Rev. Carolyn Abrams is perhaps best known as the mother of voting rights advocate, Stacey Abrams, but she has accomplished much more than being the matriarch of a dynamic and successful family. After earning her first master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Library Science, she spent fourteen years working as the director librarian for William Carey University. She then answered the call to ministry, joining her husband Robert in attending the Emory University Candler School of Theology, where both received Master of Divinity degrees.
Abrams grew up in Hattiesburg during the 1950s and 60s. In this episode she recalls attending segregated schools and being barred from entering whites-only establishments. Growing up in the segregated South, young black students had limited job opportunities available to them. Abrams explains how parents and teachers stressed education as the key to a better future.
Abrams and her husband encouraged their six children to earn good grades and to aim high in life. She discusses the accomplishments of each child and the role education played in their success.
As a lifelong resident of Hattiesburg, Abrams has witnessed many positive changes in her community. She describes the challenges of today and the need for young people to return to the Church.
PHOTO: Abrams family portrait, Hattiesburg American.
Growing up black in the 1940s, Katharine Carr Esters learned at an early age to stand up for herself. In this episode, she shares her memories of racial segregation and the struggle for dignity and respect. She recalls being taught by her father to “know who you are, and to be what you can be.”
During the Jim Crow era, blacks in the South were expected to sit in the back of public buses behind a partition. Esters describes an altercation she had with a bus driver in 1946 and how her letter to the bus company led to a change.
Before the Civil Rights Movement, black adults were not called Mr. or Mrs. by white people. Esters remembers insisting her mother be addressed as Mrs. by their bank in Kosciusko. Throughout her life, Esters has been an advocate for the marginalized in our society. She explains why it’s important to treat each other respect, dignity, and fairness.
Curtis Austin became the Assistant Director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage in 2000, before assuming the Directorship one year later. During his seven year tenure, the Center would expand its Civil Rights Documentation Project, becoming the definitive resource for researchers, teachers and museums seeking answers on the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
In this episode, Austin recalls growing in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers. He recounts his education and early career. His first oral history interview after becoming assistant director of the Center was of 104 year old King Evans. He remembers how it changed the way he thought about voting rights. As director of the oral history program at USM, Austin interviewed some key players in the Civil Rights Movement. He expresses pride in the Center’s work and discusses its importance.
Austin also discusses the Roots Reunion, a live Americana music program presented annually by the Center during the 1990s and 2000s. He describes the program’s impact.
The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage has always relied on grant funding for special programs and projects. Austin expresses disappointment in the university’s unwillingness to assist the Center financially during lean years and questions their level of support for this “hidden gem” during previous administrations.
Dr. Shana Walton began working with the Mississippi Oral History Program in 1992. As an anthropologist, Walton worked to expand the MOHP’s mission to include preserving the state’s cultural heritage. She and Director Chuck Bolton assembled a team that included not just historians, but also political science majors, anthropologists, and folklorists. During that transformative decade, the MOHP became the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, a prominent name in the preservation of Civil Rights history. In this episode, Walton recalls conducting oral history workshops for local communities interested in preserving their memories.
It was during this period that Walton met, hired, and befriended a legend in the Civil Rights Movement, Worth Long. The son of an AME preacher, Long rose to prominence in 1963, when he became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, Alabama. By the time Long began working with the COHCH in the 1990s, he was suffering from a degenerative eye condition that was slowly robbing him of his sight, but that did not slow him down in the least.
Worth Long traveled around Mississippi by bus conducting oral history interviews even though he was legally blind, relying on the kindness of strangers to help him reach his destination. Shana Walton remembers how Long used his blindness as an opportunity to make friends and preserve stories. As a civil rights activist, Worth Long heeded his father’s advice on how to set aside anger and see the good in people. Walton marvels at how her friend’s love for humanity would overcome the emotions of the moment.
Oseola McCarty received national acclaim for donating the bulk of her life’s savings to the University of Southern Mississippi. Shana Walton discusses recording McCarty’s oral history and the impact of her gift.
PHOTO: Alabama Department of Archives and History
For as long as he could remember, Will Davis Campbell wanted to be an evangelical preacher in a small southern church. He was ordained by the elders of the East Fork Baptist Church at the age of seventeen and was attending Louisiana College when the United States entered WWII. Campbell volunteered for the army in 1943 and was assigned to a medical unit in the Pacific. While serving in that capacity he read the historical novel Freedom Road by Howard Fast and his views on race relations were challenged “in a very dramatic and lasting fashion.”
After the war, Campbell attended Wake Forest, Tulane, and Yale Divinity School. He graduated and was called to be the pastor at a Baptist church in Taylor, Louisiana, but his progressive views on race and the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision inspired him to seek a more academic position. Campbell became Chaplin at the University of Mississippi but again his progress stance on the issue of race generated a great deal of controversy. After two and a half years, he resigned and went to work for the National Council of Churches as a field director for race relations, a role that would thrust him into the national spotlight as the Civil Rights Movement began heating up.
1976 – Will Davis Campbell grew up in the East Fork community with plans of becoming a preacher. In this episode he recalls how his thinking on race relations evolved while serving in the army. Campbell became a field director for the National Council of Churches in 1956. He explains how that position brought him to Civil Rights hotspots throughout the South.
In 1957, a group of nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. Campbell recounts escorting the students through the angry mob gathered out front. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference recruited a group of 125 rabbis, priests, and ministers to come to Albany, Georgia in 1963 to be arrested and immediately bailed out of jail. The plan was to shine a national spotlight on the city’s anti-congregation laws. Campbell remembers how Andrew Young allowed the clergymen to remain incarcerated overnight to get the "full activist experience."
CAUTION: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
When Claude E. Ramsay sat down with us in April of 1981 to discuss his career and tenure as President of the Mississippi AFL – CIO, the three main topics of that series of interviews were: worker’s rights, voting rights, and civil rights. Forty years later, those same three issues are still grabbing headlines across the nation. Whether it is Amazon employees in Alabama trying to unionize, GOP efforts to restrict voting after the 2020 election, the Black Lives Matter movement, or the uptick in violence against Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish communities, the struggle for better working conditions, access to the ballot and freedom from discrimination continues against the same forces using the same tactics and reasoning.
1981 - In 1939, Claude Ramsay went to work for the International Paper Company in Pascagoula. In this episode, he recalls joining the paper-workers union and rising through the ranks to become president. Ramsay was elected President of the Mississippi AFL – CIO in 1959. He discusses working with Medgar Evers to secure voting rights and labor rights for all Mississippians. Ramsay also details his meeting with President Kennedy the day after Evers’s assignation.
In 1964, after years of complaints about the anti-union, anti-civil rights biases of WLBT, the AFL – CIO joined the United Church of Christ in petitioning the FCC to revoke the Jackson television station’s license. Ramsay explains why they felt it was important to take a stand against “right wing propaganda.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed employment discrimination based on gender and ethnicity. Ramsay discusses how the law also aided efforts to organize Mississippi’s workers.
During our 50th Anniversary Celebration, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage will continue to dig deep into our collection to bring you significant stories of Mississippians from all walks of life.
Few individuals had more impact on the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi than Dr. Aaron Henry. The son of sharecroppers, Henry was born in Dublin, Mississippi and raised on the Flowers brothers’ plantation. Henry’s father trained to become a cobbler and moved their family to Clarksdale to provide better opportunities for his children to receive an education.
Henry excelled scholastically and would eventually own his own pharmacy. In 1951 he was a founding member of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. He joined the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP in 1954 and was elected President in 1959. His accomplishments are too numerous to name here, but Henry was on the front lines of every battled waged for equality in Mississippi throughout his life. He served as a member of Mississippi State House of Representatives from 1982 to 1996. He died of congestive heart failure in 1997. Please enjoy these excerpts from his COHCH interview conducted May 1, 1972.
1972 – Dr. Aaron Henry of Clarksdale joined the Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP in 1954. He explains how the organization’s shift towards integration angered the white community. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Henry promoted unity and equality for all Mississippians. He reflects on the need for racial reconciliation in a healthy and prosperous society.
During the long hot summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers went missing in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Henry recalls the search for Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, as well as his own brush with death.
As a civil rights activist, Dr. Aaron Henry listened to many inspirational speeches. He shares some of his favorite lines from newspaper publisher Hodding Carter and others.
PHOTO: Getty Images, John Dominis
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. This week, we look back with pride at our interview of civil rights icon, Fannie Lou Hamer. The first part was conducted in Fall of 1972 and focused more on her work with voter registration and the Freedom Democratic Party. In the second part, conducted in January of 1973, Hamer reflects on the current state of the movement, her efforts to provide housing and healthy foods choices for Mississippi’s poor people, and how the Civil Rights Movement was evolving to address new challenges.
1973 –In 1964, Hamer and ten other civil rights activists travelled to Africa for a much-needed rest. She recalls how the people they met on that trip inspired her to see what was possible for blacks in America. Hamer remembers feeling angry that African Americans had had they culture, and history stolen from them and how they had been made to feel ashamed by the West’s distorted image of their homeland.
One objective of the Civil Rights Movement was to change the old ways of thinking about race. Hamer discusses the importance of realizing that we all need each other. In 1969, Hamer and a group of donors founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She explains how they grow vegetables and other crops to help feed poor people in the Delta.
By 1972, many goals of the Civil Rights Movement had been met and some said the work was finished. Hamer opines on how the Movement has evolved and why the struggle must continue.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. This week, we dip into the interview of Dr. William Penn Davis, conducted on March 24, 1972. During the Civil Rights Movement, no white church leader in Mississippi showed more bravery or strength of his convictions than Reverend Davis. His lifelong work towards racial unity—which he called “human relations”—was met at times with threats of violence and scorn by white Christians and non-Christians alike.
1972 - Dr. William Penn Davis was born in Union County, Mississippi, in 1903. In this episode, he recalls how his parents taught him, by example, to treat people with respect, regardless of race. While attending Mississippi College, Rev. Davis served as pastor of a church in the Brownsville community. He explains how a hate crime inspired his work to improve race relations in the state.
From 1957 until 1971, Davis served as president of the Mississippi Baptist Seminary. He discusses their efforts to promote racial unity during the Civil Rights Movement. As an advocate for race relations, Rev. Davis was often targeted by white supremacists. He remembers being beaten and left for dead by a group of masked men.
Because black churches were meeting places for civil rights organizers, dozens were burned in retribution. Dr. Davis recounts how the Citizens of Concern rebuilt fifty-two churches during that time.
CAUTION: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE AND DESCRIPTIONS OF VIOLENCE.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. As the last layperson to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Owen Cooper recognized the need for fundamental changes in the organization’s approach to racial issues. While the nation attempted to build on the tenuous gains of the Civil Rights Movement, Cooper recognized that Baptist churches, too, must evolve in the way they dealt with their black brothers and sisters in Christ. However, his determination to change the old ways of thinking and put those changes into action would require the sacrifice of his political aspirations.
1972 - Like many Mississippians of his generation, Cooper gave little thought to racial equality. He recalls how his daughter’s desire to attend an integrated church sparked a change in his thinking. As President of the Southern Baptist Convention for two terms, 1972 – 74, Cooper recognized the need for churches to be more welcoming of African Americans. He explains the dilemma for church leaders during that time.
As a prominent businessman, Owen Cooper’s work with pro-civil rights organizations created controversy. He remembers how a picture of him eating dinner with NAACP leader Aaron Henry was widely circulated. When Cooper decided to work with black citizens in such groups as Mississippi Action for Progress, he knew it would end his hopes of running for governor. He reflects on that decision.
Forty-eight years after this interview was conducted, the Southern Baptist Convention has made solid progress in the way it handles the issue of race. However, for the nation as a whole, Sunday morning worship services remain the most segregated of hours.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. This week we look at the career of civil rights attorney R. Jess Brown. Brown originally came to Mississippi in 1946 as a public-school teacher. After Gladys Noel Bates was fired and black-listed from teaching in Mississippi for agreeing to be the plaintiff in a landmark civil rights lawsuit, Brown volunteered to take her place. When his teaching contract was not renewed, he left the state to attend law school at Texas Southern University. He passed the Mississippi Bar Examination in 1954 and established his law practice that same year.
1972 – At the time this interview was conducted in the Jackson law office of R. Jess Brown on April 2, 1972, Brown was still an active, practicing attorney. Brown was born in Coffeeville, Kansas in 1912. In this episode, he explains how growing up in Oklahoma inspired him to become a civil rights attorney. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the early 60s, activists were often targeted by police. Brown recalls representing these defendants against a variety of charges.
In preparing for the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, workers received training on how to protect themselves both physically and legally. Brown remembers going to Oxford, Ohio, to warn them of the hazards they would likely face.
During the Civil Rights Movement, some black citizens feared reprisals after the activists went home. Jess Brown discusses the strategy of direct confrontation versus a protracted legal battle.
WARNING: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. Another controversial Mississippian takes the spotlight in this week’s episode. Few public figures did more to hinder the cause of civil rights in our state than Judge Thomas P. Brady of Brookhaven.
1972 - In 1948 President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the US Military. He also supported progressive civil rights legislation that threatened long-established Jim Crow laws of the day. In this interview recorded on March 4, 1972, Judge Brady recalls helping form the State’s Right Democratic Party or “Dixiecrats” in response. In the 1950s, a series of progressive Supreme Court decisions angered conservative whites across the South. Brady states his reasons for wanting Justices to be elected and not appointed.
After school segregation was ruled unconstitutional in Brown versus the Board of Education, Brady railed against that decision in a speech entitled “Black Monday.” He explains how the speech became a book and inspired the formation of Citizens’ Councils across the country. While overtly rejecting the violent tactics of the KKK, the Citizens’ Council covertly worked to destroy the lives and livelihoods of all who openly supported integration and equal rights of black Mississippians.
Judge Brady was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court in July of 1963. Despite his record on racial matters, in several cases that came before the court, he demonstrated a fealty to the Constitution beyond his personal beliefs. He discusses his decision to integrate a “whites only” park in Greenwood despite being a segregationist.
PHOTO: actual Citizens Council membership card from private collection.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021.
1972 - Percy Greene had a terrible secret. When the civil rights pioneer and publisher of the Jackson Advocate newspaper agreed to be interviewed by us in December of 1972, he had been secretly serving as an informant for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for years. It was a secret he would take to the grave when he passed in 1977 and not revealed until the Commission’s files were unsealed much later.
So why would a man so nationally respected as a voice for the disenfranchised black citizens of Mississippi agree to share damaging information about the Civil Rights Movement’s leadership with the state?
It is an intriguing question. Perhaps it was Pride—bitterness at having lost his role as the state’s voice for equality under the law—that drove him to do it. Maybe it was his belief that the Movement was a communist plot to overthrow the country: a conspiracy theory that echoes today’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Whatever the reason, Greene’s role as an informant has forever overshadowed his legacy.
In 1940, Greene, organized the Mississippi Negro Democrats Association. In this episode, he describes their early efforts to register Black Mississippians to vote. By 1944, over 8,000 African Americans had been registered to vote in Mississippi. Greene recalls Senator Theodore Bilbo’s campaign of black voter suppression.
As publisher of the Jackson Advocate, Greene championed equal rights under the law. Even so, he believed the Civil Rights Movement was in fact, a communist plot. Greene opposed efforts to integrate public schools and the use of the word “Black” instead of “Negro.” He explains how his call for a “New Liberalism” throughout the South would be more tolerable to whites than forced desegregation.
Greene’s characterization of young civil rights workers as communists and militants made him a pariah of the Movement. He discusses how his newspaper’s circulation dropped as a result and how he has worked to gain more subscribers.
CAUTION: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
PHOTO: State Sovereignty Comm. file photo - MS Dept. of Archives and History
1971 One year after the courts forced Mississippi to fully integrate its K -12 public schools, the newly-formed Mississippi Center for Oral History at the University of Southern Mississippi sat down with former governor Ross Barnett to discuss his life and career in politics. Barnett was a good storyteller and had much to share about his childhood and career as a young attorney. During his tenure as governor from 1960-64, Barnett worked hard to bring much needed industry to Mississippi and had several large-scale construction projects of which to boast. But his views and actions as an unrepentant segregationist have rightfully defined his place in history. This episode focuses on his memories and opinions surrounding that time.
Barnett campaigned as a diehard segregationist, promising to maintain the status quo in Mississippi as the winds of change in America began to blow in earnest. That promise would soon be put to the test when a young African American named James Meredith attempted to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi. After a Supreme Court ruling in his favor, Meredith was finally allowed to enroll at Ole’ Miss in 1962. When President Kennedy sent in troops to enforce the court’s ruling, the standoff turned into a riot. Three years after the riot at Ole’ Miss, it was revealed that Barnett had been in secret negotiations with the Kennedy Administration. He shares his version of those events.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission tried to maintain racial segregation by investigating civil rights workers and through public relations campaigns. Barnett discusses traveling the country presenting his views and the hostile reception he received in Michigan. Segregationists claimed the Civil Rights Movement was really a plot to destroy America. In the interview, Barnett argues why integration would ultimately fail and how the communists were involved.
Caution: this episode of Mississippi Moments contains racially derogatory language.
In 1971, Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, became the first black Mississippian to run for governor in modern times. That same year, he agreed to be interviewed by a new group of scholars at the University of Southern Mississippi called the Mississippi Oral History Program.
At the time of the interview, Evers was forty-nine years old and had lived through a lot. He was frank about his early days in Chicago, describing how he worked in illegal gambling and prostitution before opening a series of successful night clubs. Evers stated he had always intended to return to Mississippi eventually, but his plans were upended when his brother was assassinated in 1963. He returned home the next day and took over Medgar’s duties as field secretary for the NAACP. From there, he became politically active, running for and becoming mayor of Fayette, Mississippi in 1969.
The interview is a snapshot in time, taken exactly halfway through his ninety-eight years. In this episode, Evers recalls how a white lady named Mrs. Paine became like a second mother to him and Medgar. He discusses how his life in Chicago was interrupted by Medgar’s death and how he tried to share his brother’s fate by actively provoking confrontations with law enforcement and the Klan upon his return to Mississippi.
He describes his reasons for going into politics, his vision for a better, more inclusive Mississippi, and why more black citizens needed to run for political office at all levels.
Charles Evers passed away on July 22, 2020. Now in our forty-ninth year, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage is proud to share with you excerpts from the seventh volume in our collection: The Honorable Charles Evers, Mayor of Fayette, Mississippi.
CAUTION: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE.
The brutal death of Emmett Till in 1955, shocked the nation and ignited the Civil Rights Movement. In this episode, civil rights icon Cleveland Sellers, Jr. recalls how he and other students were inspired to confront systemic racism.
In 1964, after his sophomore year at Howard University, Sellers left school to devote himself fulltime to the cause of racial equality. He became active in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Sellers discusses how they would often protest in front of the White House and the importance of SNCC’s DC office in planning the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
After four years of working in Mississippi and other segregation hotspots, Sellers moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina to attend school at South Carolina State University. Soon after moving there, students began protesting at a local bowling alley about their “whites only” policy. On February 8, 1968, State Troopers opened fire on a group of 200 unarmed protesters on campus. Sellers and thirty others were shot and three died. He explains why he was the only person charged in the incident.
After serving seven months in prison, Sellers found it impossible to find a job due to his record. He remembers how one white woman looked past his FBI file and gave him the opportunity to rebuild his life and his reputation.
Cleveland Sellers, Jr. was pardoned by the State of South Carolina in 1993.
In 1961, Ruby Magee was a student at Jackson State College, majoring in History and Political Science. In this episode, she explains how her participation in local Civil Rights demonstrations, almost led to her expulsion.
That summer, Magee returned to her home in Tylertown and attempted to register to vote. At that time, Mississippians were required to pass a literacy test before being allowed to register. Magee remembers how her application was rejected even though she passed the literacy test.
After being denied the right to vote in Walthall County, Magee filed a complaint with the Justice Department. She describes her parents as supportive, even as they feared for her safety.
In 1961, the U.S. Justice Department filed suite against the Walthall County registrar, and others, for denying blacks citizens the right vote. Magee recalls the outcome of that trial.
This episode was written by Ellie Forsyth, a senior at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hattiesburg.
Mississippi Moments is produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
Philip Freelon was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this episode, he explains how his family background in Education and the Arts inspired him to become an architect. As a young African American architect, Freelon aspired to design libraries and schools. He recalls how a focus on education and community development led him to several museum projects.
Philip Freelon is proud to have been chosen as the chief architect of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. He laments that so few women and people of color choose to enter the field of design.
According to Freelon, the decision to have two Mississippi museums was an unusual choice. He discusses the positive aspects of having two connected and centrally located facilities.
In 2016, Philip G. Freelon was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He passed away on July 9, 2019.
Jerry Mitchell was working as a reporter for the Clarion Ledger when he attended a press premier for Mississippi Burning. In this episode, he explains how that event piqued his interest in civil rights-related cold cases.
After the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was dissolved in 1977, its records were ordered sealed for 50 years. Mitchell recalls how he was able to get a look at those files in 1989. The ACLU filed a lawsuit to gain access to the sealed records of the State Sovereignty Commission, and the judge ruled in their favor. Mitchell recounts how having access to those files helped investigators solve several civil rights cold cases.
In his work as an investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell gained extensive knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement. He describes his feelings about the Two Mississippi Museums and their impact.
Jerry Mitchell was awarded a Genius Grant by the MacArthur Foundation in 2009.
On January 6th, 2020, a statue of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer was unveiled at Hattiesburg City Hall.
In this episode, taken from her 1974 COHCH interview, Ellie J. Dahmer remembers her husband as a Christian man who helped everyone regardless of race. As a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Vernon Dahmer received death threats, daily. Ellie Dahmer recalls the extreme measures she and her husband took to protect their family.
On the night of January 10, 1966, Vernon Dahmer attended church and then returned home to prepare for another week of hard work. Ellie Dahmer describes waking up to gunfire and trying to rescue her children as bullets riddled their burning home.
Vernon Dahmer died January 10, 1966 from injuries sustained when his home was firebombed by the KKK. Ellie Dahmer discusses her husband’s legacy and why she thinks he would do it all again.
(note: in the podcast and broadcast, the statue dedication date was incorrectly given as January 4th, not January 6th)
As a young man, Fred Clark of Jackson traveled to Midway, Georgia, to attend a series of meetings with Dr. Martin Luther King. In this episode, he recalls fearing for his safety as the group planned protests across the Jim Crow South.
The Freedom Riders were protesters who rode interstate buses to challenge southern segregation laws. Clark describes being arrested in Jackson in June of 1961 for trying to buy a ticket from the whites-only window. So many Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, many were taken to Parchman to handle the overflow. Clark remembers how their nonstop singing led to severe reprisals by prison officials.
PODCAST BONUS: In order to break the spirit of the protesters, prison guards resorted to putting them in windowless iron holding cells known as hotboxes. Unable to breath in the sweltering heat, Clark describes feelings of panic and being ridiculed by the guards.
PHOTO: MS Dept. of Archives and History
Fred Clark, Sr. grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1950s and 60s. In this episode, the first of two parts, he recalls the death of Emmett Till and how fear dominated the black community at that time. As events unfolded around him, Clark was determined to overcome his fear and work to make things better.
During the Civil Rights Movement, local organizers would hold events called Mass Meetings. Clark explains how these gatherings satisfied a variety of needs within the community. After the meetings, he would often catch a ride with civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He describes the sense of dread he felt riding with Evers, even as he marveled at the man’s bravery.
The culture of fear used to maintain social order in the Jim Crow South was deeply ingrained in everyone. Clark explains how being part of a greater movement inspired everyone to do their part.
For many young people, participation in the Civil Rights Movement began with a membership in the NAACP. In this episode, Franzetta Sanders of Moss Point recalls joining the group and the work they did to promote Equality for all. During the 1960s, members of the NAACP would test local businesses for compliance with new Civil Rights laws. Franzetta Sanders describes their work in Moss Point and how the community reacted.
In the Jim Crow South, there were separate public restrooms marked for “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only.” Sanders recounts how a stopover at the Hattiesburg bus station resulted in their bus being surrounded by police.
Most Mississippi public schools did not begin to fully integrate until 1970. As the mother of six children, Sanders worked to make sure they had the best educational opportunities possible. She remembers those difficult early days and how things eventually got better.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Sanders worked diligently to break down racial barriers. She expresses frustration at the apathy of young people who are reluctant to join the NAACP.
This episode of Mississippi Moments was researched by Lucas Somers, and produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
PHOTO: USM Digital Collections – Herbert Randall
Billy Ferrell became Sheriff of Adams County in January of 1960. In this episode, he describes the rising tensions brought on by the Civil Rights Movement during the second half of his first term in office. During the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan tried to intimidate anyone they perceived as supporting civil rights. Ferrell remembers countering threats against his family with some intimidation of his own.
While campaigning for a second term as sheriff, Ferrell was asked to give a political speech to a group of local Klansmen. He explains his reasons for agreeing to meet with the group and discusses how completely they had been infiltrated by the FBI.
On September 25, 1964, Klansmen bombed and damaged the home of Natchez Mayor John Nosser. Ferrell recalls going to check on the mayor afterwards and being questioned by the FBI.
THIS EPISODE CONTAINS MILD PROFANITY.
In 1959 Dr. Gilbert Mason was the only black physician on the staff of the new Biloxi Hospital. At that time, the 26 mile man-made Biloxi beach, paid for with Federal funding, was designated for whites only, in violation of the original agreement. In this episode, Mason explains his decision to try and integrate the beach.
After he was arrested, Mason and group of black citizens petitioned the Harrison County Board of Supervisors to make the beach available to all citizens. The board refused and the group made a second attempt in April of 1960. Mason describes being attacked by an angry mob while police watched the violence unfold.
In response, NAACP President Medgar Evers gathered citizen complaints to present to the U.S. Justice Department, who then filed suit against the board. Three years later, seventy protesters returned to the beach carrying black flags in honor of Evers who had been assassinated the week before.
The original group arrested for trespassing on the beach in 1960 was awaiting their verdict in county court the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Mason recalls how they honored the slain President. The case eventually made it all the way to the US Supreme Court and in 1968, Harrison County was forced to desegregate Biloxi Beach, making it available for use by all its citizens.