I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggleby Charles M. Payne
This momentous work offers a groundbreaking history of the early civil rights movement in the South with new material that situates the book in the context of subsequent movement literature.
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I've Got the Light of Freedom
The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle
By Charles M. Payne
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
SETTING THE STAGE
The show has been put on the road.... Three wars, increased migration ... radio and television have played their parts in creating in [Mississippi] Negroes a dissatisfaction with the status quo. The studied efforts to keep them poor and ignorant have broken down under their own weight.
RUBY HURLEY NAACP
Everything that took place in Mississippi during the 19605 took place against that state's long tradition of systematic racial terrorism. Without some minimal protection for the lives of potential activists, no real opposition to the system of white supremacy was possible. Lynching is only one form of racial terror and statistics on it virtually always underestimate the reality, but between the end of Reconstruction and the modern civil rights era, Mississippi lynched 539 Blacks, more than any other state. Between 1930 and 1950—during the two decades immediately preceding the modern phase of the civil rights movement—the state had at least 33 lynchings.
The first victim was Dave Harris, shot to death in 1930 by a crowd of 250 white men who believed Harris had killed a young white man near Gunnison, Mississippi. The second and third victims were Pig Lockett and Holly Hite. Arrested for robbery, they were taken from the law enforcement officers by a mob, which hung them. In 1931, Steve Wiley was accused of attempting to assault the wife of a grocery-store owner while he was drunk. She shot him three times. A mob hung what was left of him from a railroad trestle. A week later, in Vicksburg, Eli Johnson, also accused of an attempted assault on a white woman, was lynched. In November of that year, the body of Coleman Franks was found hanging from a tree limb near Columbus. He had been charged with shooting and wounding a local white farmer. There were no lynchings in 1932, but two in 1933. In July an unnamed Negro man in Caledonia, Mississippi, was hung, accused of insulting a white woman. In Minter City that September, Richard Roscoe got into a fight with a white man. A mob shot him to death, tied his body to the rear of the sheriff's automobile, and paraded it through town before dumping it in front of his home.
Nineteen-thirty-four saw three killings. In Bolivar County, a mob overpowered sheriff's deputies and seized Isaac Thomas and Joe Love, who had been arrested for an alleged attack on a white woman. The men were hung from a railroad trestle. Less than two months later, in Pelahatchie, Mississippi, four white men beat seventy-year-old Henry Bedford to death. A tenant farmer, he was accused of having spoken disrespectfully to one of the whites in the course of a dispute about land rental. The sheriff arrested four whites—for which he suffered some criticism—but no indictments were ever handed down. About a month later, Robert Jones and Smith Houey were hung from a tree near Michigan City. They were accused of killing at least one white man.
There were seven killings in 1935, three in the month of March alone. On March twelfth, Ab Young was hung from a tree in a school yard near Slayden. Young was wanted in connection with the shooting death of a white highway worker. When he was captured, the mob had an argument about whether to burn him or turn him over to the sheriff in Holly Springs. The brother of the murdered man had made a plea that Young not be mutilated. While the argument was still going on, a group of about fifty went off to hang him. He was allowed to sing a hymn, which he was able to do in a clear, unfaltering voice, apparently unnerving some of his captors. After he was dead, several in the crowd used his swinging body for target practice. When the lynchers got back to town the burn-him or give-him-to-the-sheriff argument was still going on. Ten days later in Lawrence County, R. J. Tyronne was shot to death, apparently by neighbors who thought he had become too prosperous. On the thirtieth of the month, the body of Rev. T. A. Allen, weighted down with chain, was found in the Coldwater River. Allen had been involved in an attempt to organize sharecroppers. In June, R. D. McGee in Wiggins was both hung and shot for his alleged attack on an eleven-year-old white girl. In July, Bert Moore and Dooley Morton, both young farmers, were hung near Columbus, also for an alleged attack on a white woman. Bodie Bates was hung from a bridge in August for the same reason. In September, a mob in Oxford, site of the University of Mississippi, hung Ellwood Higginbotham, who was being tried for the murder of a white planter.
In 1936, J. B. Grant, seventeen years old, was shot over a hundred times by a mob, tied to an automobile, and dragged through the streets of Laurel before being hung from a railroad trestle. What he had done to deserve this is not known. It was a record fifteen months before the next killing, but that one proved particularly brutal: Roosevelt Townes and "Bootjack" McDaniel, both in their mid-twenties, were accused of murdering a white man and were taken from the sheriff by a mob. Three or four hundred people, including women and children, took them to a clearing in the woods near Duckhill, where they were chained to trees. According to one report, the mob turned on McDaniels first. A blowtorch was applied to his chest until he confessed, after which he was shot. The blowtorch was applied to Townes for as much as an hour; it was used to burn off his fingers and ears individually. While he was still alive, brush and wood were piled at his feet and fired with gasoline, finally burning him to death.
During the first half of 1938, there were no lynchings anywhere in the South, perhaps in part because, in the wake of the Duckhill slayings, federal anti-lynching legislation was gaining new support. In the second half of the year, there were seven lynchings, four in Mississippi, in which the NAACP estimated a total of six hundred people took part. Only a few were involved in the murder of Wash Adams, who was beaten to death in Columbus for failing to pay the ten-dollar balance on his wife's funeral bill. In the Delta town of Rolling Fork, a blacksmith named Tom Green refused to do some work ordered by the plantation manager. Green was fired and then got into an argument with R. Purdy Flanagan, the plantation owner, about who owned which tools. Shooting started; Green was wounded but Flanagan was killed. Green holed up in his cabin where he was killed after a fifteen-minute gun battle with a mob of three hundred. His body was dragged by car to the place where he had killed Flanagan, doused with gasoline and burned, then dragged into town and burned again. That was near the beginning of July. Near the end of the month a mob in Canton shot and killed Claude Banks as he was driving home. In November, a mob of perhaps two hundred killed Wilder McGowan in Wiggins. McGowan was accused of assaulting a white woman.
Where we have more than fragmentary details about these cases, it is often because of the work of NAACP investigators, usually native white southerners. Their work repeatedly demonstrated that the underlying stories were much at variance with reported versions. Stories about sheriffs being "overpowered" by mobs often turned out to be cases of collusion between sheriffs and the mobs—although they also found cases where law-enforcement people did everything they could to protect their prisoners, sometimes successfully. Of course, investigators frequently found that the actual reasons victims were selected had no relationship to their alleged transgression. The crowd at Duck Hill may have seized Roosevelt Townes partly because he was a bootlegger in a part of the state where that occupation was thought a white mans prerogative.
Wilder McGowan was probably killed because he had trouble grasping the whole idea of white man's prerogative. On November 20, a Mrs. Murray reported that at about eight P.M. she had been attacked and robbed by a light-skinned colored man with straight hair. The seventy-four-year-old Mrs. Murray was a member of one of the area's prominent white families. A posse estimated at two hundred men descended upon the local Negro quarters and ordered that no one leave. One woman, thinking the order applied only to men, tried to leave for her job; she was hit on the head with a pistol butt and told to "git back." Bloodhounds led the posse through a rooming house. Learning that one resident, Wilder McGowan, age twenty-four, was not there, the mob became interested in him. When he returned home, he was taken into the nearby woods and hung.
In many respects, McGowan was an unlikely choice. Several witnesses could have accounted for his whereabouts during the time the crime was committed. He was dark-skinned, so he didn't fit Mrs. Murray's description. He was never taken before Mrs. Murray for identification. The NAACP investigator concluded that McGowan was selected because he had had several altercations with whites:
On one occasion when he refused to run as other Negroes did when ordered to do so by some armed whites in an automobile, he was attacked but beat his assailants and took a revolver from one of them. Recently, he was suspected of having slashed with a knife one of a group of whites who visited a Negro dance hall "looking for some good-looking nigger women." It is known that he was one of two or three young Negro men who resented the slur on their women and had a fist fight with the whites. He called for the lights to be put out and in the darkness the whites were badly beaten and one cut on the arm.
"After they had Linched him," McGowan's uncle wrote the NAACP a year later, "they claim that they caught the right negroes But still Wilder is dead." In a larger sense, Wilder was the right Negro.
The McGowan case was closer to the rule than to the exception. Southwide, allegations of rape were made in about one-sixth of all lynchings (but probably in one hundred percent of all southern speeches about lynching). Immediately after it was founded, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) made an attempt to find out how many of the charges of rape had any validity:
These investigations showed that white men, determined to get rid of a certain Negro, would accuse him of an attempted sex crime. They knew that officers would approve without question their action for this offense.... While in some instances the weight of the evidence supported the charge of attempted rape, investigations of many lynchings indicated so strongly that white women ... were merely a front for lynchers that no report of a lynching for the protection of a white woman could be accepted as true until it was verified.
Of course, mobs had their own understanding of what constituted "assault"; looking a white woman in the eye could be enough.
Near the end of the thirties, Canton, Mississippi, had two killings, both of which, according to an NAACP investigator, reflected, in different ways, a trend toward "quieter" lynchings. In July of 1938, a white man named A. B. McAdam visited the city to see his daughter who was hospitalized there. After he left the hospital, he was, he claimed, attacked and robbed by a Black man. Law-enforcement officers and citizens decided to blockade the part of town where the incident was supposed to have taken place. At the same time, Claude Banks, twenty-two-year-old son of a prosperous Negro funeral home owner, was driving home from a party. As he drove by the blockade, members of the mob opened fire with pistols and shotguns, apparently making no effort to stop the car. Witnesses said that both deputies and police officers were among those doing the shooting. Banks was killed. His companion, Willie Jones, was arrested and roughed up before being released with the warning that if he ever said anything he would catch "sudden pneumonia"—that is, be killed. Canton's mayor did what he could to keep the story quiet, refusing to cooperate with a photographer who wanted to get a picture of the body—a departure from the older tradition in which murderers, smiling and grinning, posed with the bodies of their victims or pieces thereof, for photos that were sometimes turned into postcards. Claude Banks's father did what he could to keep the issue alive. He went to the mayor and requested the city render some form of compensation for his sons death and then asked a local judge if there were any legal avenues of redress. Both told him that nothing could be done.
Joe Rodgers was killed in Canton in 1939. Active in community affairs, a deacon and choir member at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Rodgers was employed at Dinkman Lumber Mill. He was asked to move into company-owned housing but refused, since that housing was more expensive than what he already had. On Saturday, May 6, there was an extra deduction from his pay. He was told that the deduction was for rent on a company house. The following Monday, Rodgers raised the issue with a foreman. Things ended with the foreman striking Rodgers with his fist and then grabbing a spade. Rodgers took the spade away and hit him with it before a friend of Rodgers's separated the two men. It is not known what happened immediately after that, but Joe Rodgers was never seen alive again. That Thursday, a constable found his body in the Pearl River, bound hand and foot and beaten to a pulp. He had been tortured with hot irons. The Madison County Herald never mentioned his death, and local residents were ordered not to discuss it.
By the end of the thirties, NAACP officials and members of the ASWPL thought howling mobs were becoming passe. Small groups of men were doing quietly what large crowds used to do publicly. Kangaroo courts and charges of "killed while resisting arrest" were giving racial murder a quasi-legal air. Even when large groups were involved, there were more attempts to suppress news of murders—this in a state where lynchings had previously been announced in the newspapers a couple of days in advance in order to give the country people time to get to town.
World War II brought new possibilities of racial tension. On the one hand, whites worried that those Blacks who served in the armed forces would come back with "biggity" ideas. On the other hand, some whites felt that not enough Black men were going to war. Blacks were more likely to be excluded from service for reasons of health or illiteracy, leaving some whites feeling that there were too many Black men around. Nonetheless, the state's lynching rate did not change much during the war years; there were three in 1943, one more in 1944.
The 1943 killings were only a week apart, separated by only a few miles. The first involved two fourteen-year-old boys, Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, arrested for attempting to rape a thirteen-year-old white girl near the small town—population fourteen hundred—of Quitman. The sheriff claimed the boys had confessed. On October 12, a small group of men supposedly overpowered the constable at the jail and took the boys. They were found hanging from a beam of the bridge where the incident had taken place. The bridge was a traditional site for lynching in Clarke County. In 1918, four Negroes, two of them pregnant women, had been hung there for alleged complicity in the death of a local dentist.
Subsequent investigation of the 1943 killing by the NAACP again raised doubts about just what had happened. The girl and the two boys were friends, and they frequently played together, often around the bridge. On that day, according to the report of the NAACPs Madison Jones,
they were running and jumping when the girl ran out from under the bridge and the boys behind her. A passing motorist saw them and the result you know. The boys were mutilated in the following fashion. Their reproductive organs were cut off. Pieces of flesh had been jerked away from their bodies with pliers and one boy had a screw driver rammed down his throat so that it protruded from his neck.
The Quitman killings may have inspired the killers of Howard Wash, killed just five days later about thirty miles away. Wash had been tried and found guilty of murdering his employer, a local dairy farmer. He had pleaded self-defense, and the fact that the jury that convicted him refused to recommend the death penalty may indicate that some of its members found some validity in his claim. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but a crowd broke into the jail and seized and hung him.
Excerpted from I've Got the Light of Freedom by Charles M. Payne. Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Charles M. Payne is Professor and Bass Fellow, African American Studies, History and Sociology, Duke University
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