Op-Ed, 642 words

As Mississippi Moves on, a New Struggle Arises

Half a century after the Freedom Summer, black Americans face new challenges.

Ron Carver

Fifty years ago, shortly after the Ku Klux Klan abducted and murdered civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, I was sitting in one of Starkville, Mississippi’s few black-owned cafes when Police Chief Thomas Josey stormed in and unleashed a torrent of abuse.

He claimed President Lyndon B. Johnson was a communist and that I was a “(N word)-loving outside agitator” looking to stir up “his” local “Negroes,” who were, in his mind, perfectly happy living in the segregated South.


U.S. Embassy The Hague/Flickr

Chief Josey couldn’t stand that I had enlisted in the fight to end segregation and secure a voice and a vote for Southern black Americans. He despised our movement’s goal to end Mississippi’s subjective “literacy tests” that allowed county registrars to enroll white voters who couldn’t read while disqualifying black college professors.

Chief Josey’s rant might have made me laugh if the consequences weren’t so dire.

I had just graduated high school in 1964 and started working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). My trial by fire came almost immediately, when I spent the night of June 21 calling hospitals, jails, and local and state police, trying to find the three missing civil rights workers. At midnight I had to call their parents to report that we had failed and feared the worse.

It’s well known that black Americans were regularly brutalized for speaking up, as were those of us seen as sympathizers. During my time in Mississippi I was jailed and beaten for “improper parking” and “misguided walking.”

Fortunately, Starkville has evolved since then. When I returned there recently to commemorate the anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the whites-only movies, parks, and restrooms were gone, as were all of the segregated eateries.

African Americans are now free to vote in Starkville, and the city’s schools are integrated with black and white students, teachers, and administrators. For 20 years, Starkville has boasted a black woman chancery court clerk. And old Chief Josey is probably turning over in his grave because Frank Nichols, Starkville’s new police chief, is a black American.

Back in the day, the Klan did the dirty work, but the business elite set the tone through a network of White Citizen Councils. Remembering that, I was disheartened to learn that Mississippi opinion leaders are railing even now against the folks fighting for union rights at the Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi that’s about 100 miles from Starkville.

Most of the factory’s workers are African Americans. But both black and white Canton workers are upset that Nissan routinely hires employees there as “temps” and pays even the most senior employees a couple of dollars less per hour than new hires in the company’s Tennessee facility. Nissan negotiates over these and many other issues with unionized workers all around the world — except at its plants in our Southern states.

You can hear an echo of the old “outside agitator” refrain in this new struggle. Consider how syndicated columnist and Mississippi State University public affairs director Sid Salter argues against the Nissan employees seeking a voice at work. He dismisses union organizers, local civil rights leaders, and pro-union ministers as “hired or rented guns.”

Salter’s epithet reminds me of how his university’s leaders were complicit 50 years ago in preserving the South’s “way of life” through their own segregated facilities, faculty, and student body — and their silence during the Jim Crow years. The few faculty opponents of segregation were so fearful of reprisals that we integrationists only visited them in the dead of night behind closely drawn curtains.

Because they bring a measure of democracy to the workplace, union rights are civil rights. Mississippi business leaders, like the White Citizen Councils of the past, may beg to differ, but they have been on the wrong side of history before.

Ron Carver is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. IPS-dc.org
Distributed via OtherWords.org

  • Kristana Davis

    I’m Chief Josey’s grand daughter. He did much for the Civil Rights Movement. He said the “thugs” that killed those boys in Philadelphia were not real policemen but thugs. He hired the first black policeman in the state. I welcome you to read the Sovereignty Commission Files. My grandfather, Chief Thomas Josey would not take a stand with the county police to stop the protests in Starkville. He led the protests. Read the Sov Com files. They were angry he wouldn’t help and felt the “city cops” that he was in charge of were putting everyone at risk. He said he was retiring in ’71 and they could take it up with the next Chief because he would not stop the blacks from protesting.

    The City Counsel was so angry with his stance on Civil Right they ruled to vote in the next Chief. He was the last elected Chief at the time after he retired. He raised my sisters and. He got death threats on a regular basis from the KKK. Our grandmother would have to run us down to the basement and there would be policemen everywhere.

    The black man and his son that were putting the dirt on his grave stopped to shake my hand and tell me how much he did for their community. I understand you must have a different perspective because of your youth at the time. But make no mistake, as a leader of a police force in the Deep South my grand father went above and beyond to help with civil rights. Step into the black community of the elderly in Starkville and ask THEM. You were but a young white person. Ask a BLACK person of that generation what he did for them. Get a person of that culture and age on record! Again I refer you to the now open Sov-com files. Search his name and read the letters. They tell the story.

    Stop slandering my grandfather based on only a story you remember as a young college student. Things were different. My grandfather led freedom marches. I was there! Other cities and counties were spraying them with water hoses and letting dogs go on them. My grandfather was out in front blowing his whistle and leading the freedom marches. I WAS THERE AND SAW IT!!

    Kristana Lasseter Davis
    Houston, TX