Letter/Report on the Movement & Repression in Laurel MS
Charles Hartfield, COFO

[See PDF Scan to view the original of this letter/report. This text-version has been re-typed from the original, formatted into paragraphs, and some typos have been corrected.]

March 17, 1965

Hello Freedom Fighting Friend,

I know that I have written you twice within a week telling you about myself and some of the activities that we are doing here. Now I am going to attempt to write you a report of the thing that we have done since I've been here.

Well, I arrived here last year in the month of November and the top priority was the Freedom Day. And the thing that was formed to help make the Freedom Day a successful one, were the political educational classes, held every night in a week. In the classes we not only taught people how to fill out voter registration forms, but we taught people about the government system of the United States, as well as Mississippi. As I stated that the freedom was top priority at that time, but there were other programs going on such as Freedom School; was at its highest peak at that time.

Our Federal Program Committee was very active at the time also. Time was drawing close for Freedom Day and the people were not responding too well towards Freedom Day. And we needed something to put a spark in the people, to make their move. So, we slated out a plan, hoping that it would draw in more people for the Freedom Day. And the plan was to sit in at the Pinehurst Coffee shop. We talked to about five school kids about this sit in and explained why we were going to do it. They agreed fully. We told them that we needed local people to sit in because if any of the COFO workers were arrested, the people would not care and would not do anything to show their discontent. So, we had five kids to agree to sit in with us. But at the end, only one went through with it.

So, the day came around for the sit in, all the people that agreed to sit in came to the office. We left the office at 4:00 o'clock PM, heading for the coffee shop. We arrived at 4:15 PM, and promptly went inside and seated ourselves. We were there for about 15 minutes before anyone said anything to us. One of the waitresses came over and said that she could not serve us and would we please leave. And we said no because we wanted to eat. She then walked away. Later a man came up to us saying that he is the attorney for this restaurant, and if we didn't leave, he would have us arrested. We again said "no".

Later, the storm troopers came, I mean the police, and told us if we did not leave, he would carry us to jail. Again, we said "no". And then he said you are under arrest; get up, and we said no. Then they reached out and grabbed us; and we all went limp. They had a time getting us up the stairs. When they finally got us up the stairs, they dropped me on the floor and the Chief-of- Police hit me in the left eye and throw the other people on top of me.

They began to pull their jackets off, and I thought that they were going to beat us, because the Chief said that we were no longer in the public site. But something happened and they didn't beat us. They charged us with indecent conduct, and the fine were $200 each. So, we got what we wanted. And the people that was left out begin to work on the people and they got about 200 people together to protest the arrest of us. But that soon ended when a lawyer came from the region office, and someone asked him for his opinion on picketing the jailhouse and he told them that there is a anti-picketing law and the people could go to jail for six months and the people beginning to drip away. When time came for the demonstration, there was only 30 people left out of the 200; but that did not change the people that remained in the demonstration. They went on with their plan.

At this time, we had been in jail for three days and when we heard the singing, it gave us a feeling of never turn back, if you know what I mean. The singing and the yelling of freedom soon came to an end. But the little time that they were there, it revitalized the spirits of ours. We begin to sing freedom songs and the other men that were in jail for drunkenness and other things they soon joined us.

As the night past we went to sleep with the feeling that our comrades did not let us down, although they only stayed for a short time. The reason that they left so soon were because of the (threats) policemen made to them. Well, the people didn't want to go to jail, and they left. So, on the 4th day they interrogated us. I was the third person that they called on and they finger- printed me first and later they took my picture with me holding a card with numbers.

Then they began asking me questions about the movement, such as what made me get in this mess; and I replied that "No one, I was born in this mess". And then he said that someone should knock me in the head, and I replied that "I had been knocked in my head and it wasn't done by Negroes". He then got angry and told me to shut up and wipe that smile off my face. The guy that was interrogating, he was the same guy that told me to get out of Jones County, or he would fish me out of the river.

That following morning, we were bailed out of jail and that is when I was told the lawyer from the region office, who put the damper on the whole plan, but it wasn't a total failure because we got more people involved in the movement here.

Freedom Day was set for the 16th of January, and it was the 10th of December, then so we begin to work with the new people that came into the picture. Since the Travel Inn coffee shop were so sullen, we decided to have another sit in there, and we did, only this time there were only five staff in it and 21 adults and kids. So, we organized the 21 people into groups and had them to go up 20 minutes apart after each group were arrested. At this time, it was the 20th of December. So, all other people that sit in were arrested and charged with such charges as indecent conduct, drunk, disturbing the peace and others trumped up charges. And their fine ranged from $100 to $200 each.

So, myself and several other people were outside spreading the news of the arrests. We went to the nightclub, to Bear Tavern, churches, and to St. Corners where people constantly gathered to appeal to them for support, but we got none. The people had been in jail five days, and we were constantly begging people to protest their arrests, but we still got no support from the people of Jones County. Not even from the peoples relatives that was in jail.

So, it was Christmas, and that people were still in jail. You can see how let down by the people of Laurel. To many, Christmas were the times of joy, but to us it was a black Christmas and the people in jail also. So, the bright day of Christmas slipped away into darkness. By that time, we were really disgusted and sad for them, ourselves and the people that lived here. So, about 9:00 o'clock a group of people came to the office to get information on the arrests, so we gave it to them; and they cursed the white man and some walked away with a long face. The people stayed. I began to talk with them about going to the courthouse and protest the rest of the people. So, I talked them into going down to the jailhouse and picket.

At that time, it was about 30 people., but when the chips fell, as usual, there were only half that number, and they were only kids and I seen kids such as 13 and 14 years of age. And then I tried to talk them out of it because I feared their life, but they said that they want to go anyway. And we left the office about 11:00 PM, walking to this city, as we went along. the number begin to decrease gradually. After we arrived at the county jail, there were only nine of the kids that left the office and three of us. As we lined up in single file, I gave the kids a candle a piece and lit it. After all the candles will lit, we begin to sing Christmas songs and later Freedom songs and the people. And the people in jail began pitching in.

I knew what kind of feeling that had when they heard us singing, because I have had that feeling a many of time when I was in jail, So, we marched about 20 minutes or more before the cops came. When they first appeared, they just stood around and looked about 5 or 10 minutes. Later they approached us, telling us to stop singing and marching and we did. And the head cop told us to sit down over on a guardrail, that part of the parking lot of the civilian and the city officials, so we did. And they stood around us; told us to stop singing once again, but that was impossible because the people that were in jail kept singing, "peace on earth and goodwill to men" and it sounded so beautiful that it just put me under a spell or something. When the cop warned me again to stop singing, I did and began to hum the song that they were singing. At that time, it was 1 minute after Christmas, I mumbled the song that they were singing at that time. It was one minute after Christmas, and then I began to think there are kids, like these kids at home in bed waiting for Santa Claus to bring their toys; but these kids are here waiting for something that many men had died for and that is freedom.

And then a big white car drove up and you abrupted my thoughts. Out of this car, a big man came. He walked over to the other policeman that was standing near us and began to talk with them. He talked with them about 15 minutes and went back into his car, pretending to be driving away, but he quickly turned his big car into the direction that we were sitting in and headed it straight to us driving approximately 40 or 50 mph. He drew his car less than a few inches away from me and I was sitting on the ground, I jumped up quickly, went to move; but seeing as there were a force of gravity holding me there, looking him in the eye, as though I was daring him to run us down. He then backed up his car and speeded towards us. This time most of the kids ran except, myself and two other COFO workers. We stood there and the big sheriff jumped on his brakes and the tires, begin to screech from friction. After the car stopped, he jumped out and began to curse and swing his fist at us. At this time, I was the only one left standing there. As I began to pick up my candle, the big sheriff kicked in the hind part and struck me back of my head a few times as I was walking away. Slowly he kept following me, cursing me. He pushed me and I stumbled a few feet and stood still waiting for a stick that would bring me down, but it never came.

We walked back to the office. While we were walking back to the office, a cab pull up beside of us. It was carrying one of our fellow workers. He had been beaten and kicked by the cops even though he was no in the demonstration. He was hurt pretty bad, and he kept muttering that Gwen were being attacked with several other newsmen that came to observe the protesters.

Well, he was imagining halfway because no one were beaten except him and myself, but they had been manhandled by the cops and the reporter tape recorder were smashed up and. cameras. And Gwen, our project director, she locked herself up in the car which were parked near, and she said that the policeman told them if they didn't get the hell out of there, they would turn them over to the KKK, and they left. This is what Gwen saw and felt that night. The cops that tried to force their way into the car where she was seeking refuge; their eyes were shining and strange. They wasn't the eyes of a human being, but more like a vicious animal that sought out a prey. And the thing that she feared wasn't the beating that she expected to get, but the evil, that possess man to turn into a demon.

She did not hate these men, but she pitied them, because she could understand that they had been trapped into the stake that they now possess. And it is. Somewhat like an ulcer and if you don't take care of it, it will soon turn into cancer. And these men did not attempt to be healed, and now maybe they want to get better and they can't. And it is the same way with me now; where I used to hate them. It would have been easy for me to cut one of them down on a dark road without any consideration at all, but now every time we are on a demonstration or sit in or anything they call me all kinds of names that would violate any mans principles. It doesn't make me angry anymore; it just makes me angry at myself for not having anything to make this man understand that this society cannot exist very long, with the thing that going on now; hatred and prejudice and bigots. So, we went back to the office and began to laugh about the scene at the jailhouse to make the weight lighter, but that did not cure anything at all. At least, not for me.

The next day we begin to put out flyers about the brutality of the police, but that didn't do any good and the people had heard how we had been treated there so it wasn't a ghost of a chance, to call another demonstration. Not even the kids would go back. So, we dropped the protesting. since and began to work on getting the people out of jail.

So, Christmas past and the people were still in jail. They want to stay in jail until after New Year to see would any of their people get them out on property bonds, but we saw that the people had been intimidated and they weren't going to risk the chance of losing their land. So. we got the people out on cash bond. And the disposition of the cases are they are being removed to higher court. The first sit in cases and the last one are both being appealed to higher court. That is all we know of the cases at this point; but later i hope to dig up some more information about it somewhere in the half- burnt files that were saved from the fire that gutted our office a month ago.

So, the people were out of the jail house and our next step were to be the Freedom Day; that is why we had all the sit ins. So now time was drawing near for the payoff. So, the Freedom Day came around and we had people to use their car to carry people to the courthouse to register to vote.

On the first day that we proclaimed Freedom Day, everyone went into the field to get more people to the courthouse to register. So altogether we got about 35 people to go down. Later in the afternoon a lady that is well known by most people of Laurel, and the FDP members out of town, were arrested by the sheriff, because she would not sit on a stone floor. When the people first arrived at the courthouse the sheriff had some convicts remove all of the benches out of the building and they turned on the air conditioner in the middle of January. And The Registrar would only register one person every two- hour period. Anyway, it took, him eight hours to register five people.

Mrs. Ruffin she kept up and down the hall to keep warm. And the sheriff told her to sit down somewhere and she refused to, and she kept walking up and down the hall. At this time Sheriff Macinnis was red hot because not only were Mrs. Ruffin pacing the floor, but she was reciting the Mississippi constitution and she told the sheriff that she felt sorry for him. This time the sheriff pushed her and began to drag her off to jail by the heel of her feet. So we spread the news around the city of Laurel again; but the people still did not move.

The second day we went down to the court. The Registrar wasn't there. He was away attending a funeral and he would not be back until later this afternoon; so we waited and waited but he never came. That early morning a guy from New Orleans were there helping us carry people to the courthouse. He had to get back to his job in New Orleans, so he left out of the door. The split minute that he left, a group of about 10 or more rednecks begin to run behind him, and I ran for the opposite door because I thought that he had his car parked on the street, but instead he parked it in a parking lot. After I realized that, Robert and myself ran out of the same door which Ed had left out of.

At this time, there were more rednecks going after Ed. Robert ran alongside of the parked car attempting to evade the rednecks, but a '54 Ford car came speeding down the street, attempting to run Robert down, but Robert jumped out of it; past just in time. I always behind Robert and we got to a cross street. On the other side of the street, there was Ed, was being beaten and kicked by six rednecks. The traffic was so heavy that it took us a good while to get there to Ed. So in a wild dash, Robert went across the street in front of the oncoming cars, but he made it. Later I came over and the white guy was still beaten Ed, until he and myself arrived on the scene. And Robert began cursing the redneck and hit one side of his head and they backed up and ran. Incidentally Robert Stenson is the chairman of the Freedom Democratic Party of the 5th Congressional District.

So, the police came over and began to chase the men that attacked Ed. They caught two of the men and the others got away. They could have caught most of them if they wanted to, because while the police were chasing the redneck, one white man standing on the corner yelled to the cops, "Let those boys." and they did. So, they came over to us and said that all three of us are under arrest. So, he told us to go to the City Hall. The charges were fighting in public and the only person were fighting were the rednecks. So, the FBI came over to the City Hall and the police dropped the charges against Stenson and I, but Ed and the two white men that beat him were held. So, Eds fine was$25; but his bruises were worse. His glasses were broken, and his right eye was half closed. And the rest of the day was quiet until I went to get some information on Mrs. Ruffins trial.

When we approached the jail and asked him when was the trial of Mrs. Ruffin were going to be, he stated this "let the dust hit your feet" and then he picked up his gun and waded it at us. And I asked him again and he said that he didn't have the information; go to the City Hall. And after we got there the desk Sergeant said he did not have any information to give; then we left. This is all I have at this moment, but later I hope to write more.

After we went back where the people supposed to register to vote; and continued to stand in the hall, waiting for the Registrar to come. Gwen Robinson, our project director, saw one of the men that had attacked Ed Dubensky earlier and went to tell the sheriff, At first, the doorman would not let us in to talk with the sheriff. We stated our business and the man still refused to let us in to talk with the sheriff. And we went to another door where the sheriff was at. The time we begin to approach the door, the sheriff stepped out and asked us "what did we want"? And Gwen begin to tell her story and the sheriff listen and then he told Gwen to point out the guy that she saw hit Ed Dubensky; and she did. And the sheriff took the man into another room, and we never saw the man again, not even in trial; which means that the sheriff never arrested the man.

So our Freedom Day continued without any more trouble. The time then was the 17th of January, and the Freedom Days were over, but we had drawn in more people and they took over the show. When the congressional hearing begin in Mississippi, the FDP members begin to work. Worked to get people to testify at the hearing and they did. There were about 20 people that gave their testimony against the County Registrar, which is Lynard Caves. They told how he had treated them when they went to register. Some told stories dating back in 63 and how they were fired from their job because they wanted to vote. And the staff of COFO gave their testimony about the violence that had prevailed up on us and how was evicted from every building that we had rented last summer and I gave my testimony about the threats that I have received and the beatings.

I began with my arrival here the first time; It was the 17th of July in '64. I was working with three other summer workers in a community which is called the K.C.; when the car pulled up on the scene, I was in a house talking with an elderly lady about the government system, when two people of the community came and told me that a car containing two white men had stopped my friend; and I rushed out of the house walking toward the car, as I was approaching the car, I heard some saying that here come my director, you can talk to him. And the guy in the car replied, "you mean to tell me you let that niggar boss you?" And, Fred said "yes", and I asked the guy in the car what was the trouble? And he said that Fred was passing out flyers on the street. And Fred then stated that the man had asked him for one of the flyers. Then I told the man what right did have to stop someone from doing anything? And the man in the car replied that he is a county official and I asked him to show me his credentials, and he did. And then I stated that it isn't against the law to pass out flyers door-to-door.

He then asked me where I was from. And I told him that I was from Forrest County, which is Hattiesburg, and he then told me that I had better go back there or he would pull me out of that river down there; and I told him that I will go when I finish my job here. He then said that I might not finish my job and told me to clear out of town in 15 minutes or he would take and I told him that would be his next job. He made a motion as though he was going to get out of his car, but some people came up that had been canvassing with me and he soon changed his mind. He then went away yelling that we had better be gone when he returned. So I called the office and got Gwens advice about the situation and she told us to come on back to the office and we did. But we went back to the community within the next 20 or 30 minutes because if we ran run every time Mr. Charlie arrived on the scene we would never get anywhere. The guy that had threatened me, I found out later that his name is Braford better known as jailor Braford.

And my next testify was about the beating that I got last summer in Kresss store for sitting at the lunch counter. Myself. and five other people went down to the 5 and 10 store to see what would happen if we should sit about the lunch counter; And I had two summer workers there to take pictures of the happen if there was going be any, We arrived at the store at 12 noon and went directly to the lunch counter and asked for a coke and the waitress served us promptly, As we began to drink our coke; an elder white woman came in the store. At once she began to say "look at those niggars"; telling her two sons to throw us out. And the two men came and stood up behind us while their mother encouraged them to throw us out. And one of the men told me to get up and replied that I will as soon as I finished drinking it; And then the smaller one told me that he advised me to get up; and again I replied my previous statement.

As I went to look around to see if the other guy had left; a baseball bat came crashing down on my head, halfway knocking me off of the stoop. But I caught my footing, and stood up, rocking back and forward; trying to keep from falling. At that time I couldn't see anything, but I felt more blows striking me across my back and poking me in my guts. Someone kept repeating, "get out, get out niggar", but I stood my ground as long as I could; but the blows was too much to stand; and I left and went and got the police that was standing on the corner at the time and told him that I had just been assaulted by 6 white men with baseball bats, and he told me show him where, and I did.

We went back into the store, and he talked with the manager and went to the back door which the men went out of. Then I heard a cry for help on the outside and that was Fred. Some white guy had attacked him because he had a camera. They knocked him down and took his camera. So, the police caught two other men and held them for disorderly conduct, and the white lady that began the whole thing were charged with carrying a concealed weapon. This white lady had pulled a gun on a 12-year old kid holding him at bay to be beaten. All the proof that the police had, the people that assaulted me and the other people got away scott free.

And my third testimony was about the attack on me and several other COFO workers by 16 white men with guns and knives and chains. This happened the latter part of summer, at a lake at a friends house. I am not going to go into all of the details but there was one serious beating there, a white COFO worker named David Gelfand. He was cut across the back with a knife, had broken wrists and several other bruises. But when the cop came, he asked them to escort us back to the city limit, and he replied that he didn't escort us out here; and he left. It took about an hour to get where we were, and it's only 5 miles away. The cops caught some of the men and held them for trial, which was going to take place the following week on the Wednesday, in Ellisville, which is a small town about 7 miles away from Laurel.

The morning that the trial had had supposed to have taken place, we got a call from the sheriff. He said that the trial had been postponed until later. But we didn't believe that story; so we decided to go and see for ourselves, and that like to have been our last trip, because when we arrived there, the courthouse yard were covered with rednecks. Despite of that, we got out of the car and went to the Sheriff's Office and asked him were there going to be a trial and he said no.

At this time the rednecks had come in the building standing in all the doors so tight that a needle couldn't slide through it; and the sheriff had only three men on hand at that time period, but he stood his ground by telling the people that he wasn't going to have any trouble around here, and he lifted his gun and the crowd spread and let us by. We walked to the car and left the scene with a string of cars following us containing rednecks. So, we made it to safety.

And the next thing that I testify about were the sit in that the Chief-of- police hit me in the eye and about the Christmas Eve demonstration. And that was my testimony.

So, the hearing was all over almost, and the lawyers postponed the hearing for a day or so, because they had to go to another place where they were needed badly, and they left. After their hearing were done with, we went to work spreading the news to the people that wasn't there. The following weeks out office were burned; gutted by fire that someone had set. It occurred when we moved into the Freedom House which had just been repaired. That night we left the office, that the night that the office was burned. The next morning the chief fireman came and asked all kinds of crazy questions, such as this place insured or anything in it. Which is absurd, because who will give COFO a policy. The fire did not do all the damage, but someone stole four typewriters and tape recorder and destroyed our mimeograph machine with an axe. I assumed that it was the firemen or the arsonist.

I played CIA agent for a day and came up with this information; a lady that lives across the street from the office, said that she heard a car horn blowing on the highway which our office is located and she went to the front door and saw the fire in the office. And the car that was on the freeway came around to the office and began to knock on the door shouting that they will burn to death. Because the ladies weren't aware that no one was in the office and the lady across the street went over, told him that no one was in there and the lady went and called the police and the fire station.

The two ladies were white and they saw the fire from the highway and began to blow their horn. Before the ladies left, they asked if there was anything that they could do? Any how the ladies across the street replied "no". At that time the fire truck were on its way to the fire. And the lady across the street went back into her house to observe from the window. She said that the firemen went around to the left side of the house and began to shoot water to the window where the library. Later, they cooled things, enough to go into the building. That is all she saw it, but, a small kid said that he saw the firemen take something out of the building, and the Fire Chief said that his men did not bring anything out of the building. And that is what gave me the reason to believe that the firemen took the machines, not because of that one statement, but several others also. The FBI they are doing their job great, and they know who set the fire already. They didn't say that they know, but I have been seeing them in the area that the KKK hang out and they are somewhat aware of the happening, because they warned me a day before the office were burned that something was going to happen; and it did.

Now we are living in the Freedom House and also it is our office by day and sleeping by night. And we have an unfinished Community Center. Hopefully that it will be ready for this summer. That's if we get enough materials to finish it. And of course, we will need things to go into it when we get it finished, But as of now they look pretty bad, but we won't make it.

Oh yes, the man that owned the lake that we held the going away party, his house was firebombed, a few weeks ago. The reason that the KKK bombed his house were because one of the men, of the place shot a KKK when they were attacking us. And the FBI also warned the man a few days before it happened. It obviously that the FBI know every move that they may make, but why aren't they doing anything to prevent it? That is where you come in.

You can make the FBI more active than they are by writing them and tell them what you think they should do to prevent some of this violence. And also, you can write your congressman a letter, and Senator and tell them of your beliefs, and that you have been somewhat omitted of, the real issues of what this country all about and that supposed to be democracy, which means people rule, but that is a different story here because we are living under a fascism government here.

I look at the beautiful thing that nature has did, and then I look at the thing that man has did and it makes me sick. Because man has only thought hatred and blood. And as of now, man is making a great effort to correct his mistakes. But one man could not do this. So, it would have to be the majority of the people and the beliefs of God; To fall. This wall of hate without this week cannot succeed. So spread the word.