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Coming of Age in Mississippi
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody was published in 1968 (now available in paperback from Dell). The Chicago Tribune described it as a “classic autobiography of growing up poor and black in the rural south.” To many of us who were active in the 1960s, this book was one of the first documents written by an activist “in the trenches.” It also documents the courage, careful planning, and organization it takes to confront power and ingrained prejudices—in this case, a racist culture that whites were ready to kill to defend. This excerpt is from Part 4: The Movement.
D uring my senior year at Tougaloo College [in Mississippi], I had become friendly with my social science professor, John Salter, who was in charge of NAACP activities on campus. During the last week of school, he told me that sit-in demonstrations were about to start in Jackson and that he wanted me to be the spokesperson for a team that would sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter. The two other demonstrators would be classmates of mine, Memphis and Pearl- ena. Pearlena was a dedicated NAACP worker, but Memphis had not been very involved in the Movement on campus. It seemed that the organization had had a rough time finding students who were in a position to go to jail. I had nothing to lose one way or the other. Around ten o’clock the morning of the demonstrations, NAACP headquarters alerted the news services.
To divert attention from the sit-in at Woolworth’s, the picketing started at JC Penney’s, a good 15 minutes before. The pickets were allowed to walk up and down in front of the store three or four times before they were arrested. At exactly 11 AM, Pearlena, Memphis, and I entered Woolworth’s from the rear entrance. We separated as soon as we stepped into the store and made small purchases from various counters. At exactly 11:15 we were to take seats at the counter.
Seconds before 11:15 we were occupying three seats at the previously segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. In the beginning the waitresses seemed to ignore us, as if they really didn’t know what was going on. Our waitress walked past us a couple of times before she noticed we had started to write our own orders down and realized we wanted service. She told us that we would be served at the back counter, which was for Negroes.
“We would like to be served here,” I said.
The waitress started to repeat what she had said, then stopped in the middle of the sentence. She turned the lights out behind the counter and almost ran to the back of the store, deserting all their white customers. I guess she thought that violence would start immediately after the whites at the counter realized what was going on.
By this time a crowd of cameramen and reporters had gathered around us taking pictures and asked questions, such as, “Where were we from? Why did we sit-in? What organization sponsored it? Were we students? From what school? How were we classified?” I told them that we were all students at Tougaloo College, that we were represented by no particular organization, and that we planned to stay there even after the store closed. “All we want is service,” was my reply.
At noon students from a nearby white high school started pouring
in to Woolworth’s. When they saw us, they were sort of surprised.
They didn’t know how to react. A few started to heckle and
the newsmen became interested again. Then the white students started
chanting all kinds of anti-Negro slogans. We were called a little
bit of everything. The rest of the seats had been roped off to prevent
others from sitting down. A couple of the boys took one end of the
rope and made it into a hangman’s noose. Several attempts were
made to put it around our necks. The crowd grew as more students
and adults came in for lunch.
We kept our eyes straight forward and did not look at the crowd except for occasional glances to see what was going on. Memphis suggested that we pray. We bowed our heads and all hell broke loose. A man rushed forward, threw Memphis from his seat, and slapped my face. Then another man who worked in the store threw me against an adjoining counter. Down on my knees on the floor, I saw Memphis lying near the lunch counter with blood running out of the corners of his mouth. Pearlena had been thrown to the floor. She and I got back on our stools after Memphis was arrested. There were some white Tougaloo teachers in the crowd. They asked Pearlena and me if we wanted to leave. They said that things were getting too rough. We didn’t know what to do. While we were trying to make up our minds, we were joined by Joan Trumpauer. Now there were three of us and we were integrated. The crowd began to chant, “Communists, Communists, Communists.” Someone in the crowd ordered the students to take us off the stools.
A boy lifted Joan from the counter by her waist and carried her out of the store. I was snatched from my stool by two high school students and dragged about 30 feet toward the door by my hair when someone made them turn me loose. As I was getting up off the floor, I saw Joan coming back inside. We started back to the center of the counter to join Pearlena. Lois Chaffee, a white Tougaloo faculty member, was now sitting next to her. So Joan and I climbed across the rope and sat down at the counter. There were now four of us, two whites and two Negroes, all women. The mob started smearing us with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies, and everything on the counter.
We sat there for three hours taking a beating when the manager decided to close the store because the mob had begun to go wild with stuff from the counters. He begged and begged everyone to leave. But after 15 minutes of begging, no one budged. Then Dr. Beittel, president of Tougaloo College, came running in. He said he had just heard what was happening.
About 90 policemen were standing outside the store; they had been watching the whole thing through the windows, but had not come in to stop the mob or do anything. President Beittel went outside and asked Captain Ray to come and escort us out. The captain refused, stating the manager had to invite him in before he could enter the premises, so Dr. Beittel brought us out. He told the police that they had better protect us after we were outside the store. Within ten minutes, we were picked up by Reverend King in his station wagon and taken to the NAACP headquarters on Lynch Street.
After the sit-in, all I could think of was how sick Mississippi whites were. They believed so much in the segregated Southern way of life, they would kill to preserve it. I sat there in the NAACP office and thought of how many times they had killed when this way of life was threatened. I knew that the killing had just begun. Many more will die before it is over with, I thought. Before the sit-in, I had always hated the whites in Mississippi. Now I knew it was impossible for me to hate sickness. The whites had a disease, an incurable disease in its final stage. What were our chances against such a disease?
There was a mass rally that night at the Pearl Street Church in Jackson and the place was packed. People were standing two abreast in the aisles. Before the speakers began, all the sit-inners walked out on the stage and were introduced by Medgar Evers. People stood and applauded for what seemed like 30 minutes or more. Medgar told the audience that this was just the beginning of such demonstrations. He asked them to pledge themselves to unite in a massive offensive against segregation in Jackson and throughout the state.
On Wednesday, the day after the sit-in, demonstrations got off to a good start. Ten people picketed shortly after noon on Capitol Street and were arrested. Another mass rally followed the demonstrations that night where a six-person delegation of Negro ministers was chosen to meet Mayor Thompson the following Tuesday. They were to present him with a number of demands on behalf of Jackson Negroes. They were as follows:
- Hiring of Negro police and school crossing guards
- Removal of segregation signs from public facilities
- Improvement of job opportunities for Negroes on city payrolls—Negro-driven city garbage trucks, etc.
- Encouraging public eating establishments to serve both whites and Negroes
- Integration of public parks and libraries
- The naming of a Negro to the City Parks and Recreation Committee
- Integration of public schools
- Forcing service stations to integrate rest rooms
After this meeting, Reverend Haughton, the minister of Pearl Street Church, said that the Mayor was going to act on all the suggestions. But the following day, Thompson denied that he had made any promises. He said the Negro delegation “got carried away” following their discussion with him.
“It seems as though Mayor Thompson wants to play games with us,” Reverend Haughton said at the next rally. “He is calling us liars and trying to make us sound like fools. I guess we have to show him that we mean business.” When Reverend Charles A. Jones, dean and chaplain at Campbell College, asked at the close of the meeting, “Where do we go from here?” the audience shouted, “To the streets.”
Around ten the next morning, an entire day of demonstrations started. A bit of everything was tried. Some Negroes sat-in, some picketed, and some squatted in the streets and refused to move. All of the five-and-ten stores had closed their lunch counters as a result of the Woolworth sit-in. However, this did not stop the new sit-ins. Chain restaurants were now targets. After 88 demonstrators had been arrested, the mayor held a news conference where he told a group of reporters, “We can handle 100,000 agitators.”
During this period, civil rights workers who had become known to the Jackson police were often used to divert the cops’ attention just before a demonstration. A few cops were always placed across the street from NAACP headquarters since most of the demonstrations were organized there and would leave from that building. The “diverters” would get into cars and lead the cops off on a wild-goose chase. This would allow the real demonstrators to get downtown before they were noticed. One evening, a group of us took the cops for a tour of the park. After giving the demonstrators time to get to Capitol Street, we decided to go and watch the action. When we arrived there, we met Reverend King and a group of ministers. They told us they were going to stage a pray-in on the post office steps. “Come on, join us,” Reverend King said. “I don’t think we’ll be arrested because it’s federal property.”
We entered the post office and found that part of the mob was waiting inside the building. We didn’t let this bother us. As soon as a few more ministers joined us, we were ready to go outside. There were 14 of us, 7 whites and 7 Negroes. We walked out front and stood and bowed our heads as the ministers began to pray. We were immediately interrupted by Captain Ray. “We are asking you people to disperse. If you don’t, you are under arrest,” he said. Most of us were not prepared to go to jail. Doris Erskine, a student from Jackson State, and I had to take over a workshop the following day. Some of the ministers were in charge of the mass rally that night. But if we had dispersed, we would have been torn to bits by the mob. We had no other choice, but to be arrested.
Reverend King and some of the ministers who were kneeling refused to move; they just kept on praying. Some of the others also attempted to kneel. The rest of us walked to the paddy wagon. After we got to jail we were mugged and fingerprinted, then taken to a cell. Most of the ministers were scared stiff. This was the first time some of them had seen the inside of a jail. Before we were mugged, we were all placed in a room together and allowed to make one call. Reverend King made the call to the NAACP headquarters to see if some of the ministers could be bailed out right away. I was so glad when they told him they didn’t have money available at the moment. I just got my kicks out of sitting there looking at the ministers. Some of them looked so pitiful, I thought they would cry any minute, and here they were, supposed to be our leaders.
The day we were arrested one of the Negro trusties sneaked us a newspaper. We discovered that over 400 high school students had also been arrested. We got out of jail on Sunday to discover that everyone was talking about the high school students. All 400 who were arrested had been taken to the fairgrounds and placed in a large open compound without beds or anything. Mothers were begging to have their children released, but the NAACP didn’t have enough money to bail them all out
The same day we went to jail for the pray-in, the students at Lanier High School had started singing freedom songs on their lunch hour. They got so carried away they ignored the bell when the break was over and just kept on singing. The principal of the high school did not know what to do, so he called the police and told them that the students were about to start a riot. When the cops came, they brought the dogs. The students refused to go back to their classrooms when asked, so the cops turned the dogs loose on them. The students fought them off for a while. In fact, I was told that mothers who lived near the school had joined the students in fighting off the dogs. They had begun to throw bricks, rocks, and bottles. The next day the papers stated that ten or more cops suffered cuts or minor wounds. The papers didn’t say it, but a lot of students were hurt, too, from dog bites and lumps on the head from billy clubs. Finally, 150 cops were rushed to the scene and several students and adults were arrested.
The next day 400 of the high school students gathered in a church on Parish Street, ready to go to jail. Willie Ludden, the NAACP youth leader, and some of the SNCC and CORE workers met with them, gave a brief workshop on nonviolent protective measures, and led them into the streets. After marching about two blocks they were met by helmeted police officers and ordered to disperse. When they refused, they were arrested and herded into paddy wagons, canvas-covered trucks, and garbage trucks. Those moving too slowly were jabbed with rifle butts. From the way everyone was describing the scene it sounded like Nazi Germany instead of Jackson, USA.
On Monday I joined a group of high school and college students who were trying to get arrested. Our intention was to be put in the fairgrounds with the high school students already there. The cops picked us up, but they didn’t want to put us so-called professional agitators in with the high school students. We were weeded out and taken back to the city jail.
Within four or five days Jackson became the hotbed of demonstrations in the South. It seemed as though most of the Negro college and high school students there were making preparations to participate. At this point, Mayor Allen Thompson finally made a move. He announced that Jackson had made plans to house over 12,500 demonstrators at the local jails and at the fairgrounds. And if this was not enough, he said, Parchman, the state penitentiary, 160 miles away, would be used.
An injunction prohibiting demonstrations was issued by a local judge, naming NAACP, CORE, Tougaloo College, and various leaders. According to this injunction, the intent of the named organizations and individuals was to paralyze the economic nerve center of the city of Jackson. It used as proof the leaflets that had been distributed by the NAACP urging Negroes not to shop on Capitol Street. The next day the injunction was answered with another mass march.
The cops started arresting every Negro on the scene of a demonstration whether or not he/she was participating. People were being carted off to jail every day of the week. On Saturday Roy Wilkins, the National Director of NAACP, and Medgar Evers were arrested as they picketed in front of Woolworth’s. Theldon Henderson, a Negro lawyer who worked for the Justice Department and had been sent down from Washington to investigate a complaint by the NAACP about the fairgrounds, was also arrested. It was said that when he showed his credentials, the arresting officer started trembling. They let him go immediately.
Mass rallies had come to be an every night event and at each one the NAACP had begun to build up Medgar Evers. Somehow I had the feeling that they wanted him to become for Mississippi what Martin Luther King had been in Alabama. They were well on the way to achieving that, too.
After the rally on Tuesday, June 11, I had to stay in Jackson. I had missed the ride back to campus. The CORE field secretary for Mississippi and his wife put me up for the night. We were watching TV around 12:30 when a special news bulletin interrupted the program. It said, “Jackson NAACP leader Medgar Evers has just been shot.” We didn’t believe what we were hearing. We just sat there staring at the TV screen. The next bulletin announced that he had died in the hospital soon after the shooting. We didn’t know what to say or do. All night we tried to figure out what had happened, who did it, who was next, and it still didn’t seem real.
A fter Medgar’s death there was a period of confusion. Each Negro leader and organization in Jackson received threats. They were all told they were “next on the list.” Things began to fall apart. The ministers, in particular, didn’t want to be “next”; a number of them took that long-promised vacation to Africa or elsewhere. Meanwhile, SNCC and CORE became more militant and began to press for more demonstrations. A lot of the young Negroes wanted to let the whites of Jackson know that even by killing off Medgar they hadn’t touched the real core of the movement. For the NAACP and the older, more conservative groups, however, voter registration had become number one on the agenda. After the NAACP exerted its influence at a number of meetings, the militants lost.
The Jackson Daily News seized the opportunity to cause more fragmentation. They ran a headline that there is a split in the organizations and, shortly afterward, certain organizations completely severed their relations with each other. The whites had succeeded again. They had reached us through the papers by letting us know we were not together. Too bad, I thought. One day we’ll learn.
Within a week everything had changed. Even the rallies were not the same. The few ministers and leaders who did come were so scared—they thought assassins were going to follow them home. Soon there were rallies only twice a week instead of every night.
The Sunday following Medgar’s funeral, Reverend Ed King organized an integrated church-visiting team of six of us from the college. Another team was organized by a group in Jackson. Five or six churches were hit that day, including Governor Ross Barnett’s. At each one they had prepared for our visit with armed policemen, paddy wagons, and dogs—which would be used in case we refused to leave after “ushers” had read us the prepared resolutions. There were about eight of these ushers at each church and they were never exactly the usherly type. They were more on the order of Al Capone. I think this must have been the first time any of these men had worn a flower in his lapel. When we were asked to leave, we did.
A group of us decided that we would go to church again the next Sunday. We went first to a Church of Christ where we were greeted by the regular ushers. After reading us the same resolution we had heard last week, they offered to give us cab fare to the Negro extension of the church. Just as we were walking away, a woman stopped us. “We’ll sit with you,” she said.
We walked back to the ushers with her and her family. “Please let them in, Mr. Calloway. We’ll sit with them,” the woman said.
“Mrs. Dixon, the church has decided what is to be done. A resolution has been passed and we are to abide by it.”
“Who are we to decide such a thing? This is a house of God and God is to make all of the decisions. He is the judge of us all,” the woman said.
The ushers got angrier then and threatened to call the police if we didn’t leave. We decided to go.
“We appreciate very much what you’ve done,” I said to the woman.
Two blocks from the church, we were picked up by Jeanette King. She drove us to an Episcopal church. When we walked inside, we were greeted by two ushers.
“May we help you?” one said.
“Yes,” I said. “We would like to worship with you .”
“Will you sign the guest list, please, and we will show you to your seats,” said the other.
I stood there for a good five minutes before I was able to compose myself. I had never prayed with white people in a white church before. We signed the guest list and were escorted to two seats. The church service was completed without one incident. It was as normal as any church service.
When the services were over the minister invited us to visit again. He said it as if he meant it and I began to have a little hope.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.