Category: Fannie Lou Hamer

Bringing Justice to Winona, Mississippi


This post was written in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 conviction of Curtis Flowers in a Winona, Mississippi courtroom.  Now that the justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court are considering how to respond to this unprecedented case, a re-examination of the basic issues is in order.  Who is Curtis Flowers, and why has he been tried six times on the same facts without a final conviction?

(Additional Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

Bringing Justice to Winona Mississippi

Alan Bean, Friends of Justice

In June of 2010, a forty-year-old black man was convicted of killing four people in cold blood and sentenced to die by lethal injection.  His name is Curtis Flowers.

Stories of black men sentenced through a perversion of justice cram the in boxes of CNN, NPR, the New York Times and the like on a daily basis.  It is a quintessentially America story, but it is also without parallel.

Curtis Flowers is the only capital defendant in American history to be tried six times on the same evidence.  The first three convictions were overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct; in the fourth, five black jurors held out for acquittal.  Trial five also ended in a hung jury, with the single black juror who refused to side with the majority accused of perjury. The sixth trial yielded the sentence of death and is now before the Mississippi Supreme Court. (more…)

Standards? We Don’t Need no Steenking Standards! Curtis Flowers trial, Day ten

(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.)

by Alan Bean, Friends of Justice

Day Ten of the Curtis Flowers trial concluded with a stunning proclamation: the State of Mississippi (like the rest of America) has no minimum standards for criminal investigations.

That’s right.  Law enforcement should adhere to accepted standards (wink, wink), but if they don’t, it’s okay.

Like the Mexican desperados in Blazing Saddles who “didn’t need no steenking badges”, the folks investigating the Tardy murders feel the rules don’t apply to them.   In fact, there are no rules.

John Johnson, the lead investigator for District Attorney Doug Evans, got started in law enforcement in 1972.  That’s just nine years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in Winona, MS.  Just six years after Grenada, MS was engulfed in daily riots over school segregation.  And just two years after southern schools finally integrated.  In other words, John Johnson was raised by old school standards.  The days of lynching, extra-judicial beatings and all-white juries may be over, but the authorities are still free to do their jobs any old way they choose.  (more…)

Coming of Age in Mississippi

(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.)

The current flap about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shows how complex and mystifying American conservatism can be.  Take John Stossel, for instance.  Color of Change, one of the groups involved in the Jena 6 movement, is trying to force Fox News to fire poor John for suggesting that private businesses should be free to discriminate.  According to Stossel, Southern businesses would have been happy to profit from black business if state law hadn’t mandated the color line.

Mr. Stossel can’t possibly believe his own rhetoric.  State governments enacted and enforced segregation laws because a racist public demanded it.  Businesses with a primarily white clientele turned away black patrons out of a concern for economic survival.  The first white Citizens’ Council was organized in Indianola, Mississippi in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.  Any move away from strict segregation was punished through economic boycott or, if that didn’t work, physical intimidation.

People living under this state-sponsored, public-sanctioned reign of terror had few good options.   Free-thinkers like Hodding Carter moved as far from orthodox racism as they could manage, but only a handful of white Mississippians endorsed full integration.  In the semi-feudal Mississippi of the 1950s, it was impossible for preachers, newspaper publishers, businessmen and politicians to stand up to this climate of fear and hate.  The only realistic course was to go with the flow.

Things weren’t much better, of course, in the rest of the South.

Confronted by the Solid South, the federal government could trump state law with sweeping civil rights legislation or they could go-along-to-get-along.  For years, presidents staggered back and forth between these two strategies.  Then the assassination of John Kennedy gave Lyndom Johnson a tiny window of opportunity.  Even so, it took all the arm twisting and temper tantrums Johnson could muster to ramrod the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress.

The entire conservative movement sided with the South.  The John Birch Society, Christian Reconstructionists, limited government people, free market fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, the Daughters of the American Revolution–the entire movement in all its mind-numbing complexity stood foursquare for state’s rights, Jim Crow, segregated schools and the right of public and private institutions to discriminate against people of color.

Have conservatives ever made a clean break with the past?  Not at all.

The civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965 were gradually accepted as established law.  Some conservatives adapted to the new world; others stood their ground.  A younger generation of conservatives tried to have it both ways.   They couldn’t ignore the fact that all their ideological mentors backed Jim Crow segregation, so they started re-writing history.

John Stossel’s distinction between racist politicians and a noble business community is but one example.  Rand Paul’s argument that only the government should be barred from discriminatory practices is another variation on the theme.

For ideological conservatives lie Rand Paul and John Stossel the actual past is an embarrassment, so they make up an alternate history.

The current dust-up over social studies textbooks in Texas is another attempt to make history safe for conservative white folks.  Now school children will read the speeches of a successionist Jefferson Davis alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without being told that one view is preferable to the other.  The righteousness of the civil rights movement (once a central tenet of American public orthodoxy) is no longer assumed.

If virtually every American conservative was on the wrong side of history in the 1050s and 60s, history must be altered.

Now there is no righteous civil rights movement confronting the Solid South; just different strokes for different folks.

The folks sponsoring the bogus prosecution of Curtis Flowers are doubtless relieved by these developments.  The formative years of District Attorney Doug Evans and State Senator Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) were shaped by a proudly racist orthodoxy (sorry, there’s no polite way of putting this).  The virtue of white supremacy and the vice of “race mixing” passed for common sence when Doug and Lydia entered the first grade and this orthodoxy reigned unchallenged when they graduated from High School in the mid-to-late 60s.

So long as the righteousness of the civil rights movement was trumpeted by network television, unreconstructed white Mississippians were in a difficult position.  The advent of Fox News came as a breath of fresh air.  Fox didn’t denounce the heroes of the civil rights movement, but the subject rarely came up.

It isn’t as if Doug and Lydia have been unaffected by the gut-wrenching change that has gripped Mississippi since they first went to school in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Senator Chassaniol copes by changing the subject.

Listening to Senator David Jordan challenge the bigotry implicit in the voter identification bill, Chassaniol told readers of her Clarion-Ledger blog that she had as much right to complain of bigotry as the next person–people of her gender had once been denied the vote.  “While it is possible to dwell on the inequities of the past,” she said, “it is better to focus on the potential of the future. The problems of the 20th century have been replaced by the real threats to our national security of the 21st.”

Noting the media’s lack of interest in Jesse Jackson’s desire to emasculate Barack Obama, Lydia asked why there had been such a big fuss when Trent Lott whispered to Strom Thurmond that America would be a better country if Thurmond, running 0n the racist Dixiecrat ticket, had been elected president in 1948:

The calm with which this has been reported pales in comparison to the coverage of the innocuous remark made by then Sen. Trent Lott several years ago at the 100th birthday party of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. Sen. Lott didn’t threaten anyone, but merely wished an elder statesman a happy birthday and said things might not have been so bad if he, Thurmond, had been elected President over half a century ago. While we’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President, we do know that no one was physically threatened by what he said, and yet, there was a maelstrom of media coverage condemning Lott.

Note the comment, “We’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President.”  Here’s what Lydia is saying: “An America based on Jim Crow segregation [the heart of Thurmond’s Dixiecrat platform] may or may not have been good for America.”  This suggests that Senator Chassaniol is either a true-blue believer in Jim Crow segregation, or (more likely) she has never allowed the issue to penetrate her conscious thinking in any meaningful way.

This helps explain how she could tell the media, in essence, “I belong to an organization [the Council of Conservative Citizens] that is dedicated to white supremacy, opposed to inter-racial marriage, and wants to bar non-white immigration, but that doesn’t make me a racist.”

A racist, in Lydia’s lexicon, is someone who consciously hates persons on the basis of race.  Since she bears no personal animus to black people, she can’t be a racist.

Lydia Chassaniol was twelve years old when Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death in the Montgomery County Jail.  That kind of race-based hatred is hard to find in 21st Century Mississippi.

How does the Senator deal with all of this?  She doesn’t, and she doesn’t have to.  The Mississippi media has learned to ignore embarrassing comments from elected officials that would raise howls of protest in other parts of the Union.

District Attorney Doug Evans doesn’t blog for the Jackson Clarion Ledger (or anyone else), so his views on race and racial justice are more difficult to discern.  Evans may be prosecuting Curtis Flowers for a record-setting sixth time  because he is a tenacious prosecutor who will go to any lengths to bring a guilty man to justice.  Or Evans may be prosecuting this case because he came of age in 1950s Mississippi and made the philosophical adjustments necessary to to the maintenance of security and sanity.

We know that Mr. Evans, like most central Mississippi politicians in the early 1990s, sought the blessing of the Council of Conservative Citizens and spoke at their public events.  There was nothing unusual about this.  Everyone was doing it.  It was the only way to get elected.

I suspect that Doug Evans, like Lydia Chassaniol, rarely dwells on the political upheavals that shaped his childhood and adolescence.  As a prosecutor representing the state of Mississippi, Evans is obligated to pursue justice in an open, fair and even-handed manner.  I suspect he takes this responsibility as seriously as reality permits.

Why then is Evans using bribed witnesses to prosecute a defendant lacking even the shadow of a motive?  How has this prosecutor convinced himself (and dozens of white jurors) that a single gunman could induce four victims to wait passively for their turn to be killed?   Everything we know about this crime suggests the involvement of two gunmen, but Mr. Evans doesn’t have two gunmen to prosecute, so he settles for Curtis Flowers.

I am not trying to demonize Mr. Evans and Ms. Chassaniol (although I could forgive them for thinking otherwise); I am trying to place their passionate pursuit of an innocent man in historical context.

In trial number fourm all five black jurors held out for acquittal.  This was a sure sign that Winona’s black residents weren’t buying the prosecution’s theory of the crime.

It is here that Doug Evans joins hands with Earl Wayne Patridge, the sheriff who ordered the beating of Fannie Lou Hamer.  Neither man is intimidated by black opinion.

Five reasons you should follow the trial of Curtis Flowers

(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.)

On June 7, 2010, Curtis Flowers becomes the first man in American history to go to trial six times on the same captial charges.  But why should anybody care?

If you get your news from conservative blogs and Fox News, the plight of a black murder suspect probably isn’t high on your list of concerns.   Curtis Flowers was found guilty by three separate juries, so he must be guilty, right?

If your taste runs to progressive politics you may have developed a mild interest in racial justice.  But who can keep up with all the horror stories?  After a while, compassion fatigue sets in.  Besides, criminal cases are so damn complicated–who has time to absorb all the details?

Now, DNA cases are another story.  They do the test, the guy is proven innocent, and you see him striding out of the courthouse sandwiched between jubilant attorneys.  DNA don’t lie, so the details don’t matter.  The state messed up–end of story.

This being the case, isn’t it best to give the DNA guys their half hour of fame and let the non-DNA folks fend for themselves?  Makes sense, right?

Actually, it doesn’t.

Only 10% of violent crimes involve the kind of DNA evidence that points unambiguously to guilt of innocence.

Since most jurisdictions don’t save physical evidence, ten years down the road there’s usually nothing to test.

So if you want to know how the system goes off the rails, and why it happens so often, you’ve got to wrestle with the Flowers case.  Here’s five good reasons to break down and pay attention.

1.   Post DNA advocacy must expose the mechanics of wrongful conviction, and it’s all on display in the Flowers case.  On May 23, 2010, the Dallas Morning News reported that “The flood of exonerations in Dallas County, where since 2001 more wrongfully convicted people have been freed through DNA testing than anywhere else in the nation, is slowing to a trickle.  There are only so many cases where genetic evidence is available to test . . . The emphasis of the conviction integrity unit established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007 is shifting toward challenging cases where there is no DNA to test, but where questions remain about an inmate’s guilt or innocence.”

The Curtis Flowers case represents all the legal flaws that led to wrongful convictions in the 254 DNA exonerations America has witnessed since 1989. If you want to see how these cases would have looked in the absence of DNA, the Flowers case is exhibit 1. DNA exoneration cases have made it possible to pinpoint the mechanics of wrongful prosecution: the manipulation of eye witness testimony, the abuse of inmate snitch testimony, the use of junk forensic science, a blatant attempt to maximize the number of white jurors, and prosecutorial tunnel vision. The Flowers case involves flagrant examples of each one of these elements.

2. Like most instances of racial injustice, the Flowers case is 10% evidence, 10% law and 80% sociology.  Three cases have placed tiny Winona, MS on the media radar screen: the 1937 Lynching of two black suspects seized by a mob from the Montgomery County Jail with the cooperation of the Sheriff; the brutal beating of Fannie Lou Hamer and three other civil rights activists by the Sheriff and his deputies in 1963, and the precedent-setting case of Curtis Flowers: 1996-2010. The racial bias in the criminal justice system changed very little in the twenty-six years between 1937 and 1963; how much changed in the thirty-three years between the Hamer travesty in 1963 and 1996?

3. The Flowers case demonstrates the corrosive effect of extremist politics on the judicial system. People like prosecutor Doug Evans and Lydia Chassaniol, (the State Senator sponsoring a bill designed to increase the chances of conviction in the Flowers case) freely associate with leaders of the paleo-conservative Council of Conservative Citizens without apology or regret. Chassaniol is a proud member of the organization. The CCofC is the successor organization to the Jim Crow era Citizen Councils and has never retreated from the old segregationist orthodoxy. Consider Article 2 of their “Statement of Principles”:

“We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

Thus far, the press corps in Mississippi is either unaware of these affiliations or considers them unworthy of mention.

4. The Flowers case proves that a prosecutor always gets another chance, and another, and another.  The 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky established the principle that prosecutors are allowed to eliminate minorities from the jury using “peremptory strikes” so long as they can give a “race neutral” justification for each strike. In the third Flowers trial in 2004, District Attorney Doug Evans used all fifteen of his peremptory challenges to exclude African-Americans from the jury. Three years later, the Mississippi Supreme Court, after concluding that Evans violated the “Batson rule”, used unusually strong language in their concluding remarks:

“Because racially-motivated jury selection is still prevalent twenty years after Batson was handed down and because this case evinces an effort by the State to exclude African-Americans from jury service, we agree that it is “necessary to reconsider Batson’s test and the peremptory challenge system as a whole.” While the Batson test was developed to eradicate racially discriminatory practices in selecting a jury, prosecuting and defending attorneys alike have manipulated Batson to a point that in many instances the voir dire process has devolved into “an exercise in finding race neutral reasons to justify racially motivated strikes.” When Batson was handed down, Justice Marshall predicted that ‘[m]erely allowing defendants the opportunity to challenge the racially discriminatory use of peremptory challenges in individual cases will not end the illegitimate use of the peremptory challenge.’ As this case has shown, Justice Marshall was correct in predicting that this problem would not subside.”

If Doug Evans was guilty of gross racial bias during the voir dire phase of the third Flowers trial, why is he still prosecuting Mr. Flowers?  Why didn’t the Attorney General’s office take over the prosecution of this case the minute prosecutorial bias was confirmed?

5. The Flowers case shows how race trumps objectivity. In 1994, two years before the Tardy murders, Stephen Bright, Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, criticized the unwillingness of jurists to admit the influence of racial bias in death penalty cases. “Some think racial discrimination is inevitable and impossible to prevent; others think the influence of race can be eliminated. The question must be answered, not avoided. If racial discrimination cannot be prevented, the death penalty should not be carried out. If discrimination can be eliminated, then it should be the highest priority of the courts. But to pretend that it does not exist, to deny a remedy, to deny even a hearing, is to give up on achieving the goal of equal justice under law. Tragically, that is what state and federal courts have done.”

In the 4th Flowers trial, all five African American jurors held out for acquittal while all seven jurors voted to convict.  Racial bias has dictated the outcome of all five Flowers trials?  But which side is getting it wrong, and why?

Thirty pieces of silver: fear and avarice in a Mississippi town

(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.)

Back in the days of Jim Crow, black people experienced few pleasures and were highly vulnerable to pain.  It wasn’t that hard to bribe people who had nothing or to coerce people who knew they could be beaten or killed with impunity.  A few brave souls bucked the system, but we can’t blame the overwhelming majority who didn’t.

The five (soon to be six) Curtis Flowers murder trials are all about the crude manipulation of ignorant poor folks willing to betray the truth for thirty pieces of silver.

In 1996 Winona, the street value of thirty pieces of silver was $30,000.  That’s how much people on the poor side of Winona were offered for information leading to the conviction of Curtis Flowers.  The man’s name didn’t appear on the posters that were stapled to every street post on the black side of town, but everybody knew who the law was after. (more…)

From Fannie to Curtis: How much has Winona justice changed?

Curtis Flowers on his way to court

(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.)

Seven  years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten by the minions of Earl Wayne Patridge, a young woman gave birth to a baby boy in Winona, Mississippi. She named the baby Curtis Giovanni Flowers. Twenty-six years later, Lola Flowers’ baby was charged with murdering Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Derrick “Bobo” Stewart and Robert Golden in a Winona furniture store.

How much had changed in Winona during Curtis Flowers’ quarter century in the free world?

Winona is the county seat of Montgomery County, once the boldest bastion of white supremacy in the state of Mississippi. Little civil rights brush fires sprang up in Montgomery County in the early 1960s, but men like Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and Tom Scarborough of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission made sure they were stomped out before they could spread. Sometimes that meant issuing an extrajudicial beating to uppity black males in the dead of night. When a black school teacher who thought he could register to vote just because he held a masters degree, it was necessary to denounce the man  as a communist agitation and have him fired. If a young black preacher encouraged his flock to vote, he had to be relieved of his pulpit.

What happened to Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Euvester Simpson and Lawrence Guyot at the Montgomery County Jail fit a well established pattern. But these victims had connections with civil rights luminaries.  By 1963, Martin Luther King had access to the White House and the Department of Justice. When Fannie Lou Hamer told her Winona story on all three major television networks in 1964, the Civil Rights Act had just been passed and the Voting Rights Act was waiting in the wings.

From a distance, it appeared that Fannie Lou Hamer’s team had scored a smashing victory at the expense of Earl Wayne Patridge and his ilk. In a sense, they had. Now black residents could register to vote without placing their jobs in jeopardy or risking a brutal beat-down. And just as little Curtis Giovanni Flowers was drawing his first breath, the doors of Winona’s public schools swung open to black students. (more…)

The Day Fannie Lou Hamer Shocked America

By Alan Bean

“If the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.  Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”  Fannie Lou Hamer

The summer of 1964 was a watershed moment for the civil right movement and for America.  Never before had black and white Americans worked together with such common purpose.  And yet, by the end of August, black civil rights leaders were vowing never to work with white people again.   Meanwhile, white civil rights activists realized they didn’t have a home in either of the major political parties.

The voting rights movement had been building momentum in Mississippi since the Freedom Rides of 1961.  The work was dangerous, beatings were commonplace and martyrs were plentiful.  What better way to win protection and attention than to issue a call to idealistic young white people from across America to come to Mississippi for the summer of 1964?  John Kennedy had been assassinated half a year earlier and a still-grieving nation was desperate for healing.

Across the southern states, only 40% of eligible African Americans were registered to vote; in Mississippi it was 6.4%.  As we have seen, civic leaders in the Magnolia State were determined to keep Negroes out of the courthouse.  For the most part, they were successful.  To outsiders this looked like blatant injustice, but the good people of Mississippi felt they were simply preserving a cherished way of life.  Throughout the spring and early summer the young people kept coming, just as they had at the high water mark of the Freedom Ride movement.  They were young, idealistic, dedicated and often remarkably naive.  Fannie Lou Hamer had to take the white girls aside and explain why it was a bad idea to be seen in public with a young black male–no matter how good looking and entertaining he might be.

The big idea was a mock election for the purpose of choosing delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.  Since African Americans were excluded from participating in the formal election process, they formed their own party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and conducted parallel elections that were open to all.  The MFDP was prepared to argue that they should be seated in Atlantic City in preference to Mississippi’s all white “regular” democratic contingent.  The official election was unconstitutional and undemocratic, it was argued, because black voters had been excluded.  Furthermore, it was common knowledge that the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Convention would be supporting the Republican Barry Goldwater in the fall election.

Throughout the summer, Freedom Schools designed to introduce children to the civil rights movement and the American Constitution popped up across Mississippi.  White Mississippians correctly interpreted the Freedom Schools as the threat to the established order.  In early June a church in the Neshoba County town of Philadelphia was burned to the ground for opening its doors to a Freedom School.  Two young white civil rights workers from New York City, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, traveled to Philadelphia with James Earl Chaney, a black activist from Meridian Mississippi to investigate.  Arriving in town, they were arrested, held for several hours, then released, re-arrested and delivered into the custody of the local Ku Klux Klan.  While search teams were still scouring the area for the missing men, Mississippi Senator, James Eastland, speculated that the entire affair was a publicity stunt designed to make his beloved Mississippi look bad.

When the bodies were finally found buried in a Neshoba County dam, the bodies of all three men were riddled with bullets and Chaney’s body had been horribly mutilated.  During that summer, 35 shooting incidents were reported, six activists were murders, 80 were beaten and 65 houses or churches were burned.

On August 21, 1964, short days before the beginning of the Democratic Convention, seven buses carrying Freedom Democrats from Mississippi rolled up to a modest motel in Atlantic City.  President Lyndon Johnson had been hoping the MDFP would back down; he now realized that wasn’t going to happen.  Everyone knew Johnson was on the verge of naming Minnisota Senator Hubert Humphrey as his running mate, but the formal announcement hadn’t been made.  Humphrey was told that if the credentials of the MDFP deligates were recognized he could forget about being VP.

Lyndon Johnson famously predicted that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would lose him a sizable slice of the South, but his lead in the polls over Goldwater was large and growing.  Still, he was worried.  What if the sight of white delegates storming out of the convention while black delegates took their places sparked an anti-civil rights backlash across the nation.  Besides, Johnson had a good working relationship with Mississippi Senators Jim Eastland and John Stennis and didn’t want to lose their behind-the-scenes support.

Photographers approached the MFDP delegation with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.  One reporter said they had the look of prison escapees who feared they would be re-arrested the minute they re-crossed the Mississippi line.  At the heart of the group stood the indefatigable Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville.  Short and squat in her store-bought dress she was leading the group through a medley of spirituals and freedom songs.

Ed King at the Jackson Woolworth sit-in

The MFDP contingent also had a smattering of white delegates like Ed King, the chaplain of Tougaloo College in Jackson.  King, a veteran of the sit-in movement, had nearly lost his life in a non-accidental highway accident.  The family of slain activist Micheal Schwerner could frequently be seen with the MFDP delegates.  Despite the disapproval of the Democratic hierarchy, MFDP attorney, Joseph Rauh, was able to arrange for a hearing in front of the credentials committee.  Ed King, Martin Luther King, Rita Schwerner (the widow of the slain activist) and Fannie Lou Hamer were selected to address the committee.

While Lyndon Johnson watched in amazement, Fannie Lou Hamer sat down before a jam-packed auditorium and peered, unblinking, into the camera.  “Mr. Chairman and the Credentials Committee,” she said, “my name is Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.”

The president was livid.  This ignorant woman (as Johnson called her) was about to set the world on fire.  Hurriedly, Johnson called a press conference to tell reporters nothing they didn’t already know.  It worked.  Network coverage shifted away from the ignorant woman from Ruleville to the most powerful man in the world.

Fannie Lou Hamer talks about Winona justice

Johnson’s reprieve was only temporary.  Hamer’s testimony was so rivetting that the networks replayed her remarks in their entirety later that evening.  Fannie Lou talked about losing her job on the plantation because she had registered to vote in Indianola.  Then she talked about her encounter with Mississippi Justice in the little town of Winona.

“And in June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is in Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people—to use the restaurant—two of the people wanted to use the washroom.

“The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened, and one of the ladies said, “It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out.”

“I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.

Trailways Depot in Winona

“As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the four people in a highway patrolman’s car, I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the four workers was in and said, “Get that one there,” and when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.

“I was carried to the county jail, and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear the sound of kicks and horrible screams, and I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, yes, sir, nigger? Can you say yes, sir?”

“And they would say other horrible names.

“She would say, “Yes, I can say yes, sir.”

“So say it.”

“She says, “I don’t know you well enough.”

“They beat her, I don’t know how long, and after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.

“And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from, and I told him Ruleville, he said, “We are going to check this.”

“And they left my cell and it wasn’t too long before they came back. He said, “You are from Ruleville all right,” and he used a curse work, and he said, “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”

“I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.

“The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman for me, to lay down on a bunk bed on my face, and I laid on my face.

“The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted, and I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

“After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

“The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit upon my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me my head and told me to hush.

“One white man—since my dress had worked up high, walked over and pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back, back up.

“I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

“All of this is on account of us wanting to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

“Thank you.”

In moments, Democratic Party officials were deluged with phone calls and telegrams from outraged Americans demanding that the MFDP be seated immediately.

Lyndon Johnson was adamant that this must not happen.  A compromise was proposed.  Ed King and Aaron Henry would be seated as representatives of the MFDP and the white Mississippi delegation would be seated in its entirety.  Fannie Lou Hamer decided the issue when she informed her contingent that she didn’t come all the way to Atlantic City “for no two votes.”

The issue was decided by a rushed vote–the white Mississippi regulars would be seated along with King and Henry.  It was too late.  Most of the regulars walked out of the convention in protest.  When MFDP delegates took their places they were ushered out of the building by security personnel.  The second night, every seat in the building was taken so the MFDP contingent marched to the convention floor where Fannie Lou Hamer led them in spirited song.

Stokely Charmichael

The white Mississippi regulars, as expected, abandoned the Democrats for the Republican Goldwater.  They have controlled American politics ever since.  It was no accident that Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair.

Fannie Lou Hamer was disillusioned but undaunted.  When a reporter asked her if she was seeking equality with the white man she peered at him imperiously.  “No,” she said.  “What would I look like fighting for equality with the white man?  I don’t want to go down that low.  I want the true democracy that’ll raise me and that white man up . . . raise America up.”

Are we there yet?  Forty-six years after Ms. Hamer told America the truth about Winona, Mississippi the town remains deeply divided.  The wrongful prosecution of Curtis Flowers has revealed a deep perception gap between Winona’s black and white residents.   In the fourth of five trials, all five black jurors saw through the state’s paper thin evidence while all seven white jurors voted to convict.  When legislation was introduced in a desperate attempt to expand the jury pool only one black senator supported the bill.  It passed anyway thanks to overwhelming support from white senators.

The fact that Mississippi has a handful of black senators shows how much has changed.  But the inability of white residents to call a wrongful prosecution by its proper name demonstrates just how far we have to go.

Susan Klopfer’s Mississippi

Susan Klopfer, the leading authority on the historiy of the Mississippi civil rights movement is intrigued by the Curtis Flowers story.  “Dr. Bean’s group believes that the state’s theory of the murder “… doesn’t fit the actual evidence, and the state manufactured phoney evidence by manipulating, badgering and bribing witnesses,” she writes. 

Klopfer’s interest in the Flowers case flows from her fascination with Mississippi history.  In a recent interview the journalist and civil rights historian notes that, “In Mississippi, it’s said ‘the past is the present.’ And it was and still is.”

Klopfer is blogging on Friends of Justice and the Flowers case on her Mississippi Sovereignty Commission blog and on a blog inspired by a book she is writing on Emmett Till.  Thirty-three years separate the brutal beating of gospel-singing activist Fannie Lou Hamer and the arrest of another gospel-singing native of Montgomery County, Curtis Flowers.  Hamer created a national sensation at the 1964 Democratic national convention in Atlantic City by relating the horrific details of her cruel encounter with Winona law enforcement.  Lyndon Johnson scheduled an impromptu press conference at the time Hamer was scheduled to speak because he didn’t want “that illiterate woman” antagonizing southern Democrats.  But Hamer’s revelations were sp appalling and her delivery so intense that all three major networks carried her remarks in their entirety on the evening news.

I will be writing more about the links between Fannie Lou Hamer and the Flowers story in coming weeks.  If you would like a sneak preview check out Ms. Klopfer’s blogging.

Like me, Susan Klopfer is amazed by the culture of silence that persists in Mississippi.  

“I was most surprised when discovering the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission,” she recently told a reporter. “It was a spy agency funded by the state from 1955 to 1972 to halt integration. Former military intelligence and FBI agents were hired and they, in turn, used the services of the Klan as enforcers. I was able to go through these papers and trace a money trail to an East Coast foundation that gave money to Mississippi to fight the Civil Rights Act and to fund private, segregated academies in Mississippi. Even today, few Mississippians know this history. I feel very obligated to tell these stories, of true civil rights heroes who have lost their lives.”

The Iowa historian’s master work, Where Rebel’s Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited demonstrates how opposition to the Massive Resistance movement in Mississippi during the 1950s and 60s led inevitably to harassment and, in most cases, financial ruin.  One blessed exception to this rule was the publisher of the Petal Paper in Forest County, Mississippi.  When the Citizens’ Council tried to run him out of business, P.D. East published an article with the charming title: “Go to Hell in a Bucket!”  A 1958 spoof ad began: “Yes, You too can be Superior.  Join the Glorious Citizens Clans.”

According to Klopfer, “The ad went on to list various ‘freedoms’ that would accrue to members: ‘Freedom to yell ‘Nigger’ as much as you please without your conscience bothering you!  Freedom to wonder who is pocketing the five dollars you join to pay!  Freedom to take a profitable part in the South’s fastest growing business: Bigotry!  Freedom to be Superior Without a Brain, Character or Principle!’ . . . This Wonderful Offer Open to White Folk Only.'”

P.D. East survived because he had an ardent following outside Mississippi.  Few were so fortunate.

Klopfer has a particular interest in the funding behind the Massive Resistance movement.  Much of the money driving the Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens’ Councils, she discovered, came from Wycliffe Draper, a wealthy New York racist and anti-Semite.  Draper contributed copiously to Mississippi racist from politicians like Theodore G. Bilbo, the notoriously racist Mississippi governor and senator, his successor, Senator James Eastland to organizers like Robert Patterson, the twisted genius behind the Citizens’ Council movement (and, more recently, the Council of Conservative Citizens).

Klopfer’s 2004 interview with Robert Patterson suggests that the Citizens’ Councils didn’t die out when overt racism became unfashionable, they simply went underground. 

Mississippi can’t say “no” to racism without saying “no” to its past.  There is no operation that would allow a surgeon to cut away the cancer of officially endorsed public racism without killing the patient.  Mississippi wasn’t just a state with a lot of racists; Mississippi’s identity was inextricably tied to racism.   Opposition to integration was so widespread and entrenched that for generations it was impossible for Mississippians to stand against the juggernaut without courting financial ruin, physical injury, or even death.  The legacy is ghastly and has never been renounced, either formally or informally.  No Mississippi politician to this day could publicly confront the enormity of the state’s anti-civil rights record without committing political suicide.

In fact, state senator Lydia Chassaniol did no damage to her electoral prospects by openly revealing her membership in a neo-Nazi group like the Council of Conservative Citizens.  Until very recently, the groups’ annual event in Black Hawk, Mississippi was considered so mainstream and uncontroversial that leading politicians from both major parties were regular participants.  It has even been suggested that Chassaniol’s address to the CCC last summer was a test balloon designed to see if it was safe to get back in the racist water.  Apparently it is.  Among Mississippi newspapers, only the Greenwood Commonwealth even acknowledged the Senator’s address.  Outside Mississippi, the speech failed to stir a ripple of interest.

Thank God for enterprising historians like Susan Klopfer who have the courage to state the obvious.

A nice girl like you . . .

(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.)

Lydia Chassaniol is in trouble.  How much trouble remains to be seen, but the Mississippi State Senator (R-Winona) has the regional blogosphere in an uproar.

Remember the mid-to-late 1990s when prominent Mississippi politicians like Bob Barr and Trent Lott got too cozy with the Council of Conservative Citizens?  That’s the white separatist hate group the New York Times describes as having “a thinly-veiled white supremacist agenda”.  You can buy a “white pride” T-shirt on the CCC website and read headlines like: “The whole world treats Obama as a joke!” and “Mass immigration equals white genocide.”

The CCC platform praises America’s “European” heritage and condemns “mixture of the races”.   CCC leaders still like to refer to “Martin Looter Coon” and have described African Americans as “a retrograde species of humanity”.  According to Ward Schaefer of the Jackson Free Press, “Columnists in the CofCC’s newsletter have hyperventilated that non-white immigration to the U.S. was transforming the country into a ‘slimy brown mass of glop.'”

You get the picture. (more…)