(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
In 1962, Montgomery County, Mississippi could still boast that not a single Negro had registered to vote or paid the poll tax. Tom Scarborough of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission took great comfort in this statistic and checked periodically with County officials to reassure himself that it was still so.
But in the early days of 1963, neither Scarborough nor the civic leaders he interviewed in Winona were finding it easy to sleep at night. The Freedom Rides of 1961were the first sign that Mississippi’s “massive resistance” to integration was running up against massive resistance of a different sort. Then black college students from nearby LeFlore County started preaching civil rights from Winona pulpits and asking to be served at the segregated Stacey’s restaurant at the Winona bus station. Winona had its Negroes under control, but thirty miles to the west, the cotton town of Greenwood was in turmoil.
There had been a long history of civil rights agitation in the Mississippi Delta where blacks outnumbered whites three to one. But when strange characters like the bookish Bob Moses (pictured above) and yarmulke-wearing James Bevel started speaking in Greenwood’s churches something new was afoot.
Gaining a foothold in Greenwood wasn’t easy. Mississippi’s White Citizen’s Council was headquartered in the community and, seven years earlier, Emmett Till had been murdered just up the road in the LeFlore County town of Money. Civil Rights workers like Moses and Bevel had a hard time getting the local black pastors to open their churches–you couldn’t keep a secret like that from the Citizen’s Council. LeFlore County was 70% black, but 90% of that population was illiterate. (To vote you had to pass a test on the Mississippi constitution . . . if you were black). Worse still, the economy was in a shambles and, in the countryside, poor sharecroppers were literally starving to death. The situation grew desperate when LeFlore County officials flexed their muscles by blocking federal food surplus shipments.
After eight months of direct action in Greenwood, only fifty Negroes had registered to vote.
Then, in February of 1963, someone set fire to the modest SNCC (Student Nonviolent Co0rdinating Committee) offices in Greenwood. When Sam Block, one of the young civi rights activists working in LeFlore County, accused local leaders of arson he was arrested for “statements calculated to breach the peace.” It was the seventh time Block had been arrested in Greenwood. A few days later, a judge found Block guilty but offered to toss the case if the defendant would abandon his organizing activities and leave town. “Judge,” the young man replied, “I ain’t gonna do none of that.”
Block was sentenced to six months and that night 250 people crowded into a mass meeting. Bob Moses used Sam Block’s sacrifice to shame and inspire his audience. The next day, 150 people followed Moses to the LeFlore County courthouse in yet another futile attempt to register black voters.
A few days later, a young activist named Jimmy Travis was shot in the neck as he drove his car to nearby Sunflower County. Bob Moses took the wheel and drove the wounded man to a hospital in Jackson, the nearest medical facility willing to treat a black activist.
The shooting of Jimmy Travis touched off a chain reaction. Off in Yankeeland, the folk revival was in full swing and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” (interpreted by the more refined Peter, Paul and Mary) was number one on the charts. Pete Seeger grabbed Dylan and took him down to Greenwood for an impromptu concert. As the picture to the right suggests, only a handful of people showed up for the show, but it helped put Greenwood on the map. More significantly, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) sent the articulate and dignified Annell Ponder to teach basic literacy and voter registration classes in Greenwood.
Soon Yankee reporters were on the streets of Greenwood chatting up the locals. According to Taylor Branch, a white Greenwood resident summed up the situation for the media in blood-chilling terms: “We killed two-month old Indian babies to take this country, and now they want us to give it away to the niggers.”
Making the most of the momentum, Bob Moses led hundreds of Greenwood residents to the LeFlore courthouse where they were met by every lawman in the county, the mayor, and a pack of snarling dogs. The next morning the headline in the New York Times read, “Police Loose Dog on Negroes’ Group, Minister is Bitten.” John Kennedy saw the headline and rested his head in his hands.
The situation in Greenwood escalated when Bob Moses, James Forman and six other activists were sentenced to four months in prison. They decided they could hurt the opposition more by serving out the sentence than by filing an appeal. Comedian Dick Gregory arrived in Greenwood to lecture local whites and put on a show for the press. A picture of the defiant comic with a snarling cop twisting one arm behind his back graced the front page of the Times the following day.
As John Doar of the Justice Department worked behind the scenes to get the sentences of the eight civil rights workers reduced, James Bevel (pictured below in front of the light bulb cross) stepped in to fill the leadership void.
When the Greenwood fire department devoted their fire hoses to the segregation fight, Bevel approached the fire chief. “There’s a fire going on inside us, baby,” he said, “but you can’t put it out.”
A few days later, the eight civil rights workers were released from jail. John Doar had worked out a deal in which local officials agreed to drop the charges and re-institute the surplus food program. Bob Moses was devastated to learn that voting rights for Mississippi Negroes wasn’t part of the deal.
John Doar’s settlement delighted President Kennedy, but it took the fire out of the Greenwood Movement. Dick Gregory left town and the mass meetings shrivelled to a tenth their former size. But as the prime locus of the civil rights movement shifted back to Martin Luther King and Birmingham, the work went on quietly in Greenwood. Annell Ponder was teaching semi-illiterate Delta Negroes like Fannie Lou Hamer how to read, how to write, how to pass the registration test and how to pass this knowledge on to others.
No one could have knew it at the time, but a stout, gospel singing, forty-seven year-old black woman was fixing to turn America upside down. In the process, she would make little Winona, Mississippi an enduring symbol of Jim Crow tyranny.