Tag Archive for 'mississippi'

Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer and Voter Registration

On August 31, 1962—50 years ago today—Fannie Lou Hamer led seventeen people to a courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, to attempt to register to vote. It was the beginning of a long struggle.

For decades, white supremacists had blocked African American voter registration by enacting various discriminatory rules and regulations—particularly unreasonable tests that most applicants would inevitably fail. Despite voter registration drives, only a tiny segment of the African American population was registered.

When Hamer and the others arrived at the courthouse on August 31 to register, they were met by men with rifles determined to prevent their registration. Ultimately, not one member of the group was able to register that day. And Hamer lost her job because her employer objected to her attempted registration.

Unwilling to give up, Hamer attended a SNCC leadership training conference, and then continued her registration attempts until officials finally allowed her to register in December 1962. But Hamer wasn’t just seeking registration for herself; she wanted true voting equality for all.

Hostility and violence always loomed over fights for civil rights. In June 1963, on her way back from a SCLC citizenship training program, Hamer was arrested after being refused service in a restaurant. She and her 15-year-old traveling companion were beaten by two other African American prisoners under orders from the police. Although five were charged in the beating, an all-white jury later acquitted the police.

Undeterred, Hamer continued the struggle, walking in James Meredith’s march against fear and in 1968 sitting as a delegate at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention. Her later activism included not only voting rights but also anti-poverty campaigns and desegregation protests.

A testament to her influence and contributions, Hamer’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people, including Andrew Young, who gave the eulogy. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she was also honored as the namesake of several institutions, including parks and educational facilities.

Hamer, like so many other civil rights activists and ordinary citizens, risked hostility and violence to make major contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1964, poll taxes—another common disfranchisement tool—were banned through the passage of the 24th Amendment; in 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed the disfranchisement practices that kept Hamer and many other African Americans from registering to vote.

To learn more about voting rights, take a look at this lengthy contextual report published by the National Park Service.

To learn more about Hamer, check out this page from Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society, and this page from Howard University. The Encyclopedia Britannica article can be found here.

For more on Hamer’s life and work, check out Kay Mills’ This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University Press of Kentucky 1993) and Chana Kai Lee’s For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University Press of Illinois 2000). Hamer herself wrote an autobiography in 1967: To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography.

For a study of the opposing activities of Fannie Lou Hamer and segregationist politician James Eastland, check out Chris Myers Asch’s The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (UNC Press 2011).

To listen to Hamer’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which she recalls the August 31 registration effort and the events which followed, click here. To read the text, and to access a summary, check out this page from American Public Media.

To learn more about the freedom struggle in Sunflower County—the location of the August 31 voter registration attempt—check out J. Todd Moye’s Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986 (UNC Press 2004).

To learn about voting rights in Mississippi, check out Frank Parker’s Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (UNC Press 1990).

Disfranchisement began long before Hamer was born. To learn more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from elections, check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press 2001).

Remembering Emmett Till

On August 28, 1955—57 years ago today—fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi.

Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting his relatives in Mississippi. On August 24, while in a grocery story with other young boys, Till either spoke with or whistled at the 21-year-old wife of the proprietor. It is unclear exactly what transpired during that interaction, but the white woman, Carolyn Bryant, told her husband and others that Till had grabbed her around the waist and used foul language.

Several nights later, after Bryant’s husband, Roy, returned to town, he, his half-brother J.W. Milam, and possibly others, kidnapped Till, brutally beat and mangled him, shot him, and dumped his body in a river, weighed down by a heavy cotton gin fan.

Three days later, Till’s body was discovered, unrecognizable after the violence he had faced.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, shocked the nation by holding an open-casket public funeral service. Images of the young boy’s mutilated body circulated heavily in the press, engendering public outcry amongst both African Americans and whites.

The images made it difficult to ignore the hostility and violence African Americans in Mississippi faced every day. However, other papers—specifically in Mississippi—presented a different story, highlighting Carolyn Bryant’s virtue and spreading fictitious rumors of an uprising by enraged African Americans.

The sheriff who had initially identified the body as Till’s backpedaled, raising doubts that Till had even been killed—let alone by Bryant and Milam.

After a heavily publicized trial, both murderers were acquitted. Jury deliberations lasted just over an hour, with one member of the all-white jury reporting “if we hadn’t stopped to drink a pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

Just a few months later, Bryant and Milam confessed in an article in Look magazine to kidnapping and murdering Till, but by now, they were protected against double jeopardy and could not be convicted.

In 2005, during a reopened case, Till’s body was exhumed and autopsied, confirming his identity.

In 2007, more than half a century after Till’s death, the first in a series of historical markers about the murder and trial was unveiled in Sumner, Mississippi, with an audience of several hundred people.

The brutal murder is still remembered today as a graphic example of the discrimination and violence African Americans were subjected to for years. Till’s name again hit the news earlier this year, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death was compared with Till’s several decades earlier.

The case was later chronicled in the PBS film The Murder of Emmett Till. The PBS website associated with the film offers a summary, a timeline, primary documents (including Till’s last letter to his mother), and more.

To learn more, and to view documents and multimedia, click here.

For more information, check out Christopher Metress’s The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (University of Virginia Press 2002), and Stephen Whitfield’s A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (Johns Hopkins University Press 1991).

Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, witnessed both the encounter in the grocery store and the kidnapping. To learn more, check out his memoir, Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till (Chicago Review Press 2010).

Chris Crowe published a young adult novel based on these events: Mississippi Trial, 1955 (Penguin 2003).

To see the FBI records about the Emmett Till case, including a transcript of the trial, click here.

Remembering Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On July 16, 1862—150 years ago today—one of the most well known civil rights and women’s rights activists in American history was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Within thirty years, this young African American woman, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), would be known across the country and world as the seemingly unafraid journalist leading a fierce anti-lynching crusade.

Born to slaves (freed in 1863), and orphaned at age 16, Wells attended a freedmen’s school in Mississippi before beginning her teaching career as a teenager. By age 22, she had moved to Memphis, Tennessee, attending Fisk University during the summers and teaching during the year.

One might say progressive work was in her blood; her parents were very active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction, and Wells certainly followed in their footsteps. In the mid-1880s—seven decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat—Wells was forcibly removed from a train seat. Although she won her case in the local circuit court, the Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling against Wells.

Writing under the pseudonym “Iola,” Wells began to publish newspaper articles calling for an end to racial discrimination and injustice. After three of her friends were brutally lynched in 1892, she began her anti-lynching campaign, publishing articles, lecturing, and organizing anti-lynching societies. It was a dangerous path to choose; soon after she began writing and organizing, she started to receive threats—and, in fact, her newspaper office was destroyed by a mob.

Hostility and threats did not stop her, though. She traveled the country and world, fighting against lynching, and arguing for racial equality, suffrage, and women’s rights. Indeed, she established several women’s organizations, and, when she married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, she exhibited her feminism, choosing to keep her own last name alongside that of her husband, thus becoming Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Widely published in newspapers, Wells-Barnett also completed several pamphlets, including Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and A Red Record, 1892-1894. She remained an active writer and speaker for the rest of her life, helping to found the NAACP and publishing articles advocating racial and gender equality (see, for example, her article about the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917).

Wells-Barnett’s autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published in 1970, nearly forty years after her death. Numerous collections of her writing are also available (see, for example, Oxford University Press’ The Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett).

The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation will hold a birthday celebration July 13-15 at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Also in honor of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee commissioned a renowned Chicago sculptor to create a monument, to be installed in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, where she lived for 36 years.

To learn more about Wells-Barnett, check out this summary from Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to Black History and this page from PBS. Tennessee History for Kids also provides a nice summary and several pictures.   A youthful portrait at the Library of Congress shows her determination.

To learn more, check out Patricia Schechter’s Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (UNC Press, 2001). Wells-Barnett’s life and contributions are also discussed in Cecelia Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) (UNC Press, 2009).

Remembering Three Young Civil Rights Workers

On June 21, 1964—48 years ago today and only one day after they began a new civil rights campaign—three young civil rights organizers disappeared in Mississippi.

The three men—James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—were part of the first wave of Mississippi Freedom Summer workers. At the time, intimidation of blacks was commonplace, and new voting laws had made registration increasingly difficult for African Americans. The young men and women set out in a hostile (and often violent) atmosphere to register thousands of African Americans to vote for the first time.

The activists—two of whom were white and one of whom was African American—were held in jail on a speeding charge while they were on their way to investigate a church burning. They were released from jail at night, and headed toward Meridian. The men, who had previously been quite careful to report their whereabouts, never arrived at their destination.

The FBI, on instruction from the Justice Department, began an exhaustive search for the missing civil rights workers—a search which ended six weeks later when the three bodies were recovered near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Cecil Price et. al. that the federal government had the power to police civil rights violations, and the FBI compiled enough evidence to convict seven individuals of violating the men’s civil rights. However, no one was convicted of murder; the 1967 federal trial of prime suspect Edgar Ray Killen ended in a hung jury.

In 2005—forty-one years after the workers’ deaths—Edgar Ray Killen (by then 80 years old) was convicted of recruiting the killers and was sentenced to 60 years in jail for manslaughter.

The horrifying disappearance and deaths of the three young workers shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement. Hundreds of other Freedom Summer workers braved the journey, and successfully registered thousands of African Americans to vote.

To learn more, click here.

The movie Mississippi Burning recalls the investigation. (Note that the investigation was code-named Miburn, short for “Mississippi burning.”)

If you have access through your library, a good biography of James Earl Chaney is in African American National Biography, available online through the Oxford African American Studies Center.

For more information, check out Howard Ball’s Murder in Mississippi (University Press of Kansas, 2004) and Bill Scheppler’s The Mississippi Burning Trial: A Primary Source Account (Rosen Publishing Group, 2003).

To learn more about the activists’ work that summer, check out one young volunteer’s account of her experience, provided by PBS. The Wikipedia summary of Freedom Summer is available here.

There are also dozens of books available which provide insight into the struggles African Americans faced in Mississippi during this period. UNC Press offerings include Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale and Emilye Crosby’s A Little Taste of Freedom.

Remembering Medgar Evers

On June 12, 1963—49 years ago today—white separatist Byron De La Beckwith shot and killed civil rights worker Medgar Evers, horrifying the American public and galvanizing the civil rights movement.

As the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, Medgar Evers was a vocal opponent of racial discrimination and a frequent victim of threats and violence. On June 12, he was shot in the back while walking from his car to the door of his house, where his wife and children were waiting for him. He died less than an hour later.

Although De La Beckwith was quickly apprehended, he was tried and acquitted twice in 1964, with hung juries both timesall-white juries, of course. More than two decades passed before further attempts at conviction were made. After the Jackson Clarion-Ledger uncovered documents that indicated official misconduct during the trial, Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter decided to retry the case—with a mixed-race jury this time.

Three decades after the crime, De La Beckwith was finally convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001.

A former soldier, Evers made lasting contributions to the civil rights movement, organizing sit-ins and voter registration campaigns and fighting for the enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education. His violent death shocked the nation, forcing Americans to recognize the hostility and violence faced by Southern African Americans and further mobilizing the struggle for equality.

To learn more, click here.

Click here to watch a video of UNC’s Minrose Gwin discussing her scholarly project, Mourning Medgar Evers.

To learn more about Medgar Evers, click here. Numerous books also discuss his life, work, and death, including Michael Vinson Williams’ Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (University of Arkansas Press, 2011) and Adam Nossiter’s Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers (Da Capo Press, 2002).

DeLaughter later published a book about the 1994 trial: Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (Scribner 2001).

There are also dozens of books available which provide insight into the struggles African Americans faced in Mississippi during this period. UNC Press offerings include Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale (2012) and Emilye Crosby’s A Little Taste of Freedom (2005).

James Meredith and the March Against Fear

On June 6, 1966—46 years ago today—James Meredith was shot and wounded on the second day of his 220-mile March Against Fear.

Meredith, best known for integrating the University of Mississippi four years earlier,  chose to march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to dispel fears of life in Mississippi and to encourage other African Americans to register to vote.  Although he planned the journey as a solitary march, a few companions joined him, as did three police cars.

That was not enough to protect him, though. Aubrey Norvell shot Meredith, who was taken to the hospital for surgery. Suddenly, in the face of violence, a march that had received little attention from larger civil rights organizations garnered interest. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael, after visiting Meredith at the hospital, elected to continue the march in his absence. It would be 20 days before Meredith was able to rejoin the march, which ended Sunday, June 26, 21 days after Meredith began the journey.

An estimated 16,000 African Americans and several hundred whites showed up in Jackson that day to see Meredith complete the journey. In his speech, Meredith called for the elimination of “the fear that grips the Negro in America to his very bones, not only in Mississippi, but in every section of this country, because every inch of the country is controlled by the system of white supremacy.” (For more about this speech, click here.)

Aubrey Norvell pled guilty to the shooting, and was sentenced to five years in prison (three of which were suspended). He was released from Parchman Penitentiary in June 1968.

A Duke University student last month fashioned his own march against North Carolina’s Amendment One; he compared the protest with Meredith’s March Against Fear.

For more information about the March Against Fear, click here.

To read news articles published during the march, click here, here, and here.

To watch a video clip of Meredith’s speech on June 26, click here.

To learn more about James Meredith, click here, or check out Charles W. Eagles’ The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (UNC Press, 2009).

Remembering a 1994 Conviction… For a 1963 Crime

On this day, only 18 years ago, white separatist Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the infamous murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers—more than thirty years after he committed the crime.

As the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, Medgar Evers was a vocal opponent of racial discrimination and a frequent victim of threats and violence. On June 12, 1963, Evers was shot in the back while walking from his car to the door of his house. He died less than an hour later.

Although De La Beckwith was quickly apprehended, he was tried and acquitted twice in 1964, with hung juries both timesall-white juries, of course. No further attempts at conviction were made for more than two decades. However, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger eventually uncovered documents that indicated official misconduct during De La Beckwith’s trial; a segregationist state agency had screened potential jurors before both 1964 trials. Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter decided to retry the case, and it went to trial in January 1994.

Finally, on February 5, 1994, a jury (this time of mixed races) convicted De La Beckwith of murder and sentenced him to life in prison. He died a prisoner in 2001.

For more information about the case, check out this video from the Hutchins Lecture series, in which Minrose Gwin discusses Medgar Evers and 1963 Mississippi.

DeLaughter later published a book about the 1994 trial: Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (Scribner 2001).

There are also dozens of books available which provide insight into the struggles African Americans faced in Mississippi during this period. UNC Press offerings include Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale (due to be published in May 2012) and Emilye Crosby’s A Little Taste of Freedom.

“Not Making More of It Than It Was”

Carol Hallstrom, who worked for SNCC in Mississippi from 1962 to 1966 (that’s quite a stretch for an emotionally exhausting job), recalls some of the tensions of civil rights work and of remembering that work years later.

“Not Making It More Than It Was” from Southern Oral History Program on Vimeo.

Desegregating Mississippi

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the founding of SNCC this weekend, we turn our minds to Mississippi, a crucial site of SNCC’s efforts to register African-American voters. Well, it will come as no surprise that the job isn’t entirely done in Mississippi. Yesterday, a federal court ordered a school district there to “stop segregating its schools by grouping African American students into all-black classrooms and allowing white students to transfer to the county’s only majority-white school.”

It’s almost refreshing to see direct-action resegregation, as opposed to the subtler trends that have resegregated American education. This is a trend identified not long after Brown, when Time magazine noticed that some token acts of desegregation were being reversed and that the concentration of African Americans in cities was skewing racial populations in schools. More recently, we’ve seen efforts to reverse that trend, notably in Seattle and Louisville, struck down by an activist Supreme Court.

Anyway, Gary Orfield has much smarter things to say on the subject. Take it away, Gary, and many thanks to ellen at UNC Press for sharing this post with us:

School districts–in the South and elsewhere–are under the false impression that desegregation law no longer exists and, as this Mississippi case shows, they may run into serious problems as a result. The Supreme Court has limited the duration of desegregation orders–if they are fully carried out–and allowed school districts to return to neighborhood schools, even though they may be segregated. It has not, however, released all school districts from existing plans and orders, and it has not changed the legal principle that actions which obviously increase segregation can be new violations producing new orders either in an existing case or in a new case. School districts that have quietly taken a number of actions that violate these principles need to clean up their acts or face a real risk that someone else may force them to make changes that are out of their control.

Continue reading ‘Desegregating Mississippi’

LCRM Visiting Scholar Series: John Dittmer

John Dittmer visited Carolina to talk about his new book, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee on Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care. It’s a timely book and one packed with wonderful stories about the movement in Mississippi, where doctors were needed not only to minister to African Americans in need of health care, but to heal the feet of the marchers.