The Council of Federated Organizations or COFO, was organized in 1961, to promote voter registration in Mississippi. In this episode, Benton County, Mississippi native Ernestine Scott recalls joining the group as a teenager. She also remembers one civil rights worker arrested for attending a basketball game.
Prior to the Voting Rights Act, election officials used reading comprehension tests to prevent blacks from registering to vote. Ernestine Scott describes how they worked to prepare for the test.
Growing up in Benton County, Mississippi in the 1950s, Ernestine Scott had limited contact with white people. Her father would shield his children from visitors to their farm to protect them. Her first impressions of the outside world and the role of African-Americans in it came from television programs of the day. In response to depictions of blacks as porters and maids and personified by such characters as Amos and Andy, Scott’s father would tell her that black people were better than that and someday, whites would understand the need to show them in a better light.
In this episode, Scott shares her memories of that time, like being chastised by a white man for drinking from the wrong water fountain, how her mother warned her of the need to be careful when speaking to a white person, and her father’s prediction for a better future. She also recalls riding 12 miles on an overcrowded bus to reach the county’s one black school each day.
PHOTO: Benton County courthouse
Hubert Wesley was only five when his family left the Choctaw reservation and became sharecroppers. In this episode, he shares his memories of how they came to live in Noxubee county and the hard times they endured. As the son of a Choctaw sharecropper, Wesley worked year-round, cutting timber and chopping cotton. He recalls the primitive lifestyle and the spirit of cooperation it fostered within the Choctaw community.
After Wesley’s family harvested their crops each fall, they were paid to help the white farmers. He explains how the Choctaws were treated differently from their white coworkers and recounts paying ten cents for a ride to Macon and sitting with black customers at the cinema.
Photo: Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History
In 1969, two professors from Millsaps and Tougaloo, Jim Loewen and Charles Sallis, decided to write a Mississippi History textbook with the help of their graduate students. Mississippi: Conflict and Change was considered a ground-breaking textbook when it was published in 1974. Despite receiving universal critical acclaim, the book was banned from use in Mississippi classrooms by the State Textbook Purchasing Board.
In this episode, Dr. Jeanne Middleton Hairston, a member of the team of graduate students who assisted in writing the book, discusses the felt need for a more inclusive narrative in teaching Mississippi history. She also recalls their efforts to convince the State to reconsider its ruling and the decision to file a lawsuit against the Board.
Podcast Extra: Thirty-five years after winning their lawsuit against the State Textbook Purchasing Board, Hairston reflects on the judge’s ruling and the importance of history in making Mississippi a better place to live.
Prior to desegregation in 1968, black students in Ocean Springs, Mississippi attended Keys High School. In this episode, Jeanne Meggs remembers the dedicated teachers there and how they pushed her to succeed. She also recalls how the schools were separate, but not equal when it came to resources. And she explains how issues still arose as to the treatment of black students, even after the schools in Ocean Springs integrated.
Even so, Meggs looks back favorably on her childhood in Ocean Springs. Despite the turbulent social upheaval of the 1960s, the one constant she recalls, was the caring and charitable nature of the people who lived there. Since retiring, Meggs has returned to Ocean Springs. She describes it as a community with a historically progressive outlook. Finally, she reflects on how growing up there gave her the confidence to achieve her goals.
PHOTO - msmohp.com
Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-Americans across the South were denied the right to vote through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other tactics of suppression. In 1964, David Kendall was a 20-year-old Indiana college student. In this episode, he recalls coming to Mississippi to participate in the voter registration drive known as Freedom Summer.
Over the course of that summer, Kendall would be jailed multiple times. He shares his memories of that first arrest and being introduced to the best cheeseburger in Holly Springs. In preparing for Freedom Summer, Civil Rights workers received extensive training in a variety of tactics, but he explains how growing up on a farm proved surprisingly useful in helping to gain the confidence of black farmers in the Delta.
Image: Voter Registration Holly Springs, McCain Library & Archives, USM
Joseph Wroten of Greenville was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1951. During his three terms in office, his progressive views on issues like civil rights often put him in opposition to the rest of the legislature, so much so that he was dubbed “The Great Dissenter” by the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
In this episode, Wroten reflects on Washington County’s history of Progressivism. He discusses the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—created by the legislature in 1956 to promote continued racial segregation—and why he first supported and then opposed the agency’s formation.
Wroten details how his liberal views often made him the target of threats and hate speech and how his support for the admission of James Meredith to Ole’ Miss cost him a fourth term in office.
PODCAST EXTRA: As a minister’s son, Wroten grew up Methodist in segregated Mississippi. He remembers how the United Methodist Church sought to lead by example during the Civil Rights Movement.
When Don Frutiger moved to Hattiesburg in 1964, he was surprised by the size of the LGBT community. In this episode, Frutiger shares his memories of a time when being gay was still considered a crime. He also discusses how a police raid on the Forrest Hotel ended in tragedy.
By the 1970s, there were several bars in Hattiesburg that catered to the LGBT community, but according to Frutiger, police were still monitoring the community well into the 70s & 80s. He explains how one bar protected their customers.
NOTICE: This episode of the Mississippi Moments podcast contains frank and explicit language. Listener discretion advised.
Roscoe Jones of Meridian grew up watching the news with his grandmother. He credits her for inspiring him to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Jones was 16 years old when he joined the Meridian chapter of the NAACP Youth Council. In this episode, he shares his memories of meeting Civil Rights workers Mickey and Rita Schwerner in the spring of 1964.
Schwerner, James Chaney & Andrew Goodman were killed in Neshoba County on June 21st, 1964. Jones recalls begging Schwerner to take him along for the ride. The deaths of the three men taught Jones to avoid publicity whenever possible. It wasn’t until the release of Mississippi Burning that he decided to speak up about his time in the movement.
Doug Smith grew up in Hattiesburg during the 1950s. In this episode, he recalls how his mother inspired him to join the Civil Rights Movement. He discusses such topics as the March on Washington, Freedom Day in Hattiesburg, voter registration drives and being arrested 32 times. Smith also shares his memories of how his mother came to have the first integrated funeral in Hattiesburg and of running for his life through the woods of South Mississippi with fellow activists.
PHOTO: McCain Library & Archives, USM
Retired Justice Reuben Anderson was the first African-American appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. In this episode, he recalls growing up during the Civil Rights Movement.
When Anderson enrolled at Tougaloo College in 1960 he dreamed of becoming an Civil Rights attorney. He remembers the campus as central to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Anderson was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Mississippi Law School in 1967. He describes the challenges black students faced at that time.
As a young attorney in the late 60s, Anderson litigated school desegregation cases across the state.
In 1962, James Meredith attempted to become the first African-American to enroll at Ole’ Miss. In this episode, Ken Fairly, then, a Hinds County Deputy, discusses being selected to be part of Governor Ross Barnett's security detail when the Governor traveled to Oxford.
Fairly describes how Barnett and his advisors conspired to stop Meredith from attending Ole’ Miss by arresting him en route to Oxford on trumped up charges. During the standoff between the Governor and the Kennedys, Fairly recalls having a front row seat to history.
PODCAST EXTRA: As protesters continued to pour into Oxford, Fairly remembers being ordered to quietly return to Hinds County, just hours before the riots broke out.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized in 1964 as an alternative to the then-all-white Mississippi Democratic Party.
The MFDP, after holding a statewide election open to people of all colors, sent its delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in an attempt to be recognized as the legitimate representatives of the State.
In this episode, Dr. Aaron Henry of Clarksdale remembers the long bus to Atlantic City, New Jersey and the crowded accommodations the delegates endured.
After impassioned speeches by Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King, President Lyndon Johnson offered to seat two of MFDP delegates with the Illinois delegation. Henry discusses they decision to decline that offer.
He also explains that even though they were not seated at the 1964 convention, their efforts lead to the reform of the Democratic Party.
In 1964, as SNCC coordinators trained volunteers for the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, three others, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman traveled to Philadelphia, MS to investigate a church burning.
In this episode, Cleveland Sellers recounts how he and seven other coordinators went in search of those three when they went missing. Sellers describes the extraordinary lengths their group went to, to avoid being spotted as they searched for their friends.
After several days of searching through woods and empty buildings in the dead of night, Sellers’ group was forced to abandon their search.
The bodies of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were eventually found on August 4th, 1964.
After attending a Freedom School as a high school student in the summer of ’64, Charleana Cobb of Blue Mountain was inspired to become active in the civil rights movement. In this episode, she recalls promoting a speech being given at her church by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Cobb remembers the thrill of hearing Hamer speak that night and the shock of being told that the church had burned to the ground the next morning.
That December, college students from Oberlin, Ohio came to Blue Mountain to rebuild the church as a project called Carpenters for Christmas. Cobb recalls how members of the community reacted to the sacrifice these Oberlin College students made in giving up their Christmas holiday.
After attempting to register to vote, Fannie Lou Hamer was forced to leave the plantation where she had lived and worked for 18 years. In the episode, she explains how she became active in voter registration and the challenges they faced.
Prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi required voters to pass a literacy test and pay a poll tax in order to vote. Hamer recalls how she passed the test and the first time she was able to vote.
Hamer went on to become a leader in the Civil Rights movement and her speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 touched the nation. She reflects on her time in the spotlight and the friends she made along the way.
Fannie Lou Hamer passed away on March 14th, 1977.
In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper’s wife, living on a plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi. In this episode, she recalls the first time she tried to register to vote.
After leaving Indianola, the bus carrying Hamer’s group was pulled over by state and local law enforcement. She describes how they were forced to return to Indianola to face an assortment of trumped up charges.
Later that same day when Hamer returned home, the owner of the plantation confronted her about attempting to register. She describes how she was forced to leave her home of 18 years that very night for refusing to withdraw her registration.
The plantation owner's harsh treatment of Hamer led her to become an inspirational figure in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1964, Larry Rubin of Tacoma Park, Maryland came to Holly Springs to help black Mississippians register to vote. In this episode he explains how the state used literacy tests and intimidation to keep blacks from voting.
A key goal of Freedom Summer was to register enough Freedom Democratic Party voters to have their delegates seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Rubin recalls the drudgery of knocking on doors and the thrill of watching the convention drama unfold on TV.
Rubin also reflects on the violence and intimidation that black Mississippians endured in order to secure the right to vote.
In July of 1964, Sandra Adickes came to Hattiesburg to teach in a “Freedom School” as part of a civil rights campaign known as Freedom Summer. The Freedom Schools were intended to help black children overcome the disparity of education in Mississippi’s segregated school system.
In this episode, Adickes remembers her arrival and a 4th of July party sponsored by civil rights activist, Vernon Dahmer. She also describes a typical day in the Freedom School and how on the last day of Freedom School, the students decided to try and integrate the Hattiesburg Public Library.
In June of 1964, a campaign was launched to educate black Mississippians and register them to vote. In the episode, Gloria Clark, a school teacher from Massachusetts, recalls riding a bus to Memphis to prepare for her role in the campaign called Freedom Summer. Clark remembers being assigned to Holly Springs and her initial reaction to that assignment.
On June 21st, three civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman disappeared after being released from a Neshoba County Jail. Their bodies were found two months later. Clark explains how their disappearance affected her.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer—a time when black Mississippians worked with northern students to confront Jim Crow and claim their rights as citizens. To commemorate this Freedom struggle, we are combing the collection to bring you a series of Mississippi Moments that explore Freedom Summer from a variety of perspectives: from organizers to volunteers to yes, even law enforcement.
In this episode, we hear from Charlie Capps. While Capps would later go on to a distinguished career as a Mississippi legislator, in spring of '64, he was the newly-elected sheriff of Bolivar County. As an elected sheriff in a county where few blacks could vote, he was the first line of defense of Mississippi’s segregated order. He recalls the fear, apprehension and resentment many in the white community felt as civil rights workers came to Mississippi to upend the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.
Reverend Harry Tartt grew up in North Gulfport in the 1920s. In this week's episode, he explains that at that time, the black community accepted segregation as a fact of life. Tartt recalls being made aware of lynching at a young age and how it was used to control the black community.
It was only after Tartt moved to Chicago to attend college that he began to see that there was a world beyond the Jim Crow system. He remembers feeling frustrated when he returned home with this new sense of awareness.
When Willie Cox of Pas Christian was discharged from the Army in February of ’67, he planned to live in the Washington DC area. In this episode, Cox explains how an unexpected job opportunity changed those plans.
The Civil Rights movement brought increased job opportunities for African-Americans. Cox recalls how two of his co-workers became the first black train engineers.
After three years as a switchman, Cox applied for a job as an engineer. He recalls how persistence and an engineer shortage led to the opportunity of a lifetime.
Willie Cox retired from railroading in 2002, after 35 years on the job.
In 1960 and ’63, Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr. and a group of black citizens attempted to integrate Biloxi’s beaches by wading into the water together. Mason recalls how the final wade-in was delayed by the death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Mason also recounts how the protestors were treated after being arrested.
Convicted of trespassing, the group appealed the decision in county court. In this extended version of the original broadcast episode, Mason remembers learning of the death of President Kennedy while waiting for the Judge’s ruling.
A movie based on Dr. Mason’s story is currently in production.
June 12th marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers. To mark the occasion, we have excerpts from the COH interview of Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr. of Biloxi. Mason recalls Evers as a tireless leader who was always on the road going wherever he was needed. In this extended version of the broadcast episode, Mason relates in vivid detail the tensions resulting from acts of violence, threats and other forms of intimidation by those wishing to maintain the system of segregation.
The murder of Evers and other civil rights leaders only served to harden the resolve of those involved in the struggle for equality that "we shall overcome."