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«“I NEVER WILL FORGET” MEMORIES FROM MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM SUMMER For seven years, the University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral History Program ...»

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“I NEVER WILL FORGET”

MEMORIES FROM MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM SUMMER

For seven years, the University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral

History Program traveled to Sunflower County to gather

interviews with witnesses to history. These are their stories.

“I Never Will Forget” 2

“I Never Will Forget” 3

“I NEVER WILL FORGET”

MEMORIES FROM MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM SUMMER

“I Never Will Forget” 4

“I Never Will Forget” 5 To those who risked their lives so that we could all be free.

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” –Fannie Lou Hamer “I Never Will Forget” 6 A Publication of the

SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM

DIRECTOR: PAUL ORTIZ

EDITED BY: SARAH BLANC

Interviewers: Anna Armitage, Sarah Blanc, Margaret Block, Cindy Bobadilla, Michael Brandon, Lauren Byers, Chelsea Carnes, Kenisha Cauley, Khambria Clarke, Amelia D’Costa, Nicole Cox, Steve Davis, Diana Dombrowski, A.J. Donaldson, Justin Dunnavant, Chris Duryea, Sarah Eiland, Candice Ellis, Diamia Foster, Derick Gomez, Michelle Gray, Christine Guerrier, Brittany Hibbert, Steve Houston, Justin Hosbey, Joanna Joseph, Genesis Lara, Jennifer Lyon, Joe Mathis, Josh Moore, Danielle Navarette, Stacey Nelson, Annemarie Nichols, Amanda Noll, Paul Ortiz, Breanne Palmer, Kathy Pierre, Dan Simone, Nailah Summers, Jessica Taylor, Caroline Vickers, Khama Jamaal Weatherspoon, Marna Weston, Kaydrianne Young Transcribers: Sarah Blanc, Diana Dombrowski, Jana Ronan Technical Direction: Deborah Hendrix Consultants: Margaret Block (Sam Block Jr. Civil Rights Organization), Stacy White (Sunflower County Civil Rights Organization) A note on the transcripts: All quotes are taken verbatim from transcribed interviews.

SPOHP does not correct for grammar or accuracy, but does omit repeated words. Words in brackets are added for clarity. Some quotes are shortened for space, as indicated by an ellipsis. Every excerpt in this booklet is followed by the name of the narrator and the catalog number for their interview. To view the entire interview in the SPOHP archive on the UF George A. Smathers Libraries Digital Collections, visit http://ufdc.ufl.edu/freedom.

Images and captions provided by Wisconsin Historical Society Freedom Summer Digital Collection: http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15932coll2 June 2014 ∙ Gainesville, Florida “I Never Will Forget” 7 “I NEVER WILL FORGET”

MEMORIES FROM MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM SUMMER

Introduction……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..9 1: The Most Southern Place on Earth………………………………………………………………………15 2: Poverty and the Plantation……………………………………………………………………………………21 3: Designing a Freedom Summer……………………………………………………..……………………..31 4: The Sunflower County Movement……………………………..………………………………………..39 5: Mass Meetings and Freedom Songs……………………………………………………………………47 6: One Man, One Vote……………………………………………………………………………………………..51 7: The Fight for Educational Equity…………………………………………………………………………..57 8: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party…………………………………………………………69 9: The Deadly Seriousness of Mississippi ………………………...…………………………….……….75 10: “I Never Will Forget”……………………………………………………………………………………………87 Further Reading…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..107

–  –  –

We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles;

it has an organic political perspective, along which it is travelling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is travelling with great speed and vigor.

— C.L.R. James (1948) The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta is older than slavery, as epic as the Homeric Classics, and as enduring as the Mississippi River. Black Mississippians have created one of the most remarkable chronicles of resistance in United States history. Hitherto hidden from view to all but the most perceptive outsiders, the struggle was unveiled in the year of Freedom Summer as well as in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the most important independent political party in American history.

To understand the origins of Freedom Summer it is necessary to go back over a century in time before 1964. There are far too many origin stories to tell in this brief space but here are a few. The role that African American soldiers from Mississippi played in the Civil War was decisive in winning the war and preserving the Union. Union Army soldiers of Lieb’s African Brigade saved General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign on June 7, 1863 by engaging in the longest bayonet engagement of the Civil War at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend. In defeating a Confederate force that had the advantage of numbers and better equipment, black soldiers vindicated Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation policy as a war measure and struck a fatal blow against the power of antebellum planters in Mississippi. Many of these troops had been slaves in the Delta region only weeks earlier. The record of black Mississipians in the struggle for freedom in the Civil





War is a story that needs a fuller accounting. Shortly after the end of the war, the National AntiSlavery Standard observed:

–  –  –

Black Union Army victories translated into political and economic advancement during Reconstruction. African Americans supported US Senators Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels as well as John R. Lynch, the first black speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. At the same time however, gains in politics and black self-assertion were tenuous. Born in 1904, Tarboro, North Carolina physician Dr. Milton Quigless shared with me the ordeal of the Page family. The Pages owned a plantation near Port Gibson, Mississippi that drew the ire of whites jealous of an African American family in possession of 600 acres of land. “One particular Page, his name was Hamp Page. He’s a bad man. He says, "Don't fool with me. I ain't going to bother you, but if you fool with me, I'm going to get back at you." And he practiced marksmanship. Threw a dime up;

hit it with his pistol. You never see that dime any more. He was that damn good. So one day, when he was in town, Port Gibson, the Page plantation was just about eight or nine miles from Port Gibson. One of them [Pages] had a run in with a white man and the white man slapped him.

So he beat the hell out of that white man.” 2 After a heated gun battle, the Pages were driven out of Clairborne Parish and fled to St. Louis.

Like their counterparts across the South, white planters engaged in a wave of terror and legal chicanery to disenfranchise African Americans in order to institute a system of economic peonage and agricultural profits. The Vicksburg Massacre cost 300 African American lives in 1874, and the vaunted “Second Mississippi Plan” served as a model of voter suppression throughout the South and a guarantor of legal segregation for decades.

Black resistance persisted. While U.J.N. Blue of Meridian urged black Mississipians to leave for Africa in 1895 in order to escape white repression, Minnie Cox, the heroic black female postmaster of Indianola stood strong against white terrorists in 1903-1904 before finally ceding her position to save her family. During World War I, African Americans voted with their feet and left the state by the tens of thousands to seek better lives in the North in spite of draconian efforts by planters to force them to stay. "Because Rev. Thomas Collins read colored newspapers when ordered not to,” the Afro-American newspaper reported in 1919, “[A]nd because he persuaded his congregation not to attend an address by a speaker who was booked to advise colored people to stay in the South, Rev. Thomas Collins, of Yazoo, Mississippi narrowly escaped a severe beating from the Klan….On the way to the whipping post, Rev. Collins escaped and walked fifty miles to Jackson, Mississippi where he took the train for Philadelphia."3 African Americans also organized against the threat of lynching. A "racial clash seems imminent late tonight" the Montgomery Advertiser reported on February, 1911 "as a result of a shotgun and pistol battel [sic] earlier in the evening between a posse of white men and a crowd of negroes. The shooting was an attempt on the part of the posse to disperse a gathering of Negroes in a house on the outskirts of Gunniston.” An anonymous letter writer warned the editor of the Belzoni newspaper in the spring of 1919 that whites would begin to suffer accordingly if they continued to engage in anti-black violence. In Vicksburg that same year, "Officials here have received many threats that the Negroes of this section intend to start riots here to kill white people in retaliation for the lynching and burning of a colored man here recently. Much uneasiness has been caused, the officials apprehend not trouble. No chances have been taken, however, for with big crowds here,the police force has been doubled, deputies are on duty, no

–  –  –

fire arms are being sold, the cross river saloons are closed and the jail has been converted into an arsenal."4 Thanks to the testimony of African Americans and the scholarship of historians including, Emilye Crosby, John Dittmer, Todd Moye, Charles Payne, Akinyele Umoja, and others, we now know that black Mississippians had been preparing the foundations of Freedom Summer for decades. Black World War II veterans, including Medgar Evers, attempted to vote shortly after the end of the war. Amzie Moore was leading voter registration campaigns in 1957 in Bolivar County.

In 1961, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized voter registration schools in McComb. That fall, Burgland High School students organized protests in solidarity with fellow student Brenda Travis, then 15-years-old, who had engaged in an act of resistance against segregation at the local Greyhound Bus Station lunch counter. The road to Freedom Summer was not a straight and easy path; it was more like water on the rock paid for by the blood sweat and tears of countless black Mississippians.

I first traveled to do field work in the Delta in the summer of 1995. Then a graduate

student at Duke University, I was a research assistant for the NEH-sponsored “Behind the Veil:

African Americans Tell About Life in the Jim Crow South.” I was part of a three-member team of graduate oral historians based at Mississippi Valley State University. We conducted most of our oral history interviews with African American elders in Greenwood and in Leflore County. One day driving on Highway 82 I took a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Indianola. I discovered then that no one is ever lost in the Mississippi Delta. I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. God must have guided me directly to Dorsey White, the owner of the service station.

When I explained what I was doing in Mississippi, Mr. White told me that I needed to interview his wife Bernice about the history of the civil rights movement in the region. Mrs. Bernice White told me a series of astonishing stories about the movement in Indianola and a portion of our interview was later published in Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Jim Crow South.

After I finished interviewing Mrs. White, I was instructed to return to Mr. White’s service station for further interview assignments. For the next week and a half, Dorsey White sent me up and down Highway 82 as well as along numerous dirt roads to conduct oral history interviews with black elders. Our method of collaboration was simple: he’d give me a name, the town the person lived in and he would call ahead to a friend in that locale. In his deep and distinctive voice, Mr. White would say: “Just pull into the first service station or store you see and tell them that I sent you.” The rest was up to me. This is where I learned how to be a historian.

In later years, I got to know Dr. Stacy White, the daughter of Bernice and Dorsey White.

Stacy became a dear friend and colleague and she invited me back to the Delta on several occasions to help document Freedom Summer reunions. As I left the University of California, Santa Cruz, to join the faculty at the University of Florida in 2008 an idea took root in our discussions: why not bring a team of students from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF to the Delta who would be able to conduct many more interviews in Indianola and environs as a team? In the meantime, we received funding in the form of a generous yearly grant from Mr. Bill DeGrove, a far-sighted alumnus of the University of Florida who believes strongly in the importance of teaching younger generations of UF students about the history of the civil rights movement. This funding makes it possible for us to take twelve students each year to the Delta and has been supplemented in recent years by campus units at the University of Florida.

"Race Riot in Mississippi," Montgomery Advertiser, February 1911.



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