As we celebrate the heroic contributions of great leaders for the fight for Negro freedom in the past, it is of the utmost importance to remember that a stirring chapter in Negro history is being written today in Mississippi.
We all recall that Mississippi is the only state in the history of the nation which has sent Negroes to the United States Senate. How well the Senate could use today stalwart men of the caliber and qualifications of Blanche K. Brucer and Hiram Revels, the Reconstruction Senators from Mississippi. And Congressman John R. Lynch was one of the outstanding legislators and defenders of popular democracy of that exciting period.
But when Reconstruction was defeated with Klan terror and Republican betrayal, the blows fell especially hard on Mississippi, precisely because it was in the forefront of the bitter battle for social progress in the South.
Mississippi, after Reconstruction, became a prison for a million Negroes and almost as many impoverished, exploited white rural folk. But the common people, even in the most difficult hours, never gave up. The Negro people built their schools, churches and small business, their fraternal orders and civic organizations. They took pride in the struggling all-Negro town of Mound Bayou. They fought oppression with whatever weapons they had.
It is one thing to sit in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles and say what Negroes in Mississippi should do or should have done, but it is another to live one's life out in the face of the most rabid of racists, armed with the power of the state and the actual support or hypocritical "neutrality" of the federal government, and still survive and make progress.
But that's what the valiant Negroes of Mississippi have done. They have, as it were, for the past 80 years been preparing for major battles — husbanding their strength, preparing their leaders, mastering the tactics of popular democratic struggle. They have sent their young men and women away to schools which provide gleater opportunities than those afforded in the state and many, though not enough, have returned to take up front positions in the movement for equality.
Now, after all these years, the battle has been joined on a new and higher level. The NAACP, which for years had only negligible strength in Mississippi, can now boast a considerable and growing organization. Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a militant surgeon of Mound Bayou, leader of the important fraternal order, the Knights and Daughters of Mount Tabor, has emerged along with others as an energetic and resourceful leader. The libertarian currents abroad in the world have stimulated the freedom-yearnings of Negroes and many veterans of World War II are impatient for the realization of the "promissory note" of equality in the name of which that great anti-Hitler conflict was waged.
So, today, Negroes of Mississippi, as of the whole South, are demanding implementation of the Supreme Court decision on segregation in education.
And as might be expected, the Dixiecrats have responded with howls of anguish and threats of retaliation. They have done this, of course, all over the South. But in Mississippi their retaliation has gone well beyond the point of threats.
The planters have organized a new Ku Klux Klan. They have laundered it a bit, given it a face-lifting, and called it White Citizens Councils. But no Negro in Mississippi will be fooled. He knorws the Klan when he sees it, by whatever name it's called.
The misnamed Councils have begun to exert economic pressure on the leaders and membership of the NAACP. Are you a grocer, funeral director, physician, small farmer? Then the likelihood is that you could not function without credit. But the credit is in the hands of the banks and mortgage companies, dominated by the planters and big Wall Street concerns.
So, say the Citizen Councils, since we control the credit, we'll control the Negroes! We'll starve their leaders out. We'll draw up a new kind of blacklist, and any Negro who supports NAACP or calls for equality in education will have to find his living outside of Mississippi. But the planters have reckoned without their hosts! When Governor Hugh White called what he thought were 100 "hand-picked" Negroes to his office to euchre them into endorsing a statement opposing the Supreme Court decision, they voted 99 to one for integration of education. In Mississippi, that takes courage!
And the response to the economic boycott of the Citizens Councils has been just as dramatic. Within three weeks, under the leadership of the NAACP national office, organizations and individuals from all parts of the country have deposited $143,000 in the Negro-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis to provide lending capital for Negro businessmen, professionals and farmers who are being foreclosed by the "free enterprise" Dixiecrats of Mississippi.
All decent Americans are called upon to rally to the heroic Negro people of Mississippi. I should like to see the great organizations of labor deposit large sums in the Tri-State bank to help in this fight. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters has already deposited $10,000. Other groups may deposit smaller, or larger, sums.
We must support the demand that President Eisenhower intervene and prosecute those who are violating federal law and regulations by deliberately withholding economic loans for political reasons. Messages of moral support and solidarity should pour in to Dr. T.R.M. Howards at Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Eventually as the struggle deepens, as it must, new forms of battle will be needed and found. At the moment we must use those at hand to sustain the brave Negro people of Mississippi.
We must support their movement for the right to vote so that with political power they may be armed with the guarantees of implementation of legislative enactments and judicial decrees. We must focus the attention of the entire nation on this critical front in the battle for democracy. This is Negro history in the making.
Copyright © Paul Robeson, 1955.