Fighting for Freedom in the Mississippi Delta
Interview About Freedom Summer
Stand for Freedom: The Life & Times of Willie B. Wazir Peacock Video: 1 hour 23 minutes Excerpt emphasizing courage Video: 7 minutes
Excerpt on organizing Video: 6 minutes
Excerpt on the shooting in Greenwood Video: 5 minutes
I was born in the small town of Charleston, in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi-the same county where Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. While going to school there, one of my brothers was jailed and, although a juvenile, the authorities would not release him to our parents. The policy then was to make such prisoners clean the streets, which became humiliating for a youth when his fellow students walked by. A plantation owner offered to get my brother released if my father would share-crop for him. So one day I came home from school to be moved I didn't know where, until I found out I would be living on that man's plantation. But the owner broke his promise and made no effort to get my brother released.
Just then I was reading about slavery in school and I saw slavery first hand on that plantation. This had a powerful effect on my life and I made several attempts to run away. The first time, the owner's son saw me and took me back to the plantation, but I succeeded the second time. For a year I didn't contact my parents. It was a tactic to make them leave the plantation; I thought they would see the family was falling apart there.
Finally they left the plantation and found me in Grenada, Miss. I decided to return home and saw the importance of going to school. My greatest motivation was to do something practical about the conditions faced by black people, my people.
I finished high school and won a 4-year scholarship to Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss. In 1960, while at Rust, I had the first opportunity to express my activism. We all knew about the sit-ins by black college students in Raleigh, North Carolina and some Rust students wanted to show our solidarity. The balcony of the movie theater in Holly Springs was segregated so we organized a student boycott of the theater. We tried to get the students at a nearby industrial college to join us, but the president made them go to the theater and break the boycott.
From the boycott we moved on to voter registration in the town. That was too radical for some college officials, so they had Medgar Evers come to organize an NAACP youth chapter on campus. They made sure to exclude me and my group from this meeting, and we were never included in the chapter. But we continued to keep the boycott alive and eventually the theater closed, rather than desegregate.
In fall, 1960, we met our first SNCC representative, Jim Bevel, when he came to Rust with Sam Block and Dewey Green, Jr. We organized other students to meet with them and later Dion Diamond, also from SNCC (who was arrested on charges from Louisiana and therefore couldn't return). Then came Frank Smith from Atlanta, who moved to Holly Springs in early 1962. I worked on voter registration all over northeastern Mississippi and also organized a credit union with Frank until I graduated from Rust in August.
I was supposed to start medical school that fall and went home to Charleston. Bob Moses and Amzie Moore came to see me because help was needed in Sunflower County. I left the same day for Amzie's home in Cleveland, to the disappointment of my mother and with the blessings of my father. When we arrived around midnight, we got a call from Sam Block at the SNCC office in Greenwood, who was there with Lawrence Guyot and Lavaughn Brown. He said there was a group of white men with bats and chains outside the building. Bob advised Sam to escape and that we were on the way. We got there about an hour later and found the office had been ransacked. I remember that Bob turned on a noisy fan (it was hot) and we went to sleep in the office.
The next morning Sam, Guyot and Brown showed up. I cut a stencil with a stylus and we mimeographed a leaflet to let people know we were still there and were not "outside agitators" who would start something and be gone overnight, as the propaganda said. After that, with no place to stay, we would all pile up on the floor at Amzie Moore's house and go over to the Greenwood office to work during the day.
Things began to move very fast after this. The Voter Education Project (VEP) had been privately funded, and we hd to organize for it.. We pulled together the Council of Federated Organizations (SNCC, CORE, SCLC and the NAACP) at a church in Clarksdale, Miss., with Bob Moses as COFO director. That night most of us got arrested for violating curfew.
In the summer of 1962 we were working towns all over the Delta, sometimes several in the same day, and staying at Amzie's house. One day Jim Forman of SNCC came from Atlanta when we were working in Indianola. I guess we looked hungry because he asked when we had eaten last, and we couldn't remember. So he went to a local cafe and managed to get some food and we ate.
More people came and settled in Ruleville-SNCC people from Mississippi and Charlie Cobb from Boston. That's when we met Fannie Lou Hamer. One day we took a busload of people from Ruleville to Indianola to register, and were harassed on the way back by police who said the bus was the wrong color. That night we had a mass meeting, where we learned that Mrs. Hamer and her family had been evicted from the plantation where she had worked many years because she refused to have her name removed from the voter rolls as the owner wanted. A few nights later, several homes in Ruleville were shot into by people trying to hit Mrs. Hamer. By this time, Sam Block and I had found a brave woman-Hatti Mae Miller-who let us stay at here home so we didn't have to go back to Cleveland every night to sleep at Amzie's.
The black community in Ruleville and Greenwood had begun to open up to us, so our work intensified. As a result, we spent more time at our individual projects and then meet once a week with Bob Moses to write our reports and have workshops. In early 1963 we had a breakthrough. One church opened up to us. More and more people went to register to vote; one day 126 people attempted to register. Unable to believe this, Randolph Blackwell, Bob Moses and Jimmy Travis came from Atlanta to see for themselves. That night they insisted on leaving despite a warning from others who had been chased earlier by a group of whites. They were attacked and Jimmy Travis was shot and ended up at the university hospital in Jackson.
Wiley Branton, VEP director, gave a statement to the press without consulting us in which he said that, because of the shooting, Greenwood would be made a testing-ground for the civil rights movement. This made it necessary for SNCC workers in other Mississippi projects to move to Greenwood that summer; including celebrities like comedian Dick Gregory. Many mass meetings and demonstrations were held; more arrests and racist attacks took place. For the first time we had to make mass bail for people, which the National Council of Churches helped to provide. Some spent as much as 40 days in jail.
In fall 1963, discussion began of having what became the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. At the first meeting, in Greenville, everyone voted against it, mainly though not only because of the danger (the project would bring many white people who could not be hidden in the black community as we were) and also because too often black people would agree to act because whites were asking but there would be no real consciousness-raising or commitment.
In spring 1964 Bob Moses, who had opposed the project, now supported it as did Aaron Henry of the NAACP and Rev. Ed King. Bob argued that the project would bring national attention to the plight of black Mississippians. I continued to oppose it and did not participate because people felt I would "sabotage" it. In retrospect, I can understand that position because I was one of SNCC's key organizers in the state and had influence with the people. So I spent the summer between New York, for medical treatment, and Madison, Wisconsin, where SNCC's Freedom Singers performed and some including my brother became ill.
That fall I enrolled in graduate school at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama because I still hoped to attend medical school. There I got involved with TIAL (Tuskegee Institute Advancement League) and asked to be an advisor. I came to know many of the students, like: Wendell Paris and his wonderful mother, Ann Anthony, Gwen Patton, George Nimrod, Simuel Schultz, and Sammy Younge, Jr. We began going to Selma regularly. I worked with Sammy Younge, the Tuskegee student later murdered by a racist. Sammy was on fire, especially about working in Macon County. Sammy and others also went to Ruleville to help Mrs. Hamer. All over the South, we each had our own base but always traveled to help when needed. This is an example of the history of SNCC in Alabama that has yet to be written.
When school ended, I returned to Mississippi and wrote a proposal to do a community cultural revival program. I saw people alienated from their own culture, needing to have it revived. A foundation funded the program and we did several festivals including a 3-day event in Milestone that was covered in Ebony and Downbeat magazine. But problems with the foundation and others who sought to control my work left me discouraged about how to continue. News of the murder of Sammy Younge, with whom I had been very close, was the final blow and I left Mississippi for California.
I first lived in Los Angeles and worked with the Neighborhood Adult Participation Project. It was intended to bring blacks and Latinos together, but competitive local politicians got in the way. Then I did advisory work with some of the founding members of the Brown Berets and other Chicanos in East L.A. In 1970 I returned to Mississippi, where I participated in various non-profit projects while working fulltime as a hemodialysis technician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. I married there, had a family, and then returned to California in 1989.
Living in the East Bay, I have worked 10 years with Stepping Stones Growth Center, an organization that serves developmentally disabled children and adults. My duties there are in the independent living services division. I also worked for a while as an herbalist and acupressure therapist, in my own business.