In 1965 I went to Jackson, Mississippi to cover the Civil Rights Commission's investigation into civil rights violations there. Below is an excerpt from my story, which began with this anecdote:
And the Lord came to the Good Man and said, "Son, I want you to go to Mississippi and help the poor people down there." And the Good Man replied, "Lord, I'll go if you'll be there with me." And the Lord said, "Son, I'll go with you, but only as far as Memphis."The current Republican assault is the worst attempt to prevent minority voting since the mid 1960s and, while not as brutal, is likely to be similarly effective.
Sam Smith, The Idler, 1965 - T. V. Johnson, a Belzoni Negro, has not been beaten or whipped. He even registered to vote back in 1954.
But he hasn't voted.
During his testimony before the Civil Rights Commission, the following exchange took place :
Q. Are you going ro try (to vote) .'
A. No, not until the intimidation
Q. When will you vote?
A. When they all go down.
Q. Who are you afraid of?
A. Everybody .
It is hard to be more specific in a state where hooded men appear in the night with bullwhips, bombs are thrown from passing cars, and phone calls bring anonymous threats.
Mississippi is a state where a pronouncement by the Governor or the Chamber of Commerce calling for law and order is a novelty. It is a state where members of a federal panel appointed to look into the rights of citizens solemnly applauds a city not because of any great strides in promoting equality, but because no heads have been bashed in there recently.
It is a state where many appear to believe that the limits of progress are reached when terror is eliminated.
In such an atmosphere sophisticated arguments over civil rights lose their meaning. Until some of the most primitive concepts of democracy are accepted - such as the right of a citizen to vote and the obligation of government to protect its citizens - it matters little who uses which washroom.
The Negro in Mississippi is not only segregated: he has been isolated from almost every mechanism that might possibly change his condition.
Over the past few years Negroes have been trying to change things and the most fundamental change they have sought is the right to vote.
Henry Rayburn, a 63-year-old farmer from near Charleston, was approached by a man with a club when he went to vote. Rayburn says the man told him "he would kill me if I tried to vote." The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because "the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved."
Alena Hamlett of Scobey registered in 1962. When her name was published in the local newspaper, as required by Mississippi law, a female effigy was hung near her home.
Dorothy Mae Foster went to register with her husband at Fayette in 1963. She was later visited by three men who presented a card that read: "Thousands of Klansmen are waiting, watching, Don't be misled. Let your conscience be your guide. Ku Klux Klan."
She was told, "If you don't take your name off the list you will be sorry." Mrs. Mary Welch of Humphreys County said she was told by a county official that "I was going to get in trouble and wasn't going to get any more commodities." Rural Negroes in Mississippi depend upon surplus agricultural commodities for survival.
When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee attempted to organize a voter registration drive in Macomb, 16 bombings occurred.
Mrs. Mary Thomas, a high school graduate, had her photograph taken by county police when she went to register. She was asked why she wanted to register. "We've always given you commodities." a county official told her.
Shortly after her return home, a deputy sheriff arrived and arrested her for selling beer without a county license.
She was fined $365.71 for failure to have a $15 license. She had never been told whether she passed the registration test.
Jesse James Brewer, a farmer from Tallahatchie County, went to register last summer. He was told by the sheriff that he had gone to the wrong place. On the way to the proper courthouse, the sheriff passed him. Upon his arrival, Brewer and other Negro registrants were surrounded by a group of men.
One of them said. "You niggers get away from the courthouse. You don't have no business here." For the next three weeks trucks with gun racks on the back repeatedly drove up and circled Brewer's house.
He finally registered on the fourth try.
Brewer is a World War II veteran.
He told the Commission, "The only time I felt like a man was when I was in the Army. After I got out it seemed my freedom run out." And he added, "I want to vote because there are some things I want to get straight."
The Negro community was indicated by a survey of Negro teachers presented to the Commission by James W. Protho.
Teachers in four counties were interviewed.
In one county, 62% of the teachers refused to be interviewed because the school superintendent had warned them not to discuss' civil rights with anyone.
Registration of teachers ran from a low of 0% to a high of 74%. In every county at least 40% of 'the teachers volunteered expressions of fear concerning voting. In one county 79% expressed fear.
They did not like talking about it.
As one teacher put it, "The walls have ears." Mississippi, pollster Protho concluded, is a "totalitarian local system." Beatings, bombings, burnings, threats of vioience, warnings that commodities will be cut off, loss of jobs, removal of credit, as well as photographing, trumped up charges, and other harassment by police, are routine methods of voter intimidation.
But even if these were to disappear tomorrow, the state of Mississippi would still have impressive legal hurdles for the Negro to surmount in order to register.
The odds are clearly stacked against a Negro trying to register. The Justice Department is in the process of challenging several of the state requirements, but the procedure is a tedious and difficult one. In only one county has there been any significant increase in registration because of a federal suit.
The staff of the Commission made a study of how Mississippi law is actually applied by county registrars.
A thorough review of the records of Issaquena County showed that until last summer all white applicants passed voter qualification tests while all Negroes failed.
There was strong evidence that white applicants were given aid in their interpretation of sections of the state constitution. Commission Attorney Charles Hempstone said he discovered that 15 of 48 whites given an identical section to interpret had also given identical answers.
The real hypocrisy of the "reasonable interpretation" requirement was revealed in an exchange between Commission member Dean Erwin Griswold of the Harvard Law School and Humphreys County Clerk G. H. Hood. Griswold, a heavy-set lawyer who speaks in tones reminiscent of W.C. Fields, slowly lifted himself out of his chair, walked over to witness Hood, handed him a copy of section 182 of the state constitution and asked him for a reasonable interpretation.
Hood, who had given this section to applicants and had judged their ability to vote on the basis of their answers, stared at the sheet for several minutes, then started to give a reply that included much of the wording of the section.
Griswold bit off the reply: "I didn't ask you to read, I asked you to interpret." Hood huddled with his lawyer and then said that he would refuse to proceed because of the pressure being put on him by the committee.
"You mean on the grounds that it may incriminate you," Griswold asked.
Hood said, "Yes, sir." The point was made.
Civil rights leader Aaron Henry told the Commission that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had not helped to get one Negro registered in Mississippi.
This is an exaggeration, but even the optimism of Burke Marshall in describing the progress the Justice Department has made (time required for litigation has been reduced, court decrees have been issued to speed up registration), can not conceal the need for additional federal legislation if the Mississippi Negro is going to be able to exercise his right to vote.
Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson has warned that "federal registrars could almost bring civil war," but even he admits "most of our people realize that there has been some discrimination." He noted, in an interview in the Washington Post, that "you don't have a leg to stand on when a registrar registers a white man who can hardly read or write and turns down a Negro woman with a M.A." But the governor said he would take no steps to remove such a registrar since "it's purely a local situation. ' ' And so it will remain for some time, it would appear, unless the federal government's hand can be strengthened.