Freedom Election Campaign
By Constance Curry
Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000 pp. 24-27
Early in 1963, the Voter Education Project had been firmly established in Greenwood, and local participation was increasing satisfactorily. The Negroes of Greenwood and Leflore County were facing the anticipated reprisals and intimidations, but general morale seemed to be holding up. Then on the night of February 28, as they drove out of Greenwood, Bob Moses and two coworkers noticed that they were being followed. Earlier, they had spotted a late-model Buick with no license plates parked in front of their headquarters and had seen several white men in it. Jim Travis, a local worker, was driving along with Moses and Randolph Blackwell, a representative of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta. As they were talking about the trailing car, it pulled alongside of them, and thirteen .45 caliber bullets came shattering into their car. Two struck Travis in the shoulder and neck. The Buick sped away, and Moses, who was sitting in the middle, guided the car to a stop as Travis slumped down in the seat. Neither Moses nor Blackwell was hit.
Moses called me later that night to tell what had happened. He said that Travis was seriously injured but that doctors at the Greenwood hospital expected him to recover. He was being transferred to the hospital in Jackson. Moses had alerted the local authorities, but the assailants’ car, without plates, could only be given a general identification.
The day after the shooting, Wiley Branton, director of the Voter Education Project in Atlanta, made a statement to the press asking that all of the voter registration workers scattered across Mississippi converge on Greenwood and show the people that there would be no backing down. He noted that it was of paramount importance that no degree of violence cause the workers to lose their initiative. His statement concluded, “Leflore County, Mississippi, has selected itself as the testing ground for democracy, and we shall meet the challenge there.”
Branton was a descendant of Greenwood Leflore, the French-Indian millionaire slavetrader for whom the county and town are named. The whites in Greenwood probably thought Branton’s ultimatum was a foolish stand for a native Mississippi Negro to take, but the county did become a testing ground. Workers from SNCC, CORE, the NAACP, and SCLC flooded the town and county to the saturation point, and soon the area was bubbling with voter registration activities on every corner.
The patterns of action, reaction, and counterreaction continued, and a wave of violence swept Greenwood as the white response to the influx of civil rights workers. The most serious incident was the bombing of the building where the COFO office was located. Everything in the office was destroyed, including all voter registration records. Authorities said that there was no evidence of arson.
Another COFO car was blasted with a shotgun, but without injuries. Shotguns were fired into several homes, but again providence spared us injuries. These forms of intimidation and reprisals against local Negroes continued, then increased, and it was difficult to retain the following that had been established. Less than a month after the Travis shooting, Bob Moses led a voter march to the county courthouse. They were turned away with police dogs, cattle prods, and riot sticks.
The most ambitious and perhaps most worthwhile COFO effort of 1963 was the mock participation of an interracial slate of candidates in the state gubernatorial election in November. The two leading regular candidates were trying their best to outdo each other in racist statements. It also came at a time when Senators James O. Eastland and John Stennis were in Washington telling Congress that the only reason Mississippi Negroes did not vote was that we were too slothful and unconcerned to register.
Allard K. Lowenstein came down in July 1963 to offer his help to COFO and our voter registration efforts. My friendship with Al went all the way back to 1949 when I was a delegate from Xavier to the United States National Student Association Congress. He later became president of that group and was respected by students on many campuses throughout the country. The plan that emerged was that we would attempt to show the nation that we would indeed vote if allowed to do so. It would be the first big test of our concentrated program of voter education and registration. We hoped to show how meaningless Mississippi’s lily-white campaigns were and to show that each major candidate promised to do more than the next to deny us political rights.
James P. Coleman had been eliminated in the Democratic primary for governor, mainly because of his support for John Kennedy, so the November race was between Democrat Paul B. Johnson, Jr., and Republican Rubel Phillips. The crucial issues were clouded by a thick haze of racial prejudice. Johnson’s main campaign issue was that he “stood in the doorway at Ole Miss” when James Meredith was trying to enroll. His supporters said proudly, “Paul stood tall at Ole Miss,” adding, with reference to his stand against legalized whiskey, “Paul will stand tall against alcohol.” Johnson also said that a strong and united Democratic party would make it easier to keep a sharp eye on Negro activities.
Rubel Phillips maintained that Johnson had been willing to “sit down and play cowboys and niggers with the university.” He said that with a Republican governor and two strong parties, the state could keep two sharp eyes on the Negroes. He was saying that, with his election and the election of Republican Barry Goldwater to the presidency in 1964, the Negro problem would be solved. So these were our top contenders for governor. They both referred to Mississippi’s being the greatest state in the union, but neither was openly concerned about the economic issues–our gravest problem. Thirty-two percent of the people earned less than three-thousand dollars a year, 26
percent earned less than two-thousand dollars annually, and, in the Delta, 51 percent of the people–black and white–earned less than two-thousand dollars a year. This was real poverty. The candidates made superficial allusions to bringing more industry to the state, but the campaign standard was seeing who could yell “Nigger” the loudest.
We could do nothing “official” to combat these forces, so COFO decided to have an “unofficial” election of our own. I would be the candidate for governor, and Edwin King, a white Methodist minister from black Tougaloo College in Jackson, would run for lieutenant governor. Ed King was a Mississippian from Vicksburg. Bob Moses would manage the campaign, and we would stress the important issues that Phillips and Johnson were ignoring, as well as show the potential strength of our vote.
Among our many problems, the lack of a good political speechwriter was the greatest. We also needed national publicity and coverage that would reflect the significance of our effort. We needed people who knew about political organizing-we had had little experience in this field. Once again, we turned to the outside for help. Joe Lieberman, editor of the Yale Daily News, was in Mississippi at the time doing a series of reports on the activities and programs of SNCC. He became interested in our plans and assured us that he would spread the word at Yale about the type of help we needed. He thought our needs would have strong appeal to students majoring in journalism and political science.
Within a few weeks the students came–from Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Fordham–forty strong, and their interest in the campaign was as keen as our own. They knew how to write campaign literature and how to organize meetings and rallies. They were able to get the news media to almost every mass meeting that we held in the state. Our main instrument for spreading the word was a little newspaper, “The Free Press,” and Bill Minor and R. L. T. Smith helped us get it printed.
I toured the state making speeches and waving my hands and yelling, and I guess some of the Negroes thought they had their very own Bilbo or Barnett. I spoke in Holly Springs, Oxford, Greenville, Clarksdale, Jackson, Gulfport, and Hattiesburg. We had good campaign tours in Clarksdale and Greenville, because whites left us alone and did not try to break up the rally. In Greenville, they even let us use the Washington County Courthouse and–most amazing–the police even arrested several whites for harassing participants.
Gulfport, Vicksburg, and Hattiesburg were another story. In Hattiesburg, the police barged into the civil rights headquarters the day of the rally and closed it down as a fire hazard. We had to go to a church. When a white girl tried to join the rally, the police arrested her and put her in a patrol car. She was screaming and kicking and biting, but they wouldn’t let her come in. And the rally had barely started when we heard seven or eight police cars circling the church with their sirens growling. Then came four or five fire trucks with their whistles screaming and their bells clanging. It was impossible to speak above the roar of the official harassment. In my speech I shouted to the audience that we were glad that the fire department was outside but that the fire within us could not be extinguished with water. Lawrence Guyot, then, director for SNCC in the Hattiesburg area, spoke right after me. While he was speaking, some firemen came charging into the church yelling that they were looking for a fire. Guyot yelled for the crowd to let the firemen through. A couple dozen firemen soon stood in the front of the group, in full regalia, some snickering and some actually looking around for a fire, but all looking like damn fools. There was a moment of silence, and the firemen were looking to their captain, Moore, to tell them what to do. Then Guyot told Captain Moore, “We’re going to have a meeting here tonight, and we don’t give a damn what you do.” Captain Moore did not reply but turned and led his men out of the church.
We had the same sort of official harassment in Vicksburg. The police and firemen surrounded the building making all the noise they could muster, but they had gotten the word from Hattiesburg that it was best not to go into the building and be laughed at by a bunch of progressive Negroes. In Gulfport we held the rally at the Back Bay Mission, which was staffed by and served both races. It was just between a Negro and a white neighborhood and had never had any problems over its integrated ministry. But during the rally, a large number of whites converged on the building, and we heard sirens wailing. The noise increased, and finally rocks and bottles started crashing through the windows. The police were there in full force. They stood and watched the whites throwing whatever they could at the windows. Every window in the mission was broken.
We were aware that we were trying to be politicians on this trip, so in a statement to the press we made the most charitable remarks that we could contrive about our reception in Gulfport. We said that we were sorry that some hoodlums had broken the windows and marred what would otherwise have been a pleasant visit. The next morning outside of the mission several white ladies came up to me and said, “Those weren’t hoods that threw those bricks. It was us.”
We covered as many communities and rural areas as possible and dipped into places as yet untouched by any civil rights activity. The campaign reminded us of how much remained to be done, as we saw thousands of new faces wrinkle with fear at the mention of total desegregation of the schools. We went to places where Negroes tried to escape even being asked to come to the rally. We added all of these places to our list of areas to reach in the future.
But there were some counties that we did not go to at all because of plain fear and good sense–like Issaquena, Amite, and Neshoba, where we were afraid we would be shot. Any Negro we might approach in these sections would have feared for his life, and the collusion between the lawless elements and law enforcement officers would have made our effort foolhardy.
We ended the campaign with a jubilant, backslapping fish fry at a country church in the backwoods near Lexington. We felt we had done well and were relieved that we had made it through with no deaths or serious injuries. Our public relations were remarkably successful, and, even as far out in the country as we were, a big passel of reporters, photographers, and television people were on hand for the event and enjoyed it as much as anybody.
We got as much attention during the race as either of the major candidates. No newsmen in the state had any doubt about what Johnson and Phillips were going to do and say, and they were delighted to have a little diversion. For the first time in over a century there was a real campaign, unofficial as it was, dealing with the real problems facing the state. We provided a chance to air these problems in the press, and no doubt white Mississippians learned a few things as well.
To tabulate the results of our efforts, we set up ballot boxes in churches, businesses, and homes. Ballots had all names of candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, which gave our voters a choice of three slates. Voting took place over a whole weekend from Friday until Monday. Many church congregations voted at Sunday services, and records were kept to keep people from voting more than once. In some places, such as Greenwood, there was trouble from the authorities when five voters were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.
When the “freedom votes” were counted, it was found that more than eighty-thousand people had participated in an election which they knew they could not win. Quite a turnout for a people who Senator Eastland said were too lazy to even register. Those eighty-thousand votes for freedom quashed whatever hopes he and other segregationists might have had for continuing to sell our laziness as the sorry excuse for lack of Negro voter registration.
We knew that there were also a few write-in votes all over the state for Ed King and me, but we could never find out the exact count. Under Mississippi statutes, write-in votes invalidate a ballot unless the official candidates happen to die before the election. To my knowledge, Clarksdale was the only community to tabulate the number of write-in votes, and the election officials announced that write-in votes received by Henry and King had reached about six hundred, and then there were no more reports.
The election had shown the country that Mississippi Negroes would vote if given the chance. It was established that the sacrifices of the people and the labor of the civil rights movement were not in vain, and this evidence was to spur groups on to even more industrious activity. And perhaps most important, white college students from the North had seen what a significant role they could play in the Mississippi struggle. Al Lowenstein, with his wide contacts at Yale, Stanford, and other colleges, had played a major role in bringing these students down. Within a week after the freedom election, plans were being made for a massive influx of college volunteers for Freedom Summer, 1964.
And there were other encouraging signs. Paul Johnson defeated Rubel Phillips using old issues, but, in his inaugural address, Johnson hinted at a change in the state’s official line on race. He may have been frightened by the strong expression of would-be Negro voters and had a legitimate reason to say, “I want my people to know that Paul Johnson is fully aware of the forces, the conflicts, that fashion our environment. Hate or prejudice or ignorance will not lead Mississippi while I sit in the governor’s chair.” He spoke of industrial development: “I would point out to you that the Mississippi economy is not divisible by political party or faction, or even by race, color, or creed.” Never before had a Mississippi governor uttered such bold words–a fine reward for our freedom election.
Constance Curry first met Aaron Henry in 1964 while combing the Clarksdale area for whites interested in peaceful school desegregation in Mississippi. Thirty-three years later, a group of Henry’s friends, after reading Curry’s first book, Silver Rights, asked her to write Henry’s biography. After reluctantly agreeing to the project, Henry died in 1997 just as the project commenced. Below is an excerpt from Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning, published in spring 2000 by the University of Mississippi Press.