The 1st Annual Conference of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement takes place March 2-5 at the JSU E Center on Raymond Road. Organized around the theme "The Pursuit of Quality Education in the Ongoing Movement for Human Rights," the conference offers workshops with veterans of the movement with the goal of inspiring a return to work, focused this time on ensuring that every American receives the quality education that is his or her unalienable right. Owen Brooks, 78, who along with Hollis Watkins serves as co-convener of the conference, spoke with me recently about his experiences as a veteran of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
What led you to come to Mississippi?
I met Martin Luther King Jr. in '54 when he was in Boston working on his doctorate—I just happened to meet him. In '63 I saw him again at the march on Washington. … I wanted to be involved full time in the Civil Rights Movement. I was a member of the Episcopal Church, which organized the Delta Ministry, a field program to work with the movement in Mississippi. I came here in 1965 for one year and have been her for 40. I came to Cleveland in Bolivar County. I worked with Amzie Moore, an old-time civil rights guy. We did a lot of things with schools, getting blacks elected, working with local people to do the things they needed to do to lift themselves up. I had read a book, "A Faith to Free the People," about Claude Williams, a Baptist preacher. The book inspired me ... I thought 'That's what religion needs to be.' I was all about being on the front lines, so I came to Mississippi.
What did it feel like being an activist here in the '60s?
It was culture shock to be here. I worked hard and didn't have time to be overcome with fear. Fear immobilizes you. I didn't have time to be stopped. There was a stigma on me for being a civil rights worker. I lived in the black community where we all had to live. There was a line of demarcation for survival. I represented the church and wasn't a preacher which was hard for blacks here to understand.
What did you find most scary and most exciting about being in Mississippi?
Most scary was the heat; I would have to take a nap at noon just to maintain an energy level. Most exciting—I liked the involvement with the local people. I liked their ways, their expectations to be involved in the civil rights movement. To try to uplift our people in that kind of way was a calling. That's why I left Boston, to come here to engage people in their own uplifting.
Survival sometimes depends upon fight or flight, and adrenaline floods your body. Did you experience this?
I understood nonviolence as a tactic and that we were committed to it for the greater good and the preservation of life. I had been in the Korean War, but I had never felt the fear that I felt in 1966 with Martin Luther King in Philadelphia, Miss. Walking up to the courthouse, the sidewalk was lined with guns. I never saw so many people in my life prepared to shoot you if you stepped out of line. It was a bone-chilling experience. I had none before like it, none since. It was the toughest moment that I spent in Mississippi.
An integral part of the conference is the collection of oral histories from the veterans. How will they be used to ignite today's young people to take up the mantle?
I've already done 74 interviews, (more will be done during the conference), videotaping people like William Winter and Bishop Duncan Gray. I learned so much. The plan is to transcribe them and to make them available in libraries and institutions of higher learning in Mississippi. Jackson State will archive them and preserve them.
What stands out as an accomplishment made in Mississippi in the last 45 years?
How could I possibly pick! I can't even remember all the moments. I never dreamed there would be over 800 black elected officials in the state. When I came here there were two in Mound Bayou. That's quantity, but in terms of quality, I could write a few books about the great thing of helping people get into places they were barred from 45 years ago. It's a changed situation; there is no more overt violence against people who speak out, black or white. They can speak the truth, stand up for the truth. Those people (who died in the movement) didn't give their lives; their lives were taken from them. There was a lot of sacrifice, and we've made it to this point.
Glad to see Owens still doing well. He's the reason I got to attend one of the Delta Council meeting with Johnnie Walls, Mike Espy and him to see what that was about in 1992. Owen also came by our law office every morning in Greenville. He's a good man. Hollis will forever be one of my heroes.
- Ray Carter