For five decades, Charles McLaurin has served Sunflower County as a community organizer and a civil rights activist. McLaurin played a prominent role in every major campaign of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta, and he remains active in educational and social projects. McLaurin’s history as a foot soldier in the early freedom movements injects the values and the spirit of older civil rights struggles into the continued daily struggle for social and economic justice in impoverished black communities.
Born in 1941 in Jackson, McLaurin heard stories and learned lessons about demanding freedom early in his life. His grandmother had graduated from Tuskegee Institute and owned a restaurant, and McLaurin’s grandfather had defied the Ku Klux Klan until night riders ran him out of Mississippi. As a student at Jackson State, McLaurin landed in jail for protesting segregation at the 1961 state fair, and he earned the respect of Medgar Evers and other activists by agreeing to remain in jail until the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) could publicize the case. McLaurin subsequently began attending Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meetings.
In the summer of 1962 McLaurin volunteered to lead SNCC’s voter registration drive in Ruleville. To ingratiate himself with the small Delta community, McLaurin attended the Williams Missionary Baptist Church and ate Sunday dinners with families. He also sipped whiskey with farm laborers and spent hours on porches and street corners, learning the dynamics of the town. McLaurin earned the trust of Ruleville’s blacks, but election officials doggedly resisted the registration of black voters. During the first half of 1963, more than six hundred African Americans traveled from Ruleville to the county seat in Indianola to take the voter registration test; eleven passed.
Two years of painstaking work in Ruleville paid off across Sunflower County during the Freedom Summer Project of 1964. McLaurin had learned in Ruleville that students made the most eager and effective canvassers. Teenagers formed enthusiastic and enduring cores around which older blacks with mortgages and jobs to lose could rally as the community’s confidence increased. When McLaurin took this tactic directly to Indianola during Freedom Summer, residents broke the planters’ hegemony and developed an alternative worldview of defiance and self-determination. This new spirit infused the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which directly assailed the source of white power by challenging one-party rule. McLaurin served as the manager of Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1964 congressional campaign and later ran for a State Senate seat. The MFDP candidates did not win elections, but their campaigns nourished the political consciousness of local people and dispelled segregationist claims that blacks lacked the interest or the knowledge to vote and hold office.
In the Delta, McLaurin experienced police brutality, spent untold hours and nights in jail, and endured taunts, degradation, and threats on a daily basis. But no Jim Crow policemen ever beat the thirst for freedom or the love of Sunflower County’s people out of McLaurin. To the amazement of white leaders such as Ruleville mayor Charles Dorrough, who in 1965 predicted that McLaurin would “make some money . . . and move out of the Negro neighborhood,” the activist graduated from Mississippi Valley State and settled in Indianola.
With the exception of a brief period in the 1980s, McLaurin has remained in Indianola. Today, he speaks about Hamer and other old friends, guides tours of civil rights movement sites, and works with the Sunflower County Freedom Project.
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- SNCC Digital gateway, Duke University, https://snccdigital.org/people/charles-mclaurin/
- Tracy Sugarman, Stranger at the Gates: A Summer in Mississippi (1966)