Jerry Gibson’s Letter about his Time Working on Voter Registration in Greenwood, Mississippi in the Summer of 1964

Jerry Gibson went to Greenwood, Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to work on voter registration. In the summer of 1964, three (3) civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi and their bodies were found on August 4, 1964. Jerry Gibson returned from Mississippi in early August 1964. There were more lynchings in Mississippi than any other state and more lynchings in Greenwood than any other place in Mississippi. When Jerry returned from Mississippi in August 1964, he wrote this letter to his mother and brothers in Indiana.

August 19th

Deal Mom, Dave et al, and Dale et al,

In one of my rare efforts in the field of communication, let me report to all of you on a recent adventure. Today we went to a wild animal farm. Somehow I managed to survive, but holding two children on my shoulders so they could see the tiger act isn’t my idea of wholesome recreation. But it was a good act, and we all had a fine time. Unfortunately everyone wants to go back because they have paternal feeling for the little bear cubs.

It’s been something more than a week since I’ve been home from Mississippi, and my nerves are just about repaired. I spent most of the two weeks in Greenwood, a city of 22,000 about a hundred miles north of Jackson in the heart of delta country. The ratio of negro to white is about 2-1. We stayed in negro homes, most of which had running water but few of which had bathtubs. In temperatures that often got over 100, and with humidity hovering at 85, that becomes a problem. The student volunteers, are often referred to as dirty and sweaty, but under the conditions which were ours, anything else was just impossible. We had to sneak into the homes late at night and leave early in the morning lest whites notice and bring some economic reprisal. The night I arrived two whites visited the house in which I was to stay and used some pretext to get inside to see if there were any suitcases or evidence of guests. Fortunately, I wasn’t there. About 11:30 a group of negro teen-agers and four car loans of whites got into a running neighborhood fight — bricks bottles, two shots reported – around the house I was calling home.

I was called a minister-counselor, but that was just a catch-all appendage. I worked on voter registration for the Freedom Democratic Party, and found out (l) how frightened the Negros are that some white will find out what he’s doing. Jobs are so scarce, and the fear of losing them so great, that many are afraid to do anything. The whites also can interfere with welfare payments of various kinds, so they have the negro community over a barrel. I also found out (2) how many of the negros are illiterate. In 1954, there were less than 10 secondary schools in Miss. for which Negros which were accredited. Today there are many fine school buildings, but the majority are still not accredited so that negros can’t go directly into college even if they wish and could get accepted. Daily wage varies from 2.50 to 3 dollars a day for 10 hours work. I was mightily impressed by the of the Freedom Democratic Party. They are actually carrying on a voter education program (org. by blocks, precincts, districts, and a state convention) with practical experience in democratic government. This something the negroes have never known in any way. It reminded me a little of what might happen in an underdeveloped country. But the leadership is quite able, and they are taking enormous risks by standing up to be counted in the political picture.

Greenwood is a u very tense” place (a recent SNCC report) We had many arrestd in the group, but the teams of lawyers and doctors (as well as ministers) which are going into the state are making a lot of difference. There were shootings in some part of town on all but two or three days, but no one was hit. I rented a car because transportation was such a dire need, and for a few days (until I was spotted) moved back and forth between negro and white community. I was impressed by the ministers I met, though most were in danger of losing their jobs because they were trying to work for some kind of understanding in the situation. Most of the whites I met said that northerns just didn’t understand their negroes, and nothing was more apparent than that they didn’t have any idea of what was happening in the negro community. I found some whites who were willing to talk and work for better relations between negro and whites, but they felt very much alone. One family never knows who else it can talk to, with the result that the vigilante group is really ruling the situation. Bricks were occasionally through the windows of white stores (and we’re almost sure it was not by negros), so it was probably because owners or employees were acting a little “soft”.

Fortunately, Mississippi is not all as bad as Greenwood seems to be. We went on a trip one day to Greenville, which is 60 miles away, and the atmosphere was much different. The first thing I noticed was the fact that the police drive around one man to a car with windows down through the Negro neighborhood. In Greenwood, they invariably appear four to a car, with white riot helmets handy, and rifles showing in the front and back seats. I heard there was an interracial committee at work in Greenville, and a Negro even at ate one of the motels. Apparently things are being done there that aren’t even dreamed in Greenwood. That seems to be the case in other parts of the state — the variety. Natchez is terrible — people have been shot on the streets in daylight, and they say the whites are smuggling in machine guns, hand grenades, etc. Four negro workers went there about the middle of summer, and were immediately arrested. But in another town in the delta country, the mayor invited all the negro school teachers to register to vote an set an example for the rest of the community. So things are much different in different parts, and no easy generalizations will do.

The fact that the FBI is in Mississippi (there are about 10 agents in the office in Greenwood) is making a difference because local police know that someone is checking on the way they are operating. But the FBI usually acts after the fact — after an arrest or beating — to get the guilty party and it’s something less than a complete consolation to know that they will get someone if they shoot you. The volunteers want more FBI and they want active protection, but that doesn’t seem to be in the wind for the moment. One night I had to go down and get three fellows out of jail on bail. Two others went down to the police station with me. When we got there there were a lot of whites standing around the streets, and some police swore at us as we drove up. I waited in the car while they went in, and a group of men gathered around the car and started leaning against it, etc. Naturally, we always had windows up and doors locked. Unfortunately they raised the bail by the time we got there, and we didn’t have enough money. When the other two came out of the station, they were pushed around a little bit, and then two carloads of whites followed us down the street. We soon got into the negro neighborhood, so they swore at us and turned off. In the negro neighborhood we felt safe, and it was only in other parts of town that we were in danger. At any rate, they called the FBI and Justice Dept., got the bail reduced again, and we went back an hour later to try again. I was nervous to have to go down again, but this time the telephoning apparently had had a real effect. No one was on the streets, and the police escorted the three in jail out to the car. Naturally we were followed again. But it was evident that something had changed between our two visits.

There are a lot of other things that happened. At one filling station the man wouldn’t sell me any gas and was quite rude. But I was greatly impressed by the student volunteers I met. They were working very hard under exceedingly difficult circumstances. A number of things were disorganized, but they and were surprisingly well disciplined. They had a careful security system, and we usually knew within a few minutes of any arrest. A number of those now plan to stay through the regular school year, and others have already been recruited to go through January. This is very important since many of the whites have just been waiting until the summer is over and the volunteers leave so they can whip their negroes back into shape. Now I hope that development can be avoided. Some of the people are really brave and on some days they get up by 4 A.M. to try to register people on the buses on their way to the cotton fields, work all day, and then go to a mass meeting at night. That’s really a full day. There are several different groups cooperating in the Mississippi project, but the one really carrying the load is SNCC. They have their Boston office in the basement of our church, and I was astonished when I got to Greenwood to discover that those kids in that office have been raising more than $1000 a week to help support this project. Whew!

John Munro, the dean at Harvard, and I compared notes yesterday, and he said he thought the big change in Birmingham (where he spent 2 months this summer) came when the police became at least neutral instead of an instrument of the white community. This happens when more and more negroes manage to register to vote. Unfortunately there were only two who were allowed to register in Greenwood that we know about since the first of June, and the girl who succeeded in early August had gone nine times previously, so that this was her tenth time. And this time was different only because there were three visiting congressmen there checking on voting registration procedures. As soon as someone applies to register to vote, their name appears each day for two weeks in the newspaper, so that anyone who can get to him or his family usually does. Then each person had to read and interpret a section of the Miss. Constitution. And since the registrar can say whether or not, it was an acceptable interpretation, there is no appeal and no objective test. It seems that everything adds up to a kind of gloomy forecast for Greenwood, and you’ll probably see it in the news often in the days and weeks to come. There is great tension because the young Negroes are not going to accept the place whites give them, and the whites don’t show any sign of changing.

When I first arrived in Jackson, I felt apprehensive and anxious about where I could go to eat, and what I could do. By the time I got back to Jackson from Greenwood, I felt was I was breathing the pure air of civilization again. It took several days before I stopped looking in the rear-view mirror to see who was following me, or unconsciously watching other people for some sign of hostility. One of the unfortunate things I found happening in myself in that kind of situation was expecting all the whites to be hostile. Yet I know they weren’t, and I might not have noticed any friendly overtures even if they had come. When you need to be so alert for danger all the time, it’s hard not to assume the worst of other people. And I know that has happened to the Negroes, so that they assume the worst from a11 the whites just because they have been abused so often. If there was one bit of good that was being done by this project, it was to mix up Negroes and white just a little so that it wasn’t all black on one side and all white on another.

People have asked if the negroes wouldn’t just settle back into their familiar ways at the end of the summer. But that time has passed. I can remember the sharp sense of contrast I felt while watching TV in a negro home one evening. There was the commercial set in a very nice bathroom and home, and the contrast with that shack was overwhelming. The people get $3 a day for a 10 hour day in the cotton field, or as a maid, and then they can’t go to any decent place if they want to spend their money. There is just too much steam being generated not to make some serious changes come just around the corner. And of course this is true in cities in the north as well.

I could run on for hours and tire you even more. I’m very glad I went, but I wouldn’t willingly go back. It’s just hard to believe that things can be like that in a part of this country. Hope everyone is well.

Love Jer

Author

  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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