The Movement Remembered: “Like A Banked Fire”
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, pp. 8-13
Worth Long: When did you first realize that there was a need for civil rights change, for change in the state of Mississippi?
Aurelia Norris Young: Even before my children were born. I noticed that there were no parks or playgrounds or libraries. We could not get into the Scouts, Boy Scouts nor Girl Scouts. I really didn’t want to rear my children in Jackson. But my husband was from Mississippi, and in spite of efforts of my father to get him transferred to Ohio, he said he’d rather stay. So I began to work in the community to get activities for children.
We started a little library on Farish Street, by donating our own used books and buying used books. That was the time that I realized that the black community needed more than we had.
I was mainly interested in starting a music program. There was no degree program for music in the state. I began working at Tougaloo. They promised that they were going to set up a program, and did not. So the president of Jackson State promised that if I’d come there, he’d set up a music program. So I moved to Jackson State, stayed there thirty years.
It was not a university then and I was simply one of two music teachers. We taught practically thirty hours a week. We had to do everything, even going out recruiting students for the program.
Jackson State had a laboratory school and I took my children with me everywhere I went. They went to the nursery on campus, and elementary school. My husband was working at the post office and making shoes at night. So he got home very late, I was young and it didn’t seem like such a big job then. I couldn’t do it now.
As in many black communities in the South, our community of black people was self-contained. We seldom had to go to the white community for anything. Very little contact, so I really did not know what we could do. We worked trying to get things for that little small community.
Long: You said your husband was born in Mississippi. What was his name and where was he born, and under what circumstances?
Young: Jack Harvey Young. He was the third child in a family of four. His mother was a widow. His father died when he was nine. He worked after school to help her support the other children.
He was a postman for twenty-five years. One day I saw two law books and found out that his desire was to study law. I kept insisting that he study, but we couldn’t find any school in the South that would take a black person. So he read law under Sidney Redmond in St. Louis. He read at night. He would come in from his work, eat, rest and about ten o’clock get up and study. When he passed the bar in the Fifties he began practicing right away. Those were hard times for us. We felt that if you were to work in the post office and practice law on the side, you would always be known as the postman rather than the lawyer. But, it was fortunate because when the civil rights movement came he was available to help.
Long: How many other attorneys in the city would take civil rights cases?
Young: There were only two others. Carsie Hall, and R. Jess Brown. Carsie and my husband went all through high school together and they studied together, Carsie passed the bar a year later.
Long: So that meant how many black attorneys in the state of Mississippi?
Young: At that time I think there were five or six. One in Mound Bayou, one in Meridian who was quite aged and these three. But only the three here in Jackson took civil rights cases. So they ran all over the state.
Long: Do you remember during those years who was able to register and vote? What were the prerequisites?
Young: There had been people who had been registering in the city of Jackson for many, many years without problems. But in the rural areas and in the towns smaller than Jackson they could not register. Prerequisites varied from city to city. It depended on who was asking the questions. How many buttons on your clothes, recite the constitutions. So there was no such standards, but the main idea was to ask the questions they could not answer.
Long: How did change happen when it did come?
Young: I suppose it’s like a banked fire, and just suddenly it breaks out. That’s the way it happened in Jackson. It started here with nine students at Tougaloo in March, 1961, sitting-in at the public library. They were arrested. My husband got them out of jail right away, and they were to appear for trial the next day.
Now we didn’t have any papers, so the grapevine got around. We could get news out within five minutes. You just called one of the schools and tell the teachers and they would tell the children, and they would tell the parents, or call the ministers, they would call their people. It was very effective. So, the next day, people were standing on the courthouse lawn. Students from Millsaps College (a white Methodist school) decided they were going to march in sympathy and meet the Jackson State students at the courthouse.
The Millsaps students were turned around without incident. The black students were chased through a ravine that ran through the city. They were sprayed with tea gas. At the courthouse the police brought dogs, people were bitten and some were beaten. That was the beginning. I think that prepared us for the actions of the Freedom Rides in May of that same year.
Long: What effect do you think the Freedom Rides had on the consciousness of the people in Jackson?
Young: Well, the whites were angry. The blacks were complacent; we didn’t feel involved at first. It was as if we were onlookers. Gradually we became involved. Later in the summer there were demonstrations by high school students, trying to integrate the parks and the playgrounds. When your own children are threatened, you become actively involved. And that drew the entire community into it.
Long: What role did you play during the demonstrations?
Young: I started out as more of a secretary, answering telephone calls. Arrests were happening so fast. Trying to keep in touch with my husband and letting him know who was arrested and where. And simultaneously, things began to break out in the smaller communities throughout the state. He was running from here and there trying to get people out on bail and raising bail.
I began collecting toilet articles, dietary supplements for the students in jail and began to draw many other people into the movement. I would solicit things from the grocery stores and drugstores and those people became interested and involved.
During the middle of the summer, there were more than three-hundred Freedom Riders. I gave telephone information to parents of the out-of-state students who were arrested. The first ones who came in were from colleges. So the colleges were calling–Cornell, Rutgers, Oberlin. Then reporters came. We had them as far as Europe and Canada. Then we began to receive them into our homes as well as the religious people from the schools, the deans and that sort of thing. Then lawyers were constantly coming in. In the late summer, legal groups were sent down to relieve my husband and R. Jess Brown and Carsie Hall. So they stayed at my house.
It was not long before we began to get the threatening and obscene phone calls. They would count down my husband’s life. So that summer we sent our children away.
Later on, I began to write letters after the students were
sent to Parchman, the state penitentiary. They’d send one group in, another would come out. They all bathed and dressed in our home and I’d feed them. Some would leave right away; some would stay two or three days. By talking to them, I found out the conditions in Parchman. So, being a mother and knowing how worried parents were, I would write to the parents.
Long: Did this event happen before the so-called “fairground incident?”
Young: The “fairground incident” happened when several hundred high school students had a demonstration. There were so many of them, the police took them down in trucks and placed them on the fairgrounds. They were mostly local people who had been sitting in at the municipal zoo, in the parks and swimming pools. They were trying to integrate the recreational facilities. But they were just caught up in all of the civil rights activities. They would attend the meetings we had almost nightly. They heard the appeals from the churches for money. They had the natural exuberance of young people. And they were about to get out of school that summer.
The police put them in the cattle pens where the stock fairs were held. It was hot. But, there again I think their youth stood them in good stead. I doubt that older people could have stood that kind of treatment, but the young people are a little more resilient.
During that period a lot of notable black figures came down, Medgar brought them down for a weekend: fighters, singers, ball players. We found homes for them in the city. We had mass meetings. The people in the community, some of whom had never taken part, were thrilled to say, “Well, Marguirette Belafonte is staying at my house.” That made them an integral part of the movement.
One little sidelight. Gloster Current of the NMCP and I, just talking one day, decided that there ought to be something we could do to shake up the white community. During that time hootenanny’s were very popular. And they were about to have a big hootenanny that fall at the Mississippi State Fair. So I wrote to Delta Sigma Theta, my sorority, and asked them if they could put some pressure on the booking agencies to ask these performers not to perform at the Fair. So the hootenanny singers as well as several opera singers and actors agreed not to perform. And the State Fair had a terrible time trying to find entertainers. And this was all done with a letter to Delta. It made the white community know that we had some strings to pull outside of the state.
Whenever I needed money I always wrote to Delta Sigma Theta, and they always came through. For instance, when the farmers were thrown off the land in the Delta for registering to vote and they moved into tents, we found out that they were without winter clothes and that they were needing food. The winter rains had set in. They didn’t have boots and raincoats and blankets and clothing. I called the national office of Delta and they sent money to provide those things for them.
Long: Were there other community or social institutions that were in support of the movement at that time?
Young: Not at first. I became ill and couldn’t feed the people coming out of Parchman. My husband sent me to New Orleans to rest. Then they fed them at the Episcopal church. Then a group called Church Women United took over that role and I had only the lawyers and reporters and the religious leaders to feed.
Long: What about local colleges, what was their role in social change in the sixties?
Young: Tougaloo played a very important role, and Campbell College, the AME school. When the students came back for arraignment there were more than three hundred of them. They were housed on the college campuses. Jackson State played no part in the movement at all. Sadly enough, they were in the best position to have used the Lynch street and the offices there as a laboratory, but they did not.
Long: Was this because Jackson State was a state university, and because of President Reddix and his policy.
Young: Probably so.
Long: But, you had the full confidence of the students at Jackson State?
Young: Oh yes, I had taught many of their mothers and fathers, so they knew me, and having had musical groups, I performed all over the state in their churches, and in the recruitment drives. Then, my husband had a very imposing manner, he was tall and always well dressed, and he became an image for many of the students. He went around to all the towns. It had been years since a black had passed the bar. He was called on to give commencement speeches, and speak at lodges and churches. So he was well known throughout the state. So I was either simply “lawyer Young’s wife” or “Mrs. Young the music teacher.”
You have to remember that back in the thirties and forties there were few positive black images in Mississippi, men or women, because we had no newspapers, we had no TV, no radio. And I was surprised in these late years to find out that we were models. So, they did listen to me. And, I suppose anybody who teaches extra-curricular classes has an entree to students’ thoughts. I had a listening laboratory and they would be listening and of course not realizing that when they were talking to one another that I could hear, that they were shouting. So I knew all about their private lives. I suppose a coach would have had the same kind of influence.
Long: So you were able, based on your understanding of the larger society, to direct them in a way so that they could stay alive and survive?
Young: Yes. And then I had more intimate knowledge as to what was happening legally by the lawyers being in my house. And I think they had a little faith in my knowledge of what was going on.
Long: Were there particular incidents where students might have been killed?
Young: I remember they were about to demonstrate one day. There had been a series of demonstrations in the city, and down at the jail my husband had said the mood of the cops was just one of anger. They were called in to extra duty. And I suppose without extra pay. He had said, “I believe somebody’s going to get killed because the cops are very very angry.”
A student ran into my room about 5:30 that afternoon and told me that the students were about to go out into the streets. The cops were lined up on either side of Lynch street.
I ran up to the president’s office, where he and the business manager were in conference. I told him what was happening and that we should stop them cause some of them were going to get hurt. He said, “I’ve done all that I can do, if they just want to do that it’s up to them.” And they both got into the president’s car and drove off.
I ran up on the campus, and they were all massing themselves on the dining hall steps. And I pushed my way to the front where they had a microphone, and I began to shame the leaders, I said “You gonna stand up here, and send those other people out in the streets.” I asked the other students, “Where is your head? You know they are gonna send you out there first and see what happens to you and they might bring up the rear.”
The students began to laugh. And they didn’t go out.
I came home one day from school and my son was sitting on the porch, he and his friend. Now they were in high school, and tears were running down their cheeks. I asked him why he was crying. He said “This is tear gas. Policemen are down the street shooting tear gas.”
Well there was a barricade in front of my house because I lived at the end of my street, and policemen were there. That was to keep people from going into town. I never felt such anger before in my life. It felt like my body had just blown up as a balloon. And I stood out on the steps and tried to curse–I’m not a cursing woman. They only thing I could think of was “damned stupid cops,” and I said that over-and over and over. I wanted them to shoot me or do something. I was always fearful of what my own anger would do.
Long: Who were some of the Jackson movement figures, those persons who were in leadership from the early movement?
Young: Well, mostly the people who raised the bail. Now of course, Medgar Evers, field secretary of the NAACP, was the leader. And there was Rev. R.L.T. Smith and Houston Wells; and Mr. Broadwater who is now a federal marshal. The ministers of course, the ministerial alliance.
Long: Was there a general strategy on the part of the local leadership?
Young: No, we took things as they came. That first summer things were just popping out so fast, we tried to rise to every occasion.
Long: What about Medgar Evers and his basic strategies? Did the NAACP on a local and state level seem to have a basic approach for change?
Young: I remember a strategy meeting at our house a little later in the movement, trying to decide about putting up somebody to run for office. And it. was decided at that time not to try for any of the major offices or for the legislature, but to try to put black people in some of the small town offices where blacks had to go daily. Blacks were treated so harshly in courthouses and by the highway patrol and police that we felt it would be better to concentrate in each city. For a long time we didn’t have anybody in the legislature and later, only one. But we were concentrating on the minor offices. In Jackson we were asking, under Medgar’s leadership, for school crossing guards, for policemen and later for firemen.
These were some of the demands given to the mayor. We had a mayor then, Allen Thompson, who had been in office many years. The city was controlled by him and his cohorts. We didn’t have street lights in black neighborhoods. Many of the streets were unpaved. At that time there were even a few outdoor toilets.
Most black people would go to town only to get what they needed and come back. The buses were segregated, but few people rode them. There were certain stores where you could try on clothing, hat and shoes and dresses and others that would let you take them home and try them on. No restaurants were open, no lunch counters. But as I said, our community was almost self-contained. There was seldom much need to go downtown. Farish Street was our main street and West Jackson had developed quite a few businesses. There were small restaurants and shoe shops and things. I suppose this would have been found in most Southern cities.
Long: Would you talk about your remembrances of Medgar Evers during this period?
Young: Well, I remember him as a very gentle kind of person. He was in and out of our house quite often, had many a meal there. I knew his wife, Myrlie, fairly well, not as well as we knew Medgar, and of course, we’d met the children. He was very level-headed, not overly emotional. I thought he was a fine person, and would have liked to have him for a friend even without the civil rights movement.
Long: When did you last see him before his assassination?
Young: It was the night that he was killed. I had some lawyers staying at my house. Gloster Current was there and Frank Reeves from Washington. I had been ill. Medgar came by, it must have been about 10:30 or near 11:00 and said he was hungry because he hadn’t eaten all day. I told him that I didn’t have any leftovers–people were always
bringing us a ham or turkey or something. So he said, “Well, I’ll just go on home.”
About that time the telephone rang. Gloster got it. My husband was calling from the office and said that they had run out of mimeograph paper. Medgar said he had some paper at the office; he’d go get it and drop it by on his way home.
The next time the telephone rang, it was Myrlie, and she just screamed at me, “Oh, Medgar’s been shot!”
I really didn’t think he’d had time to get home. But they say he didn’t stay long at the office. Must have been about a quarter of twelve then.
I called a friend whose son was a physician. She got so excited she dropped the phone and I couldn’t call anybody out. I ran next door to the hotel and they got in touch with lack and the other lawyers, and he said, “Don’t go, we’ll come by and pick you up.” I didn’t realize until then that there might have been any danger to us.
So we drove out to the house. The children had been taken across the street to neighbors at once. They had just taken Medgar to the hospital, so Barbara Morris and I stayed with Myrlie. We tried to keep her busy, helping her gather up his things to take to the hospital.
She kept walking. She’d walk outdoors, and there was this big pool of blood, and I know she didn’t know what she was doing, but she would manage to step over the blood. She would not step in it.
Barbara and I followed every footstep she made, then later the men came to say that Medgar had died.
That was one of the most horrible things during my lifetime cause I never knew there was so much blood in a human body. I’d never seen anybody killed before. And I didn’t know that blood was thick. It was just like somebody had poured a lot of jelly in the driveway.
I didn’t go to his funeral. But a lot of people gathered at my house and I fed them. Houston Wells, in the furniture business’ brought a freezer to my house and several grocerymen filled it up with food. The chef at Jackson State would periodically bake a large ham or turkey for me.
I remember so many people being in my house that day. They were sitting everywhere, on the beds and everything. Eating from plates in their laps. The phone rang and we heard that the students were demonstrating downtown–this was after the memorial service. John Doar, a lawyer with the Justice Department, threw his plate down and jumped in somebody’s car and went down. He walked down the middle of the street and calmed the students. At that point we all felt we didn’t want any more bloodshed.
Long: What was the effect of Medgar’s death on people in Jackson?
Young: There was a smoldering resentment. People were angry. At first there was shock and then the smoldering kind of anger set in.
Things were happening concurrently. I suppose everything grew out of Medgars Evers’ death, and yet we had deaths following that.
I believe the whites began to feel ashamed, and when they act for the good, whether out of shame or fear or guilt, I think the results are the same. There were many white people who, I suppose, decried what was happening all along, but they didn’t come out. They were as repressed as black people. Then they began to get together in some of the white churches. Began to identify each other much as we did. We began to identify those who were really with the movement and those who were not.
We had a big dog and all the neighborhood children loved him. I was surrounded on three sides by whites, but we had lived there so long. We knew everybody. And my dog would go around and play with the children, make his rounds, and the come back home.
Early one morning a little white kid came up and said, “Mrs. Young, dog catcher has your dog.”
There was an old white couple who lived around there and didn’t like children or dogs or anybody. They had caught the dog and had pinned him up on their porch until the dog catcher came.
I went around the corner and there was a police car. I was there by the time the dog catcher arrived. When he ran to get the dog, I braced myself. He drew back his hand as if he was going to hit me. My daughter came around the corner and screamed, and of course that brought people out. A policeman came up and wanted to know what the trouble was. I thought they were taking me to jail. I said, “Okay, I live right around the corner. I’ll get my toothbrush and I’ll come with you.”
They just cruised along slowly while we were walking back with the dog following us. They opened the car door and the dog jumped into the police car. He liked to ride. I wanted to kill the dog.
This was all before nine in the morning. I called my husband and he went down and got the dog out. Later he told me that he went to the chief of police and told him that he didn’t want his family harrassed because of his work. The chief told him nothing would happen to us unless we committed a serious crime. We didn’t tell the children, because we could see our boys speeding and running stop lights just to see if they would get picked up.
So I had the assurance that they were not going to harrass me. However, I did have FBI agents. I would go to the store and they would appear from nowhere. That was the first time I realized that they had black agents. We’d had them since Medgar’s death because the rumor had gone out that they were going to kill my husband, Reverend Smith and the other leaders. Five of them were on a hit list.
I’d go to the store and I’d look around and there’d be a person standing. Our community is so small that we knew strangers. And they looked like FBI people. Before I’d get home, there’d be another one and then they would disappear.
I guess I was fearful, apprehensive, but not anymore than I’d been when Jack would go out in the little towns. He had a couple of murder cases where I just knew he was going to get killed before he got back. I guess that sort of prepared me. Then we went over to Birmingham and I talked with the black lawyers’ wives over there. I admired them. Mrs. [unclear]ores’ house had been bombed. I think that helped me to at least put up a show of being fearless. But after a while you get so that you aren’t afraid of the fear.
The following edited interview with Ms. Aurelia Norris Young (born 1915 in Knoxville, Kentucky) chronicles her involvement in the 1960s’ Jackson, Mississippi freedom struggle. Ms. Young is currently president of the J.C. Maxwell Group, minority operators of WMPR-FM, a Mississippi public radio station scheduled to begin broadcasting within the next few weeks from Tougaloo, Mississippi. Worth Long of the SRC’s Civil Rights Radio Project continues in this interview a series documenting the modern civil rights movement in the Deep South.