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As we face another attempt to roll back our freedoms we would do well to recall the commitment and courage of those we honor this month for their contributions to America. They held up a mirror to America and asked, as Hamer did when she appeared before the Atlantic City Democratic convention, “Is this America?” Is this what we stand for?

Those who worked to distribute the Freedom ballot, sat in at lunch counters, faced Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses, marched over that bridge in Selma and tirelessly registered voters and started freedom schools faced  brutal opposition and put themselves, their families, friends and even their churches at risk even by daring to show the faintest support for civil rights.

Not long after she began registering voters the owner of the farm she was sharecropping told her she better quit her civil rights work or suffer the consequences.  She found out those consequences soon enough when she was beaten in a Mississippi jail so badly that it left her with life-long disabilities.  Those who beat her have never been brought to justice.

While Hamer and Dr. King and others have found their way into the history books, we forget that at its heart the Movement was a movement that above all came from the grassroots efforts of thousands of people who put their lives on the line.  There is no better example of that than a now-forgotten moment in our history that is known as the Grenada Movement.  It is another one of those events few people have ever heard of, but everyone should know about. To understand its importance a little background is necessary.

Grenada County was one of the dark hearts of the old Confederacy. During Reconstruction, four African American men were lynched there on one day. By the 1960s, the county had become a symbol of Southern intransigence, a place where both sides knew what was at stake. It was here and other places like it that the true nature of African American grievances was on full display along with the effort by local people to deal with a long and festering list of outrages that today seem to come from another world.

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

In 1956, in response to the Brown Decision, the Mississippi legislature approved the creation of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission “to do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the federal government or any branch, department or agency thereof.”

Commission records lay under a tombstone of secrecy and protection until a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union opened them for the public. Although the records appeared sanitized, what emerged was shocking enough—ghosts whose wails tell a sordid story. The handwritten records from one county show payments to informers ranging from $25 up to almost $100, with $40 not being uncommon. Check marks march down the page, marking African American informers, sometimes several for the same family.

The Sovereignty Commission recorded over a thousand entries on Dr. King. They range from newspaper clippings to the memos of agents the Commission had infiltrating organizations, churches, and communities. They testify to the almost paranoid fear the racists had for the power of Dr. King as well as the extent the Sovereignty Commission penetrated into every area of life in Mississippi.

America still has yet to properly confront this dark side of its history when a state government ran the equivalent of a secret police force every bit as evil as those on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Only by understanding this atmosphere can we truly appreciate the vision and courage of those brought this country to a time when a black man could become President.

It was in Grenada that the full extent of the Sovereignty Commission’s activities are on display. Many Commission records have been sanitized since a court settlement ordered their release, but perhaps because Grenada is not so well known, enough damaging materials remain to show the true nature of the Mississippi  response to the Civil Rights Movement.

What follows is not easy to read because it records the attempts by the state of Mississippi to the Civil Rights Movement. But this is why we have events like Black History Month.

The Significance of Grenada

The Grenada County Freedom Movement (GCFM) represented one of those local uprisings that testify to the determination and bravery of hundreds of African Americans who fought against the Sovereignty Commission and its secret police force. It was significant because what began as a voter registration drive expanded to include the entire system of segregation.

The movement and the demands it made were entirely driven by local people and their concerns. Even today as schools across the country revisit events like Freedom Summer, there is a tendency to view the civil rights movement as driven by outside leaders and organizations. That was far from the case and Grenada is a great example.

Although organizers from outside the local community played a role, at times contributing resources, the movement is Grenada County came from the feeling of many local African Americans that they were fed up with life under Jim Crow and determined to change things.

When Fannie Lou Hamer first began organizing voters in Mississippi  someone asked her why she joined the movement. She answered:

The only thing they [white people] could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.

Bruce Hartford, an organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference described the significance of Grenada in an oral history interview:

Grenada hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity, there was no big law that came out of it, but the Grenada movement was very heavy. The Grenada movement probably lasted longer, in terms of the upswelling of people’s mass activity, than any of the other mass movements. Longer than Birmingham, longer than Selma, Albany, St. Augustine, Natchez. I mean lasting longer in terms of how long people kept mass direct-action going.

Perhaps the most notorious event of the Grenada Movement occurred in 1966 when a Klan mob with clubs, ax handles and chains ambushed elementary school children who were walking through town to enroll in a school that had been ordered to desegregate. In probably the best historical account of Grenada, In Search of Another Country author Joseph Crespino notes one observer termed them:

The most vilest, displays of hideous prejudice, hatred and sheer bestiality ever produced in this nation’s history of racial strife. (p. 137)

But the television cameras were not there, so Grenada did not capture the public imagination in the way other televised scenes of brutality galvanized the nation.  Still Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson was worried enough that Grenada would attract the cameras that he called in state troopers to quiet the mobs, which only outraged the Klan.

Hartford remembered the atmosphere:

Grenada became so intense at times that when SCLC field staff who had led demonstrations in places like St. Augustine — which was also very heavy — came to Grenada, they were taken aback. One guy — I won’t call his name — the first demonstration he was assigned to lead in Grenada he saw the mob and he turned us around.

What made Grenada especially volatile was the strong presence of the Klan. References to the Klan have largely been purged from the Sovereignty Commission records that remain, so any suggestion of connection between the two is only conjecture.  But in Grenada the interests of the Commission and the Klan were the same and there is little question one reinforced the other.

Dr. King’s Role

Hartford described Dr. King’s role in the movement:

Dr. King gave a speech and the people in Grenada had told him, “We’re ready to move. Are you gonna stay and move with us?” And he said, “No, we have to finish this Meredith March, but as soon as it’s over, we will come back.”

And King did come back, precipitating a major crisis for Mississippi. The Governor worried what the cameras might catch this time so he twisted the arms of local officials to be on their best behavior while King was in town.  So America never saw the real Grenada and some wondered what all the fuss was about.

As Crespino puts it, as soon as King left town, the Sovereignty Commission went to work. Excerpts from a letter by agent Erle Johnston, jr. detail the strategies the Commission employed.

We have attempted, by direct contact and through infiltration, to determine whether the native negroes are in any mood to disregard Dr. Martin Luther King and any of his aides.

The letter goes on to report how the Commission prepared a radio address for the mayor (remember this is America and here is a secret police force writing speeches for the local mayor, speeches which I am sure he was in no position to refuse). Johnston also notes the Commission purchased 3,000 “Think Grenada First!” buttons at a cost of $114.

Now if you were a white person in Grenada and knew the source of those buttons–which I am sure was communicated to everyone–wouldn’t you think it was your patriotic duty to wear one? If you had any sympathy for the aims of the Grenada Movement or wanted to mediate the crisis what would have been your chances

The Demands

Meanwhile the Grenada Movement had grown to encompass a wide set of aims. Between July and September 1966, the Movement will issue a list of demands that amount to one of the most comprehensive indictments of segregation made by a local community. On July 9, it issued 51 demands titled “Full First Class Citizenship for Every Negro Citizen of Granada County.

 

Items on the list called for an end to discrimination in hotels, hospitals, theaters and public schools. Others demanded “Negro registrars”  and “adequate police protection.”

In August and September the Grenada Movement would enhance this list. The August 6th list focused on law enforcement abuses directed at Movement members.  In September the Movement detailed specific practices in the Court system,  employment, elections, health care and welfare

Sovereignty Commission Intimidation

Faced with this level of opposition, the Sovereignty Commission expanded its intimidation. Crespino highlights the transcript of one phone conversation that did escape attempts to sanitize  Sovereignty Commission records. In it agent Tom Scarbrough notes that SCLC leaders arrested in Grenada were taken to the notorious Parchman Prison farm where they were beaten by State Highway Patrol officers who took off their badges and uniforms.  Scarbrough wrote of Robert Johnson:

It is said they can’t let him out of Parchman because he’s so beaten up he couldn’t get up to get out.

But the Sovereignty Commission did not stop there. It secretly met with Roy Wilkins to try to convince him to organize an alternative to the SCLC presence in Grenada. It actively worked to stop efforts by local African Americans and the SCLC to start a local grocery store. and it intimidated local African American officials including Willie T. Allen, who was principal of the segregated public school (a tactic similar to that used in Yazoo and other cities, since Allen was a local official).

I advised Allen that he and other Negroes in Grenada County should get busy and put the brakes on Dr. King and his movement.

Imagine for a moment what must have been going through Allen’s mind. A man identifying himself as an agent of the government of Mississippi has asked you to “put the brakes on Dr. King.” The agent did not need to threaten, for in a police state where people like Michael Schwerner disappeared and others like Fannie Lou Hamer were beaten and harassed no threats were needed. Instead, the agent merely let Allen fill in the blanks with his own nightmares. The “put the brakes on” phrase is especially eerie, given that Dr. King only had less than eighteen months left to live.

Dr. King’s Role

Agent Scarbrough also reported on a speech by Dr. King:

Dr. King spoke to a large group of negroes at the New Hope Negro Church. He complimented them highly in carrying out his demands on the city of Grenada, and in the course of his talk pledged that Grenada would be further invaded until their demands were met.

This paragraph reeks with the prejudices held by many segregationists at the time–and by some Americans still. Note how the memo paints a picture of the Grenada Movement as fed by “outsiders” and King himself as a dictator who told people what to do. Most of all, note the none-too-subtle characterization of local African Americans as passive followers. Contrast this with the picture painted by Bruce Hartford.

This paragraph in an obscure memo written by a Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission member in 1966 testifies to the impact that Dr. King had on not only Grenada but America. It also testifies to an image of Dr. King that unfortunately still persists.

As with many great historical figures, there are many Dr. Kings that coexist uneasily in the American mind, some acknowledged and some hidden, but still powerful. There is, of course, the Dr. King celebrated on the holiday named after him–the inspirational leader of The Speech. There is Dr. King, the political leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other events. There is Dr. King the tactician of nonviolence. There is also the Dr. King of agent Scarbrough’s memo and Johnston’s letter.

To the Scarbroughs and Johnstons of the world, Dr. King was little more than a demagogue who gave orders and expected them to be carried out. Johnston’s memo also speaks of “King and his movement.” Few people today would openly admit to this view, so it has been replaced by another more insidious picture which views the Civil Rights Movement in the traditional image of leaders and followers. Contrary to Scarbrough’s memo, the picture that emerges from the Sovereignty Commission records is of what can only be termed a collaborative movement.

The Grassroots and the Power of Nonviolence

In a moving passage, Harford described the power of the nonviolence and the collective effort by people at the center of the Grenada Movement:

I saw us do non-violent things in Grenada that to this day are just unbelievable to me. There were times we had this march of two or three hundred people circling the square, and surrounding us were a mob of 500 Klansmen. But some of the time — not always — we could literally hold them off by the quality of our singing. We could create a psychic wall that they could not breach, even though they wanted to. And on those times when they did attack, our non-violent response minimized their injuries to us.

A demagogue cannot conduct a nonviolent movement. Nonviolent movements are not “his” movements, because when you are lying on the ground being beaten like the Klan beat Hartford you do not endure that beating for a “his.” Nonviolence by its very nature transcends the easy categories we have for leaders and the sometimes simplistic ways we view leadership.

The too-sugary image we have of the Civil Rights Movement also omits the give-and-take, and, yes, the disagreements, that were part of the struggle for Civil Rights. Fannie Lou Hamer, for example, deeply resented what she felt were the class and gender prejudices of many Civil Rights leaders.

 

The Results

The Grenada Movement involved an estimated 700 people at its height. Events came to a head on September 12 when 250 African American students attempted to enroll in the local school and were driven away by a mob of whites armed with pipes, chains, clubs, ax handles and whatever else their sick minds could pull out of their garages. When the students tried to disburse, the whites pursued them, beating anyone they could catch. It showed what people were willing to do when the television cameras were not present.

Over the next few days the mob roamed the streets looking for victims. In the most despicable incident someone with a submachine gun killed a civil rights lawyer and a Justice Department official. Finally a federal judge ordered the government do something to protect the students. The FBI did what Mississippi would not, arresting thirteen mob leaders.

The Movement continued through the fall. Bruce Hartford wrote:

Over the following weeks and months, there are few demonstrations but the Grenada County Freedom Movement digs in for the long haul — organizing, mounting legal defense for those arrested, and continuing voter registration and political organization. Harassment of the Negro students in the white schools continues, but at a lower and more subtle level. By the end of the school year additional Negro students had been forced out, but Grenada still had more Negroes attending formerly white schools than any other rural Mississippi county.

Of course, there was a reason for that. Grenada marked another ignominious tactic that still persists in the South: instead of fighting desegregation, whites left the public schools for private schools.

In 2004 Dianna Freelon-Foster, who helped to integrate Grenada High School during the Grenada Movement was elected as the first female and African American mayor of Grenada.

Today a website for the Mississippi Civil Rights Project celebrates the contributions of the Grenada Movement. It changed a community, a state and a nation forever. All of those involved taught us that with each generation, each community, and, yes, each election we must continue to fight for true equality, for a true level playing field.

 

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