Today is voting day for the primary elections. Because I am reading Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer, I have a totally new outlook on the voting process. Since I’ve started reading the book, I keep thinking about the unbelievable sacrifices it vividly describes.
During the 1940s-1960s, a number of tactics were used to keep Blacks away from the polls. Although the literacy rates among Blacks were low during these times, they were forced to interpret part of the Constitution during the registration process. Around the state, hundreds took their turn at the interpretation, but only a few individuals would pass. The criteria for passing were determined by the person giving the test on that particular day. Unfortunately, those in charge had no intention of granting Blacks the opportunity to register to vote. This was made clear by the shot guns, attack dogs, and police cars that often greeted registrants at the doors of the county courthouse.
I also thought about Freedom Days in towns like Canton and Hattiesburg. These days were set aside for Blacks to collectively attempt to register. Because of the level of discrimination, these attempts often led to picketing and drew national attention.
I reminisced on the many churches, houses, and businesses that were saturated with bullets or bombed. The owners of these places were targeted because they offered work space to voter registration organizers (such as COFO, NAACP, SCLC or SNCC). When the bombings did not deter the organizers, they were targeted as they drove through the towns. The descriptions of the brutal attacks as men were dragged out of their cars, assaulted, hung, or shot would bring tears to your eyes.
I remembered the story of fifteen year old June Johnson who was beaten because she took part in a desegregation attempt during the ride back from the SCLC citizenship school (designed to help organizers with voter registration efforts). Her account is detailed in the book.
“…Then the four of them- the Sheriff, the Chief of Police, the State Trooper, and the white man that had brought Mrs. (Fannie Lou) Hamer in- threw me on the floor and beat me. After they finished stomping me, they said, “Get up, nigger.” I raised my head and the white man hit me in the back of the head with a club wrapped in black leather. Then they made me get up. My dress was torn off and my slip was coming off. Blood was streaming down the back of my head and my dress was all bloody.”
Lawmen hoped it would dissuade her and others like her from participating in future movements. They were wrong.
I could not forget the Freedom Summer of 1964. White college students from the north came to Mississippi by the hundreds to help social and civil justice emerge. The youngsters viewed videos that were used to orientate them to Mississippi life. The clothing and political views seen in the video were so far removed from the everyday experiences of white suburbia, that in their naiveness, the students laughed. Their actions offended CORE organizers. Although the Mississippi dialect and fashion seemed comical to them, our struggles were less than humorous.
I’m only half way through the book, with about 300 more pages to go. Yet, the stories of these Mississippians has changed me. The only question I have is: “Why weren’t these historically accounts ever mentioned in my history classes, even in Mississippi history which each student was required to take?” Although most Mississippians would rather not boast about the state’s past, sharing these historical accounts with the next generation ensures that such liberties as free education and the right to vote aren’t taken for granted.
To learn more about the struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi consider:
Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer
To view a sample of what Black Mississippians had to complete to register to vote, click Mississippi voter registration form 1955. Definitely check out page 2.
Image source: The Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website
- American history
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