The Canton movement for civil rights sought to address issues common to many segregated communities in the state. In addition to experiencing voter disfranchisement, many African Americans in the town lived in extreme poverty, and the community had an infant mortality rate of 42 percent, one of the highest in the state. Community activists included local residents and, beginning in 1963, workers from the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group that comprised the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), among other organizations. CORE was particularly active in Canton. Workers had a variety of aims, including voter registration, the building of a community center and library, and increased literacy.
In the early 1950s three hundred black Cantonians marched to the courthouse to register to vote; forty applicants succeeded. Throughout the decade and into the 1960s, only two hundred more of Canton’s African Americans registered. Over an eight-month period beginning in 1963, COFO organized one thousand attempted registrations, only thirty of which succeeded. At this point, hundreds of people filed affidavits with the US Justice Department on the grounds of voter discrimination.
In January 1964 members of the black community began a selective buying campaign, boycotting twenty-one stores and three products (Mosby’s Milk, Barq’s Root Beer, and Hart’s Bread) because the companies that produced them maintained unfair hiring practices. COFO said the boycott was 90 percent effective. One store owner came to a mass meeting to apologize for past discrimination. However, many community members active in the boycott faced reprisals from hostile police and an active Citizens’ Council. The Canton City Council passed a law banning people from handing out leaflets without the permission of the police department, and many arrests followed when activists continued to spread the word about the boycott. Later that year the State Senate discussed making selective buying campaigns illegal.
Individual community members often faced reprisals—sometimes violent—as well. When George Washington, a black businessman, refused to serve as an informer for those trying to halt the work of activists, the gas pumps at his grocery store were removed and his meat deliveries cut off. Police officers beat two teens severely after they left a voter registration meeting in February 1964, shooting blanks near the young men’s heads and threatening to kill their family members. In July 1964 white gas station attendant Price Lewis shot at a group of black teenagers who volunteered with COFO.
The workers in Madison County planned the first of three Freedom Days on 28 February 1964, when 350 African Americans marched to the courthouse to register to vote. In March almost 3,000 black schoolchildren boycotted Canton’s segregated schools to protest their inadequate facilities. A second Freedom Day followed on 13 March, with a third held on 29 May and featuring CORE director James Farmer as a speaker. Following that meeting, white supremacists shot at and attempted to bomb the Freedom House.
An important element of the movement in Canton was the creation of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) in 1965. CDGM was Head Start program that provided preschool and medical care for children as well as jobs in impoverished areas. Despite these advances, state officials often charged CDGM with mismanagement. Many members of Canton’s black community felt that the CDGM’s hiring practices, controlled by Rev. James McRee and George Raymond, were unfair. The state cut funding from the Head Start programs in 1967, and CDGM was replaced by other organizations.
James Meredith’s March against Fear came to Canton in July 1966, and activists met the two hundred marchers as they entered the town, taking them to a rally at the courthouse with a crowd of one thousand. The marchers had planned to camp at a black public school, but city officials forbade this action. Led by Stokely Carmichael, the crowd began to set up tents in spite of the presence of heavily armed state troopers. The troopers fired gas into the crowds, burning and blinding many of marchers, and then beat those who did not disperse.
The movement in Madison County relied on the leadership of several key persons. C. O. Chinn, a local business owner known for his fearlessness, provided his store as a space for meetings and protected other activists from violent attacks. George Raymond, a former freedom rider from New Orleans, provided much of the strategy for the Canton movement, serving as the only staff member when the first CORE office opened in the county in 1963. Anne Moody, a Tougaloo College graduate later known for her memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, spent Freedom Summer 1964 in Canton. Annie Devine, a well-respected teacher and insurance saleswoman who was intimately familiar with the workings of both Canton’s black and white communities, provided essential leadership and later served as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, www.mdah.state.ms.us/arlib/contents/er/sovcom
- Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)