“i never will forget”: memories from mississippi oral. · pdf file“i never...

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    For seven years, the University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral History Program traveled to Sunflower County to gather interviews with witnesses to history. These are their stories.

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    To those who risked their lives

    so that we could all be free.

    Nobodys free until everybodys free. Fannie Lou Hamer

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    A Publication of the




    Interviewers: Anna Armitage, Sarah Blanc, Margaret Block, Cindy Bobadilla, Michael

    Brandon, Lauren Byers, Chelsea Carnes, Kenisha Cauley, Khambria Clarke, Amelia

    DCosta, Nicole Cox, Steve Davis, Diana Dombrowski, A.J. Donaldson, Justin Dunnavant,

    Chris Duryea, Sarah Eiland, Candice Ellis, Diamia Foster, Derick Gomez, Michelle Gray,

    Christine Guerrier, Brittany Hibbert, Steve Houston, Justin Hosbey, Joanna Joseph, Genesis

    Lara, Jennifer Lyon, Joe Mathis, Josh Moore, Danielle Navarette, Stacey Nelson,

    Annemarie Nichols, Amanda Noll, Paul Ortiz, Breanne Palmer, Kathy Pierre, Dan Simone,

    Nailah Summers, Jessica Taylor, Caroline Vickers, Khama Jamaal Weatherspoon, Marna

    Weston, Kaydrianne Young

    Transcribers: Sarah Blanc, Diana Dombrowski, Jana Ronan

    Technical Direction: Deborah Hendrix

    Consultants: Margaret Block (Sam Block Jr. Civil Rights Organization), Stacy White

    (Sunflower County Civil Rights Organization)

    A note on the transcripts: All quotes are taken verbatim from transcribed interviews.

    SPOHP does not correct for grammar or accuracy, but does omit repeated words. Words

    in brackets are added for clarity. Some quotes are shortened for space, as indicated by an

    ellipsis. Every excerpt in this booklet is followed by the name of the narrator and the

    catalog number for their interview. To view the entire interview in the SPOHP archive on

    the UF George A. Smathers Libraries Digital Collections, visit http://ufdc.ufl.edu/freedom.

    Images and captions provided by Wisconsin Historical Society Freedom Summer Digital

    Collection: http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15932coll2

    June 2014 Gainesville, Florida

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    1: The Most Southern Place on Earth15

    2: Poverty and the Plantation21

    3: Designing a Freedom Summer....31

    4: The Sunflower County Movement....39

    5: Mass Meetings and Freedom Songs47

    6: One Man, One Vote..51

    7: The Fight for Educational Equity..57

    8: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party69

    9: The Deadly Seriousness of Mississippi .....75

    10: I Never Will Forget87

    Further Reading..107

    Index of Narrators.110

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    We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and

    a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles;

    it has an organic political perspective, along which it is travelling, to one degree or another, and

    everything shows that at the present time it is travelling with great speed and vigor.

    C.L.R. James (1948)

    The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States

    The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta is older than slavery, as epic as the

    Homeric Classics, and as enduring as the Mississippi River. Black Mississippians have created one

    of the most remarkable chronicles of resistance in United States history. Hitherto hidden from

    view to all but the most perceptive outsiders, the struggle was unveiled in the year of Freedom

    Summer as well as in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the most

    important independent political party in American history.

    To understand the origins of Freedom Summer it is necessary to go back over a century

    in time before 1964. There are far too many origin stories to tell in this brief space but here are a

    few. The role that African American soldiers from Mississippi played in the Civil War was decisive

    in winning the war and preserving the Union. Union Army soldiers of Liebs African Brigade saved

    General Ulysses S. Grants Vicksburg Campaign on June 7, 1863 by engaging in the longest

    bayonet engagement of the Civil War at the Battle of Millikens Bend. In defeating a Confederate

    force that had the advantage of numbers and better equipment, black soldiers vindicated

    Abraham Lincolns emancipation policy as a war measure and struck a fatal blow against the

    power of antebellum planters in Mississippi. Many of these troops had been slaves in the Delta

    region only weeks earlier. The record of black Mississipians in the struggle for freedom in the Civil

    War is a story that needs a fuller accounting. Shortly after the end of the war, the National Anti-

    Slavery Standard observed:

    The State of Mississippi enjoys the honorable distinction of having furnished more

    soldiers to the National armies engaged in our late struggle than any other of the

    Cotton States. To be sure, they were almost all black; but that made no difference in

    their fighting, while they received few bounties and still fewer promotions, allowances

    or pensions as officers. Others may have done better; but they did what they could,

    putting their whole hearts into the work.1

    1 "Mississippi," The National Anti-Slavery Standard, January 6, 1866

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    Black Union Army victories translated into political and economic advancement during

    Reconstruction. African Americans supported US Senators Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels as

    well as John R. Lynch, the first black speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. At the

    same time however, gains in politics and black self-assertion were tenuous. Born in 1904, Tarboro,

    North Carolina physician Dr. Milton Quigless shared with me the ordeal of the Page family. The

    Pages owned a plantation near Port Gibson, Mississippi that drew the ire of whites jealous of an

    African American family in possession of 600 acres of land. One particular Page, his name was

    Hamp Page. Hes a bad man. He says, "Don't fool with me. I ain't going to bother you, but if you

    fool with me, I'm going to get back at you." And he practiced marksmanship. Threw a dime up;

    hit it with his pistol. You never see that dime any more. He was that damn good. So one day,

    when he was in town, Port Gibson, the Page plantation was just about eight or nine miles from

    Port Gibson. One of them [Pages] had a run in with a white man and the white man slapped him.

    So he beat the hell out of that white man.2 After a heated gun battle, the Pages were driven out

    of Clairborne Parish and fled to St. Louis.

    Like their counterparts across the South, white planters engaged in a wave of terror and

    legal chicanery to disenfranchise African Americans in order to institute a system of economic

    peonage and agricultural profits. The Vicksburg Massacre cost 300 African American lives in 1874,

    and the vaunted Second Mississippi Plan served as a model of voter suppression throughout the

    South and a guarantor of legal segregation for decades.

    Black resistance persisted. While U.J.N. Blue of Meridian urged black Mississipians to leave

    for Africa in 1895 in order to escape white repression, Minnie Cox, the heroic black female

    postmaster of Indianola stood strong against white terrorists in 1903-1904 before finally ceding

    her position to save her family. During World War I, African Americans voted with their feet and

    left the state by the tens of thousands to seek better lives in the North in spite of draconian efforts

    by planters to force them to stay. "Because Rev. Thomas Collins read colored newspapers when

    ordered not to, the Afro-American newspaper reported in 1919, [A]nd because he persuaded

    his congregation not to attend an address by a speaker who was booked to advise colored

    people to stay in the South, Rev. Thomas Collins, of Yazoo, Mississippi narrowly escaped a severe

    beating from the Klan.On the way to the whipping post, Rev. Collins escaped and walked fifty

    miles to Jackson, Mississippi where he took the train for Philadelphia."3

    African Americans also organized against the threat of lynching. A "racial clash seems

    imminent late tonight" the Montgomery Advertiser reported on February, 1911 "as a result of a

    shotgun and pistol battel [sic] earlier in the evening between a posse of white men and a crowd

    of negroes. The shooting was an attempt on the part of the posse to disperse a gathering of

    Negroes in a house on the outskirts of Gunniston. An anonymous letter writer warned the editor

    of the Belzoni newspaper in the spring of 1919 that whites would begin to suffer accordingly if

    they continued to engage in anti-black violence. In Vicksburg that same year, "Officials here have

    received many threats that the Negroes of this section intend to st