The other side of Memphis: Mississippi in 1965

One month before the Selma march, your editor, then 27, went to Jackson, Mississippi, to cover the hearings of the US Commission of Civil Rights, inspired by letters we had published in the Idler (forerunner of the Progressive Review) the previous summer from Grenville Whitman, a participant in the Freedom Summer.

Sam Smith

And the Lord came to the Good Man and said, “Son, I want you to go to Mississippi and help the poor people down there.” And the Good Man replied, “Lord, I’ll go if you’ll be there with me.” And the Lord said, “Son, I’ll go with you, but only as far as Memphis.”

Mississippi, despite civil rights laws, statements of principle and hints of progress, still inspires Negroes to tell such stories, stories born in the deepest frustration, despair and anger.

Last February, the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights went the other side of Memphis, to Jackson, Miss., to view for itself this state, that, 100 years after the end of Civil War, remains morally and philosophically seceded from the Union.

We attended the week of hearings and took a look around. This is our story:

Alfred Whitley is a Mississippi Negro who works at a Natchez rubber plant. Coming home from work one evening, he was stopped by a road block. Hooded men with robes appeared, hauled Whitley out of the car, took him into some nearby woods, stripped and beat him.

The hooded men accused Whitley of being “the leading nigger in the NAACP” and demanded to know the name of the white man in charge.

The beating continued, punctuated by the crack of a bullwhip. Whitley was forced to drink a bottle of castor oil. One of the men said, “He’s the toughest one I ever beat.” Then Whitley was told, “Get up and run.” He took off in the Mississippi dark, ran about fifty feet, and fell on his stomach. Searchlights glared above him. Then the sound of guns. Bullets whizzed overhead. Finally it stopped. The men were gone.

Whitley got dressed and went home.

Archie Curtis is a Negro who runs the Curtis Funeral Home in Natchez.

One year ago, late on a February evening, Curtis received a phone call asking that he bring his ambulance to a remote rural spot to pick up a sick person. The funeral director called his ambulance driver, Willie Jackson, and the two of them drove off on the call.

They had been told to come to a crossroad where someone would be waiting to lead them to the proper house. Reaching the rendezvous, the two Negroes found no one. They proceeded a bit further, then stopped to ask directions from those in a car behind them.

It was an ambush. Four men with white hoods stepped from the car.

Curtis and Jackson were blindfolded, taken a distance, made to strip, then struck with whips.

Cnrtis pleaded, “Man, don’t be whipping me like this.” But the men continued.

One suggested, “We ought to kill them.” But they didn’t: instead left the pair with the warning, “You better not tell anybody about this.” Curtis turned to his driver and, with the resignation of a man to whom such an experience came as no surprise, said simply, “Well, Willie, we got to get dressed and go home.”

T. V. Johnson, a Belzoni Negro, has not been beaten or whipped. He even registered to vote back in 1954.

But he hasn’t voted.

During his testimony before the Civil Rights Commission, the following exchange took place :

Q. Are you going ro try (to vote) .’
A. No, not until the intimidation
Q. When will you vote?
A. When they all go down.
Q. Who are you afraid of?
A. Everybody .

And why not? Tomorrow it may be T. V. Johnson’s night in the woods.

It is hard to be more specific in a state where hooded men appear in the night with bullwhips, bombs are thrown from passing cars, and phone calls bring anonymous threats.

It is said that the Mississippi Negro is fighting for equality. That is not true. He hasn’t even gotten that far.

His struggle of the moment is to gain a foothold so he may begin the fight, for equality.

Mississippi is a state where a pronouncement by the Governor or the Chamber of Commerce calling for law and order is a novelty. It is a state where members of a federal panel appointed to look into the rights of citizens solemnly applauds a city not because of any great strides in promoting equality, but because no heads have been bashed in there recently.

It is a state where many appear to believe that the limits of progress are reached when terror is eliminated.

In such an atmosphere sophisticated arguments over civil rights lose their meaning. Until some of the most primitive concepts of democracy are accepted – such as the right of a citizen to vote and the obligation of government to protect its citizens – it matters little who uses which washroom.

The Negro in Mississippi is not only segregated: he has been isolated from almost every mechanism that might possibly change his condition.

You do not have to experience the brutal nights of Archie Curtis or Alfred Whitley to learn the high cost of being a Negro in Mississippi.

The story of these incidents spreads through their county and beyond, bringing with them the tacit moral: don’t try to change things.

Over the past few years Negroes have been trying to change things and the most fundamental change they have sought is the right to vote.

Henry Rayburn, a 63-year-old farmer from near Charleston, was approached by a man with a club when he went to vote. Rayburn says the man told him “he would kill me if I tried to vote.” The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because “the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved.” Alena Hamlett of Scobey registered in 1962. When her name was published in the local newspaper, as required by Mississippi law, a female effigy was hung near her home.

Dorothy Mae Foster went to register with her husband at Fayette in 1963. She was later visited by three men who presented a card that read: “Thousands of Klansmen are waiting, watching, Don’t be misled. Let your conscience be your guide. Ku Klux Klan.”

She was told, “If you don’t take your name off the list you will be sorry.” Mrs. Mary Welch of Humphreys County said she was told by a county official that “I was going to get in trouble and wasn’t going to get any more commodities.” Rural Negroes in Mississippi depend upon surplus agricultural commodities for survival.

When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee attempted to organize a voter registration drive in Macomb, 16 bombings occurred.

Mrs. Mary Thomas, a high school graduate, had her photograph taken by county police when she went to register. She was asked why she wanted to register. “We’ve always given you commodities.” a county official told her.

Shortly after her return home, a deputy sheriff arrived and arrested her for selling beer without a county license.

She was fined $365.71 for failure to have a $15 license. She had never been told whether she passed the registration test.

Jesse James Brewer, a farmer from Tallahatchie County, went to register last summer. He was told by the sheriff that he had gone to the wrong place. On the way to the proper courthouse, the sheriff passed him. Upon his arrival, Brewer and other Negro registrants were surrounded by a group of men.

One of them said. “You niggers get away from the courthouse. You don’t have no business here.” For the next three weeks trucks with gun racks on the back repeatedly drove up and circled Brewer’s house.

He finally registered on the fourth try.

Brewer is a World War II veteran.

He told the Commission, “The only time I felt like a man was when I was in the Army. After I got out it seemed my freedom run out.” And he added, “I want to vote because there are some things I want to get straight.”

The Negro community was indicated by a survey of Negro teachers presented to the Commission by James W. Protho.

Teachers in four counties were interviewed.

In one county, 62% of the teachers refused to be interviewed because the school superintendent had warned them not to discuss’ civil rights with anyone.

Registration of teachers ran from a low of 0% to a high of 74%. In every county at least 40% of ‘the teachers volunteered expressions of fear concerning voting. In one county 79% expressed fear.

They did not like talking about it.

As one teacher put it, “The walls have ears.” Mississippi, pollster Protho concluded, is a “totalitarian local system.” Beatings, bombings, burnings, threats of vioience, warnings tha: commodities will be cut off, loss of jobs, removal of credit, as well as photographing, trumped up charges, and other harassment by police, are routine methods of voter intimidation.

But even if these were to disappear tomorrow, the state of Mississippi would still have impressive legal hurdles for the Negro to surmount in order to register.

The odds are clearly stacked against a Negro trying to register. The Justice Department is in the process of challenging several of the state requirements, but the procedure is a tedious and difficult one. In only one county has there been any significant increase in registration because of a federal suit.

The staff of the Commission made a study of how Mississippi law is actually applied by county registrars.

A thorough review of the records of Issaquena County showed that until last summer all white applicants passed voter qualification tests while all Negroes failed.

There was strong evidence that white applicants were given aid in their interpretation of sections of the state constitution. Commission Attorney Charles Hempstone said he discovered that 15 of 48 whites given an identical section to interpret had also given identical answers.

The real hypocrisy of the “reasonable interpretation” requirement was revealed in an exchange between Commission member Dean Erwin Griswold of the Harvard Law School and Humphreys County Clerk G. H. Hood. Griswold, a heavy-set lawyer who speaks in tones reminiscent of W.C. Fields, slowly lifted himself out of his chair, walked over to witness Hood, handed him a copy of section 182 of the state constitution and asked him for a reasonable interpretation.

Hood, who had given this section to applicants and had judged their ability to vote on the basis of their answers, stared at the sheet for several minutes, then started to give a reply that included much of the wording of the section.

Griswold bit off the reply: “I didn’t ask you to read, I asked you to interpret.” Hood huddled with his lawyer and then said that he would refuse to proceed becauze of the pressure being put on him by the committee.

“You mean on the grounds that it may incriminate you,” Griswold asked.

Hood said, “Yes, sir.” The point was made.

Civil rights leader Aaron Henry told the Commission that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had not helped to get one Negro registered in Mississippi.

This is an exaggeration, but even the optimism of Burke Marshall in describing the progress the Justice Department has made (time required for litigation has been reduced, court decrees have been issued to speed up registration), can not conceal the need for additional federal legislation if the Mississippi Negro is going to be able to exercise his right to vote.

The President’s new voting proposals would be invaluable in this regard.

Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson has warned that “federal registrars could almost bring civil war,” but even he admits “most of our people realize that there has been some discrimination.” He noted, in an interview in the Washington Post, that “you don’t have a leg to stand on whm a registrar registers a white man who can hardly read or write and turns down a Negro woman with a M.A.” But the governor said he would take no steps to remove such a registrar since “it’s purely a local situation. ‘ ‘ And so it will remain for some time, it would appear, unless the federal government’s hand can be strengthened.


George Washington, Sr., appears superficially to fit the image of an Uncle Tom.

Much about the middle-aged Canton, Miss., storeowner suggests it. His name, his manner of speech, his buoyant spirit that shields him from the brutality of his environment, and his expressions of faith in the goodness of white men, illfit him to join the company of the new Negro generation.

Speaking of the police chief of his town, Washington says, “Now, Mr. Dan – he’s real nice. He’s always polite to me.” But George Washington, Sr., is not an Uncle Tom. He has joined the fight.

Last summer he rented a building to COFO workers involved in voter registration. Last summer this house was bombed.

When Canton Police Chief Dan C. Thompson’s officers arrived to investigate the bombing, Washington was arrested. He had failed to report the bombing promptly and the police wanted to know why.

Taken to jail, Washington, according to his testimony, was told by one of the officers, “We’re going to send your so-and-so to the penitentiary. We can get you ten years.” Then, Washington said, the officer “hauled off and hit me.” “What were you doing,” a Commission member asked.

The ever-cheerful Negro replied, “I wasn’t doing anything. I was just going into jail.” He was struck again and questioned for three or four hours before being released.

Reflecting on the investigation of the bombing, Washington commented.

“It looked like to me that they weren’t too particular to see who did it.” It was a cogent observation. Two thirds of the one-page police report was concerned with the failure to report the incident promptly. The rest was about the investigation into the bombing.

Later, Washington went to see “Mr. Dan” to complain about the police action. The police chief promised that such incidents would not occur again. And they haven’t.

Chief Dan Thompson has had 21 years of police experience. Whatever his views on segregation, he appears to take his responsibilities as a police officer seriously. He told the Commission that he lectured his officers severely after the Washington incident.

Not all Mississippi police officials have as much professional background or seem interested in gaining it.

County sheriffs are elected by the predominately white electorate. They are not allowed to succeed themselves.

Their duties are complicated from the start due to the fact that they also serve as tax collectors and are paid on the basis of commissions received from taxes, fines and 1i’ censes.

(This doubling in brass is not limited to sheriffs. A sign on a Mississippi road called for the election of a man who was running for the combined post of coroner and ranger.) Canton is located in Madison County (see Violence in Madison County further on in this issue). Its sheriff is Jack Cauthen, a member of the White Citizen’s Council. Until his election he was a vocational agriculture instructor. Armed with this experience, he administers the law in Madison County.

Over at Laurel, Miss., local justice also proceeds in a curious fashion.

When an attempt was made to integrate the coffee shop of the Pinehurst Hotel in accordance with the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Police Chief Nix acted on the complaint of the management and arrested several persons for breach of the peace.

Nix maintained that he was obliged to serve any warrant sworn out.

“Any charges,” he said, “that arc made, I am obliged to serve them, not to prove them. I can’t set myself up as the judge.” Nix was asked if he was familiar with the public accommodations law.

He said he was.

And there were these exchanges:

Commission Counsel William Taylor: Were you aware they had a right to be served under the public accommodations sections . . . and knowing of this right, did you warn the owner?”

Nix: That’s not up to me to determine, that’s up to the courts.

Griswold: Do you have any obliqatim to enforce federal laws in Laurel? Don’t you take an oath to, obey the Constitution of the United States? . . .

Nix: I don’t believe I can enforce the segregation or desegregation.

Even in Natchez, where defiance of the law has gone so far that the police chief has been threatened and the mayor has had his house bombed, Police Chief James T. Robinson could attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting and be “very impressed.” Eight or nine hundred persons were present and, said Robinson, “I did not see anything that night that would make me think they were anything but outstanding people.”

Robinson has, however, made an investigation to rout out members of KKK from his force. He says he found none.

In case after case of civil rights violence, the last notation is “No arrests made.” There is no doubt that the police have a difficult job in Mississippi. As George Washington, Sr., told US, “Every white man is the law here.” But the evidence strongly indicates that where law officers have behaved in a professional manner, violence has been greatly reduced.

In many instances the police and the courts have been more interested in suppressing civil rights activity than they have in putting an end to bombings and beatings.

There are numerous current practices that do not help to maintain law and order. Among them:

-Failure to investigate thoroughly incidents of violence.

-Arrests of Negroes after they report incidents to the police.

-Failure to present cases properly to grand juries and courts.

-Active police participation in the intimidation of Negroes.

-Indifference to the activities of groups such as the KKK and the John Birch Society.

There are good policemen in Mississippi.

And when you find them, you find men who have been professionally trained and who regard their first obligation to the law. There are not enough of them.

Mississippians have been moderately successful in spreading the idea that civil rights workers from the North have unduly stirred up trouble in their state. They talk of “outside agitators messing in local problems.” We have heard civil rights supporters in the North express doubts about the wisdom of a program such as last summer’s COFO project in Mississippi.

William Eskridge, a 64-year-old farmer, told us, “I can’t honestly say all our trouble is the white man’s fault. There’s fear among the Negroes. Unreasonable fear. When minds are enslaved, they are hard to change.” The arrival of the COFO workers was the catalyst that dissolve the fear and permitted Negroes to take the first halting, difficult steps into the light of hope.

One of the sad ironies of Mississippi is that, even today, the federal government plays an ambivalent role in Mississippi.

The Civil Rights Commission held its hearings in the Veterans Administration Center. In that federally operated building there was a segregated barbershop.

Local federal agencies, such as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and Social Security, which greatly affect the Negro, are closely connected with the white leadership of the state.

There are 2700 ASCS committeemen in Mississippi: only 18 of them are Negroes.

The FBI, despite its many investigators in the state, has an exceedingly poor record. In fact, a number of law officers appearing before the Commission used the FBI as a rationalization for their own failure to make arrests, e.g. if the FBI can’t solve these crimes how do you expect us to? It has been argued, by us among others, that the federal government has the power and the duty to become more actively engaged in the protection of life and property in the state. Nothing in the testimony given to the Commission indicated that this need had significantly lessened in recent months. This is not to say that a federal “invasion” of Mississippi is desirable. But there is no reason why federal officers cannot provide discreet protection for Negro churches, meeting places, and threatened individuals.


In Mississippi these days there is talk about a climate of change. Such a climate does exist.

Moderates are saying in public things they would not have dared whisper in private a few years back.

Important groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Mississippi Economic Council, are issuing statements calling for equal administration of justice and law that once would have been considered seditious.

In a few cities, Greenville is noteworthy among them, the responsible forces of the community – local government, the newspaper, the businessmen – have overcome the racial fanatics.

The road the state must follow leads not just away from racial tension but towards an adequate level of economic development, education and social well-being.

To appreciate the difficulties one need only look at the new program announced by Mississippi business leaders. It’s called “75 x 75.” Its goal: to raise the average income of Mississippians to 75% of the national average by 1975.

To the outsider such an objective may seem extremely modest. But in Mississippi it is simply realistic.

As Mississippians face the fact that they have segregated not only Negroes from whites, but their whole state from America, change will come.

The state’s top businessmen know it. Mississippi is changing. As the stranger sees the small signs and smiles, his confidence renewed in the process of democracy.

He leaves the state shoving the memories of callousness and cruelty aside to make room for more pleasant thoughts of progress, statements of principle, and communications between the races.

But as he stares out the window of his compartment on board the Southerner rumbling towards Birmingham, Atlanta and the North, the memories keep forcing their way back. Tar paper drooping from wretched walls; torn, rusted iron roofs that will not last another season; and weathered faces deteriorate silently as the train passes.

An aging Negro stops in a field to wave at the train, then turns without waiting to see if anyone is waving back.

Mississippi is changing.

Will he know it?

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