Fannie Lou Hamer and the white-only courtrooms of Mississippi

Lawrence Guyot

Sheriff Earl Patridge had a problem.  Seven black agitators, five of them beaten within an inch of their lives, were locked in his jailhouse.  It would take just one complaint and the feds would come sniffing around.  They always did.

Twelve hours after the arrest at the Winona Trailways Depot a passel of black agitators from Greenwood had come looking for their friends.  The sheriff’s men arrested Lawrence Guyot, a powerfully built civil rights leader, and used every trick in the book to goad the big man into violent resistance.  Guyot wouldn’t call his captors “Sir” but refused to take the bait.  Patridge’s men beat their prisoner mercilessly.  One officer pulled out a blow torch and threatened to burn off the black man’s testicles.  When a physician warned that they would soon have a corpse on their hands the beating finally ended.  Now Guyot was in solitary confinement.  His face was a mass of cuts and bruises and his eyes were swollen shut.

But what was Patridge supposed to do?  Every last white person in Montgomery County shared his outrage, of that he had no doubt.  When the agitators tried to order a meal at the white-only diner, the waitress had flung her order pad against the wall shrieking, “I can’t take no more!”  And who could blame her?  An entire way of life was hanging by a thread.  Earl Wayne Patridge saw his men as shock troopers standing in the breach for white supremacy, democracy and Christian decency.

Patridge didn’t know what to do with Fannie Lou Hamer, Annelle Ponder and the rest.  He couldn’t hold them forever.  He couldn’t kill them.  Some of his men had encouraged escape by leaving cells wide open but the disciplined inmates knew that anyone trying to escape would get a bullet in the back.

Two days after the civil rights activists were arrested, they were charged with creating a disturbance and resisting arrest.  Then Patridge had them dragged (many were still too bruised and bloody to walk) in front of a Winona judge.  Five of the six entered not-guilty pleas before being returned to their cells.

Then, just after midnight, somebody down in Jackson put a bullet through Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary.  Evers needed killing, the sheriff believed, but the timing was bad.  With a new martyr to fuss about, all eyes would be on Mississippi and that meant the feds might take an interest in Montgomery County.  On the other hand, with the press crowing about the NAACP radical, maybe they would ignore little Winona.  Besides, the newspapers were focused on George Wallace and his standoff with the feds at the University of Alabama.  The goons from Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Andrew Young
James Bevel
Dorothy Cotton

When Patridge arrived at his office on Wednesday, June 12th, he saw a young black woman sitting in a parked car reading “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran.  The sheriff stepped inside and spied a couple of upscale Negroes waiting in the lobby.  The woman in the car was Dorothy Cotton (pictured above at the right).  The men were Andrew Young and James Bevel, two of Martin Luther King’s SCLC workers.

Seconds later, a man from the FBI (the sheriff’s brother-in-law) stomped into the room wearing a nervous, distracted look.  Normally, Patridge didn’t worry about the FBI.  J. Edgar Hoover was death on the civil rights movement and most G-men shared that sentiment.  But they had to work with the Justice Department boys and Bobby Kennedy was blowing hot and cold.  One minute you thought the Attorney General understood the South, the next minute he’d start kissing up to King and his boys.

Martin Luther King had asked Andrew Young and James Bevel to drive to Winona to see what had become of Hamer, Ponder and company.  Dorothy Cotton insisted on joining the rescue party but Young said this was no work for a woman.  Cotton refused to back down, and since she had the keys to the only available car, her male companions were forced to let her drive.  Once they hit the Mississippi line, Cotton hit the gas pedal hard.  The car was doing at least 90 mph when she swerved onto the shoulder to avoid an ongoing semi-trailer.  When the threesome recovered from shock, Young grabbed the keys and this time Cotton didn’t protest.

Uncertain how to approach a lawman they believed to be crazy, Young and Bevel exchanged small talk with the deputies and clerks.  This generally put white folks at ease.  The two SCLC veterans knew that white people were more intimidated by these encounters than they were–and they were so frightened it was hard to breathe.

Just as the two men were running out of idle chit-chat one of Dr. King’s lawyers called from Birmingham.  It was Wiley Branton, a black attorney with a knack for sounding like a white man over the phone.

A little good-natured back-and-forth with Branton convinced Patridge to let his prisoners go if the two Negroes in his waiting room could produce $300 in cash for each person in custody.  They could.  The sheriff was holding Guyot in solitary confinement so he couldn’t infect his other prisoners with his communist ideas; but the others were released.

Young, Bevel and Cotton gasped in unison when the prisoners hobbled into the room.  Bernice Robinson, an SNCC worker who saw the women later that day, was appalled by their condition.  “They were a horrible sight,” she later recalled.  “Annelle Ponder’s eyes were swollen and bloodshot from the beatings and one hip was swollen twice the size of the other.  Mrs. Hamer had bruises all over her head, and her hips were bruised black.  June Johnson’s head was all bruised, and her lip cut.  James West’s face was swollen, and hips bruised.  Lawrence Guyot was beaten so badly he couldn’t use one of his arms and for several hours couldn’t even be located.  He was held incommunicado.  He was finally released on Thursday.  Annelle Ponder whispered one word as she left the jail: ‘Freedom!'”

Fannie Lou Hamer

The beating victims broke down and wept when they learned that their friend Medgar Evers had been killed.  Evers worked for the NAACP but he cooperated with all the other civil rights organizations as much as the situation allowed.  Martin Luther King attended Evers’ funeral but the NAACP brass refused to let him speak.  The photogenic orator had become the face of the civil rights movement and was deeply resented by many black leaders outside the SCLC.  King had an awkward picture taken with Roy Wilkens of the NAACP as a  gesture of solidarity, then jumped on the plane back to Birmingham.

As soon as the media feeding frenzy surrounding the Evers funeral subsided, Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department did a thorough investigation of the Winona incident.  They wanted to indict the perpetrators but not a single District Attorney in the state of Mississippi was willing to examine the evidence.

On November 13, 1963, Tom Scarborough from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission drove to Winona to interview the defendants.  He told them that Governor Paul Johnson was convinced of their innocence.  Everyone knows, Scarborough assured the Sheriff, that communist agitators will say whatever serves their purpose.

Nine days later, President John Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.  When the defendants went to trial in a federal courtroom in Oxford, Mississippi two weeks after Kennedy died only a few movement people were paying attention.  The federal judge praised the defendants from the bench and was overheard ranting loudly about “these niggers”.

An all-white, all-male jury took just a few minutes to return not-guilty verdicts.

Eight months would pass before national attention returned to little Winona, Mississippi.  Those eight months felt like eight years.