Itta Bena and Elsewhere
Volunteer: Mississippi 1964 & Louisiana 1965 (2018)
During the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, I lived and worked in Itta Bena, Leflore County. I worked on voter registration and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with project leader Willie McGee and fellow volunteer John Lyon Paul.
In the spring of 1965 I went with a group from UC Berkeley Campus CORE to work with the local CORE organization in Bogalusa, Louisiana.
A group of us had driven from Berkeley to Bogalusa to work with the local CORE organization. Once I was in [Robert] Hicks's house, and I went into one of the rooms facing the front lawn and the street. One of the young women who had come with us from Berkeley was sitting there watching the street and holding a loaded revolver. I asked her what she was doing, and she said she was watching for the Klan. I have no idea where she got that revolver from. I'm certain that she didn't bring it from Berkeley, and I doubt that she had ever touched a firearm before in her life. I went to Hicks and told him that I was more afraid of being accidentally shot by her than of being deliberately shot by the Klan. He took the revolver away from her.
I met Charles Sims and other members of the Deacons self-defense organization. Once I was riding at night in a car with one of the younger Deacons. He stopped, and when we opened the door to get out the overhead light went on. I had a sudden jolt of fear. In Mississippi we had removed the bulbs from the overhead lights so that we wouldn't be well-illuminated targets when we got out of cars at night. I hesitated mentioning this to the Deacon, because I didn't want to be telling him his business, but fear is a powerful motivator, so I told him anyhow. His face immediately registered a combination of realization and horror, and he had the bulb out of that overhead light in seconds. Then he thanked me for the advice.
Also, for the record, I would like to correct the false information given in Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, p. 371-2. He describes the failed attempt on 25 June 1964 to run me and the other volunteer, John Lyon Paul, out of town, and concludes by saying words to the effect that one of us was so unnerved that he got Willie McGee to drive him to St Louis. It's true that we drove to St Louis, but this was weeks later, at the end of our stay in Mississippi. That Branch's version is false can be seen by reading David Halberstam's 3 July 1964 article in the NY Times (p. 8), which shows that both of us were still in Itta Bena on 2 July, a week after the incident. Also, on 16 July 1964, we appeared before the Federal Grand Jury in Oxford, Mississippi, to testify about the 25 June incident.
Branch said that "an armed posse hijacked" us from a railroad track. We were not on the railroad track. We were walking on a road that ran along the railroad tracks. "Posse" is dramatic, but a slight exaggeration when applied to a group of three men. They were not armed. I think one of them had a shotgun in the gun rack in the cab of his pickup truck, but that, in my opinion, did not make them armed. In rural Mississippi, seeing a pickup with a shotgun in a rack in the cab was no more unusual than seeing a pickup with four wheels.
Finally, we were held at a gas station, but not "under shotgun." No firearms were ever brandished or handled during the incident.
And, as I explained previously, the panicked trip to St Louis is bogus. It all makes for a dramatic story, but the reality was more mundane, although not without its potential hazards. When they first accosted us, I remember looking down at the dirt road to see if there were any rocks to avoid falling on, in case they physically attacked us.
Taylor Branch's footnote for this cites Willie McGee. I suppose that Willie mentioned taking us to St Louis at the end of the summer and that Branch either misread or miswrote his notes to connect the St Louis trip with the June incident.