purchased during the Reconstruction era.

 

Controversy Over Black Power

Meanwhile, as the marchers trek through the muggy heat from Greenwood to Belzoni and thence to Louise, Stokely's call for "Black Power" has created a sensation in the press and consternation among white liberals. No one is surprised that the white-owned southern media reacts to "Black Power" with predictable outrage over the threatened end of the social norms that shape their white identity and sense of God-granted privilege. Nor that most of them see it as a confirmation of all their worst, fever-fear imaginings of Black vengeance and anti-white violence. What's new is that significant sectors of the northern "liberal" media echo those southern themes — as does even a portion of the Black-owned press.

Washington Post columnist Nicholas von Hoffman labels Black Power a "totalitarian-sounding phrase." Other pundits and liberal icons condemn it as an expression of "black supremacy," or a "distorted mirror of the mobs of white yahoos." To them, Black Power is the Black equivalent of white racism. Some critique it as a strategic blunder, "Asking people to walk down a path toward an isolation that could be totally destructive," and "Trampling sympathy for civil rights into the Mississippi dust."

Again and again, the mass media equates Black Power with a call for Black violence. Newspaper columnists and TV pundits express fear that the slogan will inevitably inflame northern ghettos into summer explosions even larger than Harlem and Philadelphia in '64 and Watts in '65. When the Hough ghetto in Cleveland erupts a couple of weeks after the Meredith March ends not a few in the North point accusing fingers at the "Black Power" slogan as the cause.

On Sunday the 19th, Stokely appears on Face the Nation, the premier talk show of CBS. The panelists confront him again and again with statements and questions like:

Q: This would seem to imply that you are advocating taking power by force and violence — by the overthrow, in effect, of the government. Is that what you mean?

Q: Mr. Carmichael, do you reject the ultimate use of violence as a final last resort in bringing down the power structure?

Q: How can you not reject violence and be the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?

Q: Are you telling us that the Negro can riot and take over? What do you mean by Black Power? Are you saying the Negro can take over parts of the country?

Q: You seem to be arguing that wherever the Negroes cannot get what they wish, they are entitled to use violent methods to achieve it?

Q: Would you agree, Mr. Carmichael, that the Watts riot and violence like that is irrelevant and doesn't make any sense?

Q: Are you against the use of violence to achieve the objectives of the Negro movement?

Stokely deftly avoids either endorsing or opposing violence on the part of Blacks, arguing instead that it is up to oppressed people themselves to decide for themselves the best tactics and strategies to end their subjugation. He defends the right of Afro-Americans to enjoy and employ political power the same way that the Irish, Jews, and Italians have done. He focuses on building up Afro-American economic power, and in black-majority regions developing third-party political organizations that are independent of the white-dominated Republican and Democratic Parties — as in Lowndes County Alabama. Yet so focused are they on their own assumptions, his establishment interlocutors don't hear what he's actually saying. It's as if they are in two completely separate conversations.

Some months later, Dr. King described the media's coverage of Black Power:

The press kept the debate going. News stories now centered, not on the injustices of Mississippi, but on the apparent ideological division in the civil rights movement. Every revolutionary movement has its peaks of united activity and its valleys of debate and internal confusion. This debate might well have been little more than a healthy internal difference of opinion, but the press loves the sensational and it could not allow the issue to remain within the private domain of the movement. In every drama there has to be an antagonist and a protagonist, and if the antagonist is not there the press will find and build one. — Martin Luther King. [31]

The Meredith marchers themselves, however, are largely isolated from the broader currents of American culture as shaped by the mass media. Copies of northern newspapers aren't available in rural Mississippi and most marchers are too busy with voter-registration, tent setup, canvassing, dinner, rallies, blistered feet, and mass meetings — and too exhausted — to catch the national TV news broadcasts, syndicated talk shows, and network "special reports." So they have little sense of the stormy media sensation sparked by the "Black Power" call.

Though disconnected from the media frenzy, the Meredith marchers still passionately argue and debate Black Power from their own perspectives. Disputes that are intense and at times bitter and angry — particularly between members of SNCC and SCLC. Chants of "Black Power" and "Freedom Now" increasingly become antagonistic battle cries used to drown out, dominate, and defeat the other side. So much so, that the most extreme proponents seem to be on the verge of physical violence against each other — in full view of the national press who are eager for ever more dramatic stories of internal dissension.

As one white member of SCLC's field staff later recalled:

What made Black Power discussions so difficult was that it was a slogan not a program and among those urging Black Power there was no common understanding or interpretation of its meaning. Since there was no consensus on what the slogan meant there was even less agreement on whether it was positive or negative. In a sense the phrase "Black Power" could mean anything to anyone, which made it popular — but elusive. The result was that in some discussions I ended up as a Black Power supporter and in others as an opponent depending on how the people I was talking with defined its meaning. As I saw it, the Freedom Movement of the 1960s and the Afro-American movements that had gone before us were fighting to win a fair share of political power for nonwhite people and economic justice for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid regardless of race. For me, that's what the call for "Black Power" meant — and I supported it.

I did, however, disagree with some of the other interpretations of what Black Power meant. Since everyone defined it for themselves it was inevitable that everyone would disagree with someone's interpretation. For example, as you might expect I opposed those who argued that Black Power meant repudiating tactical nonviolence and embracing retaliatory violence and race-war as a political strategy for social change. I may not be a political genius, but I can certainly spot a suicidal strategy doomed to quick suppression and utter defeat when I hear one. — Bruce Hartford, SCLC. [35]

 

Ordeal in Philadelphia Mississippi, June 21

Days of marching in the muggy heat and the debilitating effect of internal dissension reduces the number of non-local marchers. On the morning of Tuesday the 21st, just 60 or so men and women, head south from Louise on state Route-149 for the 17 mile trek to Yazoo City.

Situated on the southern edge of the Delta, Yazoo City is a racist stronghold that has resisted the Freedom Movement for years. Though Afro-Americans are a majority in Yazoo County, barely more than 10% are registered to vote. Yet as the marchers cross over the Yazoo River bridge into town their number is doubled by an enthusiastic crowd of local Black youth who give the protesters a warm welcome.

As with Grenada a week earlier, Yazoo's white power-structure adopts a conciliatory, "no-confrontation-in-front-of-the national-press strategy." They urge local whites to avoid the marchers and refrain from heckling and acts of violence — instructions that local whites accept and obey. Yazoo is not unusual in the control that the powers-that-be have. As elsewhere throughout the South, while the KKK and similar organizations are on occasion a law unto themselves, most of the time white violence is — to a significant degree — controlled and directed by power elites who either encourage or discourage it as they choose.

Police officers escort the marchers along Broadway and Main Street (today Martin Luther King Drive) to the municipal recreation center where they allow a tent encampment. Though they've drained the public swimming pool to prevent any interracial swimming, the city makes the pool showers available — a welcome and needed refreshment for marchers who have been slogging through the summer heat for days.

Matters, however, are quite different 100 miles to the east in Philadelphia MS, the seat of Neshoba County, where for the past several days CORE and MFDP organizers have been mobilizing for a protest march and memorial to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman lynching. During Freedom Summer just two years earlier, on June 21st 1964, the three civil rights workers had been detained and held in jail by local lawmen who then turned them over to a KKK death squad for execution.

Since then, against great odds a local Freedom Movement has been built in Philadelphia and Neshoba County. Courageous Blacks have registered to vote, filed desegregation lawsuits, protested intolerable conditions and launched an economic boycott of white merchants to demand police reforms. But the same sheriff, deputies, and power-structure that orchestrated the lynching remains firmly in power. They are determined to maintain the Jim Crow, "southern way of life" with economic reprisal, legal repression, and racist violence — white racial "moderates" hold no sway in Neshoba County.

Local Movement leader Rev. Clint Collier who is running for Congress as an MFDP candidate has been fired from his job as a public school teacher, been beaten by whites for trying to buy a cup of coffee at a segregated diner, and arrested and thrown in jail because of his civil rights work. Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price, the architects of the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman lynching continually threaten Afro-Americans who fail to "stay in their place." As do their Ku Klux Klan allies.

While most of the Meredith marchers head towards Yazoo City, Dr. King and a small group of SCLC and CORE members drive over to Philadelphia from Louise to join local Blacks, supporters from Meridian, and MFDP activists from around the state in the memorial and commemoration march. They all gather at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church in the "Independence Quarter" — Philadelphia's main Afro-American neighborhood.

After a brief mass meeting, Dr. King and Rev. Collier lead 200 marchers out of Mt. Nebo Church towards the county courthouse. Though local law enforcement has known about the memorial march for weeks, only a dozen or so poorly-trained and ill-equipped cops are on duty — and their sympathies are clearly aligned with white-supremacy. No Deacons for Defense are present because they're guarding the marchers who are trekking towards Yazoo City. Some FBI agents and Justice Department officials are on hand, but as usual they self-limit their role to taking notes rather than actively upholding federal law or defending the constitutional rights of Afro-Americans.

Singing "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around," the marchers approach the small "downtown" district where a large crowd of furious whites screaming hatred what for them. Cars driven by hostile whites charge at the protesters, forcing them to jump aside. Rev. Abernathy of SCLC leads a brief memorial prayer at the county jail where the three men had been secretly held before they were handed over to the KKK lynch mob. Against the noise of the jeering whites and their honking car horns almost no one can hear him. A furious white man attacks a TV camera crew. The local cops smile, grin, and do nothing.

"Freedom Now! Freedom Now!" chant the marchers in defiance. "You done killed our boys! But we on the march and ain't turnin' round. Ain't nobody gonna turn us 'round. You cain't turn us 'round!" shouts a Black woman at the white hecklers. Another Afro-American woman sees her white employer screaming hate at her, "Yes! It's me and I've kept your children," she shouts back.

On the steps of the Neshoba County Courthouse, King and Abernathy confront Deputy Cecil Price who had played a central role in the lynching. "You're the one who had Schwerner and the other fellows in jail," says King. "Yes, sir," responds Price with pride in his voice.

The 200 marchers at the courthouse are mostly Afro-American with a scattering of white supporters. They are outnumbered two or three to one by the surrounding mob who hurl exploding cherry bombs at them. "I am not afraid of any man. Whether he is in Mississippi or Michigan, whether he is in Birmingham or Boston. I am not afraid, preaches King as firecrackers explode around him.

Ignoring the white violence erupting all around them, Deputy Price suddenly grabs local leader Rev. Collier and throws him to the ground, declaring him under arrest for prior traffic tickets. Bruce Latimer, the Chief of Police, orders the protesters "Now you better GIT!"

Under a fizzled of firecrackers, rocks, and bottles the march retreats towards the safety of Independence Quarter. An elderly Afro-American marcher falls out of the line and collapses, suffering an epileptic seizure. MCHR nurse Dorothy Williams hovers over him, protecting him from hostile whites armed with clubs and knives while she tries to ease his suffering. Somehow she manages to get him into a truck driven by a Movement supporter but then she's grabbed and surrounded by the mob until a volunteer leaps from the truck and drags her over the tailgate as the vehicle races off under a hail of missiles.

Meanwhile, back at the courthouse, fights break out between whites armed with ax-handles and knives and Afro-American onlookers who had been watching the protest. Finally, with the protesters now gone, the police exert their authority and command a halt to the violence.

King tells a reporter, "This is a terrible town, the worst I've seen. There is a complete reign of terror here," He has no idea that within a month he will face far worse white violence during fair housing marches in the Chicago suburbs. So much so that he will then tell another reporter, "I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I had never seen, even in Mississippi, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as in Chicago."

The marchers who retreat to Mr. Nebo Church are battered, bruised, frightened, discouraged — and determined to continue fighting for their freedom. Dr. King promises that in three days time, on Friday June 24, he will return to lead an even larger march back to the Neshoba County courthouse. One that will defy white supremacy and racist violence and make evident to all that the Freedom Movement won't back down. He and Abernathy then bravely return to the Neshoba County courthouse to bail out Rev. Collier before harm befalls him. Cecil Price glares at Collier and tells him, "We'd like to work you over, and we would have worked you over if that crowd hadn't been out there. And we will work you over yet."

That night, after the Meredith marchers and out of town supporters have left, armed movement activists guard the local freedom house and Mt. Nebo Church from attack by white terrorists. Cars speed past, firing into the house. The Afro-American guards return fire, slightly wounding one white driver. Using the freedom house telephone, SNCC field secretary Ralph Featherstone describes to a reporter in Yazoo City what's going down. He hangs up to shoot back at attackers, then calls the FBI in Jackson informing them, " We are armed and returning fire. You can do anything you want about it."

A couple of hours later, two FBI agents arrive to investigate. While one interrogates Featherstone inside the house the second remains on the porch quizzing MFDP leader Johnnie Mae Walker, and Jim Leatherer, the one-legged white Freedom Movement activist who had marched the entire distance from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The agent is clearly skeptical about their report of white violence — until a truck pulls up and opens fire on the three of them before speeding off.

While protesters are defying a racist mob in Philadelphia and Meredith Marchers are trekking towards Yazoo City, Charles McLaurin of SNCC and Joe Harris of the Delta Ministry lead more than 100 Afro-Americans on a 10-mile voter registration march through Sunflower County in the heart of the Delta to the courthouse in Indianola. Sunflower is the birthplace of the White Citizens Council and political stronghold of the ultra-racist Senator James Eastland. It's a Black majority county, the home of MFDP leader Fannie Lou Hamer, and an area where SNCC has been helping build a local Freedom Movement since 1962. Yet white-supremacy continues to dominate through intimidation and fear. Despite four years of hard, dangerous organizing and passage of the Voting Rights Act, only 13% of the county's Afro-Americans are registered to vote.

From Philadelphia, King and other SCLC leaders fly to Indianola to join them. When King arrives, he addresses a spirited rally of more than 300 local Afro- Americans. McLaurin leads the crowd in calls for, "Black Power." Ralph Abernathy of SCLC leads chants of "Freedom Now!" The people enthusiastically shout both slogans. The hand-lettered signs they hold address their concerns in clear, unambiguous, practical terms, WE WANT A NEW CAP BOARD IN SUNFLOWER, WE WANT INTEGRATED SCHOOLS, FREEDOM IS BLACK POWER. As in Yazoo City and Grenada, the local white power-structure chooses not to foment white violence so there is none.

 

Holding Together, June 21-21

As evening falls on the evening of the 21st, a huge Afro-American crowd numbering close to 1,000 gather for a rally in the Yazoo City park where the Meredith Marchers are camping. Local leaders, SNCC, SCLC, and Deacons for Defense speakers address the crowd who loudly cheer them all. But beneath the surface the speeches are becoming increasingly antagonistic duels between supporters and opponents of Black Power, different interpretations of Black Power, and violence versus nonviolence. SNCC militant Willie Ricks urges the crowd, "When a white man attacks us, attack him back!" and Deacons leader Ernst Thomas argues that few Afro-Americans support nonviolence and that if "rednecks abuse any Black people ... there'll be a blood-red Mississippi"

In the view of King and SCLC staff, that rhetoric violates the agreement of a nonviolent march with self-defense against terrorism outside of the protest. It moves the march into a realm of aggressive retaliatory violence and a step down the road towards race war. When it's his turn to address the crowd, King tells them:

I'm ready to die myself. When I die I'm going to die for something, and at that moment, I guess, it will be necessary, but I'm trying to say something to you, my friends, that I hope we will all gain tonight, and that is that we have a power. We can't win violently. We have neither the instruments nor the techniques at our disposal, and it would be totally absurd for us to believe we could do it. The weakness of violence from our side, the weakness of a riot from our side, is that a riot can always be halted by superior force. But we have another method, and I've seen it, and they can't stop it. ... Don't worry about getting your guns tonight. Don't worry about your Molotov cocktails tonight. You have something more powerful and if you work with [nonviolence], morning will come. — Martin Luther King. [36]

The next morning, Wednesday June 22, a large voter registration rally is held at the Yazoo County courthouse and more than 100 Afro-Americans are added to the voting rolls. A hostile crowd of local whites look on, but obedient to instructions from the power-structure they commit no violence. The Meredith marchers then head east on State Route 16 for the 10 mile hike to the little hamlet of Benton MS where they camp on the grounds of Oak Grove Baptist Church. Among the marchers are those who had faced mob violence in Philadelphia the previous day. They recount the brutality and terror of police-sanctioned mob violence. The marchers seethe with rage and a fierce determination not to back down fills them. Many vow that on Friday they will return to Philadelphia to stand with Dr. King and the Black citizens of Neshoba County.

While the increasingly angry marchers head for Benton, Dr. King convenes another summit meeting of Meredith March leaders in Yazoo City to address the "widening split in our ranks" — particularly the increasingly bitter division over Black Power between SNCC and SCLC staff and the strident condemnations of nonviolence and calls for aggressive Black violence by some of the most militant speakers at recent mass meetings. It is clear that King is pondering whether he and SCLC is going to withdraw from the march.

For hours they debate philosophy, strategy, tactics, perceptions, nuance and anticipated consequences. There is little indication that any minds are changed, but in the interest of maintaining enough unity for the Meredith March to continue as a coalition effort including King and SCLC they mutually agree to tell their organizational staffs to refrain from stoking contentious rivalry, that march leaders won't invoke dueling chants of either "Black Power" or "Freedom Now," or make inflammatory public calls for retaliatory violence (as opposed to self-defense outside of the march) — though march participants and local folk remain free to say and chant whatever they wish.

The meeting ends with enough organization unity to continue, but the majority of SNCC and CORE members are determined to project the "Black Power" slogan both locally and nationally while SCLC supporters continue with "Freedom Now." Most of the local Mississippi marchers continue enthusiastically chanting both slogans, while white marchers are split, some uncomfortable with "Black Power," others having no problem with it.

Yet though the meeting fails to achieve agreement on substantive ideologic differences it does to some degree clear the air and ameliorate antagonism — at least among the organizational heads. Stokely joshes King, "Martin, I deliberately decided to raise this issue on the march in order to give it a national forum, and to force you to take a stand for Black Power." King laughs and replies, "I have been used before. One more time won't hurt." [31]

 

Canton: Tear Gas & Rifle Butts, June 23

On Thursday the 23rd, the Meredith marchers leave Benton and head east on Route 16 for the long 20 mile slog to Canton, the seat of Madison County. Still seething over the brutality in Philadelphia, as they trek across Yazoo County they share a fierce determination to defy violent racists by refusing to back down one inch when threatened by the forces of white-supremacy.

Madison County is 70% Afro-American. Like the Delta counties, most of its Black population are poor laborers, croppers, maids and menials who eke out an existence in grinding poverty. Whites make up less than a third of the population, but through denial of Black voting rights and organizations like the White Citizens Council they still maintain complete control of the political apparatus and they use their white power to keep wages low and working conditions abysmal. Almost 40% of the land is owned by Blacks, but rampant discrimination by the Department of Agriculture which denies them the crucial cotton allotments and federal subsidies that enrich white landowners, and other forms of economic domination by whites has kept Afro-American farmers mired in systemic poverty.

Canton, population 10,000, is the seat of Madison County. Some 60% of its inhabitants are Black and for years both town and county have been centers of CORE organizing. Though it's a racist stronghold, local leaders like C.O. Chinn, Annie Devine, and James McRee, aided by CORE field secretaries like George Raymond, Anne Moody, and Flukie Suarez have built a solid base of Freedom Movement support. When CORE began organizing there in 1963, almost 97% of whites were registered to vote but only 121 Afro-Americans were on the voting roles. Now, significantly, Black voters outnumber white voters in Madison County by 6000 to 5000. In addition to voter registration, the Madison County Movement has fought for school desegregation, mounted an effective economic boycott against white-owned stores, defended the rights of welfare recipients, and established an early childhood education center.

By afternoon, hundreds of Madison County Afro-Americans, many of them now registered voters, are joining the march in the sweltering heat as it crosses over the Big Black River and approaches the outskirts of Canton. It's just two days past the summer solstice, the sun rises at 6am and doesn't set until after 8pm, and it beats down on the weary marchers for 14 solid hours.

In Grenada, Greenwood, and Yazoo City, marchers were able to camp on public property. Since the majority of Madison County taxpayers are now Black, both local and march leaders are determined to exercise their right to use public spaces for political purposes just as whites have done for generations. All the elected office holders, however, are still white and they are adamantly determined to keep Afro-Americans "in their place." Previous attempts to integrate white-only city parks as required by the Civil Rights Act resulted in every park being closed. Now the Mayor denies the marchers permission to camp in a municipal park.

McNeal Elementary School for Negroes is in the heart of Canton's Black community. Annie Devine asks the school board for permission to set up camp on its playground. School is out of session for the summer and at first the board makes no objection. Then they equivocate. Then they say the field is only for "school-sponsored events."

Despite the board's rejection, Local leader C.O. Chinn and Hosea Williams of SCLC proclaim that since Jim Crow schools are paid for by Afro-American taxes all they need is permission from the surrounding Black community which they clearly have. "This is our ground," says Chinn. "We're going to put up the tents or else. We're tired of being pushed around by white folks."

The cops arrest Chinn, Williams, George Greene of SNCC, three white and five Black marchers — one of whom is beaten, kicked, and called "nigger boy" by the sheriff.

Late in the afternoon, a long line of singing marchers parades through town to the courthouse where a big crowd of 1500 local Afro-Americans greet them. They triumphantly surge on to the lawn — long forbidden to Black feet — for a rally. Stokely tells them, "They said we couldn't pitch our tents on our Black school. Well, we're going to do it now!"

As they proceed through the Afro-American community towards McNeal school, more and more Afro-Americans join them. The dirt school yard is only partially fenced and no police block the way as more than 3500 people simply walk on to the grounds like a flowing river. But off to one side lurk a large posse of lawmen from different jurisdictions in their various uniforms. They're all equipped with helmets and those who aren't carrying rifles and shotguns grip long billy clubs in their gloved hands.

By now it's 7:30, a half-hour before sunset. A big U-Haul truck arrives to drop off the tents and people are asked to surround it so the tents can't be seized by the cops. A caravan of Highway Patrol cars pull up in a cloud of dust to unload a company of more than 75 Troopers in full riot gear. They assemble in battle formation upwind of where the tents are being unloaded and begin doning their black gas masks.

March leaders climb onto the top of the truck and speak through a bullhorn. When King speaks it's clear that he assumes the police intend to arrest people for trespass as had happened to Chinn, Williams and the others earlier that day. "We're gonna stick together. If necessary, we are willing to fill up all the jails in Mississippi. And I don't believe they have enough jails to hold all the people!"

"The time for anybody running has come to an end!" shouts Stokely from atop the truck. "You tell them white folk in Mississippi that all the scared niggers are dead! You tell 'em they shot all the rabbits — they gonna deal with the men!"

Many of the local supporters cautiously retreat off the field, but 2,000 or more defiantly remain — as do all of the Meredith Marchers. "Pitch the tents!" chant militant activists circulating through the crowd around the truck. "Pitch the tents! Pitch the tents!"

It was maybe half an hour before sunset and I remember the sun was low in the sky, casting long shadows. Without any warning at all or order from the police to disperse there came the loud sounds of Pop! Pop! Pop! Burning, stinging gas was everywhere. A white cloud enveloped me, blinding me with tears. My lungs burned with searing pain. I couldn't breath. I thought I was going to die. Everyone was running, choking, gasping, fleeing in all directions, bumping into each other in the blinding miasma.

A gas canister fired from a shotgun hit a woman near me and exploded — she screamed in agony but I couldn't see where she was. Some kind of hideous monster with a long black snout — a cop in a gas mask, I realized — abruptly materialized out of the fumes and smashed the butt of his rifle into my shoulder, knocking me to the ground. Someone tripped over me before I managed to get up and continue trying to escape. Every gasping breath was agony. My chest burned, my eyes gushed tears.

More cops appeared and disappeared in the acrid, stinking smoke, flailing with their clubs at anyone and everyone. I could hear the sickening thuds of wood striking flesh, and I must have been hit several more times because the next day I had long, dark, aching bruises on my back and side. At the time, though, I didn't feel the blows at all. An adrenaline rush can often block out pain — for a short while." — Bruce Hartford, SCLC. [35]

Both regular CS tear gas and the more powerful military-grade CN war gas is fired into the throng. Normally, police use tear gas to herd protesters out of an area, but the Troopers blanket the entire field leaving no avenue for escape. Crowd control is not their objective — their purpose is to punish the Meredith March for challenging the southern way of life and defying white-supremacy.

Some of the marchers try to take shelter against the school building's brick wall until a local cop lobs three gas canisters right into them. So-called lawmen knock down the tent poles and then toss tear gas bombs under the collapsed canvas to gas those now trapped beneath. "You niggers want your freedom — well, here's your freedom," a cop yells at Odessa Warwick, a mother of eleven as he kicks her, fracturing her spine.

Marchers are overcome by the fumes, passing out where they fall. Heads are bloodied and bones broken by rifle butts and billy clubs. A young boy coughs up blood, a four year old child fights to breath. Trying to aid the victims, MCHR medical worker Charles Meyer is clubbed down and kicked into a ditch. A woman is dragged down by her long blond hair. One-legged Jim Leatherer is brutally beaten, Troopers continually kick a young Black man who is on the ground vomiting uncontrollably. Another trooper smashes a priest with his shotgun and a marcher cries out, "He's a man of God!" "I'll put him with his God," shouts the Trooper as he hits the priest again.

I took a direct hit in the chest from a canister and was knocked to the ground. Semiconscious and unable to breathe; my eyes tearing. My ribs felt as though crushed. Gas in my lungs was always my weakness. ... Choking for breath, I could hear screams, shouts, and Dr. King calling on people to remain calm amid the sickening thud of blows. They were kicking and clubbing people lying on the ground to escape the gas. Men, women, children, it made no difference. Then they were gone, leaving us to tend the wounded. So obviously it had simply been a demonstration of naked brute force for its own sake. — Stokely Carmichael, SNCC [22]

By sundown, the school grounds are cleared of protesters except for those too injured or overcome by gas to move. In the Afro-American community around the periphery of the McNeal grounds protesters and bystanders are all suffering from the after-effects of chemical attack and in many cases injuries and wounds from rifle butts and billy clubs.

A small child convulses on the floor of his home across the street from the school. His frantic mother grabs him up and runs outside desperately searching for help. "Lady, give him to me!" shouts a marcher. "I just got back from Vietnam, and I know what to do for him." The ground is muddy from the garden hose people are using to wash out their eyes and rinse the burning reside from their skin. He washes out the boy's eyes and then grabs a handful of mud, coating the child's face with it.

The emergency aid resources of MCHR are overwhelmed. Many of its volunteers are among the injured and incapacitated. Dr. Poussaint rallies his team to set up an emergency triage point in the Holy Child Jesus Mission with the nuns doing what they can to ease suffering. He phones for help to Jackson just 30 minutes down the road. From there, funeral director Clarie Collins Harvey directs Afro-American owned hearses to Canton where they act as makeshift ambulances carrying the worst injured to a Jackson hospital willing to treat Black protesters. All through the night, MCHR workers and the nuns labor to treat the victims of a brutal police riot.

Poussaint would later tell an interviewer, "We were all enraged. There was just so much rage." Stokely has to be restrained by friends from a futile charge into the police line. Rev. Andrew Young of SCLC, normally a calming presence, later recalls that with gas burning his lungs and eyes he thought to himself, ""If I had a machine gun, I'd show those motherfuckers!" Yet he manages to subordinate his anger to strategic realities and talk down a SNCC militant who is urging people to assault the heavily-armed Troopers and set fire to their cars.

Boiling fury engulfs Canton's Afro-American community and the Meredith Marchers. Some Black residents grab their guns and have to be pulled back from suicidal retaliation. His eyes still burning with tears, Dr. King manages to assemble those march leaders who can be found for an emergency meeting at George Raymond's home just a block from McNeal. Soon march marshals and local leaders are out on the night-dark streets urging people to assemble at a nearby church where the Meredith Marchers can grab some food, the injured be directed to the MCHR aid station, and local folk rally in the adjacent Catholic Mission's basketball court.

Sandwiches and coffee were being handed out to the marchers who had been on the road all day. I wolfed mine down while Albert Turner of SCLC briefed us on the plan. We would march that night through Canton's Afro-American neighborhoods to express our defiance and provide a nonviolent channel for the community's rage. ... Along with the other SCLC staff, I was given a colored armband and assigned to act as a march marshal, keeping people moving, defusing trouble, and maintaining nonviolence.

Along with the other SCLC staff, I was given a colored armband and assigned to act as a march marshal, keeping people moving, defusing trouble, and maintaining nonviolence. Five or six hundred of us marched out of the church onto the unpaved and unlit roads of Canton's Afro-American community. This wasn't an on-the-sidewalk or avoid-blocking-traffic march. Instead we filled the streets singing and calling bystanders to come join us. Block by block our numbers grew as people joined us, but in the dark it was impossible to estimate or count how many were marching.

Some of the ultra-militants and the most strident Black Power advocates called for people to go downtown and "get whitey," others shouted that we should challenge the cops who were still guarding the disputed schoolyard. Fortunately, they had little support. Marshals like me urged the marchers to hold together and maintain nonviolent discipline. Most of the marchers were local folk with a solid grasp of Canton's tactical realities and they heeded our call.

Seething with anger, for an hour or more we surged through the dark streets, defiantly singing our freedom songs and chanting "Black Power" and "Freedom Now!"" — Bruce Hartford, SCLC. [35]

A year earlier, when Alabama Troopers savagely attacked voting rights marchers in Selma, the world, the media, and the national political establishment reacted with outrage and determination. But now in the new political context shaped by violent urban uprisings, the "white backlash," media-hyped hysteria over Black Power, and the Freedom Movement's efforts to address issues related to economic justice and northern-style segregation, the media response to Canton is sparse and ambivalent.

After Selma, President Johnson addressed the nation and pushed the Voting Rights Act through congress. About Canton he says nothing. Nothing at all. He refuses to meet with a delegation of ministers who want federal protection for civil rights protesters in Mississippi. The Attorney General's response is tepid, he "regrets" the use of tear gas and adds, "I'm sorry it happened. It always makes the situation more difficult." He then assures the public that he is confident Mississippi authorities will protect the civil rights of Afro-Americans in their state.

 

Return to Philadelphia MS, June 24

After a few short hours of exhausted slumber on the hard floor of the Holy Child Jesus basketball court, the Meredith marchers awake bruised and battered the next morning, Friday the 24th. Their clothing is still impregnated with chemical residue of the gas attack and their eyes sting and tear. Local Afro-American women have been laboring since dawn in the church kitchen to provide the Meredith Marchers a breakfast of hot coffee, bacon, grits, and biscuits smothered in gravy. As they wolf it down the marchers huddle in organizational staff meetings to be briefed on the plan that march leaders working late into the night have agreed on.

The tactical situation is complex. The overall strategic plan already agreed to calls for the last day of the Meredith March to be from Tougaloo College on the outskirts of Jackson through the city to the Capitol building where a mass rally is to be held. For maximum political effect that rally needs to be as large as possible. If 10,000 or more Mississippi Blacks assemble in protest it will be a major political milestone, the largest civil rights demonstration in the state's history and visible proof-positive negating segregationist lies about "outside-agitators." It will also be the first freedom protest ever allowed on the Capitol grounds.

To ensure maximum participation by local Blacks the rally is scheduled for Sunday the 26th two days hence, and out-of-state supporters have made travel plans accordingly. So the rally date can't be changed to accommodate surprise events such as the violence in Philadelphia and the gas attack in Canton. Which means that a march contingent has to depart from Canton on this Friday to be sure of reaching Tougaloo on time.

After the mob violence in Philadelphia MS, Dr. King promised to return on this Friday for a second protest in Neshoba County. One that will express the anger and defiance of local Blacks and show that the Freedom Movement cannot be halted by mob violence. Movement supporters from both Mississippi and Alabama are already on the road and Black communities in Neshoba and Lauderdale counties are mobilizing. If King doesn't show up now it will appear he is surrendering to fear of white violence — which he will not do. So King and a sizable contingent of marchers from Canton has to drive east to join the Philadelphia march.

Local Afro-Americans and the Meredith Marchers in Canton, of course, are still enraged over the gas attack and savage beatings of the evening before. And just as white violence in Neshoba can't be allowed to deter the Movement neither can police repression be allowed do so in Canton. Which means that in addition to marching south towards Jackson and protesting in Neshoba there has to be strong direct action this day on the streets of Canton.

Albert Turner of SCLC is chosen to lead a small contingent of Meredith Marchers south on Highway-51 towards Tougaloo, while a larger contingent fills the available cars to accompany Dr. King, Floyd McKissck, and Stokely Carmichael to Philadelphia and the largest group of marchers and local folk remain in Canton for a day of action.

In a telegram to LBJ sent immediately after the violent outbreak in Philadelphia, Dr. King cited the, "Clear and absolute breakdown of law and order in Philadelphia." And in reference to the planned return march he added, "We therefore implore you to send the necessary federal protection to Philadelphia, Miss. to protect the lives and safety of the citizens seeking to exercise our constitutional rights."

After the Philadelphia violence, a delegation of clergymen asked for a meeting with LBJ to press for federal protection and a thousand Movement supporters rallied in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. Johnson, however, is unwilling to forgive King's opposition to the Vietnam War. And with the Meredith March manifesto explicitly condemning federal civil rights failures, as a matter of practical politics he can't use the march to further his own legislative agenda. Nor does he want to be seen as in any way siding with "Black Power" militancy. So the clergymen were turned aside and the protesters outside ignored.

The President rejects King's plea for federal protection replying that, "Personnel of the Department of Justice will be present" (as they had been on the first occasion). And in willful denial of self-evident realities he goes on to tell King that, "Governor Paul Johnson has assured [us] that law and order will be maintained Friday in Philadelphia and throughout the march, and that all necessary protection can and will be provided."

The mob violence in Neshoba and the horrific police assault in Canton pleases and gratifies many white voters in the state, boosting Governor Johnson's public support. But behind the scenes the state's power-structure remains split between hard-line segregationists determined to restore the old Jim Crow order with club and gun and self-described "racial moderates" who want to bring northern investment and business opportunities into Mississippi.

Across the state, affluent white businessmen desire lucrative national franchise opportunities like Burger King, Holiday Inn, 7-11, and the like, but those chains now insist on full compliance with the Civil Rights Act because they know they face consumer boycotts in the North if they tolerate segregation in the South. Yet any business that tries to operate on a desegregated basis in Mississippi faces economic boycotts by the White Citizens Council and possible Klan violence.

Cotton planters no longer need vast numbers of impoverished field hands to chop and weed and pick for starvation wages, so now the South's wealthy power-brokers — the men Dr. King referred to as "Bourbons" — are eager to attract investment in new industries. But the region's reputation for racial strife, lawless violence, corrupt courts, and crooked politics stand in the way. The previous year, for example, Hammermill had canceled plans to build a huge paper plant in Selma Alabama because they didn't want to be associated with Selma's image.

For white businessmen focused on their personal bottom line rather than the ideology of white-supremacy, the old Jim Crow system of segregation and brutal repression is becoming something of a hindrance. Yet with one of the worst education systems in the nation, few mineral resources, poor roads, and a stunted domestic market, what makes Mississippi attractive to northern industry are its low-wages, anti-union laws, and low taxes — all of which are historically based on racism and police suppression of progressive social movements.

Which means that the "moderates" who are putting pressure on Governor Johnson to clean up the state's image by ending the kind of dramatic violence that makes headlines in the North essentially want to maintain the state's basic social-economic structure without the bad publicity. And without Citizens Council boycotts or KKK violence against consumer-oriented businesses that operate on an integrated basis. In a sense, then, both the hardliners and the "moderates" want to keep Afro-Americans "in their proper place." The difference being that the hardliners see that place as a kind of slave-like social inferiority and the "moderates" see it as dollar-spending customers and low-wage workers for white-owned businesses.

On the previous Philadelphia march, State Troopers had been conspicuous by their absence but on this day they are out in force. Many of them had been part of the brutal attack the evening before in Canton but now they have new orders from the governor to maintain law and order and prevent the kind of lynch-mob violence that damages the state's reputation.

A newspaper editorial and radio announcements by local white leaders urge whites to ignore the march and refrain from ugly violence "[even though] "we know it is hard to take a lot of the lies, insults, and actions of beatniks who are worked up to fever pitch by their leaders with sessions of 'prayer.'"

It's a bit after noon when Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy lead more than 100 or so freedom marchers out of Mt. Nebo Baptist church in the Independence Quarters and up towards the Neshoba County courthouse. Others join them as they tramp through the dusty dirt streets of the Afro-American community.

When they reach the downtown area, the sidewalks bordering the paved streets of white-controlled Philadelphia are again lined with hostile, jeering whites, men and women held back by flimsy rope barriers strung up by law enforcement. Those on the sidewalk jeer, curse, and spit at the marchers while others lean out the second story windows shrieking hate. State Troopers, however, do hold the mob at bay. When the Black protesters reach the courthouse the mayor uses a bullhorn to warn surrounding whites against violence.

Local leader Rev. Clint Collier opens the rally with a prayer and a freedom sermon: "We have been dictated to long enough," he tells the demonstrators. From the rear of the jeering crowd of whites glass soda pop bottles are hurled at him. In his short address Stokely says: "The people gathered around us represent America in its truest form. We will start representing ourselves in our way, and we will do it in our way." True to his nature, Dr. King offers a positive message of hope: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice and "We're gonna win, because the Bible is right when it says, 'Ye shall reap what ye sow.'"

"Go to hell!" scream the mob of surrounding whites, "Nigger! You're a nigger! Wait till tonight, you black bastards, we'll find you then! We're gonna kill King! We're gonna kill King!" Their rage is palpable, yet the police presence holds violence in check.

As the marchers return to Independence Quarters a white man guns his engine and attempts to drive his car into the line — protesters manage to dodge out of the way at the last second. The Troopers then arrest him and his passenger. But in that instant of swirling action and confusion, Neshoba County lawmen draw their pistols and point them at the demonstrators rather than the vehicle trying to run them down.

For the marchers, the protest is a kind of victory. They have successfully defied white mob violence, asserted their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly, and forced the state of Mississippi to not only permit but also protect a march to the courthouse in Philadelphia. But they have exposed a depth of white rage that shakes them. Says a Black woman from rural Neshoba County: "I just couldn't believe it. We all lives here, was raised here, my foreparents stayed here all my days. It don't make me feel good walking up the streets now."

Rather than wait to join the caravan of Meredith Marchers returning to Canton, a car with three white ministers from the North and a Black NAACP official from Memphis decide to leave the rally early. Alone.

Their route takes them across Leake county where in response to the Meredith March, the local KKK has just bombed the St. Joachim Catholic School for Negroes. They are now patrolling Route-16 for marchers traveling between Philadelphia and Canton and a car with an Afro-American and three whites in cleric collars is an obvious target. A pickup truck driven by Klansmen tries to run them off the highway but the freedom car dodges. The KKK truck then blocks the road ahead while another car driven by Klan tries to ram the integrated vehicle. Somehow they manage to escape, turn around, and flee back towards Philadelphia at high speed with the KKK in hot pursuit until they reach Independence Quarters where armed Blacks stand on guard.

 

On the Streets of Canton Mississippi, June 24

In Canton on Friday morning the local Afro-American community continues to seethe over the savage police riot of the previous evening. Crowds gather early at Asbury Methodist church and the adjacent Holy Child Jesus Mission. Everyone is determined to take strong action — but there's no agreement over what that action should be.

Some argue for returning to McNeal and setting up tents. But the tents are still held by the Troopers who have been reinforced during the night and are now even more heavily armed. They and the local cops are eager for another chance to whip heads and stomp out all traces of Black defiance. In opposition to focusing on the tent issue, are those who believe that the essential purpose of the Meredith March is to counter the pervasive reign of fear that rules Mississippi and that more injuries and arrests — or worse, wounds or deaths from police gunfire — would do just the opposite.

Instead of an immediate return to McNeal, Local Movement leaders call for renewing the 1964 boycott of downtown Canton's white-owned stores with the slogan, "Black Out for Black Power." And also a day of disciplined, nonviolent protest as a show of determination and defiance. The white merchants of Canton are particularly vulnerable to boycotts by their Afro-American customers because they're in direct competition with the larger, more numerous, and better-stocked stores in Jackson just 30 minutes down the road — which is one reason the previous boycott had hurt them so badly.

Soon local members of the Madison County Movement are downtown, handing out boycott flyers, picketing stores with boycott and Black Power signs, and tying up traffic by slowly crossing the street at a leisurely pace. A voter registration march to the courthouse is blocked by the cops. A second march is allowed to proceed, but only on the sidewalk, not in the streets. When they arrive at the courthouse they are told that the clerk is "out to lunch." Some 50 or so Black citizens then add themselves to the voting rolls by registering with the federal examiner under the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

While all that was going on, more than 500 chanting and singing marchers were snaking through the streets of Canton. In the Black neighborhoods we walked two-by-two on the side of the dirt roads next to the drainage ditches and in the white neighborhoods on their well-kept sidewalks. Marching into white areas was a bold and defiant move, a decisive declaration that rejected the deferential subservience of the past and a gesture that risked spontaneous violence from enraged whites. ... I remember nervous rumors passing up and down the line — that a parked car we were about to pass concealed a dynamite bomb, that in the next block they had a pack of dogs waiting to attack us, that the old white woman scowling at us from her porch had a big pistol hidden under her apron as she rocked back and forth on her rocker and that she'd sworn to shoot anyone who stepped on her lawn. — Bruce Hartford. [35]

None of the protests, however, approach McNeal Elementary which remains guarded by heavily armed Troopers who have now stationed rifle-equipped snipers on the roof and erected searchlights to pick out targets after nightfall. The local power structure and police forces remain adamantly opposed to Blacks using the school for any Movement purpose. Yet almost all of those boycotting, picketing and marching — local movement and Meredith Marchers both — are determined to return to the schoolyard and defy the cops by pitching a tent. Some are collecting donations to buy new tents, others are trying to sew together bedsheets for a symbolic, make-do tent. "Come hell or high water," Movement activists tell each other, "a tent's gonna go up tonight."

For both sides now, the right of Afro-Americans to use McNeal has become a make-or-break symbol. Even though Blacks are marching and picketing all over the streets of Canton, white politicians can't accept Afro-American use of a Colored school for a protest-purpose because doing so concedes the point that Black taxpayers have the same legal right to access public facilities for public politics that whites have enjoyed for generations. Moreover, having denied permission the previous day, allowing Afro-Americans to protest there now would be an obvious concession, a retreat of white power forced by growing Black power. Which in turn clearly implies that henceforth elected officials must take Afro-American concerns into account. In essence then, Afro-American use of McNeal has become a practical clash between the traditional dominance of white power and the Freedom Movement's demand for Black Power.

Elected and appointed white officials in Madison County and Canton have never ever formally met with Afro-American representatives chosen by the Black community itself. Though on occasion they consulted "responsible Negro leaders" who they themselves selected for their compliance they've always refused to meet with local Movement leaders. Now they face a stark choice, if they meet with Black activists and allow Afro-American use of McNeal they risk a furious backlash from the white voters who put them in office, if they continue their hardline white-supremacy policies there will be another bloody confrontation with consequent national condemnation, potential loss of outside investment for the entire state, and another crippling boycott of local merchants — some of whom could well be driven out of business.

Living in Canton is Colonel Charles Snodgrass, the state-wide commanding officer of the Troopers — an appointed rather than elected position. He breaks the impasse by inviting Madison County Movement leaders to a meeting in his office, the first such official meeting between the Movement and white authorities ever held in Canton. He offers other camping sites, but George Raymond replies that after the savage brutality of his Troopers the Black community needs to see tents go up at McNeal.

Local, state, and national Movement leaders assemble for an emergency summit meeting in the sweltering, jam-packed living room of Afro-American store owner George Washington. Annie Devine, C.O. Chinn, James McRee, Flonzie Goodloe, and others are present for the Madison County Movement. Lawrence Guyot of the MFDP, Aaron Henry head of the Mississippi NAACP, and others represent the state Movement. National Movement leaders like Dr. King, Stokley Carmichael, Floyd McKissick, Dr. Poussaint, Earnest Thomas, and others represent SCLC, SNCC, CORE, MCHR, and the Deacons.

The meeting is tense and contentious. Stokley and Chinn argue for pitching the tents regardless of consequences. But Devine, Goodloe, and King convince the group to accept an invitation arranged by Snodgrass for a Black delegation to meet for the first time ever with the Mayor and city attorney. At that meeting a compromise agreement with the white power-structure is worked out. The Madison County Movement can hold a political rally on the school grounds — a tactical win for Black political power; and by forcing recognition from white politicians and establishing a precedent of communication and consultation it's a strategic victory as well. But no tents can be erected — a concession to property rights and white power. "Civility prevailed. Reason, I suppose, prevailed," Flonzie Goodloe later told a reporter. "They would have killed us."

Shortly before sunset, more than 1000 local Afro-Americans and a couple hundred Meredith Marchers pack the Holy Child Jesus basketball court for a mass meeting. Most are determined to defy the Troopers by setting up a tent at McNeal. Speaking for the Madison County Movement, Annie Devine begins by saying "We're going to the schoolyard," but before she can complete her thought the crowd roars approval and rushes out into the street to form up for a march to McNeal.

Singing and chanting the crowd surges forward and steadily grows in number. Marchers find garden hoses to soak towels and handkerchiefs in case of tear gas. Rumors spread up and down the line, Troopers with machineguns ahead, attack dogs seen at the school, busses waiting to haul protesters to Parchman Prison. No one knows what lays ahead but everyone's determination and courage are at the peak.

When they reach McNeal, the Troopers have distanced themselves, the snipers are gone from the roof and the searchlights dismantled. But there are no tents to set up. Mrs. Devine and others try to explain the compromise, but many of the marchers, probably a majority, feel let down and betrayed. With their expectations dashed, some grumble "We've been sold out." Others shout, "Get the tents!" But there are no tents for anyone to get.

Discouraged and disgruntled, the marchers return to the basketball court for a mass meeting with reporters barred (an unusual occurrence). Local leaders argue their case that recognition by elected officials and opening up communications represented a significant step forward and that another bloody confrontation would be a setback. To fierce approval, Stokely and other militants condemn the compromise of a rally without the tents. Rev. James Lawson who had attended the leadership meeting that accepted the deal, counters that no one proposed any way to pitch the tents without another savage attack by the Troopers, "You are as much to blame as anyone else," he tells Stokely. "You should have been prepared to suggest how it could be done."

The divided and impassioned mass meeting drags on until 2am, leaving some feeling bitter and betrayed, others seeing in the compromise a partial victory won without another round of police violence, no one hospitalized with injuries, and no one shot to death.

 

Marching on Jackson, June 25-26

On Saturday, June 25, freedom marchers from all over the nation begin arriving at Tougaloo College for Sunday's final leg to the Capitol building. Tougaloo is a small private school founded after the Civil War by the American Missionary Association. It's a beacon of hope for Mississippi Afro-Americans and one of the very few Historically Black Colleges and Universities to courageously stand with the Freedom Movement. Students expelled from other colleges because of their civil rights activity are made welcome there and the campus has long been a center of activism, research, and education.

In the words of SNCC worker Joyce Ladner, "[Tougaloo] represented safety. It was a secure place, a welcoming place." And for that very reason, it's been forced to endure legal harassment, legislative hostility, and terrorist violence. White politicians hate Tougaloo's political autonomy and are implacably hostile, charging that it's a hotbed of "queers, quirks, political agitators and possibly some communists."

Just the previous year, the school had appointed George Owens as its first Afro-American president. He allows the Meredith Marchers to camp on school grounds and use the campus as the initial assembly point for what Movement leaders hope will be the largest civil rights protest in Mississippi history. He later tells an interviewer: "An institution like Tougaloo is a cultural apparatus for black people and through black people for this country. There's no other role that it can have. It's got to be that." — a principle that Tougaloo still adheres to 50 years later.

All through the day protesters arriving by car, bus, train and plane settle in at Tougaloo for the morrow's march while discussions and debates over Black Power, nonviolence, and the role of whites continue unabated. Those with tear gas residue still on their skin and clothes from the Canton attack finally get to use showers in the gym and the campus laundry. Entrepreneurs peddle pins and pennants and SNCC militants affix "We're the Greatest" bumper stickers to parked cars.

As was the case with the last night of the Selma to Montgomery March, Harry Belafonte pulls together a star-studded concert-rally on the college football field. Thousands from Jackson's Afro-American community are blocked from approaching the campus by Hinds County sheriffs but many others make it through and almost 10,000 cheer Sammy Davis, Rafer Johnson, and stars of stage and screen. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, shouts "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!" When he's told that Brown's about to perform, Dr. King bolts from interminable discussions between SCLC, SNCC, and CORE staff over who will pay for this or that, saying, "I'm sorry y'all, James Brown is on. I'm gone."

To encourage state-wide participation, the MFDP's state convention is set in Jackson for Sunday morning so that delegates can nominate candidates for the general election in November and then join the march. Meanwhile, for the past week local activists have been organizing for the mass march. If the hoped-for target of 10,000 protesters is to be reached, the bulk of them will have to come from Jackson's Afro-American community. Nightly mass meetings are being held, and working out of temporary offices at Pratt Memorial Methodist Church, a broad coalition of Jackson groups is mobilizing supporters to open their homes to feed, house, and ferry out-of-town marchers, raise funds and donate goods, and above all join the march as it moves through the city after church services.

Sunday morning, June 26, is sun-bright and heavy with muggy heat as the marchers begin forming up on the Tougaloo Campus at the gate. MCHR medical volunteers hand out sunblock and salt tablets. An hour before noon, thousands step off onto County Line Road for the final stretch of the Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear. Led by Meredith, McKissick, Carmichael and King, they soon turn south on Highway-51 headed for the heart of Jackson and the Mississippi Capitol building.

No longer were we marching on the edge of the road, now we had a permit and we filled the lanes. At first we were mostly marching through Afro-American neighborhoods where local Black folk waved, cheered, and handed out glasses of cool water and cold lemonade while our numbers steadily grew. The hot sun beat down out of a cloudless sky and it was so sweltering hot and muggy it felt like we were in a sauna. The heat was making me woozy. I'd endured hot days in Alabama but this was way worse — maybe because of lack of sleep and tension or perhaps residual effects of the tear gas. I felt like I might pass out and the salt tablets weren't helping. — Bruce Hartford. [35]

CORE provides "Freedom Now" posters and placards, SNCC supporters plaster walls, poles, and parked cars with their "We're the Greatest" stickers. Interspersed with freedom songs are loud chants of "Black Power" and "Freedom Now." For some, those chants continue to be in viewed in opposition to each other, but most of the marchers shout both with equal gusto.

At eight designated spots in Black neighborhoods, throngs of Afro-Americans in their Sunday church clothes wait impatiently to join the march as it proceeds down State Street (US-51). A brass band serenades one group as they share glasses of cool lemonade and cans of cold beer. The line of 5000 or so who march out of Tougaloo before noon doubles and then continues to swell as Black folk watching from the sidewalk step off the curb and into the line. As one reporter later describes it:

The ragged band that had begun as one mystical prophet in Memphis, that became 100 in Hernando, that became 1,000 after the baptism of spite in Philadelphia and tear gas in Canton, had become 15,000 Sunday afternoon, — Jack Newfield, Village Voice [33.]

A law-enforcement army has been mobilized in handle the march. Almost all of the 300 State Troopers are on duty, as are 450 police from various jurisdictions and most of the Jackson city cops. Though the Governor tells the national press they're on guard to protect the marchers from Klan attack, from their behavior it appears they believe their assignment is to protect Jackson and the southern way of life from the marchers — their hostility is palpable.

Jackson city police, however, appear a bit less hostile than the other lawmen. Jackson is the only real city in the state and among its inhabitants are the bulk of Mississippi's Afro-American professional, academic, and business elites. Though segregation still rules, after decades of NAACP efforts and six years of student direct action protests, almost 20% of its registered voters are Black — not enough yet to win office but enough to swing elections between white candidates.

Now, where once city cops were indistinguishable from other Mississippi lawmen in their harsh suppression of civil rights activities some local activists sense a changing political reality — the most striking evidence of which are the eleven Afro-American men wearing uniform, badges, and guns. After years of political struggle and court rulings they are no longer "Negro Police." Now, at least in theory, they have the power to arrest whites and ride in police cars with white officers on a basis of legal equality. (Today in 2018 70% of Jackson officers are Afro-American, including the chief.)

In a reflection of the white power-structure's split between hardline segregationists and business-oriented moderates, Jackson's mayor, the city's main newspaper and even the Jackson Citizens Council all call for calm. Governor Johnson urges whites to ignore the march, saying, "They will inflict their hate and hostility on other Americans as they sow strife and discord across this nation, which needs to be united behind the brave men who are following our flag in Vietnam."

For their part, die-hard segregationists work to foment opposition to the march, calling on "all southern Christian people to fly their Confederate flags." As a white-supremacist explains to a reporter for Britain's Guardian newspaper: the Civil Rights Movement is run by Communists, puts millions in Martin Luther King's pocket, lies about Black people (who have equal rights, but are too lazy to hold steady jobs), and itself orchestrated the shooting of James Meredith for publicity purposes.

As the marchers continue down State Street towards the downtown business district they pass through a neighborhood of poor and working class whites. Here they are met with hostile crowds shrieking hate and waving Confederate battle flags. "I don't like the niggers, they stink," one racist tells a reporter as others spit at the marchers and give them the finger. White freedom marchers, and particularly white women, are the targets of particular rage with shouted epithets of "nigger-lover," "whore," and sexually explicit jeers about white women and black power.

In years past, civil rights protesters operating under nonviolent discipline always stoically ignored such white supremacist hecklers, countering the racists with songs and chants. At the urging of Movement marshals, most of the Meredith Marchers continue that tradition, but led by some SNCC and CORE militants who have now turned against nonviolence, a fraction returns insult for insult, hostility for hostility, and mockery for mockery. In some instances Black marchers dart out of the line to grab a "Stars and Bars" flag from white hands and trample it underfoot or later set it afire at the Capitol. Only when punches start being thrown do the police intervene to break up incipient brawls.

Hateful as the white hecklers are, there's a desperate quality to their fury as thousands and thousands of Afro-American marchers and white supporters stride past — for the most part contemptuously ignoring their vitriol. To both sides, the number and determination of the marchers is a powerful declaration that the old order of Jim Crow style segregation and brutally explicit white supremacy is dying. And no amount of Confederate flag waving or terrorist violence is going to save it because Blacks simply won't accept it any longer and neither will the nation as a whole. The white power structure of wealth and privilege may be confident they can find new, more subtle and less overt methods of maintaining their place at the top of the heap, but not so poor whites who see their superior status slipping away.

With the aid of a walking cane, 78 year old Monroe Williams marches proudly down State Street into the downtown business district. He tells a reporter, "If my daddy had done this it would have been a lot better for me. Now all of this ain't going to help me none — it's too late for that — but I'm doing it for the children." Tougaloo Dean James Coleman who's carrying a hidden pistol in his pocket "just in case" later tells an interviewer, "That march looked like forever."

There are no objective or reliable estimates for march size. State Troopers say no more than 12,000, Department of Justice estimates 15,000, and Jackson police give out 16,000 as the number. Movement spokesmen claim even more, but nobody really knows for sure. It's clear, though, that the march represents a massive, overwhelming rejection of Mississippi's racial order. And to white Mississippians it's a stunning repudiation of the oft-quoted claim that other than a few outsiders and malcontents the state's "Nigrahs are happy and content with the way things are."

As the Meredith Marchers in their thousands flow into an eerily empty downtown business district, NAACP activists hand out small American flags as visible rejection of the Confederate emblems still flying from state flagpoles and being waved by hate-shouting racists. A small handful of SNCC militants urge Afro-Americans not to carry the flags, telling them "Those flags don't represent you," but most marchers eagerly take them. In years gone past when protesters had carried U.S. flags the Jackson cops had ripped them from their hands as if to claim that Blacks — even war veterans — had no right to assert themselves as American citizens. Out-of-town supporters also take the flags. One of them is Japanese-American marcher William Hohri who had been imprisoned for years in the Manzanar internment camp as an "enemy alien" during World War II. He later tells an interviewer, "It was the first time in my life that I felt proud to be an American."

A massive police presence surrounds the Mississippi Capitol building. From the moment James Meredith stepped off from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis on June 5th a rally on the Capitol steps had been the goal. But even more so than county courthouses, whites consider the Capitol their sacred ground — a symbol of their supremacy, never to be profaned by Black protesters. Governors are inaugurated on its front steps, ceremonies of white pride and power take place in its halls, and on the expansive tree-shaded plaza in front of the steps stands a large Monument to Women of the Confederacy dedicated to "Our Mothers, Our Wives, Our Sisters, and Our Daughters." For whites, it's unthinkable that Afro-Americans who refuse to acknowledge their "proper place" be allowed to "defile" this monument to sacred white womanhood (though, of course, as is the case with all the other Confederate memorials Black hands regularly clean and maintain it).

Just a year earlier, in June of 1965, almost 1000 demonstrators had been arrested and held in cattle barns at the state fairgrounds under brutal conditions for just marching towards the Capitol to protest actions being taken by the legislature to subvert the Voting Rights Act. More recently, an obviously unconstitutional law had been enacted prohibiting all political demonstrations on the Capitol grounds.

But now the white power-structure is in a bind. Their white constituents want the Capitol "protected" from the presence of defiant Blacks, but if they arrest thousands of peaceful marchers for violating an unconstitutional statute in the glare of national publicity they'll be exposed as the racists that they are, a huge black eye for the state. More importantly, as a practical matter they don't have any place to incarcerate so many prisoners — not even the fairground buildings are big enough — nor do they have funds to feed them.

White constituents demand that tear gas and billy clubs be used to drive protesters from the Capitol grounds — as had been done with the vastly smaller number of demonstrators on the Canton schoolyard. But in Canton the marchers were dispersed into the surrounding Afro-American community, in Jackson 15,000 furious Blacks would be driven into a downtown business district filled with department, jewelry, and liquor stores, big plate-glass windows, and buildings filled with flammable merchandise. A Watts-type spasm of urban arson and looting almost certainly would result — to the intense displeasure of powerful white business leaders.

Freedom Movement leaders are also caught in the mirror image of that same bind. The Meredith Marchers are determined to finish the march at the Capitol and they're in no mood to obey an illegal, unconstitutional limitation on their political right to peaceably assemble and demand redress of grievances. But SCLC, CORE, and SNCC are all flat broke and deeply in debt from the costs already incurred by the march. There's no money to bail out hundreds of arrestees, let-alone thousands or tens of thousands.

If the cops attack the march and disperse the throng into downtown they know there's no hope whatsoever of maintaining nonviolent discipline. When looting and arson break out there's no doubt in anyone's mind that the cops will open fire with all the weapons at their command. Dozens will be killed, hundreds wounded. Hundreds more will be arrested for violent felonies, be tried by all-white juries, and face long prison sentences. And, of course, there will be enormous negative political repercussions if a nonviolent demonstration turns into a violent urban riot — regardless of the provocation.

So a compromise is worked out by Afro-American leaders and white officials. The new "no-protests" law is quietly shelved and not enforced. The marchers are issued a permit to rally on the large Capitol parking lot next to the building. In other words, "at" the Capitol but not on the steps where governors are inaugurated. Nor will marchers be allowed to touch the actual structure itself or approach the white womanhood statue.

The power-structure saves face with white voters by assuring them that "we're gonna make the niggers use the back door." Black leaders stress that the basic demands of a Capitol rally and elimination of the "no-protests" law have been won. Some of the super-militants condemn the compromise and urge marchers to breach the police line around the building but few support them and no attempts to break through the cordon are made.

As we poured on to the Capitol grounds an army of cops armed with rifles and tear gas grenades — state troopers, county sheriffs, Jackson police, and state game wardens — formed a shoulder-to-shoulder ring around the building to prevent us from encroaching on their sacred space. More than a 100 Mississippi National Guard soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets protected the front lawn and the Confederate-women memorial from our vile selves.

Today, when I think about that sick, obsessive effort to prevent us from "profaning" the Capitol with our very presence — a Capitol built in part with Black labor and Afro-American taxes — the insult still brings me to a boil. Yet now, with the benefit of years and wisdom I know that the march leaders who engaged with the white power-structure and made mutual compromises did the right thing (though I would not have said so at the time).

Violent confrontations and police outrages are not the goal of nonviolent direct action, though enduring them may sometimes be the only way forward. We were trying to accomplish real social change, and forcing the state of Mississippi to accept our right to protest at the Capitol was a significant advance. But provoking a blood-bath by trying to push our way through the cops and guardsmen to reach the steps or to rally on the lawn would have gotten a lot of people hurt — possibly killed — an irresponsible action that would have been seriously detrimental to the Freedom Movement's long term goals. — Bruce Hartford [35]

The throng of marchers flow into the parking lot, crowding thick around a stage improvised from a flatbed truck. Some climb trees for a better view, others flop down to the ground, exhausted by the long hike and enervated by the heat. There is no money for an adequate sound system and only those nearest the truck can hear the speakers. And in contrast to the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 rally at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery the TV networks give scant coverage to the march and choose not to broadcast any of the speeches.

As is customary for march rallies there are many speakers — far too many in the opinion of some in the audience. Among them, Stokely outlines what he sees as the essence of Black Power: ""We have to stop being ashamed of being black! We have to move to a position where we can feel strength and unity amongst each other from Watts to Harlem, where we won't ever be afraid! And the last thing we have to do is build a power base so strong in this country that it will bring them to their knees every time they mess with us!"

Dr. King refers to his famous I Have a Dream speech, telling the marchers that he's "watched my dreams turn into a nightmare." In a foretelling of the Poor Peoples Campaign to come he speaks of the stark poverty and devastating deprivation in the midst of plenty that he's observed on the march and avows that "I still have a dream this afternoon, a dream that includes integrated schools and an end to "rat-infested slums, a dream that Blacks and whites will live side by side in decent housing, and that "the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled."

 

Assessing the Meredith March

When he announced his march in early June, James Meredith declared as its purpose to challenge the all-pervasive fear that dominates day to day life of the Negro United States and encourage the 450,000 unregistered Negroes in Mississippi to go to the polls and register. To the extent that any single event can do so, the March largely achieves Meredith's goals. More than 4000 Afro-American voters are registered, the bulk of them by Mississippi authorities rather than federal registrars, and across the state in the months and years that follow an increasing number of Blacks add themselves to the voting rolls.

Thousands — probably more than 15,000 — Black Mississippians defy generations of intimidation to participate in what becomes the largest protest in the state's history. Local freedom movements in places like Greenwood, Neshoba County, and Canton are re-energized and new ones erupt in Grenada and Yazoo City. While widespread white terrorism continues for some time, 1966 marks the beginning of its eventual decline. And as had been so often been the case before, the Meredith March proves yet again that courage is contagious.

The formal March Manifesto adopted by SNCC, SCLC and CORE, stated that, "[The march] will be a massive public indictment and protest of the failure of American society, the government of the United States and the state of Mississippi to 'fulfill these rights.'" While the march itself proves to be exactly that kind of public indictment, the white-owned northern mass media pays scant attention, focusing instead on hyping internal divisions and reflecting their own fears and political assumptions about "Black racism" and "Black Power." Shaped and influenced by that mass media, northern public opinion fails to force Washington into action. The Civil Rights Act of 1966 is defeated, and federal government efforts to defend the human and constitution rights of Afro-Americans in the Deep South remains sluggish and half-hearted.

The Afro-American press, however, gives the Meredith March generally positive coverage, praising the courage, spirit, and determination of Black Mississippians fighting to overthrow a century of white-supremacy. While their own take on "Black Power" is ambivalent, ranging from pro to con, many of their editorials do criticize the way that so much of the white press use the slogan to stoke and inflame white fears and suspicions — and boost their own circulation and ratings. As the Baltimore Afro-American put it, "Despite the reaction of much of the press to the March on Mississippi, objective historians may well record it as one of the pivotal points of the civil rights movement in this country."

Unmoved by such criticism, much of the national news media portrays the Meredith March of 1966 as a sad, sorry, and futile finale marking the end of a once noble Civil Rights Movement that has now lost its way and degenerated into the dead end of Black Power. And for those who measure a social movement's success by legislation achieved, its failure to win passage of the 1966 bill condemns it to irrelevance. Those initial negative assessments have colored perceptions of the march ever since, and even decades later the assessment of historians is at best mixed.

In popular memory the Meredith March won resonance for the rise of Stokely Carmichael, the evolution of Martin Luther King, the bizarre crusade of James Meredith, the alienation of Lyndon Johnson, and the rage of black militants. It was an end and a beginning: the last great march of the civil rights movement, and the birth of Black Power. — Aram Goudsouzian, 2014. [33.]

[Note that the Bogalusa to Baton Rouge March and the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign Marks Mississippi to Atlanta mule train were actually the last long marches of the Civil Rights era.]

Yet for many Freedom Movement veterans, the "Black Power was bad" judgment is deeply flawed, and the "legislation-achieved" yardstick for measuring the success of a particular protest misses the point.

While laws and court rulings played significant roles, what ultimately ended legally-enforced segregation and race-based denial of voting rights in the South was the refusal of Afro-Americans to put up with it any longer. Civil rights laws and court rulings had been on the books for decades, but it took individual acts of courage and defiance developing into a mass peoples movement to actually implement and enforce those rules at the local level. All the marches and protests of the era — including the Meredith March — influenced individual Blacks, Afro-American communities, and some southern whites to decisively reject the ways of the past. And taken as a whole, the nonviolent demonstrations across the South prodded Washington into enforcing existing federal law, and convinced the nation to enact newer and more effective legislation. The Meredith March was part of that whole and cannot be assessed separate from it.

For generations, violent terrorism and economic subjugation had suppressed the fundamental human aspirations of nonwhite people. The Freedom Movement as a whole, including the Meredith March, provided the knowledge and tools that people of color used to educate and organize themselves for effective resistance. And where once the oppression inherent in the southern way of life flourished in obscurity, mass protests like the Meredith March broke down both the sense of isolation that discouraged hope and opened up access to allies and support that were vital to the success of local community struggles.

Viewed from the perspective of the entire Freedom Movement, the Meredith March was as significant and effective as any of the other famous events in raising consciousness, fostering courage, fomenting defiance, educating the public, engendering skills, and moving people into political action. A judgment that Floyd McKissick summed up when he told the Jackson rally that the real significance of the march, "Was what you did, what you did." In practical terms, one SCLC staff member later described the impact of the march, "As we drove down [Yazoo City's] main street, Albert Turner took one look at the Black folk on the sidewalk and knew that the march had already passed through. He could literally see it in their faces and the way they carried themselves."

Most famously, the Meredith March raised the slogan and concept of "Black Power." Nine months before the Meredith March, the Voting Rights Act had been enacted into law and then slowly began to take effect. Which raised the question of what to do with the ballot once it was achieved? As Courtland Cox of SNCC put it, "The vote is necessary, but not sufficient." The MFDP, political organizations independent of the Democratic Party, freedom labor unions, economic coops, the Poor Peoples Campaign, and Black Power were all efforts to answer the question of, "where do we go from here?"

Unresolved arguments over the political pros and cons of "Black Power" as a slogan and theoretical debates over its meaning raged during and long after the Meredith March. The march itself, however, clearly exposed the kind of real-life issues related to Afro-American political and economic power that lay behind the "Black Power" slogan. For generations, whites had used public facilities like schools and parks for political purposes but Afro-Americans were prohibited from doing the same even in places like Greenwood and Canton where Black voters formed a significant portion of the electorate. And for generations white elected officials consistently refused to meet with Black leaders or take the interests of the Afro-American community into consideration at all. Black Power demanded an end to that unilateral domination of white power.

The Meredith March also illustrated the realities and frustrations of exercising Afro-American political power. In the Jim Crow South as it had existed since Reconstruction, white power over Afro-Americans was absolute. It ruled by fiat and dictate without compromise. As Blacks gained the ballot and began demanding political and economic power of their own, white power did not evaporate or disappear. The confrontations in Canton and the maneuvering in Jackson over the Capitol building showed that whites could no longer ignore Afro-American demands and interests — they had to negotiate and compromise, which they hated. But Blacks were not in a position to assume the absolute power that whites had held for so long, they too had to negotiate and compromise which frustrated and embittered some activists. Yet in a democracy, absolute power is an aberration, in the long run the exercise of real political power requires negotiation, maneuver, alliances, and balance.

For more information:
Books: Mississippi Movement
Web: Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear
Personal story from the Meredith March, Bruce Hartford

 

1966 Quotation Sources:

1. Dr. King, the Farmers Will Tell You..., Don Jelinek
2. Carry It On: the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama
3. Opinion, Judge Friedman, Pigford v Glickman
4. Attorney J.L. Chestnut's Speech on the Black Farmer Lawsuit (FSC-LAF)
5. African American Farmers and Civil Rights (Journal of Southern History, 2/1/07)
6. Shirley Sherrod Address at the Georgia NAACP (American Rhetoric)
7. Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in ..., James Forman
8. Killing of Rights Worker Jolts Tuskegee ..., Mary Gale, Southern Courier, 1/8/66
9. The Trial...And After, Mary Ellen Gale, Southern Courier, 12/17/66
10. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968, Meier & Rudwick
11. SNCC Statement on Vietnam
12. Untranscribed Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement discussion, September 6, 2014
13. Selma to Saigon, Daniel Lucks
14. A Reflective Look, Charlie Cobb, May 1965.
15. Student Voice, July, 1965.
16. Opinion, Bond v Floyd, Chief Justice Earl Warren, U.S. Supreme Court
17. Email correspondence from Judy Richardson, November 15, 2014
18. A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, Cheryl Lynn Greenberg
19. Oral History With Mrs. Ellie J. Dahmer (Univ. Southern Mississippi)
20. New South Student, February, 1966
21. Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, by John Dittmer.
22. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell.
23. What Would it Profit a Man to Have the Vote and Not be Able to Control it?, Courtland Cox, SNCC
24. Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.
25. In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's, by Clayborne Carson.
26. Lowndes County Freedom Organization, Jack Minnis.
27. How the Black Panther Party Was Organized, Speech by John Hulet, May 1966.
28. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt, by Hasan Jeffries.
29. "Sabotage in Alabama," New York Times April 21st, 1966
30. Courtland Cox email, January 16, 2015
31. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, by Martin Luther King
32. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement, by Henry Hampton & Steven Fayer.
34. Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, by Aram Goudsouzian
35. River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC, by Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell.
36. Memories of the Civil Rights Movement, by Bruce Hartford.
37. Martin Luther King papers
38. Email correspondence, 12/21/17


1965 (Remainder)

1966 (July-Dec)

© Bruce Hartford
Webspinner: webmaster@crmvet.org
(Labor donated)