Civil Rights tremors rumble through Montgomery County

Colored cafe

(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

Stacey’s Cafe in Winona, Mississippi did a roaring business back in 1961 when middle class southerners still traveled by bus.  White patrons could order a hamburger and fries while waiting for the next bus to Memphis or New Orleans.  If you were black, you had to patronize the less impressive “colored cafe” at the other end of the waiting room.  There was a big neon sign over the door at the white cafe; the colored restaurant was around at the back.

Stacey's (5)Early in 1961, Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Director, Albert Jones, sent agent Tom Scarborough to Winona on urgent business.  A Montgomery County Negro named Johnny Frazier was telling the US Attorney in Oxford Mississippi that Montgomery County Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and his deputies had arrested him at the bus station and “whipped” him in the County jail.

Tom Scarborough made regular swings through Montgomery County to make sure no Negroes had paid the poll tax or registered to vote.   He was regularly informed that there was no “agitation” in the County and no Negroes were qualified to vote.

This was what Scarborough wanted to hear.  Technically, Negroes could vote in the state of Mississippi if they had the inclination.  The reality was quite different.  Any Negro attempting to register to vote in Montgomery County would find it hard to maintain employment and might find himself in the County Jail–a charge of some kind could always be found.  (The use of the term “Negro” in my writing  reflects this pre-civil rights reality.)

But this Johnny Frazier business troubled the boys at the Sovereignty Commission.  Frazier, a Greenville native attending Campbell College in Greenwood, Mississippi, was arrested at the Winona bus depot on August 27, 1960–long before the Freedom Riders came to Jackson.  Here was a native son of Mississippi acting on his own initiative.

Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge told Scarborough there was nothing to Frazier’s allegations.

The sheriff stated he received a call from someone stating a Negro was creating a disturbance at the bus station in Winona.  Upon arriving there he said he heard Johnny Frazier talking in a loud voice, using language one would not expect to hear in a public place.  He further stated he walked up to Johnny Frazier and advised him he was under arrest.  He said Johnny Frazier thereupon jerked loose and attempted to get away from him and one of his deputies, but was restrained.

As far as Patridge was concerned, that was the end of the matter.  But two months later, Frazier, represented by “a Negro lawyer from Vicksburg”, plead guilty  and paid fines amounting to $31.50.

Then Johnny Frazier got to speak in his own voice.  In September of 1961, in the wake of the furor created by the Freedom Rides, the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP filed a civil suit in federal court against Jackson mayor, Allen Thompson.  To bolster their complaint, they asked several victims of police brutality to tell their stories.  The Jackson Daily News gave this account of Johnny Frazier’s testimony.

Frazier said he rode in the front section of two buses en route to his home from Atlanta, refusing bus drivers’ orders to move to the rear.  At Winona, he said, Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and a deputy were waiting for him.  He said the deputy hit him with a blackjack and the sheriff hit him with his fists in the Trailways terminal while the driver stood by.  He said a group of white persons joined the officers in the beating and that he was later jailed on a charge of disturbing the peace.

Frazier went on to work with Medgar Evers in Mississippi and became the youngest member of the NAACP national board.  On December 12, 1962, two months after James Meredith entered Ole Miss, Johnny Frazier attempted to enroll in Southern Mississippi University.  When the Sovereignty Commission learned of Frazier’s plans, Tom Scarborough was dispatched to Winona to dig up Frazier’s arrest records.  Frazier eventually ended up in Crane Theological School at Tufts University and became a Unitarian minister.

Johnny Frazier wasn’t the only student at Campbell College in Greenwood to create problems in Winona.  Johnnie Barbour first came to the attention of the Sovereignty Commission in May of 1961 when he attended an NAACP meeting in Jackson.  A month later, Tom Scarborough learned from Sheriff Patridge that Barbour was evolving into a hardened agitator.

The Sheriff said that a Negro informant, who is a member of the church Johnnie pastors in Winona, which is known as Black Jack Methodist Church, told him that Johnnie Barbour was preaching all kinds of agitative doctoring (sic) in the church–that Barbour had encouraged the Negro members of the church to register to vote and to demand their rights.  He said Barbour preached there each first Sunday of the month and that even some of the Negroes who are members of Barbour’s church consider him to be a racial rabble rouser.

Tom Scarborough wasn’t that worried about agitators like Frazier and Barbour–they didn’t live in Winona and there was little chance that local Negroes would be foolish enough to follow their lead.  It was the feds that troubled Scarborough.  With each passing year the Department of Justice was getting bolder and more insistent.  They rarely followed through and never went to the wall on civil rights issues, but Scarborough knew that could change.

When the Interstate Commerce Commission integrated airports and bus and rail facilities, Mississippi went on high alert.  It was quickly decided that, so long as passengers could buy tickets at a common location, bus station cafes could remain segregated.  When Winona Mayor M.C. Billingsley was interviewed the day before the ICC rule it was clear he hadn’t received the memo from Jackson.  “I’m for segregation 100 per cent,” the mayor told a reporter, “but it has to be done.   We’re going along with what Trailways thinks is best for us.  I don’t like it, but it looks like it is the best of the two evils.”

Tommy Ross, owner of Stacey’s cafe, agreed with Mayor Billingsley.  “We don’t want it this way.  But it looked like we had to do something so we did it.”

When news that Winona intended to integrate its bus station reached the capitol, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was apoplectic.  Tom Scarborough was dispatched to sort things out.

Arriving at the Winona Trailways bus station, Scarborough hauled out his camera and snapped twenty-five pictures which eventually found their way into the Sovereignty Commission’s massive archives.  Summoned to the Trailways station, Sheriff Patridge assured Scarborough that  he would “take the responsibility of seeing that the waiting room was not integrated, he was prepared to do so as Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Montgomery County.”

Scarborough didn’t like what he saw at the bus station.  “The window between the white cafe and the Negro sitting room had been boarded up and painted over,” he reported.  “No chairs were in the Negro waiting room.  The operator of the bus terminal appeared to be highly nervous because of what had taken place in my presence.  Sheriff Patridge said that Governor Barnett had called and expressed disappointment and surprise at city officals for bowing to the ICC ruling.”

That evening, the white citizens of Winona crowded into the County Courthouse for a townhall meeting.  “I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to find the court room almost filled with interested citizens representing all types of businesses and organizations,” Scarborough informed his superiors.  “Everyone was in unison that no integration should be considered whatsoever in Winona or Montgomery County.”

The mayor stood before the meeting and confessed his folly.  “Mayor Billingsley stated that he had made a tragic mistake in what he had told the newspapers,” Scarborough observed; “he further stated that his statements had been grossly exaggerated by the reporters.”

Scarborough acknowledged that the mayor’s unwise comments had given Winona an unsavory reputation in the state but concluded that it was all for the best.  “The county has benefited because it has made everyone realize that each person has a responsibility in helping to resist those who would destroy our way of life by attempting to carry out governmental department orders or decees.”

It wasn’t long before the good people of Winona had a chance to show their shine.  On November 4, 1961, just four days after the town hall meeting, Nathaniel and Freddie Moore, black brothers from Alton, Illinois, passed through Winona en route to Indianola.  Taking the publicity about America’s integrated travel system too much to heart, the Moore brothers entered the white cafe and ordered a meal.  They were immediately arrested and sentenced to four months in jail and a $200 fine.   The young men called their mother in Illinois who convinced the sheriff that her boys were no Freedom Riders.  Since the young men plead guilty and seemed contrite, they were released as soon as the fines were paid.

A month later, Tom Scarborough was in Winona cleaning up another mess.  A Negro named Jake Daniels (aka Jake Hargrove) had complained to the FBI in nearby Greenwood that he had been “whipped” by Chief of Police Tommy Herrod, Sheriff Earl Patridge, and a number of policemen and sheriffs deputies.  Everyone was bristling with denial when Scarborough interviewed them, but they admitted that the FBI had grilled them about the incident on several occasions.

Scarborough was alarmed to learn that Jake Daniels had been driven to Greenwood by his boss, L.J. Ellis.  According to Ellis, “The Negro said the Sheriff, Earl Wayne Patridge, Chief of Police Tom Herrod, and policeman Bill Surrell were present.”  Daniels had been arrested on public drunkenness charges and taken to the County Jail.  According to the story Ellis heard, two officers came to Frazier’s cell at about 10:30 pm on the 24th of November “and took Daniels out of the jail house and carried him to the basement of the City Hall.  There, he said, the Negro told him he was handcuffed in a bent over manner, with his arms between his legs with a broom handle run between his arms and behind his legs, with his nakedness exposed, and whipped with a thick leather strap about two inches wide.”

An indignant Tom Scarborough wanted to know why Ellis would betray his community and state by carrying his Negro to the feds in Greenwood.  Ellis replied that he had examined Daniel’s wounds.  “The condition of the Negro infuriated him, and he felt it would do no good to talk to the local authorities any more, as he got no satisfactory answers from them when he tried to find out why Daniels was whipped about two or three times previously.”

It quickly came to light that Jake Daniels had been “whipped” by the Sheriff and his minions on earlier occasions and that the most recent assault was retaliation for having complained to the feds about earlier beatings.  “Mr. Ellis said all he wanted to do was to stop the whipping of his Negroes for apparently no reason at all.  He said he had also heard complaints from other white people about Negroes getting whipped by the police at Winona.”

When Scarborough challenged Ellis to name one other white person in Montgomery County who was concerned about Negroes getting whipped by police officers Ellis fell silent.  Scarborough took this for a sign of insincerity but it was more an expression of futility.  Ellis knew his neighbors couldn’t stand up to a man who reported directly to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and Governor Ross Barnett.

Tom Scarborough filed several reports related to the beating of Jake Daniels.  It’s hard to escape the impression that even a bureaucratic thug like Scarborough was getting impatient with licensed hoodlums like Earl Wayne Patridge.  Violence had its place, but, with the feds on the prowl, there were lines even a Mississippi Sheriff couldn’t cross.

Scarborough’s concerns were justified.  The beating of Jake Daniels summoned two investigators from the Department of Justice to Winona.  Black citizens of Montgomery County couldn’t so much as mention voting and elections in private conversation without looking over their shoulder to see who might be listening.  Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could lead to a beating, false arrest, or a pink slip.

Thus, when two young naifs from the DOJ showed up on his front porch, black school principal Arthur Norwood knew he would soon be getting a visit from the Sovereignty Commission.  Grilled by Tom Scarborough a week later, Norwood divulged no more information than the situation demanded.  There was no sense denying that the two men had dropped by–the whole neighborhood was buzzing about it.  Scarborough’s report is illuminating:

He said he was asked why he was not voting as he had a BS degree and MA degree (sic) . . . Norwood and his daddy (Charlie Norwood) were once qualified voters in Montgomery County.  He said at the time he voted in Montgomery County he was teaching school in the colored Winona City school.  He said he was fired from his position by the colored principal, J.A. Knox who told him at the time he could not re-employ him for the reason Norwood had gone to school to New York University and had been indoctrinated with communistic ideology and communistic theories.  He said he removed his name from the voting register in Montgomery County.  Norwood said he later got a position in Oktibbeha County, but rumors soon spread over there that he was a commie.  Thus, he stated, he was placed under surveillance by the principal, Ezell Wicks for several months.  Norwood said Ezell Wicks told him the Citizens’ Council in Winona had relayed the information over to the Citizens’ Council in Oktibbeha County that he (Norwood) was teaching communistic theories.

Throughout Mississippi, the small educated black community was deeply divided over the proper response to the official white policy of “massive resistance” to integration.  Many, like J.A. Knox, embraced segregation because it made them feel safe.  So long as they were betraying their radical cousins and living down to white stereotype the chances of trouble were minimal.  Arthur Norwood couldn’t afford to embrace or overtly reject segregation.  A militant stance would destroy his tenuous career as a black educator; complete capitulation meant spiritual death.

The men from the Justice Department grilled Norwood about his voting patterns and expressed amazement when the principal told them he had voted for Senator Eastland (a notorious race baiter) because Eastland “had seniority”.  The feds asked Norwood about police violence but the school principal wouldn’t rise to the bait.   According to Scarborough’s report, the boys from Washington “asked (Norwood) if he could get a group of Negroes to go to the Circuit Clerks Office to register to vote.  He said that he did not care to undertake such a mission as he was afraid he might lose his job”.

Principal Norwood made no secret of the fact that he was good friends with Aaron Henry and Dr. E.J. Stringer, two prominent members of the Mississippi NAACP.  In his synopsis, Scarborough shared his suspicions about the Negro educator. “It is my thinking that Aaron Henry, Dr. E.J. Stringer or Norwood himself complained to the Justice Department about Negroes not being able to vote in Montgomery County.”  Norwood, Scarborough told his superiors, “can be suspected of agitating in the future.  I discussed this matter with authorities in Montgomery County.  They too share my thinking in this matter.”

As principal Norwood and mayor Billingsely illustrate, no one in Montgomery County could speak independently on any subject touching on race.  The slightest deviation from militant segregation was sure to be punished.  If it took wanton violence to uphold a precious way of life, men like Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge were willing to do what must be done.  In fact, they rather enjoyed it.

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