‘You Have a Right . . .’ Voices from the Movement in Mississippi

‘You Have a Right . . .’ Voices from the Movement in Mississippi

Edited by George Littleton

Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, pp. 10-14

The following narratives are condensed from interviews conducted by young people from Bloodlines, regroup of black Mississippi high school students with a special interest in the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement in their area. The people they interviewed were all active in the Movement in and around Holmes County, Mississippi, which includes the communities of Lexington, Durant, and Goodman. Holmes County is deep in the Delta, along what is now north/south Interstate 55 above Jackson. The excerpts reprinted here focus on voting rights, although other signs of the times are visible which shed light on the struggle for the ballot. It is worth noting that for some of the interviewees the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1930s, and only came to a head in the Delta in the freedom summers of the early 1960s. These interviews also point up the often overlooked truth that dirt farmers and other grassroots soldiers started the Movement which only later attracted its stars. The interviews were edited by George Littleton.

Mr. T.C. Johnson

Interviewed by Jaqueline Collins & Reginald Skinner July 21, 1989. Lexington, Miss.

When I first got into the Movement, they had me like a so-called leader to encourage the others to come to meetings because a lot of people knew me. I had some influence, and I was puttin that to help where we could get on track to help the entire situation. I had seen a lot of abuse, and this made me make the effort to better conditions in Holmes County.

When I first went up to try to register to vote, it was only three of us but we was met by some of the deputies. This kinds put a little fear in your mind. Old Man Sims, who was practically blind, was in front, and the dogs was just charging at his legs, but he couldn’t see. We still had the courage to proceed into the courthouse. When we go in the courthouse we had to go in the circuit clerk’s office–that’s where we went to try to get the forms and try to fill ’em out to register to vote. We proceeded filling out the forms. It was what grade you were, how old, were you a citizen and a whole lotta questions. Some I thought was just pathetic–how many bubbles in a bar of soap? That was under Henry B. McClellan. We stayed in there so long till I was leaning on the counter, and he asked me did I want to go to jail. And I said, ‘No, the only thing we came up here for was to try to register to vote.’ And he asked me if I wanted to see the sheriff. I told him, ‘No, I didn’t come to see the sheriff.’ Then he messed around; we was in there from about nine o’clock till about two. He would go get coffee and it would take him ’bout two hours and a half to return. You gotta sit and wait. You didn’t feel too good sitting there. That’s how slow and unconcerned they were about you trying to get registered to vote to better your condition.

We went up there several times [to try to register to vote]. The next time, a pretty good bunch was going, and me and my wife and two more ladies went up. They were still giving you the runaround, askin’ you all kinds of silly questions, going through the motion again. It was still dragging feet and wasting time, and only one or two could get in that day.

They would treat you very ugly, talking about throwing you in jail and calling the sheriff. This was an experience I had never felt, trying to do something for your rights and they further misusing and intimidating you. It was awful, and you couldn’t even get a lotta peoples to even go up because they was already fearful; they knew how things were in the county, that white folks was running it and if you didn’t do what they wanted, they would make it hard for you. Or catch you on the road and beat you up. And wasn’t nothing did about it because they wasn’t handling whites for doing anything to blacks.

But after I went, it gave me more courage to go back where I’d be a registered voter. And that’s what’d make me proud; I could tell the young black generation that it’s not so hard now. We were the first three from the east side of Lexington ’cause there was a group ahead of us from down by Mileston, the first fourteen. They took a lotta abuse. I think the sheriff went out and cursed ’em out and made ’em get off the grass.

[The sheriff’s] main purpose was to hinder blacks from coming to the courthouse. He could get you upset and afraid. Lotta people just wouldn’t go if they saw the dogs out there. They would be saying things to you, ‘Get the hell offa that grass.’ They had signs out there: ‘Keep off the grass.’ And if you step on the grass, they would carry you to jail. And this would disencourage a lot of blacks from even going up to try.

[We were never threatened] for trying to register at that particular time. It came down later when we started entering children in the white school. It was the county schools, but at that time it was the white schools. And I put my youngest son, Leander Johnson, over there and they

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cut my funds off–what I was borrowing to farm on. They came by and told me a group was comin’ to see me about why was I doin this or was I being paid by the government. And I just told em I wanted my child to get a good education so he’d be able to make it through the world.

Once I was comin’ from a meetin down to Mileston, and I had four or five youngsters with me. The sheriffs and the constables and the game wardens would get across the track and catch us. I knew the routes through the country roads and the hills so I could bring them a different route. Once when we got to Lexington, they had two cars across the blacktop. I just whirled and went the other way. Fear is part of it, but I was trying to shun trouble at that time.

SNCC and CORE was the first to come in [to help blacks register] and was kinda like the freedom riders comin down South. They had a staff and connections with lawyers from the North, and they would come down and help us do sit-ins and go into places where blacks wadn’t allowed. They would help us do these things, getting through the county, gettin’ peoples organized. They could come in and mingle pretty good. They knew partly what they were doing. They could get more of the people together at these meetings than we who were living here.

I guess that’s because people were just really searching for good leadership and somebody to stand up and tell ’em what the whites couldn’t do to ’em. because the blacks here were slow about moving. But they would come in with us and get peoples to promise they would come out and help do things. So they had pretty good connections with the peoples here.

[The white volunteers] would fall in and just fit right on in. They were coming from the North and had a little more hang with ’em than some of the blacks here. Some of ’em came six months, a year, and left. But Sue and Henry Lorenzi stayed on throughout the whole action because when they left most blacks what wanted to register had done been up and registered.

[The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (FDP)] was mostly to help get peoples registered to vote. And it would help you get organized to go in and sit down in a lotta these places where blacks wasn’t allowed in the regular Democratic Party. By 1967 we had enough blacks registered in Holmes County so the FDP ran a group of candidates.

I ran [for supervisor] to help the peoples more, cause I wanted it fairly and squarely with all of ’em. Of course they tried to keep blacks from voting. That was the first priority. They could always get who they wanted to. [On voting day] I went to each polling place, shook hands, and checked out was it being fair and square. We had federal observers, but it didn’t seem like they was much help. They just observed like they was sent to do. We had quite a few disturbances on voting day. Whites and blacks would kinda get uptight to each other or say some violent things.

It was mostly the farmers–the poor farmers, the dirt farmers–that started the Movement. [Their advantage was that] the farmers had a acre or two, or ten or twenty, so he had his own little shack and his farm; he was making his living mostly from the earth. The teachers had to go through the school ‘sociation, and they were always afraid if they got out there, they would hear their name. The Superintendent and the rest of the people would get on ’em, and if they didn’t quit, they would fire ’em. But now we did get one teacher–Mrs. Bernice Montgomery. She was the first teacher that really came out and stuck with the Movement and the peoples. Seem like she had her mind made up. And her husband saw the Movement needed help so he got in it, and that gave her more courage whether she got fired or whatnot. She didn’t care what happened back there at the job. She just came with a full desire to help the people move forward. Later on you had other teachers to come and associate some with it.

There was some tension between the poor farmers who were first involved in the Movement and the teachers and preachers who came later on. They were all tryin’ to work towards one cause, but it would be a little tension because the grassroot people were the first to do anything to get the peoples together, where the preachers was afraid and the teachers was mostly afraid of gettin’ fired from their job; they didn’t wanna be involved at that time. So it was just the grassroot level people. And you get some of these old peoples, they didn’t want you to talk about it or come to see you because they knew what would happen. And we got turned down a lot of times from the black minister. He said he didn’t believe in mixing politics with the Bible, but it was fear is what it was.

William B. Eskridge

Interviewed by Dwayne Buchanan John Darjean August 2,1989. Carrolton, Miss.

I been in the Civil Rights Movement since nineteen hundred and thirty-two. But I had to be in it very slowly at that time. I believe the first time I got in the real Civil Rights Movement was in the sixties, Mrs. Blackmon put me in it. I went to a meeting and this young fellow was there named John Allen. Before I left there that night they had made me president of the whole thing. Consequently, I had to go to work and from then on we had quite a few meetings, quite a few run-ins and so forth. But my main role was to try to guide the thing in order to keep down as much violence as we can. Of course I was older than most of the people here that was in the movements.

Way back yon’, in 1928, we were tryin’ our best to get people registered to vote. We went to a state convention in 1928 and came back and got started. And we got about fourteen or fifteen people in the movement. Eventually we

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got that many registered, too.

The state convention was in Jackson, and the main party leader was Perry Howard, a Republican. The onliest way we could get in politics at that time was through the Republicans because the Democratics called themselves lily-white Democrats–you couldn’t get in there. So we decided we’d get a group and go vote. I believe ’twas 1932, we had about four teams go and vote. The day came for voting, I went to the poll in Carrolton. I think I was teachin’ school in Benton. I planned to leave school at that time. They didn’t want me to have a ballot but I told ’em ‘I got to have a ballot.’ And they gave me one and I voted that time. Now, one man was ‘spose to go to McCauley–he went, but the white people told him ‘Now, Uncle, you’re qualified but we advise you not to go.’ And those who were to follow me in Carrolton didn’t. So you had one man voted and you know what position it threw me in just havin’ one man voting.

When I went back to get another contract to teach school, one of them board members told me ‘If I hear of you teachin’ politics in that school, we gon’ put you out the next day.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Now I’m not down there to teach politics, but I do teach civics, and whatever comes up in civics I’m teachin it.’ And that settled it. You had to have, at that time, a way around them. You couldn’t just come out the way we do today. So I got over that hurdle. And after I voted once or twice more, but this was in Democratic–well, some’s Republican–because this was general election. I went to the polls at that time and they didn’t wanna give me a ballot. And we had a lawyer here–mighty fine man, old man Ewell–and they asked him was I qualified. ‘Yeah, Eskridge’s qualified.’ So that settled that. After that, why, I had to quit politics. My reason for quittin’ was if I couldn’t get enough folks to follow me, I wasn’t doin’ nothin but but hurtin myself. Because I knew I would soon be in a place where I wouldn’t have a job. So I pulled back and didn’t vote any more until way on up.

But during that Civil Rights Movement, I believe we went to Carrollton there one day to register people to vote. I told the sheriff and the Chancery Clerk what we was plannin’. Course I knew they didn’t like it, but still they had to accept it. After I told ’em that, he told me how he l gonna put ’em in jail if they keep on like they goin’. And

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I told him, ‘Now, you’re the sheriff, I can’t tell you what to do, but one thing: it may be better if you don’t.’ We stayed around that courthouse all day long and didn’t a single person register.

‘Twas against their religion to let black folks register. A few had a chance, but nobody could pass the literacy test. Back in the thirties we had to pay a poll tax but didn’t have to take no literacy test. That came later. Early on, they figured black folks didn’t have the money to pay a poll tax, and later they had to use the literacy test.

Mr. Mrs. Cooper Howard

Interviewed by Felisha Dixon Jeffrey Blackmon July 28, 1989. Goodman, Miss.

I was in the first march that they had here in Holmes County to get people registered. We had about 200 people, cause the rest of the people was just afred. They was saying what was gain’ to happen was that we was gain’ to get killed, the white people gain’ to kill us. Well, I figure like this: I went to taken my basic training in Aberdeen, Miss., and I marched on that soil and in Illinois, California, and Hawaii. So if I can march in the army where they fightin’ at, surely if this is a free country I can march here.

But that’s when they had the old dogs. That German Shepherd dog, he was at the door, and he would bite. And see, then people wouldn’t go in there, because they knew the dog would bite. Mr. Henry McClellan know ’bout that. He was the circuit clerk, but he would not help you or didn’t want you to come in there to get registered. And most of our professional people was scared to go into that office. They went down to the Post Office under federal registrars. The grassroot people went up there while it was tough, amongst the dogs and the bad sheriff and those bad people. We went up there and got registered.

We registered by havin’ the Justice Department come in and they told ’em that these people had to register. Then they moved the dog back. But as long as you was in there, they talked to you so bad. Talkin to old people, tellin ’em, ‘I ain’t gon’ help you. You can stay there and look like a coon, old possum!’ He told my daddy that. My daddy were eighty year old. I say not one thang, cause if I hadda open my mouth, he woulda said something to me. Then I would’ve put him across the counter.

The freedom riders came in about this time, but we had already decided we was gonna do it. But we would have went up and got turn away. Never would have got registered. We would have been in the same fix, like back in slavery. But those people had the backin’ of the NAACP, SNCC, COFO. They had a lawyer from the president office.

It helped to own land at that time, and because I did I never did suffer. A lot of people were put out of where they were working. Take the school teacher who could not participate in SNCC or anything concerning civil rights. Bernice Montgomery was the only teacher that stood up. And very few preachers would come out.

Viola Winters

Interviewed by Michael Hooker Tamara Wright August 1,1989, Durant. Miss.

After the trouble we had getting hired at the plant and integrating public facilities, we met at Second Pilgrim Rest Church with the Freedom Democratic Party–the FDP. There wasn’t any black folks here voting. So we went up there in Lexington to the courthouse. We had a hard time; they had a lot of questions to keep you from registerin’. Then when we started to voting, we had a hard time doing that ’cause we had to go round trying to beg them to come out of the house to vote. Black folks wasn’t use to anything like this. We had a hard time. I was sittin’ when the voting happening when we put Representative Clark in what he is now in Jackson [first black in Mississippi legislature since Reconstruction]. We sit down and take names–how many white and colored voting. I was sittin’ there one voting day, and a white man come up and told me ‘Get up and get outta here!’ Then I saw the pistol in his pocket. But, y’see, I didn’t get up. Finally I saw Mrs. Irene Johnson come in and I told her go and get somebody to identify this man, but when she come back he was gone.

The hardest time we had was trying to get registered. They didn’t want color’ folks to vote. They didn’t want equal rights. They had it so long to themselves, they don’t want us with them. They can’t help it now.

It kinda worries me that after all we did to vote, black folks don’t vote today. But black folks ain’t never had nothing. Seem like some don’t even want nothing. They still out there with the white man. A lot of ’em right now will carry messages back to him.

Dr. Martha Ann Davis

Interviewed by Marvin Noel Willa WilliaMiss. November 8, 1989. Brozville Road, Miss.

Along with three young men, I started the Lexington Action Group (LAG) before the civil rights voting vet, as we know, back in Lyndon Johnson’s time. It was also during a time when John F. Kennedy was president, so there were a lot of positive things going on. But before that time there was a lot of die-hard black independent farmers who simply were not pleased with not having a voice in government and not being able to vote. So they challenged the system. And because of our involvement with them, we started going to their little community meetings as they

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planned strategies to try to eliminate some of the barriers to voting.

When we began to get organized and actively involved, we went up and harassed the then-circuit clerk Henry McClellan, to ask him questions such as ‘How do you know what part of the Constitution of Mississippi a person who is trying to register to vote will have to interpret?’ And, of course, he would never give us straight answers to the point that he would try to tell us, ‘Who are your parents? I need to find your parents because you’re out of order.’ This was during a time when most black folks considered white folks as being superior to them. So I guess I, along with the young men, we were sort of militant and sort of crazy, and I think it was because of the way we had been brought up by our parents.

The LAG was like a youth arm to the establishment of the Freedom Democratic Party, and during that particular time in the sixties there was really no formal civil rights organization per se. But there was always somebody–no matter how small or how large the cluster of people–that everybody looked up to. And it was always the independent farmers in the lead, not the folks who worked on plantations.

One of the most scariest moments that I can recall was after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we were getting people that lived on plantations that joined the independent farmers down in the Delta to come to Lexington, to the courthouse, because at that time that was the only place you could register to vote. Everybody had come to the circuit clerk’s office. And I recall very well, we had to do it like in the late evenings or by dark, because usually you couldn’t talk back to black folks in the daytime because they were busy working in the fields or taking care of the big house, as they called it. And most blacks was afraid to talk to you if you mentioned the words ‘civil rights.’ That was just something you didn’t want to identify with because people had no other alternative for survival except to stay on these white peoples’ plantations. So now here we are saying that ‘You need to be men and women. You’re of age. You need to go and register to vote. You have a right to have a say in what happens.’ And then after that the slogan ‘One-man one vote’ evolved.

But on this particular plantation past Tchula we were trying to explain to the people what they had to do when they went to the circuit clerk’s office to register to vote. And here comes this white man up with a double-barreled shotgun and he cocks it at us teenagers. And we just stood there. We were scared to death, don’t get us wrong, but we just stood there to the point where he said ‘I don’t wanna catch ya’ll on my place no more.’

In the Mileston area we were successful at organizing to the point that people from the north that were sympathetic to the causes of voter rights, justice and equality for black folks, sent us large sums. of money, to put together this basically black community in Mileston and Homes County.

As a result of organizing the LAG a lot of opportunities came my way–thanks to people like Reverend J.J. Russell and T.C. Johnson, who would take us the back way through Hebron to the Mileston Community Center. And Reverend Willie James Burns stands out because he gave me an opportunity to go to Macintosh, Ga., (to the Citizens Education Program, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King) and really learn how to train people in voter education. I worked with people like Hartman Turnbow who was one of the first people to take on Henry McClellan, and people like Julian Bond, Joe Lewis, Andy Young, Dorothy Cotton, and C.T. Vivian. As a result of that training we would come back and train the next group of young people. We were on a mission. Before that the older people had to depend on the freedom riders or other outsiders. So for the old people this was a new avenue.

When the first challenge was made to the Democratic Party after the FDP was formed, I had an opportunity to be there for that first convention in Atlantic City, N.J. where we challenged them to say that, ‘Hey, this Democratic Party from Mississippi doesn’t represent the people of Mississippi, cause we got all these black folks in Mississippi and they have no representation.’ And at that time the Democratic Party was basically lily-white in Mississippi, and therefore it’s kind of ironic ’cause seemingly the tides are turning. But my mother reminds me that when she was a child, what black folks that could vote outside of areas that called themselves sort of ‘liberated’ did was vote Republican. They were not Democrats. And I thought that was interesting and asked her the other day did she think as young people we should be training them to be Democrats or Republicans? And she said, ‘Neither one. Instead we should be training ya’ll to be thinking.’