You never know when something's going to happen that will change your life completely. If I had stayed in Florida canning tomatoes, I wouldn't have been here when the civil rights workers came to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. But here I was in Mayersville, chopping Jimson weeds and Johnson grass out of Mr. Wilkerson's cotton for $3 a day. It was 1964, and I was 31 years old. We were living in our old two-room shotgun shack without indoor plumbing.
But we had a brand-new television set! My husband Jeremiah had recently bought it with money he'd made working on the river the year before. Only one or two other black families in town had a TV then. People would come by our house just like they were going to a picture show and sit on our porch and all around outside and peep through the windows and watch whatever was on.
As soon as I got back from Florida, I began seeing on television that college students and civil rights people from "up north" were coming to Mississippi that summer to help black people register to vote. Groups like this had been coming to Mississippi for two or three years, but I had never met any of them. Freedom Riders had come down to Mississippi in buses in 1961, protesting the treatment of black people in Mississippi. The white people called them "outside agitators," and the governor had them all arrested and thrown in jail. He put some of them in maximum security at Parchman. Other civil rights workers had come in 1962 and 1963—we called them "Freedom Riders," too. They went to the more populated central Delta towns—Greenwood, Indianola, Ruleville, Clarksdale; Jackson and Canton; and McComb. Mayersville, way down in the southern tip of the Delta in Issaquena County, was so isolated, even from other Delta towns, it didn't seem possible that Freedom Riders would ever find us.
In the 50s and early 60s, like most rural Mississippi black people, I had not been connected to the civil rights movement that swirled around our state and region. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who brought the message home to me. By the time Martin Luther King, Jr, made his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963, he was reaching the black masses — those who were most fearful and dependent on white people—although most were just listening and not acting on what we heard.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a preacher. We believed and respected preachers. And we had never seen a preacher standing up and talking out loud, eye to eye with white people about the injustices we suffered at their hands and why we should do something about it. Growing up, I had heard preachers using the Scriptures to calm our fears, give us the strength to endure, and inspire in us the faith that one day "things gon' get better." But Dr. King used the Scriptures to tell us that God didn't want us to be cowards, that the power of God is in us. If you believed in God, King preached, you could stand for right in the face of adversity. Martin Luther King inspired in me the daring to challenge our system.
In the spring of 1964, we began hearing whispers around Mayersville that some "Freedom Riders" had gone to Henry Sais's house for a secret meeting. Mr. Sais was a black man in his 80s, a retired schoolteacher, who owned a little land of his own that he farmed just south of Mayersville. Farming his own land made Mr. Sais an unusual black man to start with: he didn't have to work for a white man. He belonged to the NAACP—the only NAACP member in the entire county at the time, so the white people considered him a radical. I didn't even know what the NAACP was then. Black people looked up to Mr. Sais because he was an educator and because he didn't kowtow to white folks. But they didn't dare go down to the Sais house to find out what was going on for fear they might lose their jobs, their houses, or even their lives. That's the way it was then.
But the rumors about civil rights workers coming to Mayersville had aroused my curiosity, and I hoped they were true. Not long after that, Mr. Sais spoke with Jeremiah and told him there would be some students coming in June to help people get registered to vote. We didn't talk about it, though. We knew how to keep a secret. Blacks are a secretive people; for years black people's lives had depended upon keeping secrets.
The truth is, I'd never really thought much about voting or about registering to vote. In 1964, only three percent of voting age black people in the entire state—20,000 black people—were registered to vote. Not a one of those was in Issaquena County. A few brave black veterans of World War II—like Dr. Aaron Henry in Clarksdale, Amzie Moore in Cleveland, C.C. Bryant in McComb, Medgar Evers in Jackson—had quietly begun trying to get voters registered and suggesting the possibility of change, when they came back to the state after the war. Their efforts appealed primarily to the small black middle class—teachers, the few professional blacks and small businessmen in the state. The vast majority of Mississippi black people were like me, poor and uneducated, and not aware of their activities.
About the only time the subject of voting ever came up in my life in the Mississippi Delta was when you heard that somebody's boss made it clear to his workers that he would not allow "his niggers" to vote. This was one of those "understood" rules in Mississippi: voting was for white people only. So ignorance and fear kept most us right where we'd always been. I didn't even really know, in fact, how voting was supposed to help me, but the more I heard about white people being so against it, the more I started thinking there must be something to this voting.
Those who weren't in Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s may find it difficult to believe the frenzy of resistance that Mississippi white people—state government and private individuals—had worked themselves into since the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled 10 years before (1954) that segregated public schools were against the law. White farmers, business and professional men, and civic leaders immediately formed the White Citizens Council to fight school desegregation and maintain white supremacy. While before they hadn't worried too much about keeping blacks "in their place," relying on that holdover slavery mentality, the power structure went into high gear when the federal government started "interfering" with their "way of life."
In 1956 the state formed the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission "in protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi ... from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government." The Commission was essentially a state-supported "spy" agency charged with discovering and obstructing any person or group, black or white, suspected of favoring civil rights for black people. The state Legislature tightened voter-registration laws, did away with compulsory school attendance, and even ratified a constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to abolish public schools rather than integrate them.
Politicians attached the Communist label to anyone or anything that promoted equal rights for black people, and the state's newspapers, radio and television stations served as their mouthpiece. Billboards across the state pictured "Martin Luther King at a Communist Training Camp." (The "training camp" was actually a civil rights meeting in Tennessee.)
In 1955 Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black kid visiting from Chicago was murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River not far from where I was born. The white murderers tied a gin fan to him and threw him in the river, and they were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury. A white mob brutally beat a group of black college students and professors attempting a sit-in in 1963 at Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Jackson, as the police stood by and watched. Violence broke out at Ole Miss in 1962, when federal government ruled that a black man, James Meredith, must be allowed to enroll in school there; two people were killed as hundreds battled U.S. marshals who were there to protect Mr. Meredith.
We started hearing more and more about church bombings and murders and the Klan. In the summer of 1963 a gunman murdered Medgar Evers, the Jackson NAACP head, in his own driveway with his wife, Myrlie Evers, and their three children watching. And a white man from Greenwood named Byron de la Beckwith was charged with his murder. They tried him twice, but there were hung juries both times, and Beckwith went on back to Greenwood to live just like he had before. (Beckwith was finally convicted in 1993.)
By 1964 the die-hard segregationists had really dug in, and there was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, even as resistance softened among some white Mississippians who'd been shocked into reality by the Meredith riot and the Evers assassination. Few whites, however, welcomed the civil rights workers who were coming into the state to carry out a massive voter registration project that summer. "Snick," CORE, and COFO were despicable words to most white people in the Mississippi Delta, identifying the worst of the worst: "outside agitators" from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).
The welcome those young civil rights workers received in June 1964 was terrifying. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner were in the first group who came that summer,
and others were still in Oxford, Ohio, getting their training. Goodman met Schwerner and Chaney in Meridian, which was Chaney's hometown, late on June 20. The next afternoon, a sheriff's deputy arrested them 40 miles away in Neshoba County, threw them in jail, and released them at 10:30 that night. They never returned to Meridian. "Missing" was the official proclamation, but we all feared the worst.
The worst had occurred, but we wouldn't know that for sure until Aug. 4, when the three bodies were finally discovered, buried under 15 feet of red clay in the backwoods of Neshoba County. The disappearance and search for the three young men, and the accompanying rumors, created the backdrop for Freedom Summer.
In late June, all the way across the state from Neshoba County, in Mayervsille, life was going on as pretty much the way it always did. The cotton was knee-high, and the temperature was in the 90s. The front porch was our only refuge from the heat. Late one Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on my front porch with my friend, Corinne. We were drinking homemade beer, laughing and carrying on and talking about nothing, just being glad it was Saturday, and we'd only had to work till noon chopping cotton.
Corrine and I liked to sit out on my porch and see if anybody we knew was coming into town. Not too many black people had cars, so most people we saw would be walking. My house was on a little dirt side road 50 yards or so from the highway, Highway 1. The land is flat, and about all you could see in front and around the sides of the house for miles and miles around was cotton, row upon row of young, low cotton plants, so we had a good view of anybody walking down the highway.
We were looking down the highway into the misty haze that always hangs on the Delta horizon, and we saw two people walking way down the road, coming toward town. They were walking so fast, it didn't take them long to get up close enough for us to tell they were two young black fellows. We had never seen anybody walk that fast in the summer in the Mississippi Delta.
"Corinne, those guys are walking mighty fast to be from around here. You think they might be some of those Freedom Riders we been hearing about staying down at Mr. Sais's house?"
"Girl, they walking too fast," Corinne said, "That's got to be some of them."
They turned off the highway at my road and came on up toward my house. They were still walking fast. When the fellows got up to my house, they slowed down just a little bit. They looked like they were around 18 to 20 years old. I was pretty sure I had never seen them around here before.
"Hello," one of them said, in a friendly, polite way.
Then, in a strange accent, the other guy said, "Hel-loo."
I knew for sure then they weren't from around here. Anybody from Mississippi would have said,
"How y'all feeling?" or something like that.
So we just said, "Hi," trying to be proper. And they kept right on fast-stepping into town.
"I sure would like to get a chance to meet those fellows," I said.
"Not me," Corinne said. "I'm not about to get mixed up with them folks."
"Well, Corinne, I'd just like to hear what they have to say. They might be able to help us."
" They'll get you killed, Unita. You know if white folks around here find out you mixed up with Freedom Riders, you liable to be dead."
"I don't know what difference it would make, Corinne. I'm dying anyway."
Unita Blackwell became a field representative and grass-roots organizer for SNCC. The first black woman mayor in the state, she was elected mayor of Mayersville in 1976 and served for 25 years. This article is an excerpt from her book, "Barefootin': Lessons from the Road to Freedom," to be published next year.