The War at Home: Forgotten Events in the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

It was forty years ago--July 3, 1965, to be more precise--when I sat with three other ministers in a care owned and operated by blacks in Jackson, Mississippi, as we lifted our beers to celebrate having helped break the back of Jim Crow. The successful march held that day around the state and city buildings in downtown Jackson did for Mississippi what the Selma Bridge incident accomplished for Alabama.

We were hilariously giddy as well as physically and emotionally exhausted. I was there as leader of a team of fourteen ministers from the North who had been sent by the National Council of Churches (back when the NCCC stood for something).

I had been selected as team leader on the dubious strength of my experience the previous summer in Greenwood, Mississippi, where I'd been arrested along with other ministers for refusing to move, around to the back of the courthouse, our picket line supporting blacks seeking to register to vote. We were determined there would be no more back of the bus or back steps of restaurants or back of the courthouse for the brave black folks who were marching with us that day. When we were arrested, we were singing, "This little light of mine, we're going to let it shine.... All the way to the courthouse ... all the way to the jail ... we're goin' to let it shine...."

Our team of fourteen had been in Jackson for almost a week. Every day a group of fifty to one hundred black and white supporters tried to march to the center of town, only to be arrested and hauled away in buses. After four days all the ministers except me were at the fairgrounds being held in the only building big enough for several hundred demonstrators. I had to stay out in order to handle any problems that arose--like the incidence of family illness that necessitated arranging bail for one member of my team.

Jackson Mayor Allen Thompson and Mississippi Governor Paul Burney Johnson Jr. had sworn that none of these "pinko outside agitators" were going to march around the city and state buildings. No way.

Things had obviously heated up in Washington, D.C., too. Word had been sent from President Lyndon B. Johnson's oval office that this crisis was to be resolved. On July 2, 1965, an injunction came down from the federal district court prohibiting Jackson and Mississippi officials from preventing our exercise of free speech--our marching.

The fairgrounds were emptied out, including my team of fourteen, and we prepared to march the next day, together with other northerners and several hundred local black people.

The Background: 1963-1964

To understand the fury of the whites protesting along the street the day of the march, it is necessary to know that for years the White Citizens Councils--composed of educated professional men--had been conducting a systematic disinformation campaign. Many of the whites along the march sincerely believed the propaganda they had digested: that we older marchers were communists and that the young, northern white participants were there to engage in wanton sex with local black boys and girls.

I don't think many people remember the high price paid by civil rights activists prior to Selma and our march. Black women who tried to register to vote were routinely fired from their jobs as domestics in white homes, even though they were often the only financial support for their families. There were over three hundred incidents of violence in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, including beatings and murders. Civil rights workers were jailed routinely, and racist white prisoners managed to savagely beat them. Black men who tried to register to vote sometimes had their hands and feet bound with barbed wire, after which they were dumped in the river. One local white Unitarian minister in Greenwood, who was a supporter of black voter registration, was killed by a shotgun blast in his back the day after we left Greenwood in 1964. …