Canton, Then and Now

Canton, Then and Now

By Tom Dent

Vol. 19, No. 2, 1997 pp. 23-24

In his most recent book, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement, author Tom Dent revisits some cities and towns in the South to explore what impact the Civil Rights Movement has had on the people who live there. In the excerpt below, Dent visits Canton, Mississippi, and looks at the career of civil rights activist Annie Devine.

The first person I interviewed in 1976 was Annie Devine of Canton, one of the most extraordinary women of the Mississippi campaign. I can thank veteran SNCC leader Ed Brown for sending me to Mrs. Devine, for I had only previously known of her through Annie Moody’s classic autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, much of which tells the story of the painful effort to register blacks to vote in Canton.

Annie Devine was an insurance saleswoman and the mother of four children when the first Congress of Racial Equality organizers arrived in 1963. Canton was and is the seat of Madison County, which has a 75 percent black-majority population, the same conditions that made Albany and Selma ripe for organizing. Except that in Albany, because of its professional class of blacks, and in Selma, because of the efforts of the Voters League, a handful of blacks had voted in each town. Madison County had no Voters League and a virtually nonexistent black professional class–people of color had not voted since Reconstruction. To make sure they didn’t, the county courthouse was protected by a mean sheriff, Billy Noble, who apparently had a free hand in dealing with blacks who got “out of line.” His antagonist, and leader of the CORE project in Canton, was a youth from New Orleans, George Raymond. Annie Moody, who was then a student at Tougaloo, just down the road a bit from Canton, was the organizer who recruited Mrs. Devine.

In 1963, Mrs. Devine was well into her middle age, divorced, caring for her children, and living in a housing project. A former schoolteacher, she knew the value of voting and full citizenship, though she never voted. It didn’t take her long to decide to join in with young folk; she could help them a lot through her church contacts,and through her encyclopedic knowledge of the black community acquired from insurance canvassing. When she declared in church, “You don’t have to whisper about me, I’m in it. I’m in the Movement,” it opened the door for other adult black Cantonians to commit themselves. And commitment was necessary. George Raymond was jailed endlessly, and beaten numerous times. The names and addresses of blacks who attempted to register were printed in the local newspaper just as in Selma. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Extremely dark skinned (her skin practically glows), deliberate, and meditative rather than exhortative, Mrs. Devine put me through the third degree back in 1976 before she would be interviewed. When she decided to trust me, I was amazed at her power of reflection and quality of analysis. When I asked about choices of actions, she replied, “If we had done something else, it might have been better, but we didn’t know that then.” In her view, the 1960s was an effort by struggling human beings to come to grips with their situation and at least attempt to do something about it, provided they could define their situation. Mrs. Devine was not capable of the salable lie or the romanticization of the Movement. I never forgot her statement as she joked while making me coffee: “I don’t know. All we may have done through the civil rights movement is open Pandora’s box.”

Annie Devine quickly became well known within Movement circles; by 1964 she served as a statewide spokesperson, traveling to other towns to make speeches, often in concert with Fannie Lou Hamer of Sunflower County in the Delta, and Victoria Gray of Hattiesburg, two other great local leaders who emerged literally from the fertile earth of the Mississippi Movement. Mrs. Devine, Mrs. Gray, and Mrs. Hamer were chosen in statewide elections to represent the Freedom Democratic party in the challenge to unseat the all-white Mississippi Democratic party delegation during the presidential election in 1964. This historic effort, much analyzed by civil rights historians, ended in predictable political defeat but set a precedent that foreshadowed the opening of the Democratic party to black participation in the state in the following three decades.

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I returned to Canton to talk with Mrs. Devine several more times during the 1970s and ’80s, and to learn from her wisdom. My interviews with her led to others and others, so that the totality of the interviews and my experiences in Mississippi gave me a special feeling for the place; not only the people, but the starkly diversified terrain, the physical beauty of the state, which stood in contrast to its history of racial grief. Because of its reputation, I came to believe that the conflict in Mississippi was more fundamental, the issues were clearer, the need greater, and the people more grateful for whatever help they received. Through its warriors for justice, male and female, white and black, I came to like the people of Mississippi and to appreciate them for their genuine belief in hope for a better future.

In 1991, twenty-seven years after Freedom Summer, blacks have clearly won the ballot, though that was more the result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which appointed federal registrars to monitor recalcitrant areas of the South, than a capitulation by Madison County officials. Now black voters pretty much control Canton, though not Madison County, as was explained to me by Community Action Program director Walter Jones; Board of Supervisors member Karl Banks; and attorney George Nichols, a former Canton Board of Aldermen member. A deep cleavage has developed between two new black political organizations in Canton, over the few elective offices in town. There’s so little private-sector work for people in Madison County, the struggle for control of political patronage and the jobs that might flow from political office has created a nasty battleground. As a result, the potential impact of a unified black vote has been substantially diluted. Meanwhile, the expansion of young white upper-middle-class housing and businesses in North Jackson has, in the seventies and eighties, flowed well across the Hinds-Madison county line into southern Madison, increasing the population and property values in Ridgeland and Madison (the town). Canton, the largest town in the county, while embroiled in its own intrablack political squabbles, has suddenly become the poor northern and primarily black relative of south Madison County. Even so, Canton is growing, Calvin Garner, a Tougaloo graduate in his thirties and an administrator for the Community Action Program, assured me, during a tour he graciously gave me of the town. It didn’t look like it was growing, though it did appear to be making an effort to renovate itself. There is an effort to spruce up the town square. I was happy to see a couple of black-run clothing stores a block from the square for those customers who don’t shop in Jackson, and a small restaurant that sells wonderful fried catfish. The problem is, with a large shopping mall and several smaller malls, full of every sort of retail business imaginable in North Jackson, most Cantonians do their heavy shopping there. The old square, which was lined by thriving all-white businesses in 1963 and 1964, was then the main Canton shopping area for blacks, said Garner. Square business became the target of intense retaliatory boycotts when blacks were turned away from the county registration office at the still-dreary courthouse. At least those days are gone, and maybe black political officials, if they can get themselves together, will modernize the town center. “It’s just that,” confessed attorney George Nichols, “we’re a generation behind every other place in Mississippi.”

Canton doesn’t seem to be a generation behind when it comes to the destructive presence of hard drugs, a fact everyone attested to. This was a completely post-1960s phenomenon in small Mississippi towns. I didn’t expect to see evidence of hard drugs in places like Canton. In the sixties, the small towns still had an innocence about them; you could concentrate on worrying about the police. Movement volunteers, who were virtual strangers, could enter a town and organize in pool halls and cafes, places frequented by black youth, without encountering suspicion. That couldn’t happen now. Suspicions involving drugs, along with the violence associated with drugs, not to mention undercover police work, would discourage conversations with strangers.

Tom Dent is the former executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. In addition to Southern Journey (William Morrow and Company, 1997), he is author of two volumes of poetry, Magnolia Street and Blue lights and River Songs, and the co-editor of The Free Southern Theater. He lives in New Orleans.