If you were part of the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call, you are encouraged to add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you are not already listed on the Roll Call, please add your name and information.)
Wazir: I first met Medgar when I was in college. At Rust College. And when the Movement — when the sit-ins started in Raleigh, North Carolina, we were in a fever at Rust College to do something. And we started doing little sporadic stuff. And we started doing stuff on the campus that we thought needed to be done, such as boycotting the cafeteria and everything else, you know?
Things were kind of — to Dr. Earnest Smith, things were kind of getting out of hand. We were kind of helter-skelter, not knowing what we were doing, in an organized fashion, so Medgar was invited to Rust to organize an NAACP chapter. A youth chapter, on the campus there.
Hardy: One thing is that the whole notion of the NAACP youth chapters is — I had to join when I was 12 or 11 years old because the school teachers — the Black school teachers [in Tuskegee AL] — came and said — one of my teachers came in the classroom and told everybody to bring 50 cents to school. It wasn't a big deal. Bring 50 cents to school. You became a junior member of the NAACP. Now I don't know how far — I was in Tuskegee — I don't know how far spread that was, but the whole notion of a junior NAACP was there. Of course, we weren't as politically conscious as what we would've got in contemporary times.
But certainly that whole notion of being a part of something called the Civil Rights Movement, something called the NAACP Movement was where I thought I had a level of a 12-year-old understanding of that. But it wasn't a sophisticated understanding that would come out of 1964, for the kids that we worked with, Rodney [Greer] and people like that. But it was there.
Wazir: I had heard of Medgar before that — but that's when I first met him. I had really heard something of him when the Emmett Till case — he was there in the court room every day of the Emmett Till trial in Tallahatchie County.
[In September of 1955, two white men were put on trial for the murder of young Emmett Till. They were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. At that time, neither Blacks nor women were allowed to sit on criminal trial juries.]
And again, in 1963, when we had a breakthrough of me and Sam Block in Greenwood — we had a breakthrough of getting people to go down to the county courthouse to attempt to register to vote. And one day, somehow, I don't remember how Medgar heard about it, that we were gonna have — one of the things was that at the mass meetings, people were committing that night before that they were gonna go down [to the courthouse to try to register to vote]. And the next day, that morning, Medgar was at the county courthouse of Leflore County in Greenwood. And we took about 126 people down. That was a big breakthrough, and he was there. He stayed there all day. He stayed there all day, in support of those people, encouraging them.
Being friendly, as he always is, you know, and upright. I never saw him bitter. I never saw him nervous about anything. He was matter of fact, like it was just a mission or a calling for him to do what he had to do. And he didn't back down. And he was articulate, and he never used any negative — what you call? Profanity, language. Never. And he spoke in a way that the opposition should understand that we are doing what we should be doing. We're doing what we're supposed to be doing. And if they don't understand that, it means that they have some studying and research to do, you know, about humanity. And that's the kind of person that he was.
And at the time that Lawrence Guyot and Annell Ponder, Mrs. Hamer, Euvester Simpson, June Johnson, and another young man that was in jail there in Winona MS, we called him. They had been coming back the SCLC Citizenship School training in South Carolina when they were arrested in Winona. All but one man who remained on the bus and got to Greenwood where he came to the office and told us what had happened. And the office got in an uproar trying to find out what was happening and were they safe. Guyot was there in his overalls, getting ready to go to Winona to find out what was happening to them. He was emptying everything out of his pockets that he didn't want the police to see because he knew he'd be arrested too. Which he was. Hollis Watkins and Milton Hancock got information from the local people that they were taking Guyot to Carrolton in Carol County — a very dangerous place. Mand Rick Tuttle, we never left the office that night because we were on the phone rallying support. We called Medgar to find out what we should do. We called. And he gave us some names he told us to call: Flemings and Sitton.
Bruce: The reporters.
Wazir: The reporters. And that he would call some contacts, people. The thing is, he said, we need to get — he said: That's a rough area there. See, those people are very ignorant, and they think they can kill those people and get away with it. So we have to put some light on that situation. Medgar and me and Rick Tuttle we got together and we organized.
We had been given contacts on the West Coast and — Me and Rick Tuttle, we got busy following his advice, doing everything he said, point by point. And we put light... We put 24/7 calls into every jail in the area, because first, we didn't know exactly where they were. We called the jail in Duck Hill, Winona, Carrollton in Carroll County. We called all over the place. And we were harassing the people so bad. And one jailor got to Sam: "We — we ain't got 'em! We don't have 'em!" But anyway, we finally found out where they were.
There's not much written about that, and we're gonna write something soon. But that's what kept them alive. We called [Governor] Ross Barnett and told him, after we found out that they had been beaten, we called Ross Barnett and told him what had happened and that he needed to use his executive power to let those people know. I said: "Well, I just wanted to let you know that two of your state troopers were involved in it, and we have their names." And we did have their names! And he must — he did something, because the beating and all that kind of stuff — when I called Guyot, they let us talk. They started letting us talk to each one of them.
Guyot they had moved. They had moved him to Carrollton. They intended to kill him. They tried to get him to leave jail one night, and he'd been beaten so bad. He says: "They're gonna let me go." I said, "Guyot, I know you're not talking to me right." I said: "You know better than that. You're not leaving there. You tell them you're not leaving there, because what can they do? Arrest you for not leaving? Just stay there."
["Shot while trying to escape" was often used in the Deep South to justify police murder of Black prisoners.]
Don: He was bombed the week before [the assasination]. His home, the wrong side of the house. And he instructed the children, very young but old enough to grasp it, I guess, and he said, "First of all, I have to do this, and I'm doing it for you. We don't know what's going to happen, but if something happens" — after the bombing, the first bombing — he said: "If anything happens, there are rules." And they would practice them. You've got to hit the ground immediately, crawl to the bathroom and get in the bathtub. And those were the instructions.
And when he was shot, they heard the shot, and it was a single shot. Big weapon. And Myrlie came running out, screamed, and then the children came running out, and he had made it from his car quite a distance, given how wounded he was, to the steps leading up to their house when he died.
There were always warnings to him, not just threats but actual warnings by people friendly that you're really the lightening rod now. And you've got to be careful. Consider leaving town and doing your work from out of town and whatnot. And pretty modestly just said, "I can't do it. I've got to continue doing what I'm doing, and life doesn't really matter because if you let the fear get in the way, then you won't be able to do anything."
Wazir: Early that morning, they were having some big rally there and a meeting at the Masonic Temple in Jackson, and I got the news — I don't know, about one or two o'clock in the morning that Medgar had been killed. And that broke me up. I really wanted to — I mean, that was one of the saddest days of my life.
I was angry at the same time, because we had been forewarned that somebody was gonna be killed. Byron De La Beckwith [who had shot Medgar] and a white woman and a young teenaged boy, they had been meeting at the bus station in Greenwood. And the janitor that worked at the bus station came to the office and told us and said, "Man, you all be careful. They're plotting to kill somebody. I don't know who it is, but they're plotting to kill somebody. They're meeting, and they're making plans. Who's going to drive down and all that kind of stuff. It's somebody in Jackson that they're planning to kill. Somebody in Jackson."
Me and Sam, we told the Justice Department about it. We told them, and they told us that there's nothing they can do until a crime is committed. And we told them who the people were that were that were meeting. I said: "You mean, you can't put no watch on them and let them know that somebody's watching them?" And they said: "We can't do nothing." So I was angry, because it seemed to me that the Justice Department, the government, let that happen, knowing who it was beforehand. They knew beforehand, and they allowed it to happen.
I was angry enough to do — I don't know. I mean, I was so angry. I mean, I never — I kind of went crazy for a minute there. And I was at Medgar's funeral, and I was with that crowd that started to break the line and go through. And I remember [Justice Department official] John Doar stepping out in front, trying to stop that row. And it's true. It would've been a bloodbath that day, but we wouldn't have been the only ones being bad. It was Black people all up on top of those buildings with guns, ready to take care of some business. And I didn't have nothing to do with that, organizing that.
And I think with John Doar stepping out there, he took a — I don't know — he took a chance on his life, because chances are it couldn't have been stopped. Because he stepped out there just in the nick of time, because a few seconds later, the crowd would've been — there would've been shooting — we would've been all over them. It would've been all over. Some people would've got killed, but they didn't care. People wouldn't have cared. That was just the feeling that people had and the love that people had for Medgar Evers in that area and across the state, because any time, any night, anybody called him, I don't care what part of the state he was in, he would get up and go. He would get up and go. So he was well loved.
Because what most Northern people didn't understand was that what brought the Movement to the front in the first place is that our Black people had been getting killed all the time. Every week. Some Black people were — people didn't know where he was, but they found him later dead somewhere in the woods or something. And so this killing thing brought about some kind of immunity [to fear], you know, and for the first time people weren't running like rabbits. We were together for the first time. So, okay, all you can do is kill us. You might kill one or two, but we'll be on you before you know it. And so it had come to that point. It had come to that point.
It wouldn't have been a good thing, but one thing it would've done, in my
mind, it would've brought about martial law in the State of Mississippi. It
would have. It would have brought about martial law, because there would've
been a lot of people dropping dead that day, on that funeral day. So in
that sense, John Doar saved the day. But I brought this up again to show
you that the intensity of the love that they had for this man called Medgar
Evers, you know? And he's truly a giant and a hero, and all during
different periods of time, we talk about Medgar Evers,
Bruce: You know, in the research I've been doing for the website, there's a lot of indication that the killing of Medgar was part of a wider, three-state Klan plot. They had a plot to do a lot of stuff on the same day. The same day that Medgar was killed, the Klan had apparently — it's not proven — but the indications are that the Klan in Selma was going to kill Bernard Lafayette, the SNCC organizer there. They attacked him and were beating him to death when some guy, a neighbor, came out with a shotgun and scared them off. And then they had planned to kill Elton Cox, a CORE worker in Louisiana, but they couldn't locate him. I always wondered if the atrocity in Winona was part of that same Klan offensive. That you had a whole lot of stuff happening.
Wazir: Within days of each other. Yeah, yeah.
Bruce: Medgar was killed while the people were still —
Wazir: Still in jail.
Bruce: The other thing in the research that struck me about Medgar — and I never met him; I didn't know him, but in researching the history — is how central his strategic role was in the Movement in Mississippi. Which almost never gets talked about. Everyone talks about him as a martyr, but no one talks about his strategic importance and behind-the-scenes role.
First of all, he had this problem. Obviously because of his political stance, there was no way he could have a job in Mississippi. He couldn't work for white folks, and any Black person who hired him would be subject to a boycott and retaliation. So the only job he could have was as an NAACP Field Secretary, a salaried NAACP employee. But the NAACP at that time was dead set against anything to do with direct action.
Wazir: That's right.
Bruce: They opposed any kind of protesting at all. And they opposed working with "radical" groups like SNCC. And "Communist" groups like the Lawyers Guild and Kunstler and like that. But behind-the-scenes Medgar encouraged young people to take direct action in places like Jackson. And he worked with SNCC and the "radical" lawyers. So he was constantly at risk of losing his job.
Wazir: Oh yes he was!
Bruce: He was one of those who advised Bob Moses in '61 that what Mississippi needed was not sit-ins at lunch counters but voter registration and political community organizing. Him and Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry and Hartman Turnbow and so on. So he played a crucial strategic role in directing SNCC into voter registration and community organizing. Then in '61 the students at Tougeloo and Jackson State who had a youth NAACP chapter had a library sit-in and protest. He's being told from New York: Don't have no demonstrations. But behind the scenes, he's encouraging the NAACP youth students to do exactly that. And the same with the Woolworth sit-ins, and so forth. He would call the NAACP in New York and tell them whatever story to keep his job, you know. And in fact, he even maneuvered Roy Wilkins into coming down to Mississippi and picketing and getting arrested.
Wazir: That's right. I remember that day exactly.
Bruce: I think that was maybe the only time Wilkins was ever arrested in the entire Movement. Maybe not, but that was the legend. So Megar played a — his role was hidden in a lot of ways. Not just hidden from the white Mississippi government and the Sovereignty Commission and all them people, but also hidden from publicity because he had to protect his job. He was constantly under threat of being dismissed.
Wazir: Oh yes he was.
Don: I recommend to you all, it's playing tonight and tomorrow on CSPAN, the Legacy of Medgar Evers. I just listened to it. Myrlie, his wife, was speaking, and she said that when she [was nominated for ] the NAACP [presidency] they wanted like a loyalty from her that she wouldn't take any of these positions, and she told them: That's impossible, because she made a pledge to Medgar that — They had a discussion, in fact, it was the day before the assassination, that if anything happens, you're gonna have to carry it. And she said: "I couldn't do what you do." And he says, "Yes, you could." And so she said [to the NAACP], Well, I have to live up to that," and she won by one vote. It was a very tight election.
Bruce: So I think it's important to realize that not only was he a great human being, but he was a strategist that actually had a serious and profound effect on the course of the Freedom Movement in Mississippi.
Hardy: It seems to me, what is ignored throughout the writing of the history of this whole period is the question of the Black community being willing to respond as a community. Men in that community — let me put it that way — being able to respond to the Ku Klux Klan's whatever. I can remember my father, when I was about 10 or 11, someone said the Klan going to come to Tuskegee and do all this stuff, and my father and them just casually talked to the neighbor and they sat and they talked and they all just kind of sit down on the front porch with their shotguns.
I think we don't — we're caught in two positions. We either don't want to talk about that segment, or the element, that we're gonna fight back, because we want to keep clean the whole notion of the NAACP and so on. And on the other hand, we don't want to romanticize what fighting back meant. And fighting back meant, in my opinion, that at least by the time of Medgar Evers and after Emmett Till and all, the Black community was not prepared to sit back and let you just come into that community and take somebody out.
Wazir: No, that's right.
Hardy: And let you throw them in the river. That just wasn't going to happen anymore. All right? [And] I bet you there was a relationship there between the federal government, the local authorities, Sheriff Ash [of Marshall County, MS], and the Black community — not talking [directly] to each other, but a kind of understanding that you're not going to run roughshod over — the days of running roughshod and beating and killing Emmett Till and dragging him through the river is over.
Wazir: It was an understanding.
Hardy: [We] just put the letter [on the website] from the Governor of Mississippi writing about me and all that, right? The reality of that half-wit sheriff, we all knew him. We all knew him. He did not want to go down [politically]. Now, I don't know if people were looking forward to the day he was going to run and be the representative to the Mississippi State Legislature for Holly Springs, but nevertheless, he knew he had to have some kind of level of accommodation.
And finally, in relationship to the Holly Springs project, even though [the Klan] were riding by in the cars, and we were thinking we saw a gun, and there was a gun, there wasn't as rapid a shooting that would've occurred 25 years earlier. There wasn't that kind of a shooting. So the whole question of being — the Deacons of Defense in Louisiana, all of these groups, the fact that when we went to Lafayette that night, Mrs. Trotten and Mr. Trotten and all of them in their trucks with their guns in them trucks. And that was kind of interesting because the guns in the truck were related to being a farmer and a hunter as well as self-defense.
Wazir: That's right.
Hardy: I mean, that was never clear. But the fact that they would stay out there said to a certain extent: We're gonna protect them. I mean, the reality was that we would go somewhere. They didn't have to say: We're here to protect you. So what's been played down so long over the Civil Rights Movement because of the notion that we would denigrate — to a certain extent — the history of the Movement and Martin Luther King and people like that by talking about any level [of self-defense] violence, as if there wasn't a part of self-defense violence to prevent violence long before the [Oakland Black] Panthers were ever heard of. I mean, you think [of] the Panthers — the reality was that the Deacons for Defense was doing this shit 20 years before ... And nobody wants to see the connection to the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County.
[Organized by SNCC, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama overtly engaged in armed self-defense against KKK attackers. Their symbol was a black panther and they became known as the "Black Panthers" and the "Black Panther Party." A Black liberation organization in Oakland California requested, and was granted, permission to use the "Black Panther Party" name and symbol. Under that name they became a well-known national organization.]
Hardy: In Fayette County [TN], you see, they did do that for me. When I led a march from Brownville to Somerville in Tennessee, the next thing I know, there's a bunch of bricklayers and people in Memphis County standing around me. They took me to the hotel, and helped me. They said: They're not going to bother you. So that's an element that we don't ever discuss, because we don't know how to place it in the realm where it doesn't tarnish a notion of what we were all about. And of course, I'm learning a lot more about this now, looking at Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, because what I see — when I think about what they are saying, a whole lot of that stuff is based on religious beliefs that we automatically have.
Now, [this is] different from saying: We had a mass rebellion. Because if we had had a mass rebellion, we would've turned — the state would've have no problem legitimately shooting us down like cats and dogs.
Wazir: That's right.
Bruce: There was no armed rebellion
Hardy: The only place we know where Floyd McKissick tried to do that stuff up there in North Carolina, and they got their heads brought to them. So the question is not — the question is what was operating between Sheriff Ash and people there at the local authorities, the federal government saying to them: You got to give these people some big time protection, and the right of the Black communities to defend themselves, and you know, as far as I've seen over the last 20 years, I have not seen any information that came out which suggested that there was any investigation of the Deacons for Defense. There might have been. I just haven't seen it.
Bruce: Well, the FBI investigated them like crazy. And there are one or two books and some academic articles. And as I understand it, Charlie Cobb is working on a book about armed self-defense during the Freedom Movement.
Hardy: So anyway, so it was — the killing of Medgar Evers has to be attached to a non-action of the Black community to the Emmett Till killings.
Don: Say that again?
Hardy: The killing of Medgar Evers by the Klan has to be seen, it seems to me, as an attachment — in terms of the Black people's psychology about this stuff — an attachment to Emmett Till's killing. The Emmett Till killing — it went through the community like — There were a lot more discussions over Emmett Till's death.
Bruce: You're saying there was more discussion in the Black community about Emmett Till's death than about Medgar's death?
Hardy: No, about Medgar's death than there was Emmett Till.
Don: Yes, about Medgar's, yeah.
Hardy: Than about Emmett Till's. You know, I think Emmett Till's thing made a lot of publications in newspapers in the North, in the Black papers. And what his mother did which was fantastic. I'm talking about organizing where people say: "Hey, this shit's gotta stop."
Wazir: Let me put you on the scene, the next day. There was not one police patrolling in the Black community [after Medgar's killing].
Bruce: In Greenwood.
Wazir: In Greenwood that day. And I heard in other places in the Delta they weren't patrolling, because that thing had went viral, as we say now. It had went viral. It was a dangerous moment. His death had brought — at that point, the population of the Black people in Mississippi had not declined so much. And it had brought people together out of their houses who had never marched or never done anything. They knew about Medgar. And it was just — in other words, they couldn't have pulled the National Guard together fast enough to keep some really bad shit from happening.
Hardy: I think you're right. And I think maybe we want to discuss one time is the question of violence and how people are writing about it, or have written about it, and whether or not they had ulterior motives for, in fact, addressing an organic thing over there that we all kind of depended upon when we were out on the roads at night. We talk about how they wave at us — they wave at us and say: "Oh, Peacock went thatta way." And everybody kind of watched it, but we don't give no more than they were waving — you know, nobody ever went down that road — down them country roads that somebody didn't know where we were.
Don: That's right.
Hardy: So that was that kind of — we don't have a place in our thinking for that kind of activity, activity that was there.
Bruce: Someone at the MOAD storytelling talked somewhat about that in relationship to children.
Wazir: Yeah, right.
Chude: Well, you know, Gwen Robinson, who is now Zohara Simmons, she was in Laurel, and when we went back for the '94 reunion, they went back down to Laurel, and she discovered then that these men, these young guys, used to always be following around, and she only then understood that one of the women in the community had assigned them the job. It was their job to make sure nothing happened to her. And that's what you're talking about. They were there.
Hardy: Yeah, right. Well, the people who drove me out of Mississippi was Beverly Polk and her sister, and her Daddy, who had a place in that Marshall County, Holly Springs area, that everybody knew who Mr. Polk was. And now he didn't do a lot. I mean, he didn't offer a lot, but he allowed his daughters — because he didn't have any — I don't think he had any boys.
Chude: No, I think you're right.
Bruce: To add to what you're saying, I think another connection that's not made is the connection to World War II and Korean War veterans.
Hardy: Precisely. Because I went in the Army in 1959. They [were recently] integrated. And shit, we fought in out every day. I mean white soldiers Blacks soldiers. Shit, we were still having it in 1959, we were still having fist fights and shit, between Black and white soldiers.
The military would come in, and we'd been fighting. They would bring us into the room, and [the officer] said, "Did he hurt me?" "No, he didn't hit me." And then you would say the same thing, and they didn't know what to do. So go on back to the barracks and knock that shit off.
Victoria Gray was my mother's sister's daughter. Victoria babysitted me when I was a kid, when she was going to Tuskegee. Victoria Gray had lived — before she became political, she lived in Germany, because her husband was in the military. When people like her came back, they were confronted with a whole significant thing about standing up. And so I wasn't — when I think about it, I shouldn't have been surprised that she would stand up and say: "I will support, or I'll run for office."
And there's a whole other set of people that nobody is discussing. We don't
discuss Sammy Younge's mother. We don't discuss Beulah Johnson with the
NAACP in Tuskegee. These are people I know close. Close with Fred Gray and
all those people. There's a whole set of Black people that were kind of a
strata between this whole thing. And then there were the brothers with the
guns. There was Ms. Bodina and the people hanging out at the restaurant.
Don: I remember one more thing that Myrlie Evers talked about, and that was — apparently there were multiple trials of Beckwith, and at the very first one, she was in the audience, and Ross Barnett comes walking in and puts his hand on Beckwith's shoulder, you know, in front of the jury. I mean, incredible. I mean, it's incredible.
Wazir: It is incredible. He endorsed him.
Don: I mean, it told you everything.
Wazir: Hm-hmm. It tells you everything. Yeah.
Bruce: And we saw that time and again. The white power-structure, the elected politicians, the economic powers, even white religious leaders explicitly sanctioned and condoned — or chose not to condemn — mob violence, bombings, state terrorism, and even murder to maintain white-supremacy. And incitement. Over and over again, mob violence, and Klan terrorism, were incited by politicians who whipped up hysteria and hatred. That was the case in the mob violence in Alabama during the Freedom Rides, James Meredith integration of 'Ole Miss, and the Freedom Summer murders too. Some of the government officials who incited violence did so out of their own racist conviction, but for others it was just political expediency, a good way to ensure they were re-elected when only whites could vote. When the Voting Rights Act opened up the ballot to Blacks some of the worst of them quickly changed their tune — George Wallace in Alabama for one.
Nowadays "civil rights tourism" is becoming a big deal in Mississippi, they're building a big expensive civil rights museum. The current museum there in Jackson does talk somewhat about the Freedom Movement and the murders, and the violence. But they don't say nothing about the role that the white political leadership played in inciting that violence, inciting those murders. It's as if there was just these evil Klansmen who committed all these crimes out of the blue, but they didn't have nothing to do with nobody else and certainly no one in any powerful position. But the truth is like that the title of Dylan's song about Medgar's murder which refers to Byron de la Beckwith as "Only a pawn in their game."