INDIANOLA, Miss. (FinalCall.com) – Veterans of the historic Mississippi “Freedom Summers” of the early 1960s gathered for their fourth Sunflower County Civil Rights Reunion in this small Delta town September 12.
Their hair now beginning to gray, most of the three dozen alumni were teenagers when they answered the call, putting their very lives on the line to face what became the most brutal legal and extra-legal resistance to Black advancement out of serfdom and subservience in the 20th Century.
The reunion was more than simply a meeting to reminisce about old times. “It is a reflection and a celebration of the struggle,” said reunion organizer Charles McLaurin, who moved to Indianola in 1961 from Jackson, Miss. to coordinate the Delta Project for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
“We did have fear,” Mr. McLaurin told The Final Call. But the humiliation was worse than the fear, he said. “White men didn’t want a Black man to look them in the face when they talked to them. And I saw how Whites just misused us. And I made me a vow that I just wasn’t going to (take) it. Before I’d (take) it, I’d be dead,” he continued.
“Fannie Lou Hamer says it best. She says: ‘We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ You sick of the way it is, and so tired of it, that you either got to now lay down and take it or do something about it. And I decided to do something about it. Most of the SNCC people and people who got involved in the movement were just sick and tired of the life they were living and the way we were being treated and they decided to get up and do something.
“And my grandmother used to always read or talk about something in the Bible that said: ‘To him that overcometh, God giveth a crown.’ And I said, I’m going for my crown. I’m going to overcome this. Many times I would take part in demonstrations, when I went to demonstrate at the Fairgrounds in Jackson for segregated fairs, I was going in there and the dogs were there, yeah, fear was in me, but how was I going to overcome that fear? Challenge the fear! And then say that ‘God is on our side.’
“The time was right. Time was on our side. History was on our side.”
The sacrifices paid off for some of the veterans, as well as for the state and the nation as a whole, participants said. One of the movement veterans is now a retired judge, others became doctors and attorneys, as well as elected officials. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History unveiled three historical markers in Indianola–at the Giles Penny Savers Store, whose owners were active in the Civil Rights movement; at the location of the Freedom School; and at the home of movement veteran Irene Magruder.
“I came here in 1964 and 1965, from Tacoma, Washington,” Dennis Flannigan, now a Washington state representative told The Final Call. He recalls he came from “a nice little school” in a White, Pacific northwest enclave to come to Mississippi.
“Today, three women mayors from Itta Bena, Greenville and Greenwood spoke. I’m an elected official. They were so powerful and so moving, it was like I was back in the movement, at the moment and at the time. And it reminds you that once you did something worth doing.
“I wasn’t sure till I got here,” he continued. “I came back and I see, there are 23 women mayors in Mississippi who are African American. That’s a passel full of them. I believe that the work done, changed the South, changed the North. Changed America. A lot left to do.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the Homeland Security Committee agrees. “When you see how far we have come, in that now in Indianola, the mayor is African American, the city council is majority African American, and there’s no county in the Mississippi Delta where you don’t have two of the five members of the board of supervisors who are African American,” Rep. Thompson told The Final Call. “We have more African American mayors than any other state in the nation now. And it was all because of the people who are assembled here, because they put their early, young lives on the line so that this dream could come true.”
Another senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus agrees. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was frequently beaten and jailed for his work as a SNCC leader. He is the only person still alive who spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington.
“Sometimes I feel a little strange. I feel like, ‘Was it worth it?’ ” Rep. Lewis told The Final Call. “And then I look around and see the changes, and I say ‘Yes. It was worth it. It was necessary. But why did people have to go through so much? Why were so many people beaten? Why were so many people arrested and jailed? Why were the three Civil Rights workers killed?’ That was one of the saddest and darkest times, when the three young men were killed here in the state of Mississippi. When Medgar Evers was assassinated 45 years ago. That’s why we must keep moving, keep the faith, and stay involved for (those) death(s), and the struggle will not be in vain.”