“Meddlesome Intruders”: the Freedom Riders hit Jackson, Mississippi

(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.)

What happens when the state of Mississippi takes a man to trial five times and fails to obtain a final conviction?

If the defendant is Curtis Flowers you try him a sixth time.  So far as I can gather, no American accused of murder has ever faced trial on the same facts six times.  But if it takes ten trials to convict Flowers, the state of Mississippi, represented by District Attorney Doug Evans, is determined to do it.

(What follows is part of a series of posts concerning the tragedy that has divided a Mississippi town.  The entire series can be found here.)

The picture above was snapped in late September of 1962, thirty-four years before Curtis Flowers was apprehendedby the State of Mississippi.  The shot captures the scene a day before James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi after two years of legal and political maneuvering.  The men in the picture are sheriffs from all over the state who were called to Oxford to keep the peace.   In reality, they were in Oxford to keep the federal government from integrating Ole Miss.  The man holding the bat is Sheriff Billy Ferrell of Natchez, Mississippi.  The man with the arm band and his back to the camera is Sheriff John Ed Cothranof Greenwood, just down the road from Winona.  The fat man with the malicious grin is Sheriff James Ira Grimsely of Pascagoula on the coast.  The fellow brandishing clenched fists is Sheriff James Wesley Garrison of Oxford.

The picture originally appeared in Life magazine.  The photographer was Charles Moore, the same man who captured the famous scene of Martin Luther King being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958.  You can learn everything you would ever want to know about Charles Moore and the sheriffs in his famous picture by picking up a copy of Paul Hendrickson’s Sons of Mississippi, available from Amazon.  You can buy a used copy for one red penny.

A reporter with the Washington Post, Hendricksonwas mesmerized by the picture of the Mississippi lawmen.  The mixture of malice and mirth raised obvious questions about the men and their mission.  Hendrickson spent several years travelling between Washington and Mississippi interviewing the surviving sheriffs, their children and their grandchildren.

A telling phrase echoes through the book: “that civil rights crap”.  All these men were on guard during the period between 1960 and 1964 when the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens’ Councils were fighting a last ditch battle to preserve the Southern way of life.  In their minds, people like Medgar Evers of the Mississippi NAACP, Fannie Hamer, the unlettered organizer from Ruleville, Mississippi, and nationally prominent leaders like Martin Luther King were nothing but a bunch of self-promoting communist agitators.

That’s not so surprising, perhaps, considering the traumatic times these men lived through.  But Hendrickson found little reason to believe that the children and grand children of the men in Moore’s picture felt much differently.  The issues weren’t as emotional for the young folk; but civil rights resentment appeared to be a staple of Mississippi life.  The fact that only 11% of Mississippi’s white voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama might not seem all that significant by itself (nationally, Obama won the votes of 43% of white voters).  But when yourealize that Mississippi towns like Winona and Charleston entered the twenty-first century with segregated senior proms, or that State Senator Lydia Chassaniol can boast about her membership in the thoroughly racist Council of Conservative without raising a single eyebrow in the regional media you begin to understand the mindset Curtis Flowers of Winona, Mississippi is grappling with.

On May 31, 1961, the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP (the same organization that sponsored Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954) captured national attention by filing a suit on behalf of James Meredith, the black man Ole Miss refused to admit.  There had been less fanfare a few weeks earlier when an integrated group of “Freedom Riders” left Washington DC.

True to a carefully wrought plan, the Freedom Riders headed south to Alabama where  one group boarded a bus bound for Anniston and a second contingent headed for Bull Conner’s Birmingham.

Both trips ended in disaster.  The first group had their bus fire-bombed just outside of Anniston.  The second group was beaten mercilessly by a white mob in Birmingham.

Undaunted, a bold group of Freedom Riders pressed on from Birmingham to Jackson, Mississippi.  Upon arrival, they were unceremoniously herded into waiting paddy wagons.  A white judge turned his back as a high-minded defense attorney argued the vagaries of federal law, then sentenced the young defendants to 60 days.

Alarmed by the events spilling onto national headlines, Attorney General Robert Kennedy urged the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to institute tough new measures outlawing discrimination in interstate travel.

New waves of black and white Freedom Riders, most of them college students, kept arriving in Jackson.  Black Riders attempted to enter white restrooms and cafes and vice versa.  Jackson authorities drew a line in the sand.  Sentences for the second wave of Riders were doubled from 60 to 120 days.  Two weeks into the crisis in Jackson, convicted Freedom Riders were shipped off to the notorious Parchman Plantation prison in the Mississippi Delta’s Sunflower County.

Convinced that the national tide was running in its favor, the Jackson Daily News printed a sarcastic announcement in the June 12th edition:

ATTENTION: RESTLESS RACE MIXERS

Whose hobby is Creating Trouble

Get away from the blackboard jungle, rid yourself of fear of rapists, muggers, dopeheads, and switchblade artists during the hot, long summer.

FULFILL THE DREAM OF A LIFETIME: HAVE A “VACATION’ ON A REAL PLANTATION

Here’s All You Do

Buy yourself a Southbound ticket via rail, bus or air

Check in and sign the guest register at the Jackson City Jail.  Pay a nominal fine of $200.  Then spend the next four months at our 21,000-acre Parchman Plantation in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

Meals furnished.

“We cash U.S. government Welfare Checks”

Still, they kept coming.  A stalwart group of 15 Episcopal priests made national headlines by getting arrested in the Mississippi capitol.  By July 6, 1961, 184 people had been arrested and the Sovereignty Commission was furiously running background checks on every one of them.  A story was released linking the Riders to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Nothing worked.  The young people kept coming.  His sentence served, civil rights leader, James Farmer walked out of Parchman with stories of brutal conditions.  On orders from Governor Ross Barnett, prison guards dispensed with the normal routine of corporal punishment and field labor, but Riders were forced to strip naked upon arrival and subjected to lewd comments from prison guards.  The midsummer heat was merciless and a single mattress was the only vestige of civilization the Riders enjoyed.  When they sang gospel and freedom songs the mattresses were removed.

Still, the riders kept coming by the hundreds even though media coverage, even in the North, was distinctly negative.  Ex-president, Harry Truman, likely expressed the prevailing consensus when he told reporters that the Freedom Riders were nothing but “meddlesome intruders” who did nothing but “stir up trouble.”  Emboldened by such talk, the conservative black-owned Jackson Advocate sided with state authorities and even questioned the motives and moral integrity of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King. 

Medgar Evers (right), head of the Mississippi NAACP, countered by inviting Dr. King to Jackson for a rally that drew a crowd of 1500.  A few days later, alarmed Sovereignty Commission officials were warning Montgomery Sheriff Earl Partridge that a demonstration was planned for Winona.

It was a false alarm.

You could get away with demonstrations in Jackson if the national media was on hand; but Winona was a whole ‘nuther story.  When black Winona native Johnnie Barber attended a NAACP rally in the spring of 1961 his mother received a personal reprimand from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.   Commission officers had traced every license plate outside the gathering.

Soon a trickle of black and white southerners were taking Freedom Rides.  In late June, a group of Mississippians were arrested in Jackson for breaking segregation laws on their way out of Jackson.

By late September, the conservative ICC yielded to pressure from Robert Kennedy by issuing new, highly specific regulations barring racial discrimination in interstate bus, train and air travel.  When Mississippi Delta mayors were asked by the regional press if they intended to abide by the new federal guidelines most declined comment.  M.C. Billingsley of Winona showed his political naivete by telling a reporter that he hated the new regulations as much as any man in Mississippi but it was the law and he intended to abide by it.

The next day, Mayor Billingsley received a visit from Montgomery County Sheriff Earl Partidge and Tom Scarborough of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

How did this liberal Yankee assault on the Southern way of life impact citizens of Winona?  That’s the subject of my next post.

11 thoughts on ““Meddlesome Intruders”: the Freedom Riders hit Jackson, Mississippi

  1. i was born and raised in natchez. there was not total purity of races in our little hick town. a lot of us were cross-breeds. we had our own little ritz theatre but for major movies like the ROBE, we went downtown. we didn’t have to walk down an alley like we discovered was the situation in nashville, once our parents moved us here. in natchez we entered through a very plain door on the front of the theatre located a little to the right of the giant glass doors where our white cousins gained entrance. (smiles) our popcorn was fresh and our cups were full, so full that we had enough left over to give our white cousins a refreshing shower from our penthouse perch in the rooster’s nest. one year, we saw Elvis at the city auditorium, us on one side and them on the other. we went to the big tent for barnum and bailey’s acts and sat together (no choice in a tent). the city beckoned for good teachers, built our black high school bigger and better than theirs. educated us well and discipline was the order of the day. there were hardly no disturbances. we did our thing, they did theirs. it was not the best of times but it certainly was not like it is today. we might have been further along the road to civil sanity if communities had worked it out amongst themselves. oh, i had a few minor disputes. i didn’t move off the sidewalk, i drank from the white-only fountain, i jumped over the wall of the orphanage tp play with my abandoned white cousins. if someone called me nigga, i called them pecker. my dad being a prominent son of the state could have had a lot to do with my survival. i loved Natchez. 1946-1959

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your memories. I get the impression that some parts of Mississippi were more harmonious and laid back than others. The Delta counties, at least in the early sixties, were simply bristling with a deep anxiety that easily translated into bigotry and violence. Lawrence Guyot, the man who was arrested and beaten in Winona for trying to free Fannie Lou Hamer and her companions, was from a town on the coast and had never encountered the kind of racial hatred he encountered in Montgomery County.

    It cannot be denied that segregation produced a strong sense of community in black culture that was often lost after integration. Having all-black teachers had its advantages, and black business owners found it easier to stay in business. But the price for these advantages was staggering. We need to regain that sense of community while continuing to move to a genuinely equal society.

    Alan Bean

  3. I remember a lot of this about the Freedom Riders. Bull Conner and Gov. Wallace called them “outside agitators”. I lived in Birmingham. MLK was the local news. I thought I would have liked to have been a Freedom Rider but I was still a child. The city closed the public pools because the “colored” children “carried diseases”. Then they re-opened them as private membership pools for particular neighborhoods, of course with the “colored” sections gerrymandered out of them. My favorite pool, East Lake, which was in a working class community was simply filled with concrete.

    “Colored” was considered the polite term because if you said “negro” they might think you were saying “nigger” and stab you. My mother informed me that all colored people carried knives and the old ladies carried hat pins for this purpose.

    The first years of desegregation at my high school, in 1966, was different from yours because most of the students (7 girls the first year and 13 boys and girls the second) played in the band. Musicians don’t care about color and the hippies formed a jazz combo with some of the black students. That went a long way, especially since the black community was right next to the white one and the gerrymandering that had kept them at Rosedale was so blatantly obvious so they could get together after school and walk home.

    Your memories bring back my memories. My junior year was the first year of desegregation in my school and the Student Council had to work fast to repair Homecoming because a major event was a slave auction where athletes were “sold” to raise funds and many students traditionally came to school in KKK outfits during “Mountie Week”. (Shades Valley High Mountaineers). The second year everything was totally revamped because the Student Council President was highly respected, talented, Christian, wise, and popular. He was not a redneck jock and later became an actor who did a one-man show of the Cotton Patch Gospel and some tourism commercials.

    My most interesting event, however, was in my junior year. I had just transferred to that school as we had moved. The chemistry teacher called me to the front of the room and asked if I “minded taking the colored girl as my lab partner”. I told her I did not know anyone there and I was not prejudiced. I said this right in front of the whole class. Portia and I messed up experiments together all year. We had fun. My mother was shocked when she called about some homework, however. I knew better than to tell her.

    Then my sophomore year of college I had another black roommate in the dorm at the University of Alabama and learned about African-American hair care. There were still only a few black students at UA, mostly football players.

    Oh, there were still separate proms in Georgia and Alabama well into the 1990s and 2000s. The administrations got around integration by making the proms a “private party” rather than a school function.

    In South Georgia some of the “segregation academies” formed in the 1960s only integrated in the last few years because they needed to attract football and basketball players. Shortly before Katrina the catholic high school in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana got into trouble because they were recruiting black athletes from the public middle schools.

    I see an awful lot of the same problems popping up now with the controversy about universal health care. The protestors seem to be very heavily, almost exclusively, white. Just last week, Sunday, August 9, there was a story on WAFB.com (Baton Rouge) about a black child who was taken in by a white family in a very nice neighborhood in Livingston Parish being subjected to racial slurs.

    Mass group racism is just under the surface, but at the same time, in their personal lives, there are tons of mixed couples and bi-racial children.

  4. I am doing a project on the Rosedale building for one of my classes at the University of Montevallo. I was wondering, was the building in Rosedale simply called the Rosedale School? In the 80’s I attending high school in that building, but it was an annex of Shades Valley at that time. Thank you!

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