A Passionate, First-Hand Story of One Place in the Movement.
Reviewed by Michael Cooper
Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 20-21
JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism by John R Salter Jr. (Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krueger Publishing Co., Inc. 1987. 256 pp., no price).
John Salter’s book, which evokes the emotions, the frustrations, and the fears of Jackson in the early 1960s, is particularly valuable because so little has been written about the civil rights movement in Mississippi’s capital and largest city.
Salter and his wife were drawn from Arizona to Mississippi in 1961 by the growing civil rights movement. A sociology professor, Salter got a job teaching at Tougaloo College. Soon afterward he became the sponsor of the local NAACP Youth Council.
Under his guidance the council’s eager young people became activists. They launched a boycott of the Mississippi State Fair. With leaflets, press releases, and word of mouth the youth group persuaded black people to shun the fair. This victory inspired a more ambitious project, a boycott of downtown Jackson businesses during the 1962 Christmas buying-season. A short list of demands was drawn up, bail money was raised, and pickets were selected to launch the boycott in early December. The first day downtown the young men and women were met by paddy wagons and an army of policemen who promptly arrested all six pickets. Undeterred by the overwhelming show of force, the young people picketed for weeks and the boycott I was a success.
The Youth Council had one impressive victory after another. In addition to its successful boycotts of the state fair and of downtown stores, the group had quietly desegregated public events at then all-white Millsaps College, conducted a voter registration drive, and campaigned for black politicians.
The catalyst for this activism was Salter. In a long foreword to the book, the Reverend R Edwin King, Jr., a native Mississippian and Methodist minister, says Salter was, “The key strategist in the massive community organizing effort.” As such, Salter joined the state’s small band of civil rights activists, which included Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, Tom Johnson, and a handful of others. Being a prominent civil rights activist was a double-edged honor. To the ubiquitous Citizens Council he was an outside agitator, a man marked for retribution.
Despite harassing phone calls, the angry glares of white neighbors, and constant surveillance by men in an unmarked car, Salter persevered and the local movement attracted more and more participants. The national NAACP, however, wasn’t responding with bail money and other assistance. While praising the organization’s local officials, Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry, Salter is quite critical of the national NAACP’s role in Jackson.
“We knew, for example, that Aaron Henry had frequently felt that the national office was being slow to assist the struggle in Mississippi; and we knew that Aaron Henry himself had been criticized by the national office for his friendliness and cooperation with such groups as COR1S, SCLC, and SNCC.” Salter also says that the NAACP’s National Executive Board was indecisive on the use of direct action “as well as on the issue of involvement in Mississippi.” Overall, Salter felt that “the national office of the NAACP was not much interested in our campaign in Jackson.”
But that interest changed after sit-ins at Woolworth’s and a demonstration where five hundred young people were arrested and locked up in a barbed-wire stockade became national news. Not so coincidentally, Salter implies, the national NAACP suddenly took notice of the Jackson movement.
NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins flew to Jackson and joined a demonstration in which he and two hundred other people were arrested. Soon afterward the national NAACP took over the Jackson movement and moved it into a new phase, of less direct action and more legal action. Salter’s leadership was circumvented. Although he continued to argue for more demonstrations, the move meet’s momentum seemed spent until the murder of Medgar Evers incited Jackson’s black community.
The Evers funeral attracted five thousand people, in-
cluding Martin Luther King Jr. Several hundred mourners made an impromptu march downtown resulting in a police riot and dozens of bloody arrests. Salter was blamed by both the white community and the alarmed black community for the march and the violence. Discredited in the eyes of the more cautious black people, he was maneuvered out of leadership.
Although no longer a principal leader, Salter was still the target of white hatred. In what might have been attempted murder, he and fellow activist Edwin King were seriously injured in a car crash. Both men recovered, and soon afterward Salter left Mississippi to work as an organizer in eastern North Carolina with the Southern Conference Educational Fund.
Some readers will object to Salter’s less than flattering portrayal of the national NAACP and of Jackson’s black ministers. As he describes it, the NAACP was too preoccupied with its own agenda and its own glory to worry much about the people of Mississippi.
Salter has too little empathy with local black ministers who didn’t participate in the protests. In Mississippi’s civil rights battles it’s not surprising there were so few brave people; it’s surprising there were so many. Black people in particular had everything to fear. Everything–home, family, friends, and livelihood–was at stake. At best a local black activist might suffer economic reprisals; at worst he or she might be gunned down. When Jackson turned violent, Salter’s wife and child went to Minnesota. And soon afterward Salter himself left the state. Few local black people could so move.
Salter’s book does not pretend to be objective journalism. He did not ask the NAACP officials or the black ministers for their versions. Rather, the book is a passionate, first-hand account of the Jackson movement by one of its central figures. Jackson, Mississippi was first published in 1979. The Robert E. Krueger Publishing Company deserves plaudits for this new edition.
Writer Michael Cooper has been researching Mississippi.