The Fight for the Vote Fayette County, Tennessee
Testimony of John McFerren
January, 1960

[Testimony of John McFerren, chairman of the original Fayette County [Civic] League, presented to the Volunteer Civil Rights Commission at hearings January 31, 1960, in Washington. D. C. The hearings were organized by Ella J. Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Carl Braden of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, Inc., and fifteen local civil rights and civic organizations. As reprinted from Black Protest: 350 Years of History, Documents, and Analyses, by Joanne Grant.]
[BACKGROUND: Until the late 1950s, almost no Blacks were registered to vote in Fayette County. Tennessee had no poll tax, literacy test, or other legal barriers against Afro-Americans registering to vote, but social custom and economic retaliation effectively kept Blacks disenfranchised. Juries in court trials were selected from registered voters, and after an all-white jury falsely convicted an elderly Black man for an 18 year-old murder, John McFerren and other young Black men formed Civic and Welfare Leagues in Fayette and Haywood counties. They launched successful voter registration drives, and by 1959, Black voters in those counties outnumbered whites.]

Q. (Mr. Lawson) What is your name?

A. John McFerren. I was born and raised in Fayette County, in the State of Tennessee.

Q. What is the population there?

A. The population of that county is 20,000 Negroes.

Q. How many white people?

A. I do not know the number of whites:

[Blacks in Fayette County outnumbered whites by roughly two to one.]

On August 1, 1959, the members and myself went up to the courthouse to vote. First we went to the fire station. I pulled out my registration card and handed it to the registration lady and she picked up the card and looked at it and said — she called one of the other men over and said — he asked her — he said, "What are you going to do with these people?" He said, "Where do you live, the country or in town?" She said, "You go to the courthouse and vote."

When I got to the courthouse, me and my four other companions, I pulled out my registration card and handed it to the lady. She looked at the card and called over the man. She said to the man, she said, "If we turn all of these people down, we will get in trouble with the federal government."

[In the 1950s, Tennessee was still part of the "solid South," meaning that only Democrats were ever elected to office — so the real election was the Democratic Primary. The whites who controlled the party in Fayette and Haywood counties prevented the newly registered Black voters from voting in the 1959 Democratic Primary for sheriff, judge, and other county offices by ruling that it was "white-only." The Civic Leagues and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against "white-only" primaries under the Civil Rights Act of 1957.]

Then I immediately turned and went out and called our legal counsel and our legal counsel advised us later we would bring a federal suit against the county. During the federal suit, the FBI came out in the field and investigated me. When they investigated me, he brought back the report and gave the report to the sheriff. That put me on the hot dog stand.

Johnson was the FBI man. He gave the report to the sheriff and immediately after then, my life was threatened.
(At this point, the witness was unable to continue.)

Q. We will give him a few minutes to relax and come back if there is time.
(Witness temporarily excused.)

Q. Will you pick up where you left off?

A. The FBI notified the sheriff and the FBI came out there while I was picking cotton. They told me to go to tell the sheriff everything I know, that that was the thing to do, and so that night, I received a threatening telephone call. From that day to this, my wife and family and myself were threatened. And this FBI man who came out to investigate the rights to vote, he was a native of Fayette County. He knew my father and before him, my grandfather, and we went back and talked with our legal counsel and we wrote to [FBI Director] Hoover here in Washington. They sent another investigator out. I was on the hot dog stand. That is where I was.

Now, the teachers in the county are scared to register. They are even scared to talk to me on the street. When they see me coming, they run the other way and many farmers are harmed, today, on account we want to come to be first class citizens. They are making a move by the hundreds. They took the crop from the farm, would not sell it. They made them move because they even tried to raise it. When we go up to register, the landlord would walk up and down to see if any of his tenants were in line. When they go to register, the sheriff calls the names and calls the landlord, and the landlord would make him move that night.

Q. Have you tried to make a loan? Do you know of any people who tried to make a loan down there and could not make it?

A. No Negroes in the County of Fayette County have a G.I. loan for a farm. They are all local loans down there thrown on the Negro ten or fifteen years ago. You cannot get a local loan to buy a farm. Now there is a few local loans that charge 25 percent interest on the money, but where they put that interest on the money, they take it out before you get the money. If you borrow $200, he will take the interest out before you get the money and I have borrowed money in my lifetime. I know what he gives me.

Q. Those 25 percent interest charges are from private lenders?

A. They are from private lenders, but the banks, they charge us 12 percent interest. I had not borrowed no money from the bank in about two or three years, but I have some notes at home I can show you, that charge 12 percent interest. Here is the way they do that. If you go in there to borrow some money, he will take out the interest before you get your money. What have you got to show?

Q. Does the note read 12 percent?

A. They don't put no interest at all on the note.

MR. LAWSON: Any questions?

MR. CAMPONESCHI: What do they threaten to do?

THE WITNESS: They call my wife. I reported this to the FBI headquarters. They call my wife over the telephone. They groan over the telephone like somebody died. And I have a two-and-a-half ton truck. I do public hauling on the side and they threatened my driver. They said they would push him off the road. And I, myself, was threatened in that way. "If you keep moving with that voting issue, you will come up with a necktie around your neck."

The teachers in our county are under a tremendous strain because they are between the other side and ourselves. Now, we have registered — I do not have the accurate number — but approximately between 1,000 and 1,300 registered, by standing at the door, counting. But this count is not accurate because I have no records of the books.

Q. Have you ever voted?

A. I never voted in my life.

Q. Have you been trying to vote all these years, ever since you have been 21?

A. I tried to vote this year — last year, pardon me. Last year.

Q. Tell us precisely what happened last year. Very briefly, what happened when you tried to vote?

A. Well, four of us went out there together to vote. When we went in to vote, to the fire station, when I pulled my card out the fire station lady, she called another man over, and said, the man said, "Where do you live. In the country or town?" I told him I lived in the country. He told me, "You have to go to the courthouse to vote." When I got to the courthouse, I pulled the card out and gave it to the registration lady and they called another gentleman over and asked him, "What are we going to do with these folks? There are too many of them coming here and trying to vote. We will get in trouble with the federal government." He said, "This is an all white, Democratic primary election." That is what he said.

MR. LAWSON: Thank you very much.
There is one final thing I think the audience would be interested in.

THE WITNESS: Now, you might know, because of this voting issue, my mother was run down with a two-and-a-half ton truck.

Q. What happened? Has there been any investigation of that?

A. In other words, my mother was up in the yard and this guy, this man, with the two-and-a-half ton truck, was riding eight or nine miles an hour. He hit me and went across to my mother's yard and ran over her. She has not come back, yet. She is going to get all right, yet.

Q. She is in the hospital?

A. She has been in there.*
(Witness excused.)

* Hundreds of Fayette County Negroes, evicted after voter registration attempts, lived in a "Tent City" until a federal suit brought agreement that local whites would stop economic reprisals.

See Fayette County Tent City for Evicted Voters for background & more information.
See also Fayette County TN Tent City for web links.

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