Guest column

The struggle to vote in Mississippi: 2014 and 1964

By Jim Matlack | Jul 23, 2014

Mississippi recently held a statewide election in which for the first time a “Voter I.D.” was required before being allowed to vote. This provision was clearly intended to reduce the number of votes from the young, the elderly and especially non-white citizens. Only the Supreme Court decision nullifying sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act allowed Mississippi to apply the I.D. requirement.

Such blatant disfranchisement targeted primarily at Black Mississippians has a long history in the state. My direct experience with the struggle for the right to vote in Mississippi came 50 years ago in 1963 and 1964.

I was a graduate student at Yale University and took part in local protests in New Haven. I also stood in the crowd on the Mall at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and heard Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech.

As a Quaker with a long tradition of public witness against racism and oppression, I felt called to more substantial engagement. As a result, I joined several Yale grad students who went to Mississippi in the fall 1963 to help the Freedom Democratic Party stage a parallel election in which Black citizens would vote to highlight their exclusion from voter registration or any participation in the “regular” lily-white Democratic Party of Mississippi.

I spent an eventful, highly-educational five days accompanying local activists as they attempted to set up the parallel election scheme. One lesson quickly impressed upon me was that in 1963 the local police in Mississippi were a source of danger, not assistance, for a “trouble-maker” from the North like me. In the end I arranged for a ride back to New Haven with a senior who was then editor of the Yale Daily News — Joe Lieberman, later U.S. Senator from Connecticut.

A more lengthy and demanding engagement with voting rights in Mississippi followed in summer 1964. A program was organized at Yale to send graduate students to teach summer session courses at the historic Black colleges in the Deep South in return for which faculty members would come North to take courses at the university. I chose to teach at Rust College, founded by the Methodists in 1866 in Holly Springs, Miss.

This time my wife and two-year-old son joined me. Upon arrival at Rust College in July we were shown our ground floor room in one of the brick dormitories on campus. We were told that only a few days earlier “night-riders” had driven through the campus firing shots at the dorms. There was much to learn and to cope with in the new setting as well as my teaching endeavors.

While my teaching was filled with challenge and, at times, heart-break, I also worked with the voter registration drive carried out statewide that summer — Freedom Summer, 1964 — by local activists and Northern volunteers. A Freedom Summer center and school were located on the edge of the college campus. I joined the college chaplain in full support of this campaign although virtually no other college staff did so (or felt that they could do safely). The students in my summer courses were nearly all teachers in the local schools. Few, if any, of them were registered to vote.

Throughout July and August the registration drive started with on-the-ground outreach to the Black citizens of Marshall County (named for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). The Blacks were an overwhelming majority but few were able to vote. Any attempt to persuade local Blacks to risk trying to register to vote had to overcome fierce pressures and threats of reprisal — e.g. loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of land to farm as well as direct physical violence. Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Nashoba County as we came to Mississippi although their bodies were not recovered until later in August.

I did not attempt the door-to-door interviewing in rural Marshall County. Instead I attended meetings, rallies and planning sessions. I also drove often for the campaign since we had car (borrowed from my wife’s parents with Maryland instead of Connecticut license plates). Gradually over the summer a group of local Black citizens expressed willingness to attempt to register. Coaching and training sessons were held to prepare them for the ordeal.

Holly Springs was laid out with a court house square in the middle of the town. It reminded me of every Faulkner story I had read. The stores on three sides of the square were for whites only. Blacks could patronize stores on the fourth side. Being recognized as a Northern interloper, my wife was often ignored or refused service when she entered one of the whites-only stores. The local movie theater on the square required Blacks to sit in the balcony only. After the Public Accommodation Law passed Congress mid-summer, an attempt was made to integrate the movie theater but it was closed instead, along with vivid threats of violence against anyone who tried to cross the color line.

For decades Mississippi restricted or eliminated Black voters by requiring a test at the point of registration. The heart of this “literacy test” required the applicant to interpret correctly any section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of the white, elected Registrar. Few Blacks were judged to have succeeded. Some brave souls were denied in repeated attempts but looming coercion usually persuaded refused applicants not to try again.

In summer 1964, a registration day in late August was set up for all the willing Black applicants from Marshall County. It was the climax of the long saga of Freedom Summer. Early that morning along with a few other Northern volunteers we reconnoitered the set up on the square. Sheriff “Flick” Ash and Deputy “Red” Roach had mustered all their uniformed personnel suitably armed. A more disturbing sight down a side street was a group of ad hoc “deputies” — sturdy white men wielding clubs — waiting to be called into action.

Strict ground rules were imposed. Only three applicants could approach the court house at a time. I joined activists who set up an orientation center at a Black church three blocks from the square. Final coaching and encouragement was given. Then three applicants at a time stepped out of the church in single file for the walk up to the court house. To show solidarity three white volunteers were interspersed in the line but everyone had to walk five paces apart.

After the slow pace up to the square the whites had to drop out of the line as the Black applicants turned to walk down the sidewalk toward the court house door while surrounded on both sides by “good old boys” shouting, taunting, and threatening them.

I cannot adequately convey the immense courage and dignity of the Black citizens who walked the gauntlet that day in their attempt to gain the right to vote. It was a long, hot, dusty day and a slow-moving process. Dozens went up to the square and entered the Registrar’s office amid high tension, constant harassment and latent violence.

We were due to leave Rust College and Mississippi before the results of Registration Day were announced. I do not know the particular fates of the Freedom Summer applicants but I do know that the commitment embodied in action that day by local Blacks began a process of change in one corner of Mississippi. While many problems and abuses persist, progress has also been made consistent with Dr. King’s dream and his call “to make real the promises of democracy” in the American South.

I know this because some years later when I worked in Washington, D.C. for the Quakers, I exchanged Christmas letters with a Quaker lawyer friend. In his letter I discovered that he had taken part in Freedom Summer 1964. (He had been Andy Goodman’s roommate in the training sessions in Ohio.) That year he had taken his teen-age son South to visit Mississippi to show him the settings for his father’s experiences during Freedom Summer.

When father and son visited Holly Springs, they went to the Court House square where they found a marble monument in memory of and tribute to Osborne Bell, the first elected Black Sheriff of Marshall County.

James Matlack is a resident of Rockport.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.