Itta Bena and Elsewhere
Roy Torkington 2011

We set up a Freedom House in Itta Bena. One night it was attacked — windows broken, etc. No one was there at the time. Itta Bena was in the Delta, and thus under Stokely Carmichael's oversight. I met Stokely many times and got along well with him. After the attack on the Freedom House, he told us to stand guard at night with shotguns. We did it for a few nights, and then found out that the attack was probably committed by local Blacks acting upon the orders of their employer (their "bossman" in the local lingo). We stopped guarding and there were no more incidents.

Once a group of us (integrated) drove up to Memphis to pick up some cars for COFO and drive them down to Jackson. After doing this, we would get a car for the Itta Bena project, and that would allow us to do canvassing and organizing at plantation housing out in the countryside, the idea being to move quickly and get in and out. Willie McGee had complete knowledge of all the back roads around Itta Bena.

We had to spend a night in Memphis before picking up the cars and driving them back to Mississippi. We were driving around in two cars with a couple of young guys from Memphis. Willie McGee and I were in one, John Paul (the other Itta Bena volunteer) and James Brown (an SCLC worker from Itta Bena) were in another. While driving around Memphis, we lost the car with John and James. We found them later and they told us that a Black man had pulled up next to their car and asked the Memphis guy, "What are you doing driving around with that white boy?" The Memphis guy replied, "These boys are Civil Rights workers up from Mississippi." And the questioner said, "Well then, I'm taking them all out for a steak dinner." So John and James and the other guys from Mississippi enjoyed a good dinner, while Willie and I drove around looking for them.

Next morning we picked up the cars at the dealer's and each drove one down to Jackson. We were up late the night before, and the heat (as usual) was unbearable, so I didn't get much sleep and had a hard time keeping myself from falling asleep at the wheel. I remember pinching my arm to keep myself awake.

We brought the cars to the Jackson COFO office and then Willie, James, John, and I waited around while they decided which car to give us. We couldn't take one of the Memphis cars because they first had to be fitted out with citizen's band radios. The four of us were sitting on a table in the office, which looked like — well, like an office, with people answering phones and pushing paper. A Jackson "official" was walking through the office holding up some papers and shouting "I need a volunteer." By "volunteer" he meant one of the people who had come down for the Summer Project. When he walked by the four of us he paused and stared at John and me. The four of us stared back, and he moved on. James said, "I bet you boys are glad you're in Itta Bena and not in Jackson." We had to agree.

I might have given the Jackson guy my "Carroll County look." I am six feet tall, with a fair complexion and blue eyes. Back then I had very light blond hair (now it's grey). I usually wore a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect myself from the sun. The first time Jim Forman saw me in that hat, he called me "Tex." Despite being based in Itta Bena, we did spend a fair amount of time in Greenwood, the Leflore County seat, where the national office of SNCC had been relocated for the summer.

One of the young local Black women was very amused by me. The first time she saw me she said, "Oh! He's got that Carroll County look." Carroll County was just east of Leflore County and was considered to be the beginning of the hill country (and you know what that means), whereas Leflore County was in the Delta. The next time she saw me she was with some friends and she said to me, "Show them that Carroll County look." So I just sort of stared at them and they all burst into laughter.

We used to drive into Greenwood on Friday or Saturday nights. Back then, unnecessary night driving was considered dangerous and was frowned upon. Jimmy Travis, a black civil rights worker, had been machine-gunned driving on US 82, which goes past Itta Bena and into Greenwood (he survived). Willie always had an excuse for going to Greenwood, and we didn't care about the possible danger. After being in Itta Bena and the surrounding countryside all week, an excursion to the exciting metropolis of Greenwood was worth any amount of danger. Usually we had dinner (soul food, of course) at "Blood" Bullins's restaurant.

Leflore was a dry county. However, by paying the appropriate "fee" to the police or sheriff, a restaurateur could obtain a liquor "license." Blood's restaurant served beer, so of course he had paid off the Greenwood police. He said that they would came around to tell him to keep the white civil rights workers out of his restaurant. He said he told them, "They got to eat somewhere, and look at all the money they're spending." Despite this refusal, the police never busted him for violating the local dry laws. Money triumphed over racism.

One night, before going to Blood's, I went to get a haircut. The barber shop was owned by Rev. Johnson, pastor of the Percy Street Baptist Church. The place was crowded, and Rev. Johnson was a very deliberate barber. I thought I'd be there forever, and I began to get restless. Then I realized that not everyone in there wanted a haircut. Some were just there to socialize. "Roy," I said to myself. "You're in a black barber shop in the Mississippi Delta on a hot summer night. Calm down and relax." So I talked with the guys for a while and then dozed off until it was my turn. Afterwards I went to Blood's and ate catfish with greens and purple-hulled beans and drank beer before we had to drive back to Itta Bena.

I just remembered that you could say that we integrated the mail boxes in the Itta Bena post office. There was no mail delivery to houses, at least in the Black section of Itta Bena, so John and I rented a PO box. After a few days, we realized that the lock was defective and the box could not be locked. We complained to the postal clerk. He said that the only available box was in the Colored Section of the post office. We took that box, and thus integrated the Itta Bena post office.

Copyright © Roy Torkington. 2011

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