Shortly after rain clouds parted on a spring day in ’61, Confederate troops marched through downtown Jackson. Five thousand proud Rebels, their double-breasted topcoats starched, their Enfield rifles shouldered, their mustachioed faces as stiff as statues, tramped along the glistening streets. Brass bands blared out sparkling renditions of “Dixie,” and teeming crowds sang along. Women in long floral dresses blew kisses from beneath parasols. Boys could not take their eyes off the officers on horseback, the glint of bayonets, the unfurling stars and bars. Flanking the governor’s mansion, where the governor waved from between white pillars, the troops marched on in a rippling ribbon of gray. Confederate flags were everywhere, waving in defiance of the Union. The parade, said to be the largest in the history of Mississippi, continued for hours. Then everyone got in their cars and went home. For this Confederate glory, this celebration of Mississippi’s secession from the United States of America, took place not in 1861 but in 1961.
The old cliché about history—that it is “written by the winners”—has always been, as Henry Ford said of history itself, “more or less bunk.” Countries defeated in war always write their own versions of history, versions that turn defeat into a noble cause and suffering into martyrdom. These unofficial versions soothe consciences and salve war wounds, yet with tragic regularity, they lead to more violence. Consider Germany after World War I. France after its revolution. The Balkans. The South.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” Faulkner was not referring to the rest of America, where time gradually turned the butchery of the Civil War into a period piece. In the North, where a single town in Pennsylvania had seen the face of battle, the war was remembered in aging monuments, in daguerreotypes, in medals displayed on mantels but finally stored in attics. Yet across the former Confederacy, and especially in Mississippi, the War for Southern Independence was woven into the fabric of life. Every southern boy, Faulkner wrote, could easily summon the dreamlike moment at Gettysburg just before Pickett’s Charge, before the war became a slaughterhouse and defeat became inevitable. Faulkner wrote this in 1948, eighty-five years after Gettysburg. He wrote it in the present tense. And he wrote it in Mississippi, where the war, living on in laments, eulogized by sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers, still defined every reaction. Such was the century-long enshrinement of the Civil War in Mississippi, a state invaded, occupied, driven to its knees.
From the moment Northern troops crossed its border in 1862, Mississippi spearheaded Confederate suffering. It was the first Confederate state to be looted and burned, the first under siege, the first to see its capital destroyed. Northerners could not deny Mississippi’s bravery. “Mississippians,” one said, “don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender.” After routing Grant at Holly Springs, Mississippi soldiers defeated Sherman at Chickasaw Bluffs. At Vicksburg, they held off Grant again, making the entire South salute. But after a forty-eight-day siege that saw townspeople burrow into caves and survive on dead dogs and rats, Vicksburg fell, and total war swept across the land. William Tecumseh Sherman, before he cut his famous path through Georgia, practiced his savagery on Mississippi, where his men burned mansions and cotton fields, sacked small towns, and tortured the earth. After tearing up Meridian, Sherman boasted, “Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonment, no longer exists.” Battleground Mississippi saw its rivers patrolled by Union gunboats, its railroad depots crammed with rotting corpses, and its capital so devastated that survivors called it “Chimneyville.” The day Vicksburg fell, news came from Gettysburg, where the proud Mississippi Greys, 103 students from Ole Miss, had led Pickett’s Charge. Every last one had been killed. And when the war was over, Mississippi had achieved another first. Its 78,000 soldiers—the Benita Sharpshooters, the Oktibbeha Ploughboys, the Tullahoma Hardshells, and others—had suffered 28,000 dead and 31,000 wounded, the highest per capita casualty rate in either South or North. In 1866, one-third of Mississippi’s budget was spent on artificial limbs.
Before the war, Mississippi had been America’s fifth wealthiest state—although most of that wealth was measured in muscle, the monetary value of 436,631 slaves, more than half the state’s population. In the wake of the war Mississippi became, and has been ever since, the nation’s poorest state. Rising from the ashes of Carthaginian destruction, Mississippians made a vow—never to forget. Yet for every Civil War horror, more painful memories followed. Wartime battles had been brief compared to the struggle to repel the occupation historians term Reconstruction and Mississippians came to call “The Tragic Era.” Here, too, Mississippi led the South—in resistance. Ranging from simple election fraud to a full-blown race war, the reaction tainted American democracy right through to Freedom Summer. Following four years of total war and a dozen of occupation and guerilla fighting, moderation in Mississippi became like snow, something occasionally in the air, especially farther north, but which vanished whenever the heat was turned up. As one freed slave observed, “Things was hurt by Mr. Lincoln gettin’ kilt.”
Lincoln was barely in his grave when the power struggle began. Four months after Appomattox, Mississippi crafted a constitution that would earn readmittance to the Union. But the hastily drawn accord, coupled with “Black Codes” denying freed slaves any vestige of citizenship, did not fool Congress. Refused statehood, Mississippi was occupied as part of the Fourth Military District. Only in 1870 did the Magnolia State again become a state. With former slaves voting freely, Mississippi sent America’s first black senator to Washington, D.C. Freedmen never dominated Mississippi politics, but an ex-slave was elected mayor of Natchez, another became police chief in Vicksburg, and still others served as judges, sheriffs, even secretary of state. At one point, nearly half the legislature was black. In less than a decade, the social system of an entire state had been plowed up, turned over, and replanted with the flimsiest of roots. The uprooting was soon termed “redemption,” and like the war, its ennobled savagery would scar Mississippi for a full century.
In Mississippi, redemption began in 1871, when members of the upstart Ku Klux Klan turned the streets of Meridian into a shooting gallery. After killing two black politicians, whites roamed the countryside, hunting and lynching Negroes. Thirty were racked up before federal troops arrived. The Meridian riot inspired congressional “Ku Klux” laws. Seven hundred Mississippi Klansmen were indicted, yet in a state whose remote jungle landscape gave it a Wild West lawlessness, rebellion was not confined beneath white hoods.
Over the next four years, raw violence “redeemed” Mississippi. The battles of Reconstruction were not as costly as those of the war, but they were battles nonetheless. The Second Battle of Vicksburg started on July 4, 1874, with gunshots in the streets. Enraged by a recent interracial marriage, whites took over the town and began slogging through alligator-infested bayous to hunt down terrified blacks. During elections that August, terror kept blacks from voting, allowing whites to rule unopposed. The taking of Vicksburg turned the coming election year into a vigilante campaign to slaughter democracy. Pitched fighting between black and white broke out in Clinton, Yazoo City, Clarksdale. . . . Fearing “a war of races,” Governor Adelbert Ames, a former Union officer whites despised as a “carpetbagger,” begged President Grant to send troops. This time Grant refused. “The whole public are tired out with these annual, autumnal outbreaks in the South,” the president wrote back. “The great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the government.”
Come Election Day in 1875, the shotgun, the noose, and the mob ended black political power in Mississippi. “Democrats Standing Manfully by Their Guns!” the Atlanta Constitution boasted. “Mississippi Redeemed at Last!” Governor Ames, impeached and driven from the state, lamented: “A revolution has taken place—by force of arms—and a race are disenfranchised—they are to be returned to a condition of serfdom—an era of second slavery.” Over the next two years, inspired by “the Mississippi plan,” other southern states wore down northern will to fight for the Negro and brokered a deal that removed federal troops from the South.
Reconstruction was over—a mistake in the eyes of all but ex-slaves, who had tasted political power only to have it stolen by mob rule. Mississippi’s second black senator lost the next election. He was the last African American in the U.S. Senate until 1966. In 1890, as black laborers cleared the Delta of bears, wildcats, and snake-infested canebrake taller than a man, Mississippi’s new constitution legalized what mobs had set in motion. Literacy tests and poll taxes, fully sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, ended black voting. By 1900, blacks comprised 62 percent of Mississippi, the highest percentage in the nation. Yet the state had not one black elected official. Meanwhile, the sharecropping system, under which ex-slaves picked cotton and harvested mounting debt to “the boss man,” kept 90 percent of Mississippi blacks mired in the “era of second slavery.” Ex-slaves were free, all right—free to pick cotton from “kin to cain’t,” free to live in tarpaper shacks, free to send their children to decaying schools where “we could study the earth through the floor and the stars through the roof.” Jim Crow had settled in to stay, tamping down an entire people. Black subjugation was ingrained at all levels, from the all-white university to “Whites Only” signs to the very nursery rhymes children sang:
Naught’s a naught,
Five’s a figger.
All fer de white man,
None fer de Nigger.
From top to bottom, segregation was enforced by custom as much as law. And custom—imposed whenever blacks stepped off the sidewalk as a white approached, whenever a black man was called “boy,” whenever “Nigger!” was spit into the face of a child—made Mississippi, as one Delta woman noted, “jus’ as different here from other places as tar from biscuit dough.”
Having redeemed its politics, Mississippi set about redeeming its honor. History written by the defeated does not often become the official version, yet as an American apartheid spread from Texas to the Mason-Dixon line, historians rewrote Reconstruction. In an era of minstrel shows, weekly lynchings, and calls to “Take up the White Man’s Burden,” North and South suddenly agreed: freed slaves had been slothful politicians, Klansmen were liberators, and vigilantes had been not white but black. Popular books such as The Clansman and The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization sold white supremacy to the whole nation. Northerners, the New York Times noted in 1900, no longer denounced the suppression of black voting because “the necessity of it under the supreme law of self-preservation is candidly recognized.” Reconstruction soon became “The Tragic Era.”
The nationwide best seller by that name recounted “the darkest days in Mississippi,” when the legislature was “one of the most grotesque bodies that ever assembled. A mulatto was Speaker of the House, a darker man was Lt. Governor.” Evil carpetbaggers and traitorous scalawags had labored to “inflame the Negroes,” causing them to attack white women. “Rape,” The Tragic Era noted, “is the foul daughter of Reconstruction.” Riding to the rescue, as Klansmen did in the popular film Birth of a Nation, the Klan “was organized for the protection of women, property, civilization itself.” Revisionism did more than justify Jim Crow—it pacified the North and solidified the South. In his landmark study of race, An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal observed, “The South needs to believe that when the Negro voted, life was unbearable.”
The generations came and went. The price of cotton rose and fell. The Mississippi River did likewise. Through sweltering summers and gray, bone-chilling winters, descendants of Confederates and descendants of slaves shared a volatile truce. Segregated yet strangely intertwined, the two cultures coexisted—tar and biscuit dough, cordial, edgy, neither separate nor equal. White folks had their side of town and all the twentieth century could add—fine and finer homes, Model Ts, shopping trips to Memphis or New Orleans. And black folks had their side of town and what little they could scrape together—a few barnyard animals, perhaps a mule, and a shack barely big enough for two, let alone the eight or ten crammed inside. Life in white Mississippi was intensely social, based on kinship and the camaraderie of cotillions and hunting trips. But life in black Mississippi was more hopeless than any other in America. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Among the “colored” of Mississippi, the problem was Mississippi itself, where “Mr. Charlie” cheated sharecroppers at annual “settlements,” where dresses had to be made out of flour sacks, where submission was ground into the soul.
During World War I, blacks fled north to factory jobs. So many left that those left behind joked, “What are the three largest cities in Mississippi?” Hint: none were actually in Mississippi. Back home, a few blacks in each town inched ahead, bought a little land, opened a barbershop or funeral parlor, kept up modest homes. But the vast majority, serfs under the feudal rule of King Cotton, lived for Saturday-night revelry at “juke joints.” When that turned violent—over women, usually—some ended up in Mississippi’s own corner of hell, Parchman Farm Penitentiary, whose bestial murders, rapes, and tortures made it “worse than slavery.” Those who survived Saturday night repented on Sunday in churches where the spirit was barely contained within wooden walls. And then came Monday, when hordes of blacks rose at dawn and headed again for the fields, not to return till dusk.
In the 1920s Harlem hosted a Renaissance of art, jazz, and literature. In Mississippi, blacks sat on swaybacked porches playing beat-up guitars with bottlenecks and table knives. To some their music sounded like fingernails on a blackboard, to others like human anguish distilled into song. It came to be called the Delta blues. By the 1930s, textile mills dotted the upper South. Atlanta was a bustling city, Birmingham a steel town. But Mississippi remained a state of rural hamlets, zoned by race and railroad tracks, surrounded by snarled backwoods and linked by dirt roads. This gave the state a quaint charm locals loved—you could still hunt, fish, live as your granddaddy lived. Yet to “outsiders” riding the Illinois Central through the Delta, it seemed the twentieth century had yet to come downriver from St. Louis. Even into the 1940s, sprawling plantations were tended by blacks in overalls stuffing cotton into bulging sacks. Even into the atomic age, Baptist tent revivals drew the devil out of sinful small-towners. And the generations came and went. The price of cotton rose and fell. The river did likewise.
Justifying the economics was an ideology, also in black and white. In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash explored how the Civil War shaped the thinking of an entire region. Refusing to repent for their secession, southerners romanticized the antebellum world the war had rendered “gone with the wind.” Slavery had not been one of the worst crimes in history but a humane, paternal system. “Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other,” recalled Confederate president and Mississippian Jefferson Davis. The slave system had protected white women—“the loveliest and purest of God’s creatures”—from lustful black men. And not a word was said about why some Negroes had lighter skin. A genteel culture with cotillions and calling cards preferred to talk about acts of kindness—and there were many—between black and white. Yet the same culture also required savage retaliation against any black who through “reckless eyeballing” dared to offend whites, especially white women. Atrocities, including the lynching of more than five hundred Mississippi Negroes—more than any other state—were ennobled as righteous. Lynching went unpunished, murder was “self-defense,” and many towns announced their meanness in a road sign—“Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You Here.” Whites who disapproved learned to keep quiet. Criticism of Jim Crow became disloyalty to be dealt with, Cash noted, by “making such criticism so dangerous that none but a madman would risk it.”
Yet until the 1950s, criticism was marginal. All but a few northerners dismissed “the Negro problem” as a southern problem, and all but a few southerners chose not to see a problem. Understanding is a two-way street, but it ran one way through Greenwood, Jackson, and Liberty, Mississippi. Black women cleaned and cooked in white homes, cared for white children, were often “a part of the family.” They knew too well how whites lived. Yet whites, though they might play with blacks as children, never went to “Niggertown” and rarely compared their own comforts to those of their maids and cooks. Blacks smiled a lot, therefore they must be happy. “When civil rights came along, a lot of us were shocked,” said one Natchez woman. “I was shocked to find black people we knew participating in the marches, because we didn’t know they were unhappy.” And when Freedom Summer focused the eyes of America on Mississippi, many whites there would not recognize the state others saw. Seemed they had never been to black Mississippi, even though it was just across town.
To sidestep the minefield of class, Mississippi politicians played the race card expertly. Because Mississippi was a one-party state—almost no one voting for the party of Lincoln—incumbent congressmen held their seats for generations, becoming the most powerful men on Capitol Hill. And whenever an election was at risk, politicians found a convenient whipping boy in the Negro. James K. Vardaman, Mississippi governor: “The Negro is a lazy, lustful animal which no conceivable amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen.” Vardaman’s successor to Mississippi’s power elite, a balding little bigot named Theodore G. Bilbo, was more blunt. Toward the end of his long and corrupt career, Senator Bilbo announced, “I am calling upon every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no nigger votes . . . and the best time to do it is the night before.”
Bilbo’s call to arms came in 1946 when, home from World War II, blacks in Mississippi were beginning to clamor for citizenship. Things were finally changing, thanks in part to technology. Late in the war, the first mechanical cotton picker was demonstrated on a Delta plantation. The cost of picking a bale of cotton by hand was $39.41; the cost by machine was $5.26. In the decade following the war, 315,000 blacks displaced by automation headed north, and Mississippi’s racial lava cooled. A new generation of black leaders began speaking out. Small NAACP chapters began meeting in lamplit churches. Lynching, in decline since the 1930s, stopped. Several thousand Negroes registered to vote, and no one shot into their homes. Few spoke of universal Negro suffrage, but stagnation seemed at an end. “Segregation will never end in my lifetime, of course,” many said, “but my children will see its end.” Yet those who remembered the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which spread the river across the Delta for a hundred miles, knew how stealthily disaster could come.
Levees do not break as dams do—with a roar and rush. Instead, the relentless pressure of rising water forms “boils,” small geysers that bubble through softer soil. Sandbag each boil, and you can hold back the floodwaters, but if enough boils bubble through, the whole levee goes. For Mississippi and the entire South, the first boil surfaced on May 17, 1954.
Mississippians, their governor announced, were “shocked and stunned.” Senator James Eastland, owner of a huge Delta plantation, flailed his fists and proclaimed, “We are about to embark on a great crusade to restore Americanism.” A Mississippi judge bemoaned “Black Monday.” The Monday in question was the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Influenced by psychological studies of black children, the court ruled that “to separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Separate schools, the court unanimously declared, were “inherently unequal.” Alarm was still rippling across the South when, late in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
As in resisting Reconstruction, Mississippi led resistance to the civil rights movement. Two months after the Brown decision, planters, lawyers, and other prominent Delta men met in Indianola to form the White Citizens’ Council. The council often clothed its policies in the garb of “states rights,” but one pamphlet succinctly defined its purpose: “The Citizens’ Council is the South’s answer to the mongrelizers. We will not be integrated! We are proud of our white blood and our white heritage. . . . If we are bigoted, prejudiced, un-American, etc., so were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and other illustrious forebears who believed in segregation.” Within a year, Citizens’ Council chapters had sprung up throughout Mississippi. Within two years, similar councils were meeting across the South.
Sometimes called “the uptown Klan,” Mississippi’s Citizens’ Councils used a variety of tactics. They held high school essay contests on “Why Separate Schools Should be Maintained for the White and Negro Races.” They sent volunteers house-to-house to survey racial attitudes. Their list of subversive organizations—those backing integration—ranged from the Methodist and Episcopal churches to the Elks Club, the YWCA, and the U.S. Air Force. The Citizens’ Council’s primary weapon was the mimeograph machine, churning out some five million pages of pamphlets and press releases to rally “right thinking” Mississippians. Many spouted the familiar tenets of white supremacy; others served up a more mendacious venom. In 1956, the South was deluged with mimeographs of a speech by Professor Roosevelt Williams of Howard University. At an NAACP meeting in Jackson, Williams claimed that white women yearned for black men and any black man could get any white woman he wanted. The speech was widely quoted until a Georgia journalist found there was no Professor Roosevelt Williams of Howard University. The “speech” had been distributed by the Citizens’ Council in Mississippi. But as the Citizens’ Council gained enough power to elect Governor Ross Barnett—“God was the original segregationist”—disinformation proved a mild tactic compared to economic warfare. Blacks who dared register to vote, who joined the NAACP, who signed petitions demanding school integration, quickly had their credit cut off, their taxes audited, their insurance canceled. Soon the phone threats started. For most “agitators,” these were enough. They stopped fooling around with “dat Brown mess.” Those who persisted were handled by citizens not quite so “uptown.”
Rednecks. Peckerwoods. White trash. By whatever degrading name, the impoverished whites of Mississippi kept one rung up on the social ladder by beating down the blacks below them. Shunned by better-off whites, they carved out hardscrabble lives in shacks and hovels where, living close to the unforgiving earth, they absorbed its cruelty. Growing up in Yazoo City, writer Willie Morris knew them well. “And then there were the redneck boys,” Morris wrote.
Almost all of them were rough and open, and you learned early to treat them with a diffident respect; they were bigger and often older, from failing a grade or from having to stay out of school, sometimes for days at a time, during picking season. . . . Pity the poor colored child who walked past the schoolhouse when they were outside. There would be cries of “coon” or “nigger baby,” followed by a barrage of rocks and dirt clods. When I was a grown man and saw the deputy sheriffs and the mobs pummeling Negro demonstrators on television, I needed no one to tell me they had been doing the same thing since the age of eight.
The “redneck boys” hung out in packs where they hardened each other with a junkyard meanness passed down from father to son. Bottled up throughout boyhood, it exploded when mixed with moonshine and a mob mentality, especially when blacks tried to climb the ladder.
In May 1955, George Lee, a minister who had urged fellow blacks to register, was driving through Belzoni when shots rang out. His face blown off, Lee died en route to the hospital. The murder was reported in Jackson papers as an “odd accident.” That August, a black veteran was gunned down on a crowded courthouse lawn in Brookhaven. Two weeks later, teenager Emmett Till, having come from Chicago to visit relatives, flirted with a white woman in Money, Mississippi (pop. 55). No African American of “the Emmett Till generation” would ever forget the photo of Till’s monstrously mangled face in the casket his mother left open to let “the world see what they did to my boy.” More than one hundred reporters sat in the segregated courtroom where the sheriff greeted the black press—“Good morning, niggers”—and where the defense urged the jury, “every last Anglo Saxon one of you,” to find the killers not guilty. The jury complied in just over an hour. William Faulkner observed, “If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.” A less eloquent white man proved more prophetic. “There’s open season on Negroes now,” he said. Within four years, ten more Mississippi blacks were murdered by whites; no guilty verdicts were rendered. The reign of terror also revived lynching. In the tiny town of Poplarville, Mack Parker, accused of rape, was dragged from jail and later found in chains, drifting in a logjam on the Pearl River. But the Emmett Till murder galvanized blacks more than whites. “From that point on,” Bob Moses’ mentor Amzie Moore remembered, “Mississippi began to move.”
And when it moved, the movement came from the bottom up. “It was the so-called dumb people,” a Holmes County farmer remembered. “. . . The school teachers, the educated people, they ain’t did a damn thang! The preachers ain’t neither. The so-called dumb people open the way for everybody. See, the table was set.” The Mississippi movement began with common laborers whose dignity would not be denied and with self-employed farmers whites could neither fire nor frighten. A chapter of the NAACP or the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a place to meet, and a coalition of the brave—these were the sparks. And Emmett Till’s face, printed in Jet magazine and passed from hand to hand, was the fan reminding blacks that little had changed in Mississippi, and that everything had to.
When vigilantes and the Citizens’ Council could not contain the movement, the state stepped in. In the wake of Brown, prospective voters were required not just to read but to interpret part of the Mississippi constitution, a document, as Senator Bilbo noted, “that damn few white men and no niggers at all can explain.” The state constitution had 285 sections. Each “interpretation” was left open to the registrar. No appeal was allowed. Black teachers, doctors, and Ph.D.s routinely “failed” the test most whites did not have to take, and statewide black voting rolls fell from 22,000 to 8,000. In 1956, state legislators declared Brown “invalid, unconstitutional, and not of lawful effect.” The vote was 136-0. After voting, legislators sang “Dixie.” That same year, the legislature created Mississippi’s own KGB, the State Sovereignty Commission. Chaired by the governor, funded by taxpayers and private donations, the Sovereignty Commission spied, paid informers, tapped phones, and convinced newspaper editors to plant false stories and kill factual ones. The commission’s most extreme actions now seem comical, such as when investigators examined a baby born out of wedlock, checking its hair, nose, and fingernails to discover if he was part Negro. But other tactics seemed more appropriate for Khrushchev’s Soviet Union than for Eisenhower’s America.
During its first five years, the Sovereignty Commission spent much of its time fielding letters of support from segregationists across the nation. But members also found time to stir things up in Mississippi. The commission used black informers to imprison a man who tried to integrate the University of Southern Mississippi. It investigated NAACP leaders. Who were their friends? Were they Christian? What sexual habits might lead to their disgrace? Commission reports on racial violence inevitably blamed blacks and exonerated whites. Then Bob Moses came to Mississippi. An investigator interviewed Moses and concluded he was “working hand-in-glove with Communist sympathizers if not out-right Communist agitators. It is my opinion that Moses is himself a Communist.” Moses and SNCC deepened the siege mentality that set in across the state when, several years after the Montgomery bus boycott, the civil rights movement finally took hold in Mississippi.
By the summer of 1962, SNCC was building a “beachhead” in the most impoverished and explosive spot in America—the Mississippi Delta. Meanwhile in Jackson, blacks were boycotting segregated stores, sitting in at lunch counters, going limp as cops dragged them into paddy wagons. And across Mississippi, from the Delta south to the Piney Woods, blacks were lining up to register at county courthouses.
In Mississippi, the courthouse was more than a symbol of law and order—it was the heart of white society. Situated at the hub of each county seat, framed by a tidy town square, each courthouse was the oldest and best-preserved building for miles around. Each stood with towering cupola and an ornate brick facade. And on each courthouse lawn, a stone soldier stood atop a pedestal chiseled with the roll call of the Confederate dead. Every white birth, death, and marriage was recorded in the courthouse. And now as blacks came en masse to register, it was as if they were tearing a hole in these nostalgic portraits of the Old South. Because terror alone could not stop them, Mississippi barred its doors, locked its mind, and clung to the past that was not even past.
But preserving the status quo in the 1960s was not as easy as it had once been. A new invader, television, threatened to spread northern ideas about integration. Even if most Mississippi towns had just one or two TV channels, they had to be controlled. When novelist James Baldwin appeared on the Today show, he was not seen in Mississippi. NBC affiliates statewide showed an old movie. When NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall spoke on TV, WLBT in Jackson flashed the sign “Cable Difficulty.” The announcement “Sorry, Cable Trouble” soon became common on Mississippi TV. Newscasts were often preceded by a warning: “The following program is Northern-managed news.” Such control depended on media monopoly. The manager of WLBT was a Citizens’ Council director. So were the station’s owners, the Hederman family, which also owned Mississippi’s two statewide dailies, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News. As with the rest of Jim Crow, opposition to “northern” media sometimes reached absurd heights. In the spring of 1964, rumors that the hit Western Bonanza would feature a “Negro cow-girl” led to a boycott of the show and its sponsors. A few months later, Mississippi’s ABC affiliates protested the new sitcom Bewitched, arguing that a show about a man marrying a witch might be seen as “a veiled argument for racial intermarriage.”
Blackouts, spies, vigilantes, cops cracking down, Citizens’ Council chapters lobbying the “right thinking”—all turned Mississippi into “The Closed Society.” And when Ole Miss history professor James Silver coined the term in 1963, he too became a target. Denounced by the governor, investigated by the university, Silver began sleeping with a shotgun by his bed. He never drove at night. Other moderates faced similar harassment. At Ole Miss, speakers were screened for their views on integration. The campus director of religious life was forced to leave. His crime? Hosting a black journalist. Protesting “intellectual straight-jacketing,” professors resigned one after another until a quarter of the faculty had quit. Clergymen also felt the pressure. In January 1963, twenty-eight Methodist ministers signed a statement urging church integration. Within a year, half had left the state.
Dick Gregory once joked that a Mississippi moderate was someone “who will lynch you from a low tree.” But despite the dangers, a few voices of reason remained, courageously crying out in what one called “The Magnolia Jungle.” Hazel Brannon Smith, publisher of the Lexington Advertiser, waged a one-woman campaign against the Citizens’ Council and its “private Gestapo,” the Sovereignty Commission. In her front-page column, “Through Hazel Eyes,” Smith observed: “Today we live in fear in Holmes County and in Mississippi. It hangs like a dark cloud over us dominating every facet of public and private life. None speaks freely without being afraid of being misunderstood. Almost every man and woman is afraid to try to do anything to promote good will and harmony between the races.”
Smith was ostracized in her small town. Advertising dried up, her name was linked to Communists, her husband lost his job, and she was found guilty of libel for denouncing a white cop who had shot a black man. Yet Smith kept speaking out, and a month before Freedom Summer, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Farther south, in Petal, Mississippi, P. D. East, editor, publisher, ad salesman, reporter, and typesetter for the Petal Paper, denounced the spreading “assdom.” East ran mock Citizens’ Council ads asking readers to “Join the Glorious Citizens Clan . . . the Bigger and Better Bigots Bureau.” Like Hazel Brannon Smith, East was boycotted. The Petal Paper survived only on out-of-state sales. And still farther south, in the shipyard town of Pascagoula, publisher Ira Harkey Jr. had the audacity to remove the labels “nigger” and “colored” from his newspaper, then editorialize against local “goons” and “Hateists.” They responded by shooting into his house and burning a cross on his lawn. The hatred hardened, finally bringing on Mississippi’s greatest fear—the return of northern troops.
Mississippians thought they knew how to handle any Negro who tried to enroll at Ole Miss. The first, in 1958, was sent to a mental institution. But in 1962, James Meredith’s pending enrollment threw the charming old town of Oxford into an uproar. “Dixie” blared on radio stations. Confederate flags flew. Rebel yells sounded in the streets, and whites from as far south as the Gulf Coast poured into Oxford armed for battle. Federal marshals arrived on troop trucks. On September 30, as darkness descended on campus, bricks smashed cars and windows. Mississippi highway patrolmen withdrew, enraging Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who sent in more marshals. All night the rioting continued, leaving two dead, twenty-eight shot, hundreds beaten, cars burned, buildings gutted. The next morning, federal troops escorted Meredith through the rubble and into class. “We hate violence,” one student said, “but we are determined to keep our way of life. Nobody can take it away from us, and I would die for it.”
Federal troops stayed on the Ole Miss campus until the following August. Come 1964, three years after the centennial secession parade, the Civil War remained an open sore, the Oxford “occupation” had rekindled smoldering hatreds, and Mississippi had become a pressure cooker. In March, news of the summer project sent tremors through the state. Freedom Summer planners announced, again and again, that volunteers coming to Mississippi would not march, sit in, or protest. In a letter to all county sheriffs, planners explained, “The project is concerned with construction, not agitation.” Yet that spring, the Mississippi legislature passed a spate of laws doubling the number of state police and banning picketing, leafleting, and assembly.
While the state legislature met in emergency session, Mississippi’s KGB made its own preparations for Freedom Summer. Throughout April and May, the State Sovereignty Commission held clinics for sheriffs and cops, advising them of new state laws for handling the incoming wave of “communists, sex perverts, odd balls, and do-gooders.” The agency also hired two black spies it called Informant X and Informant Y. X’s job was to travel with civil rights workers. “It will be a long hot summer in Mississippi,” X reported back, “because they are going to demonstrate in the streets of Jackson until the ‘walls of segregation’ come tumbling down.” Attending the Ohio training, X reported, “The white girls have been going around with the Negro boys and Negro girls going with the white boys.” While X traveled, Y infiltrated the Jackson headquarters of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights agencies in Mississippi.
COFO headquarters would be the nerve center of Freedom Summer. Located on Lynch Street in the black section of Jackson, COFO shared a low brick building with the Streamline Bar and Billiards. As Freedom Summer approached, the office was far busier than the adjacent bar. Phones rang incessantly. Women sat at typewriters clacking out letters, lists, solicitations, and a stream of reports on all aspects of the summer project. Meetings in smoke-filled back rooms went on past midnight. Boxes of books and clothes—donations from around the country—piled up in corners. Moving freely through the clutter was Informant Y. Along with stealing key documents, including lists of all volunteers with their home addresses, Y also sent fanciful reports to the Sovereignty Commission. Apparently the COFO office was thick with Communists and even a “queer.” Photos of Khrushchev and Lenin adorned the wall, Y reported, Marxist literature was everywhere, and talk was of a new world “where black and white will walk together and where Communism will dominate. They do not talk of love but only of sex to satisfy the body.” As the summer unfolded, Informant X would continue to file dry reports while Informant Y would tell the State Sovereignty Commission just what it wanted to hear.
By June 1964, Mississippi’s past was digging in against the onslaught of the present. All but a few moderates had been silenced or exiled. Pascagoula publisher Ira Harkey had sold his crusading paper. Frank Smith, the lone Mississippi moderate in Congress, had been defeated for reelection. P. D. East had moved to Alabama, and William Faulkner was dead. Unfettered, Confederate pride resurged with a vengeance. Reconstruction-era insults—“carpetbagger” and “scalawag”—were common. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger was running a Civil War column—“This Week in 1864”—recounting atrocities by Union troops. Behind the scenes, softer voices pleaded for understanding. “I know we’ve had a hundred years,” a Hattiesburg doctor said. “I know that, and I’m ashamed to ask it, but we need more time. If we had more time, we’d work it out.” To most Mississippians, however, it was too late for pleas. “In my life span, I have never felt so compelled to stand up for God and our country,” a Jackson man wrote the Clarion-Ledger. “I ask both white and colored not to let Mississippi turn into a small New York.”
With Freedom Summer just a week away, rumors verged on panic. Not just a few hundred but thirty thousand “invaders” were on their way! In Jackson, word that Negro gangs were “forming to rape white women” led to a run on gun shops. Mississippi police stockpiled tear gas, riot guns, and electric cattle prods. Cops took riot training. The Klan announced it had 91,000 members in Mississippi and was actively recruiting. In this spreading alarm, violence became common currency.
Early one June evening, two cars stopped in front of COFO headquarters in Jackson. Two young white men stepped out. Each calmly pulled out a gun, aimed at the office, and fired. Windows shattered. Screams came from inside. The men drove off. Six days later, a bomb hit the Freedom House in Canton. That same day in volatile southwest Mississippi, whites mauled three journalists. “This is just a taste of what you Northern agitators will get,” one attacker said.
With the days melting away, Mississippi braced for the “long, hot summer.” Chambers of commerce shared strategies. Stay calm. Discourage the Klan in your area. Trust the police. Stonewall the press. In southwest Mississippi, two new organizations began meeting. The Americans for the Preservation of the White Race urged peaceful defiance. “Don’t do no violence,” a preacher told the group. “The day we kill three or four, they’d be martial law in Mississippi.” In McComb, the neighborhood watch group Help, Inc. organized block captains and mailed out “Guidelines for Self-protection and Preservation.” Among them: “Know where small children are at all times. . . . Look before unlocking door to anyone. . . . Learn alarm codes. . . . Temporary alarm to be three blasts from a shotgun or car horn.” And in klaverns dotted throughout Mississippi, Klansmen steeled themselves. “This summer, within a very few days, the enemy will launch his final push for victory here in Mississippi,” the Klan’s shadowy Imperial Wizard announced. “We must use all of the time which is left to us in these next few days preparing to meet this attack. Weapons and ammunition must be accumulated and stored. Squads must drill. . . . And a solemn, determined spirit of Christian reverence must be stimulated in all members.”
On the last day of spring, as volunteers boarded buses in Ohio, Jackson’s huge armored tank waited at police headquarters. Nearby, the county fairgrounds had become a holding camp big enough to house thousands of prisoners. After months of rumors and threats, Mississippi hunkered down for the worst. In Jackson, Eudora Welty wrote a friend, “I hear that this summer all hell is going to break loose.” The State Sovereignty Commission reported “increased activity in weapon shipments.” From towns carved out of the clay to those rising from cotton fields, Mississippi waited. Then shortly after midnight on the first day of summer, young men and women rode buses south from Memphis, singing as they approached the state line. When a blood-red sun rose that Sunday, Mississippi was again engulfed in the wars—between white and black, between North and South, between tolerance and intolerance—that had never really ended.
“Why doesn’t everybody love each other?” “Do what?” “Love each other. Why don’t they love each other?” “Say, what are you anyhow? Some kind of a nut?”
—Shelby Foote, Jordan County