Reflections on Racial Progress in Mississippi:1964 Freedom Summer and Rosedale Mississippi 1979
By Ivory Phillips
Vol. 2, No. 4, 1980, pp. 12-16
Editor’s Note: In October 1979 a conference was held in Jackson, Mississippi to commemorate and assess the civil rights activities in the state during the summer of 1964. Known as Freedom Summer, it played an important part in changing the old system of segregation. It brought about 1,000 volunteers into the state to help in political organizations, to set up “freedom schools” and to bring national attention to conditions in Mississippi. It was a summer filled with violence, resulting in the murders of the three civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
The four-day conference brought back together many of the summer’s participants. Following in the next pages, two writers give their impressions of the conference and reflect upon the conditions in Mississippi and the country 15 years after.
In October 1979 Tougaloo and Millsaps Colleges in Jackson Mississippi hosted and Robert McElvaine co-ordinated a conference examining and commemorating Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964. Like many other well-packaged media presentations in the past five years, this was a show-piece to reveal how much progress the state has made. Fortunately or unfortuiately, most of the sessions revealed how little has actually changed since 1964.
Racial progress can be viewed in a then and now comparative manner. When done this way the 1964 Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Movement, out of which it grew, loom larger than life. Such a progress report would read well.
Prior to the 1950s lynchings were common and police brutality prevalent. It was the period of the mid-50s and 60s that many nationally-publicized slayings took place Emmett Till, Mack Charles Parker, Rev. George Lee, Vernon Dehmer, and Medgar Evers. It also happened that thousands of Blacks left the Mississippi delta fleeing racial violence, and seeking economic improvement. Middle age and elderly Blacks who migrated from the state reveal today that they still have fears of Mississippi. Most are surprised at the changes they see when they visit the state today. Lynchings are now a rarity – due in large part to new laws and exposure by the national press.
Before the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement there was little semblance of justice in Mississippi courts. There were very few Black lawyers and court witnesses were treated disrespectfully. Punishments for White on Black crime were almost non-existent while punishments for Black on White crime were swift and severe. This was the era when Elmer Kimball, Bryon de la Beckwith, J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant, and other Whites went free while a 14year-old Black boy was lynched for allegedly whistling at a White woman.
The climate has changed somewhat. There are now many more Black lawyers in Jackson and in the various legal services offices and a little more justice, thanks to these lawyers and the Supreme Court.
The majority of Blacks worked on farms or as personal servants, with a large minority of teachers, ministers and small businessmen before 1964. Pay scales and work assignments for Blacks were most often degrading. Labor unions were almost non-existent. Businesses and public agencies did not have Blacks above menial positions.
Today as a result of federal laws Blacks are in most agencies and most are no longer on the farm. There is also strong support for the AFL-CIO and teacher’s unions.
No longer are there “White only” signs sporting public establishments. Blacks do not have to keep on driving when they need to use a public toilet, happen to be hungry or sleepy.
The days of segregated schools are gone. The vast majority of Mississippi children now attend integrated schools. There are no more hand-me-down books and equipment for Black schools.
Prior to the mid-60s only about 22,000 Blacks were attempting to vote. In most counties fear and discriminatory laws kept Blacks away from the polls, and, except for the all Black town of Mound Bayou, Blacks did not hold public offices.
As a result of the Civil Rights Movement and federal laws, over 500,000 Blacks are now voting. There are now over 600 Black elected officials. And, White candidates court rather than ridicule Black voters.
These reflections of racial progress hide many continuing injustices. If racial progress is to be
discussed, the negatives as well as thepositives must be addressed. Rosedale, Mississippi, selected as a case study on racial progress in Mississippi, is for this reason much more typical than Jackson, Mount Bayou, Biloxi, or even Vicksburg.
Rosedale is located in northwest Mississippi, on the banks of the Mississippi river. Its population of 2,600 is mostly poor, mostly rural, and mostly Black.
Like the rest of Mississippi, Rosedale was slave country. Like the rest of Mississippi, Whites quickly returned to power after Reconstruction. Along with White rule came other characteristics of the rural American South.
This overwhelmingly Black town had long had two schools – one Black and one White. They were strictly segregated, with Blacks getting second-hand equipment and materials from the White school. Black teachers were paid less. As late as 1960 the per capita educational expenditure for Black children was $2.32 while that for White children was $125.10. There was often friction between Black and White students. School officials assumed that Black students were intellectually inferior to Whites. Consequently, physics, economics, and trigonometry were dropped from the Black school curriculum and replaced by health, sociology, and business arithmetic. Finally, Black administrators were subservient to White ones.
Since the schools were integrated in 1970 there is now only one school. Nevertheless, since that time the system has lost its Black junior and senior high school principals. No Black has been appointed superintendent nor served on the school board. The previously White school retained its name and became the senior high school. Discipline for Black and White students is arbitrarily different, with Blacks being dealt with more harshly especially through expulsions and suspensions. Because Blacks would dominate, there is no longer any viable parent-teacher association.
Even in the midst of integration there is segregation. The percentage of Black teachers in the system declined as White former bus drivers, postal clerks and aides have been hired. Some White students have left the public schools to attend all-White private academies. Many Black students have been arbitrarily placed in special education classes where there are very few White students.
Prior to 1964 the overwhelming majority of Blacks in Rosedale were farmers-plantation dwellers and day laborers. They were paid 34 percent of the per capita wages for the state and earned slightly more than $1,000 for the eightmonth working year. Other Blacks earned slightly more as maids and as personal servants. At the top of the economic ladder were the $2700 teachers, the $2400 preachers, and the “lucky” businessmen. The businessmen generally operated barber shops, beauty shops, funeral parlors, grocery stores, and auto repair shops.
In those early days, Whites generally worked at different jobs. Even those doing the same work grocery store, saw mill, factory – received higher pay than Blacks. With few available jobs, most Blacks lived in poverty and depended upon welfare and/or social security. The welfare payments were always small and different for Blacks and Whites.
The biggest economic change witnessed in Rosedale during the 60s had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. That change was agricultural mechanization which required far fewer Black laborers. Now 44 percent of the Black population lives in poverty. It also paved the way for more industry. Consequently, today there are as many factory workers as farm workers in Rosedale. And, although the pay differentials are gone, job assignments and promotions place Blacks at a disadvantage. Even in 1969 Black median family income was $2,534 compared to a White median family income of $8,129.
Black businesses are still confined to small, single proprietor juke joints, barber shops, beauty shops, auto repair shops, and the like.
One Black factory worker who was born in Rosedale summed up the economic condition in this manner. “They built a new steel factory but that didn’t help the job situation much. Young people are still leaving as soon as they get out of school.”
It is almost as if the justices in the Plessey v. Ferguson decision were speaking directly to the ruling fathers of Rosedale. From that day until some years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all public facilities and accommodations were strictly segregated. Those which did not have separate White and Black sections were generally open to Whites only.
In those areas where visible signs were not erected, the adamant, insulting attitude of proprietors and patrons were quite sufficient to maintain the desired order of things. In addition to public places, churches were strictly segregated unless some prominent White attended a function at a Black church and occupied a place of honor. Finally, if any White person ever ventured into a Black home it was as a bill collector, legal authority or some paternalistic figure. On the other hand, if any Black person ever ventured into a White home it was as a worker and by the back door.
As one visits Rosedale today there is virtually no evidence of segregation in public places.There are still, however, all-White private academies for elementary and high school children. Church services are still segregated. And, there still exists the all-White private Walter Sillers Memorial Park and the all-White V.F.W. The private vestiges of segregation seem to suggest that the people are still segregationists at heart. They are only integrated out of fear or respect for the law.
Closely akin to the segregationist attitude of Whites has been the submissive attitudes of Blacks. At stores and other commercial establishments Blacks stood back while Whites were given first service. Regardless of ages, Whites addressed Blacks as “boy”, “girl”, “uncle”, and “aunt”, while Blacks addressed Whites as “Mr.” and “Miss” and answered with “yes sir”, “no sir”, “yes m’am” and “no m’am”. Blacks were also careful not to offend a White person in speech, looks, nor gestures.
Under such conditions it is not surprising that few genuine friendships were formed across racial lines. At the same time, however, White men frequently took sexual advantage of maids, field workers, debtors and other Black women. During that early period the abuse was so prevalent that one elderly Black woman expressed her contempt for White men in the following manner. “They are worse than dogs. They want to go to bed with a colored woman for little of nothing but kill that same woman’s son and dump him in the river.”
Today walking along the streets of Rosedale one can bear the same expressions of submissive respect tt Black’s have for Whites and the condescending disrespect that Whites have for Blacks. It is fair to say, however, that it is not nearly as prevalent among Black adolescents as it had been prior to the 1960s.
There are still very few interracial friendships. And, although the incidents are not as numerous nor as flagrant as previously, there are still cases wherein White men sexually exploit Black women.
There is still much evidence of Black fear of Whites. This is true whether the White person is a law enforcement officer, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, orjust an angry average citizen. This fear was contrasted by a recently appointed Black official in Rosedale who said these Blacks won’t obey any Black policemen. But when we had only White policemen they dared not act the way they do now.
Looking back to the period of Reconstruction one finds that America’s first full term Black senator was from Rosedale. The town also produced in the 1870s two Black lawyers, one Black judge, one Black sheriff, one Black superintendent of education, and several state senators and legislators who were Black. That was one hundred years ago.
After Reconstruction only a handful of Black preachers and teachers were permitted to vote. Discriminatory laws, the Ku Klux Klan and adamantly racist attitudes turned back virtually all Blacks before 1964. That being the case, no Blacks felt they had a chance to win any office. Blacks also did not participate in the deliberations of the Democratic party. (The Republican party had been driven out of existence at the close of the l800s.)
As a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the presence of federal registrars, there are now more Black than White registered voters, 800 to 600. This improved situation has motivated
Blacks to run in almost every election since 1969. They recently won offices as mayor and aldermen.
The revival of the White Voters League in 1979 to co-ordinate White strategies and solidify power against Black candidates, shows that attitudes have not changed. Arguments at polling places between election officers and legitimate poll watchers reveal the continued need for federal supervision. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1979, riding through the heart of town with no permits, demonstrates the fact that Whites prefer Blacks being politically powerless. As these anti-Black activities take place the words of an earlier White racist in Rosedale, speaking of White tactics to end Reconstruction, sound current: “Any trick might be employed that seemed to promise a chance of success.”
The case study of Rosedale adds a sober perspective to the much lauded racial progress in Mississippi and shows what little impact the summer and the movement had on much of the state. In Rosedale and much of the state,a small amount of behavioral change and even less attitudinal change has taken place since 1964.
Only with this irrsight can some sense be made out of the piadoxes abounding in Mississippi today. Robert Earl May, a Black youth of 14 can be sentenced to life in the penitentiary without parole on charges of armed robbery-while progress is claimed because Reuben Anderson is appointed a county judge. The Ku Klux Klan can ride through the heart of town and the headquarters of Black legislative candidate Judy Gambrel can be bombed while progress is claimed because the teachers associations have integrated. Campaign workers for county supervisor candidate Benny Thompson can be fired by the incumbent but progress is claimed because the legislature was reluctantly re-apportioned. Paternalistic and opportunistic Whites can attempt to re-write the history of the 1964 Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Movement while progress is claimed because such a conference can take place peacefully involving Blacks and Whites.
Ivory Phillips is chairman of the Social Science Department at Jackson State University.