I've called this "Mississippi, the Closed Society," which, of course, did not originate from me, or "The Origin and Formation of Turning Points in the Life of a Christian Activist"
On January 9, 1861, Mississippi seceded from the Union and thus began the intentional journey of a state into a stance of regression that would earn it the reputation of being the worst of these in almost any area of civil and human rights that you wish to consider. This journey into regression could and did le~d only to the stagnation and death — mentally, physically, morally, and spiritually — of many if not a majority of the inhabitants of the state of Mississippi.
On November 5, 1926, at one o'clock on a cold Thursday morning (I'm told), a baby girl was born to Mack and Annie Mae Ott Jackson, their first born. That baby girl was Victoria Jackson. With this event, a unique conscientious objector to the closed society became a member of the family called "Mississippians." I trust that no one hearing this statement will misread the declaration because I promise you it is not one of arrogance.
The first incident that I consider a turning point took place when I was very young. Following a visit of my aunt's white employers, I said, "I sure wish we were white so we could be rich." I remember clearly sensing that I had said something that got their total attention. Thus began my education on the importance of the richness of being what and who God created you to be.
The second turning point came when I was five or six years old. I had attended the baccalaureate service of the graduation class of the DePriest Consolidated School [of Palmers Crossing, Forrest County, Mississippi], and upon returning home from that event that Sunday evening, I recall sitting on the edge of the wood box that sat next to the fireplace. And sitting there on that wood box, I saw Victoria marching up that aisle in that auditorium as I had observed that graduating class do that Sunday afternoon. And I knew beyond a reasonable doubt that at some point I was going also to march up that aisle. Indelibly implanted in my mind at that point was the vision, the dream, the intention of marching up that aisle.
Now, probably most of you will think, what's so big about that? Well, in the part of the country that I grew up in, even in 1945, which is when I graduated from high school, my high school class numbered fifteen. Now, we started out like any other group of children entering the public school system; the room was full of children. But very, very few of them completed high school. And I emphasize this because I think it is of the utmost importance. The ability to envision what it is you want is of the utmost importance. Because that is the beginning of what's going to be happening in your future. Never downplay the importance of dreaming, of visioning, and then believing in that and latching onto it.
I was a rather controversial child, I guess. I frequently disagreed with my peers and fell out of favor with my elders in the classroom and elsewhere and I guess it had something to do with the fact that I was keenly aware of the contradictions around me, and I didn't have a lot of reservations about sharing that fact.
One other thing I need to share with you is that I was told many, many times, directly and indirectly, that I was called to do important things in the community. That I must be prepared to give leadership to the people in my community. But I was also told that I would probably self-destruct quite early, and I was told that fairly frequently also. However, I feel to my credit that I was far more impressed with those whom I called "the prophets" in terms of who I would become than I was with the negative predictors, and in fact those negative predictions really strengthened my resolve to go with the expectations of the prophets.
My next turning points came in my late preteens. First I spent a year in Detroit with my parents — my father and my stepmother, Louise McKeller Jackson. My father had gone north seeking employment, he simply couldn't find any there at home, and was for the first time exposed to an open society and that was quite an experience. And I know there are loads of you who wonder, what was so open about that, but you didn't know anything about the closed society in Mississippi in which I had lived all my life up to that point. And there I was introduced to a whole new kind of a life. Who ever heard of black and white kids going to school together? I didn't know anything about that never even thought about it.
On returning from Detroit a year later, my mother and I were riding the Greyhound bus and when we got to Louisville, Kentucky, we had to change buses. So we came off the bus, we went in the bus station, we sat down to wait for the next bus or whatever, and this very lovely little old white-haired lady came over and wanted to know where we were coming from and my mom told her and then she wanted to know where we were going, and my mom told her. And then she invited us to the other waiting room. And you know, the walk out of that waiting room into the other waiting room was really traumatic, even after one short year. The turning point that took place in my life at that time was nobody is ever going to convince me that I'm less than anybody else — that was a decision that I consciously made at that time.
And the other came a little later when I was back home in the black school with the black classmates and schoolmates and teachers. As I said earlier, I frequently didn't get along too well with my peers, and was told that some of the teachers felt threatened by me. So, to make a long story short, I was a misfit in that community that I was born in and grew up in.
As a result of that I frequently got my name taken for things that I didn't do and, of course, when you got your name taken, you got punished for that. I remember very vividly the last time that I permitted that to happen. I was called up for something and I asked what was my name on the list for, and they said, "You were talking, girl." I had not been talking, I had been sitting there reading, and so I said, "I wasn't talking." She said, "Come on up here, girl." So I went on up there and she said, "Put your hand out" And I said, "I wasn't talking." She said, "Put your hand out, girl." I had been taught to obey, so I put my hand out. She had a big board and she hit me in my hand and she didn't do it tenderly. And I took my hand down and she said, "Put it back up, girl." So I put it back up and she hit it again, and I took it down. She said, "Put it back up," and I said, "I'm not putting it back up. I'm not ever again going to allow anybody to punish me for something I didn't do, I'm going to resist." I didn't say that to her, but that was what I meant, that's what I did, that's what I said to myself, and that became another turning point in my life — not to passively cooperate, to allow people to punish me for that which I did not do. Well, there's much more, but I really must move on.
In the interim, I fulfilled the dream from the wood box, I finished high school, I entered college, but that process was aborted by a lack of funds for me to continue. I got married. I entered the teaching profession briefly. I lived in other areas of the country, traveled and lived outside of the country for a while, became a mother, returned to this country, and had to seek employment. At this point, I knew that I had to have employment but I wasn't willing to leave my small children on an eight to five basis and so I became a businesswoman, and that gave me flexibility.
And this is where I was when the civil rights movement came into full bloom. I was at this time living in Mississippi. I had my own business and was really enjoying it because I was able to recruit and encourage people to participate in financial freedom, and I thought we were doing a great job. It was very fulfilling to help people break loose from the kitchens and the yards and the other places where they labored simply because there was nowhere else to labor.
And then a couple of young men, really teenagers, came to Hattiesburg. Those young men were very dear to my heart, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes. And there was a meeting called in my area. This meeting took place at the St John Methodist Church. Now, the St John Methodist Church was probably the least of these. When these young men came into Hattiesburg I think they came into Hattiesburg fully expecting a great welcome, with the churches open to them, where they could go out and share their mission with the people in the community and all would go well. Well, the only thing that opened up to them was the St John Methodist Church, which I happened to be a member of.
That night we gathered there at St John's and the Reverend Ponder prepared the audience for what was about to take place. Then he introduced these two young men, who shared their mission with the people there, and then offered the altar call, the invitation for people to come and participate in seeking first-class citizenship. I saw Reverend Ponder's hand go up and then my hand went up, and in the few brief moments that it took for me to get my hand up, I had another vision, another turning point. Because somehow intuitively I knew that my entire life was going to be changed as a result of this. I knew that I might even lose my life because of raising my hand, but I knew that I had to do what I had done, and that brought the most important turning point in my life.
And as we began to go on this new journey, this journey where we were seeking that most basic of all freedoms, I felt like I had come home. There was the fear that you've heard mentioned time and time again, absolutely, scared stiff many, many times, but in no way did I ever consider turning back. Some other conscientious objectors were also in Mississippi: Hollis Watkins, Curtis Hayes, Lawrence Guyot, and many others, and, of course, some others had made it prior to my time and these all came together for me there at St John's that night when I raised my hand.
Another turning point that I'd like to share with you came one night at the Starlight Baptist Church. COFO was in the midst of really opening things up in south Mississippi. The call had gone out to the religious community of the country to come and make their witness there and so we had expected twenty-some ministers to come in, and to our surprise, by the end of the day I think we may have had something like a hundred plus there. And, we didn't have anywhere to put them because at this point people were not yet liberated enough in our parts to be willing to open up their homes, and we didn't dare put them into the motels or hotels. So most of these people stayed in either Victoria and Tony Gray's home or they stayed in the home of relatives of Victoria Gray.
We would all gather around at night to share our experiences of what had happened during the day. And even though these people had come in for a very short time, a one-shot commitment, after the first day many of them realized that they couldn't just walk away. We're at the Starlight Baptist Church this particular night and I was feeling the pressure myself knowing that many of these people needed to be leaving but were reluctant to go and yet knew they had to go and I was saying to myself, "More local people have got to become involved, because these people can't stay here and march for us: we have to march for ourselves."
So I was up talking to the people in the Starlight Church and I was telling them how wonderful it was to have these people come and share our journey and fight with us and for us and all that, but trying to say we too have got to do something. And then all of a sudden I remembered someone else who had preceded me in this stance, in the scripture from Isaiah. "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord," and further down it says, "And I heard him say, 'Whom shall I send, whom can we send and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I, send me, I'll go'" (Isaiah 6:8). And all of a sudden I found myself standing there saying that and realizing that it wasn't what somebody else said; at that moment it was my word of truth. And so I said to my fellow citizens there in Starlight Church that night what I now say to you: "I heard the call, 'Who will go?' And I said, 'Here am I, send me, I'll go.'" And so it was and so it is, and so shall it ever be.
What happened as a result of that decision on my part I think is representative of the many other decisions that were being made across Mississippi at tliat time, in the same way and in the same manner.
See Hattiesburg MS Movement for web links.
Copyright © Victoria Gray Adams. 1988