Organizing that Changed Mississippi
— Bill Chandler
an American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism
By John R. Salter Jr.
University of Nebraska Press, 2011, 272 pages, $18.95 paperback.
Coming of Age in Mississippi
By Anne Moody
Bantam Dell, 1968; Delta paperback edition, 2004, 424 pages, $16. Also available in audio CD from Tantor Media.
ON SATURDAY, AUGUST 24, a national march commemorated the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, conceived and organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
The 2013 march was planned as a celebration of the civil rights advances made during the past half-century. However, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, gutting much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, changed the theme from one of remembrance to March of Fight Back.
The two memoirs reviewed here vividly remind us that the 1963 March on Washington, and the Freedom Rides and Sit-Ins preceding it, were not just events that happened spontaneously as impatient protests against gross injustice in the South. They were products of tremendous efforts over many years of deep organizing.
Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, tells her own story of growing up near Centreville, on the county line between Wilkinson and Amite counties in southwestern Mississippi. Born in 1940, Moody candidly recounts in plain language the suffering of growing up in a racist society during the forties and fifties, not unlike the lives of hundreds of thousands of other African-American women in the South.
She did not give in, but mounted her own effort of defiant survival. Moody enrolled at Tougaloo College where, at that moment, students were beginning to participate in events led by Medgar Evers and the NAACP. She joined the effort.
John Salter´s account, Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, meets Anne Moody´s story as they both enter Tougaloo, she as a student, he as an American government professor.
Salter, a Native American, is also known as Hunter Gray. His father was a Wabanaki Indian from the far Northeast. Salter grew up in Arizona, where his parents through their actions instilled in him a passion for justice. Watching the struggles in the South from afar, he jumped at the opportunity to teach at Tougaloo and learn from the movement building in Mississippi.
Throughout this decade we are remembering the struggles for civil rights, social and economic justice that marked the 1960s. Too much is forgotten, however, about the organizing work that led up to the events we memorialize.
Serious organizing in the communities where these struggles occurred was, in fact, a continuation of organizing that had its roots in the early slave rebellions.
Among these largely forgotten efforts, nearly 100 years ago were Black attempts to organize on the heels of World War I, the “Great War,” violently suppressed by white mobs that ravaged and burned African American communities in some 25 U.S. cities, shooting down hundreds and lynching even more. Latinos and Asians were also attacked and killed with impunity.
In the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas and Mississippi, mobs including “respectable whites” reacted to Black sharecropper’s efforts to stop the cheating by the planters. They killed hundreds of Black farmers and their families and jailed Robert Lee Hill, a youth who led the effort.
School teacher Harry T. Moore was the NAACP’s Florida field secretary during the ’30s and ’40s, traveling across the state, knocking on doors in Black communities, teaching people about voting and educating them about their rights while building membership. He became a fulltime NAACP worker in 1946, after being blacklisted from teaching. The national NAACP leaders, however, nervous about his work, discontinued their support and fired him. On Christmas day, 1951 a bomb exploded under his house, killing him and his wife Harriette on their 25th wedding anniversary.
In Alabama there were organized voter registration efforts during the 1930s and the ‘40s. In the Birmingham area progressive unions like the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers participated with a few white workers joining the Black organizers.
During the 1950s the state of Alabama outlawed the NAACP, but people like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth pressed on to lead the organizing work.
In 1955 Montgomery, Rosa Parks wasn’t just “tired” when she sat down in the white section of the bus — as she had done on several previous occasions. Her defiance was a planned act, part of the organizing by local activists, to get the bus company to comply with previously enacted federal law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, prohibiting segregation in public transit. A youthful Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was pushed forward to lead the bus boycott when his cautious elders hesitated.
Actions organized by the Birmingham Movement brought Dr. King to Birmingham, where he was arrested and wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.
That movement produced an exceptional youth organizer who helped lead the student walkouts in 1963. Growing into a Baptist minister, Rev. James Orange later organized Memphis youth to join the striking sanitation workers in 1968, and went on to assist in many Southern workers’ union organizing campaigns.
Soldiers returning from World War II, after helping to defeat fascism in Europe and Japan, had high expectations for a good life when they came home. Freedom had prevailed — but not for Blacks, Latinos, or Asians in the United States.
Latinos returned home to signs that said “No Mexicans or dogs allowed,” and the exploitative “Bracero Program” — a guest worker scheme using laborers from Mexico, benefiting agribusiness and guaranteeing low wages for farm workers.
Japanese Americans returned from internment camps to inner city neighborhoods after losing their homes and possessions to the “relocation” by the federal government at the start of the war. Attacks on unions were escalating. U.S. apartheid was firmly in place. It was into this America that many returning veterans came — Cesar Chavez in California, Dr. Hector Garcia in Texas, and in Mississippi, Medgar Evers.
Beginning with door-to-door work selling insurance, Evers also was systematically recruiting members into the NAACP. In Jackson and in a score of other cities he built a network of chapters throughout the state. In several areas African American students had formed NAACP youth councils. In Jackson and at nearby Tougaloo College, councils had formed.
The Jackson Movement
"John Salter’s book recounts: In many respects, Tougaloo students were just like students anywhere. In many respects, they were not, for no matter where they came from — larger towns and cities such as Jackson, Biloxi, or Meridian, or small towns like Greenwood, Canton, and McComb, or hamlets or isolated sharecropper cabins in the rural areas, whether their families were well to do or poor — they were black, and they were black in the most repressively racist segregation complex in the United States. And they bore, one way or another, the scars of their past and present and of the future they thought they could never enjoy."
By 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been building a movement in the southwestern counties of Mississippi, including the area where Anne Moody grew up.
SNCC attempted to organize voter registration campaigns. High school students joined in but were beaten and arrested for their efforts. Community leader Herbert Lee, who had joined the effort, was murdered in front of several witnesses by a sitting Mississippi state representative who was never charged.
In Oxford, where James Meredith had enrolled at the University of Mississippi, mobs of whites attempted to attack him, resulting in race riots, during which a professor was attacked and a French reporter shot in the back and killed. Another victim died of a .38 caliber bullet. President John Kennedy ordered federal troops to intervene.
These events and those throughout the South motivated the students to seek out Salter and Rev. Ed King, a white Methodist minister who was the school’s chaplain, for support. Their progressive views attracted the attention of student activists.
Lending guidance, Salter and King alongside Medgar Evers encouraged the students to begin canvassing door-to-door throughout Jackson’s African-American neighborhoods. They organized house meetings, spoke at churches and brought their elders to the NAACP meetings at the Masonic Temple building on John R. Lynch Street where the NAACP was headquartered. Students at Jackson’s high schools joined the effort.
At the meetings people voiced serious concerns about the extreme racism and discrimination practiced by downtown Jackson merchants. Although there had been a previous effort to boycott the downtown businesses for a few days the year before, this time the community agreed to boycott the businesses until their demands were met. Now well organized, the boycott began to work on into 1963. Police reacted by arresting anyone picketing.
By this time, both John Salter and Anne Moody were totally engaged in the struggle with scores of not only Tougaloo students, but many other youth, including adults motivated by the organizing. Students at Lanier High School organized walkouts. It was in this context that the famous sit-in at the downtown Jackson Woolworth lunch counter occurred, drawing national attention.
In the heat of this struggle with mass meetings and marches, arrests and beatings, incarcerations in animal pens at the state fairgrounds — much like what had happened to Harry T. Moore in Florida — the national leadership of the NAACP, more focused on litigation than organizing, withdrew from providing support including bail for those arrested.
Three weeks after the sit-in Medgar Evers was murdered, shot in the back in the driveway of his home, late at night as he returned from a meeting. It was said that the national NAACP would have fired him had he not been killed.
The Evers funeral led to what John Salter has described as “the largest demonstration of an ‘illegal’ nature that has ever occurred in Mississippi,” resulting in 30 arrests.
In the turbulent following days, “Ed King and myself were both seriously injured and nearly killed in an extremely suspicious auto wreck” — but the downtown boycott ultimately prevailed in “draining the white Jackson merchants into grudging compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” (ATC 165, July-August 2013, 26)
In 2013, we in Mississippi are commemorating events that took place a half century ago and earlier. On June 12th we honored the life of Medgar Evers, 50 years from the day he was murdered.
On May 28th at the site of the Woolworth store, now a vacant lot recently converted into a memorial park on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson, a historical marker was placed during a ceremony memorializing the sit-in 50 years ago.
That sit-in was led by Tougaloo College students including Pearlena Lewis, Memphis Norman, Anne Moody, Joan Trumpauer (now Mulholland), and Tougaloo social science professor John Salter. All were attacked and beaten while Jackson police officers looked on. Memphis Norman, a student, was knocked to the floor and kicked repeatedly, and has never fully recovered.
Joan Mulholland was on hand to unveil the marker. About 50 others attended, many veterans of that Movement.
During the 1963 struggle, the Black population of Jackson was over 60%, with not one Black elected official. The Jackson Movement helped create a momentum for justice that was impossible to turn around. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both results of the Movement organizing throughout the South and elsewhere, much has changed. Now 80% African American, Jackson has five African-American city council members out of seven, and has had three Black mayors.
Newly elected Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, while serving as a city council member, led the enactment of an anti-racial profiling ordinance that includes a prohibition on asking immigrants for their “papers.”
These two books are firsthand accounts by two of the people who helped organize the Jackson Movement. Moody’s book, first published in 1968, has been a popular tool for organizers to use in training leadership, especially Black women. Salter’s was self-published in 1979 when he couldn’t interest commercial publishers to print it. Finally the University of Nebraska Press has published it.
That both books are currently in print is due to the steadfastness of the authors and the lasting importance of the Movement. If you want to understand an important part of Movement organizing in Mississippi, these are the books to read.
[Editor’s note: John R. Salter Jr. (Hunter Gray) lives in Idaho, and writes at www.hunterbear.org about Movement history as well as current issues. His account of working with Medgar Evers in the Jackson Movement appeared in ATC 165, online at http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3935.]
January/February 2014, ATC 168