Michael & Rita Schwerner from New York City were assigned by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to go to Meridian and organize civil rights work in February 1964. Upon arriving, they met James Chaney and Sue Brown and set up the COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) office and community center at 2505 1/2 - 5th Street — above the Fielder drug store. Mississippi was the most segregated state, Governor Ross Barnett and the Ku Klux Klan were determined to keep it that way.
In Meridian, everything was separate and unequal. Most good paying jobs were "white only", blacks got restaurant food at the back door for "carry-out" if any was served at all. Separate drinking fountains, with cool water in the "white" and warm in the "colored" if there were fountains at all and the Trailways bus station had a small cramped waiting room for blacks.
Black schools had "hand-me-down" books discarded by white schools. School buildings were cramped with few or limited facilities for science, sports or libraries. Nothing much about democracy or the running of the local, state or national governments was taught in the black schools.
Registering to vote meant black people had to interpret any section of the Mississippi constitution to the satisfaction of the county registrar — the form was several pages long. To register, a black person risked losing their job, being evicted, having his/her house bombed or being threatened with violence. Yet, many illiterate white voters were registered.
Black candidates for public office were not a possibility — who would vote for them? A black person could be forced off the sidewalk into the street if he didn't step aside fast enough to make way for a white person.
Hotels & motels were all reserved for white travelers. Even the laundromats were "white only." The power structure in Meridian enforced the segregation rules — breaking them meant risking arrest. All police officers were white, one, Lee Roberts, was a brother to Alton Wayne Roberts , the Klan trigger man who assassinated Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman on June 21.
In the spring of 1964, James Chaney and the Schwerners organized several community meetings. Lots of people showed up and got involved: Catherine Crowell, Agnes Smith, A.C. Henderson, Polly Heidelberg, George Smith, Jr., Sue Brown, Roscoe Jones, Louise Moore Smith, Isaiah Thigpen, Freddy Watson and Sam "Freedom" Brown to name a few. It was time to step up and fight for freedom.
It was a team effort with everyone working together, picketing by leaders and high school students started in front of the Kress and Newberys department stores on 5th Street with flyers telling people to boycott the stores because they wouldn't serve black people at the lunch counters. The boycotts were met with attacks and beatings with clubs by KKK gangs. Civil rights workers got arrested and spent days in jail. The direct action tactics kept many black people from shopping in those stores.
Mickey Schwerner, with James Chaney, George Smith, Jr. and others, talked with people in communities in Lauderdale and Neshoba counties asking them to register to vote. Local leaders had been registering people for many years, the most prominent was Mrs. Lou Ella Whitlock. Mrs. Whitlock operated a florist shop on 25th Avenue a half block from the CORE office. She encouraged many people to register to vote, helped them learn to complete the registration forms and took them to the courthouse to register.
COFO worked with local Meridian leaders and laid plans for "Freedom Summer" expecting many northern college students to come and help set up a freedom school for young people, organize voter registration drives, political education meetings, and desegregation campaigns. James, Mickey, and Rita went to Ohio to help train the freedom summer students. George Smith, Jr. stayed behind to organize the housing arrangements in local homes for student volunteers.
Then came the murders on June 21, 1964. A Klan mob, most from Meridian, some from Neshoba county, assassinated James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, one of the first summer volunteers to arrive in Meridian. Neshoba County sheriff deputy Cecil Price arrested them outside Philadelphia late Sunday afternoon as they returned from investigating the burning of the Mt. Zion Church in the Longdale community in Neshoba County. Price held them for 5 hours in the Philadelphia jail as the Klan mob got organized, let them out about 10 pm, stopped them on Highway 19 as they drove back to Meridian and turned them over to the Klan. The Klansmen shot them on Rock Cut Road just west of Highway 19 in Neshoba County, buried their bodies in a dam on the Olen Burrage property Southwest of Philadelphia and burned their station wagon in a swamp. The Klan figured they would stop Freedom Summer.
The opposite happened. By July 1, dozens of student volunteers flooded into Meridian — all had been warned of the risks and danger they faced. They wanted to stand alongside the courageous and growing number of local people in Meridian who wanted to dismantle the segregated system, help get black people good jobs, get involved in political action, provide an education for young people which they did not get in the segregated schools. They wanted to challenge and change the system of oppression for black people.
That summer, COFO opened a second office at 513 - 25th Avenue next to the Whitlock Florist Shop to make space for local people and summer volunteers registering people to vote and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The freedom school opened in the old Baptist seminary where college professors and students from around the country taught Meridian elementary and high school students about black history, race relations, democratic government, how to write letters to the editor and languages with a student- centered approach. They sang freedom songs, acted in plays with the Free Southern Theatre and learned folk songs from Pete Seeger.
Hundreds of people were involved in the Meridian freedom movement. Like any movement, there were leaders who stepped out in front, the spokespeople who stood up to the intimidation and threats, who encouraged and organized others. The student volunteers were trained to listen to local people about what civil rights actions to take in Meridian. Decisions about the direction of the movement were always in the hands of Meridian leaders.
We will describe some of the most important leaders of the Meridian movement, the actions they took and reactions from the white community. These were leaders who worked with CORE and COFO in 1964 - 1966. COFO was a coalition of 4 organizations cooperating to bring freedom to Mississippi. They were: SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The information below comes from the authors' recollections, interviews with the individuals, documents from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and other historical texts and documents. We understand this may not include everyone who was involved and all the activities in which they participated, for that we apologize.
Mrs. Catherine Crowell. A civil rights organizer and a smart, outspoken and articulate leader of the Meridian COFO steering committee and the Freedom Democratic Party. Civil rights workers lived in her house and she planned strategy for voter registration drives, running candidates for office, boycotts for jobs and desegregation campaigns. She received hundreds of threatening calls from Klansmen threatening to burn her house and get her fired. She was part of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Mrs. Crowell was always available when needed for decisions and frequently asked: "What is best for the people of Meridian?"
Mrs. Agnes Smith. A very courageous and tireless leader of the Meridian COFO steering committee and the Freedom Democratic Party. She called on many people to step-up and get involved in civil rights actions. She was a fearless in desegregating restaurants and lunch counters, picketing for jobs, leading marches and keeping people's spirits up. Mrs. Smith and her husband, George Smith Sr., had many civil rights workers living at their house on 49th Avenue (now James Chaney Drive) which was the "community headquarters" of the movement in Meridian. Police cars would frequently drive slowly by looking as freedom songs were sung on the front porch. The Smith's received hundreds of calls at all times threatening to bomb and burn their house. Mrs. Smith helped younger civil rights workers focus their efforts on what was the most important task at hand. We remember her asking: "Okay, enough talking, when will we get to the action?"
Mr. A.C. Henderson. A strong, brave community voice for the civil rights movement. A plasterer by trade, he spoke up at meetings urging people to vote and take direct action for freedom to help the community and the young people. He was a fearless leader, picketing stores for jobs and enforcement of the 1964 civil rights act for access to all lunch counters and restaurants. He was laid off his job for his organizing but he continued to visit civil rights workers in jail, put up bail and took people to the courthouse to register. Two of Mr. Henderson's children were the first to desegregate Meridian High School. He insisted they continue when they were constantly called hateful names and had books thrown at them by white students. He helped create a list of Meridian eating places testing them and identifying which would serve blacks. He chaired the local board which first brought Headstart, the anti- poverty program, to Meridian to prepare children for school. "We couldn't be violent when doing civil rights work or the white folks would put us out of schools, arrest us and keep us in jail." — A.C. Henderson, reflecting on the civil rights movement in Meridian.
Mrs. Polly Heidelberg. Spoke out loudly for freedom, equality and justice always speaking truth to power. She weaved gospel quotes into statements demanding freedom. When Mrs. Heidelberg talked, you listened, whether it was out on the picket line, at a community meeting, in church, in front of the police, a Klan mob, at a statewide or regional convention or in the COFO office.
Mr. George Smith, Jr. The Meridian COFO project director from the fall of 1964 to late 1966. He was responsible for organizing and creating strategy not only in Lauderdale county but also Newton, Neshoba, Clarke and other counties. He organized the Freedom Democratic Party, setting up classes to help people learn political campaigning and strategy. He led classes in non-violent direct action tactics encouraging people to "go limp" and lock arms to make arrest more difficult for police. He was fired from his job at the hospital and was evicted from his home for civil rights work. He was very instrumental in setting up the first COFO office in Philadelphia following the murders of the 3 civil rights workers.
Mr. Smith led civil rights marches, in all the counties around Meridian, participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march and the 1966 Meredith March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson. He was arrested dozens of times and once commented that he considered the Meridian city jail his "second home." Leading out on a freedom song with his deep base voice was a special talent and a great boost for workers spirits. When Mr. Smith was away, his wife, Louise Moore Smith, received hundreds of threatening calls at all times of the night from the Klan stating: "We're going to kill George, he won't be coming home tonight!" or "We're going to blow up and burn your house." Mr. Smith likes to quote Mickey Schwerner: "No man is free until all men are free."
Miss Sue Brown. A strong and resourceful leader and one of the first in Meridian to support CORE. She introduced James Chaney to the first CORE organizer in Meridian in the fall 1963. Miss Brown set up the COFO community center with Michael and Rita Schwerner and served as the office manager before Michael was murdered. She was making the calls to FBI and the state COFO offices on June 21 when Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner did not show up on time after their trip to Neshoba county.
Mr. Roscoe Jones. As a high school student, he was responsible for organizing the Mississippi Student Union in Meridian for high school students to get engaged in the movement. Mr. Jones worked with Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney setting up the COFO organization and recruiting students. He participated in the early direct action campaigns to boycott the Kress and Newberry department stores for access to the lunch counters. As an outspoken and courageous young man, he carried the civil rights message to students throughout Meridian.
Mrs. Louise Moore Smith. A strong, outspoken leader standing up for justice and fearless in the face of hundreds of phone threats from the Klan to burn her home and kill family members. She participated in the first community meetings with Michael Schwerner who brought hope for justice and equality and was inspired to recruit others to get involved. She was threatened with arrest by police for putting her clothes in the white only laundomat. Mrs. Moore Smith canvassed door to door asking people to register to vote and signed up people in the Freedom Democratic Party. She participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March and in many Meridian direct actions including the Winn-Dixie boycott for jobs and the Kress and Newbery boycotts for public accommodations at lunch counters. One night she and her family woke up to a burning cross the Klan set afire in their front yard.
These were the brave leaders. They didn't just talk the talk, they really walked the walk. Most are named in Mississippi Sovereignty Commission reports. Three additional individuals were key participants in much of COFO's direct actions and organizing campaigns: Mr. Isaiah Thigpen, Mr. Freddy Watson and Mr. Sam "Freedom" Brown. Their support, cooperation and energy was essential to the civil rights progress made in Meridian.
As a close-knit team, folks did a lot to make changes for the Meridian community: registering people to vote, sitting in at lunch counters, boycott campaign & picketing Winn-Dixie to get jobs for young people, going door to door registering people to vote and signing people up for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sitting in at lunch counters and restaurants, organizing classes in political education and running candidates for the US Congress. Participating in large demonstrations was part of the struggle for freedom, like the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, in the 1966 James Meredith March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson and in neighboring counties of Newton, Neshoba and Clarke. Singing freedom songs everywhere along the way helped us bond together and forged our courage.
The marches and other direct actions were frequently met by organized Klan attacks with sticks, bottles, knocking civil rights workers down, kicking them and beatings by local police and highway patrolmen with the FBI agents standing by taking notes. A peaceful picketer was thrown through a plate glass window of the Winn Dixie store by a Klansman. In August 1964, civil rights workers living at the "freedom house" on 44th Avenue were awakened one night by the front windows being smashed out by two shotgun blasts, throwing glass all over the people sleeping on the floor and couches.
Civil rights leaders saw that blacks received no protection from the white police, so in the summer of 1964, they requested that the Meridian police department hire some black officers. The answer was that there were no black men qualified in Meridian. The leaders had to identify college educated men and gave their names to the department. Two men, Howard Moore (Louise Moore Smith's brother) and Aaron Thompson (her cousin) studied, took the test and were hired by August. Soon after, a 3rd black officer, Mr. Sudbury, was hired. This was good progress for the community, but the black officers were not permitted to arrest whites and had to call on white officers when they found whites breaking laws. Following the end of the direct action phase of the movement, Mr. Obie Clark became a forceful and unyielding Meridian civil rights advocate who started in the late 1960's working tirelessly in support of students desegregating schools. He encouraged black people to stand up for their rights and provided support for legal challenges to enforce federal laws prohibiting discrimination of all kinds.
For the past 45 years, a commemoration of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner has been held in Neshoba county around June 21. In 2010, the commemoration will be preceded by a Caravan for Justice on Saturday, June 19. The caravan will begin at 9 AM at the First Union Baptist Church, with a drive by the COFO office on 5th Street & 25th Avenue, to the courthouse for a Justice Rally, then out James Chaney Drive to the Chaney gravesite for a ceremony. The caravan will then proceed to Rock Cut Road in Neshoba county, with a ceremony at the site of the murders, then to the Philadelphia courthouse for another Justice Rally with a stop at Mt. Nebo church where many civil rights meetings were held. Speakers at the Meridian rally will include George Smith, Jr., Louise Moore Smith and Joe Morse. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate in this Call for Justice where the truth will be told about the murderers still living in and around Meridian and throughout Mississippi who have never been prosecuted by the State of Mississippi for these and other murders.
"Ain't nothing going to be handed to you on a sliver platter, nothing. That's not just black people, that's people in general, the masses. See, I'm with the masses. So you don't ever get nothing, just walk up and say, Here it is.' You've got to fight. Every step of the way, you've got to fight." — Fannie Lou Hamer, 1972
[George Smith, Jr., from Meridian, was a high school classmate of James Chaney and a member of the First Union Baptist Church. He organized for CORE in Eastern Mississippi from March 1964 through 1966 receiving subsistence wages as a staff member when they were available. Since 1967 he has lived with his wife and 2 children in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
Joe Morse, from Winona, Minnesota, arrived in Meridian as a volunteer college student for Freedom Summer in mid-July 1964. He was a CORE staff member receiving substance wages until December 1966. His primary responsibility in those years was voter registration & political organizing at the direction of local Meridian leaders.]
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