Greenwood sits on the banks of the Yazoo River in Leflore County in the eastern Mississippi Delta. In the 1960s the city, sometimes called the Cotton Capital of the World, exported eight hundred thousand bales a year. When the civil rights movement erupted in Greenwood, blacks comprised nearly two-thirds of the county residents, but only a small percentage had registered to vote. Further, segregation in housing divided the genteel homes of the upper-class white population from the African American neighborhood across the river and railroad tracks. Greenwood’s African American community drew strength from Wesley United Methodist and other old churches; its historic neighborhoods, such as the Browning community; and its academic institutions, which included Mississippi Valley State University in nearby Itta Bena. Greenwood also harbored the state headquarters of the white Citizens’ Council.
Although a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in the city in 1952, voting among blacks remained limited, and in June 1962 organizer Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Greenwood to begin a renewed effort to register blacks. He established connections with local leaders, but initial resistance to civil rights efforts proved strong, and activists struggled to find places to meet, holding mass gatherings in the city junkyard, Rev. Aaron Johnson’s First Christian Church, and the home of local civil rights veteran Dewey Greene, among other locations. Throughout 1963 activists and members of SNCC endured arrests and violence, fighting back with meetings and marches. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Greenwood became the nerve center of SNCC’s efforts in the Delta. In 1965 federal registrars arrived to ensure the vote for Greenwood blacks, the Greenwood Voters League encouraged citizens to register, and African American students integrated Greenwood’s middle school.
After these important victories, Greenwood activists decided to tackle economic problems, and the area’s civil rights protests reached their climax. Greenwood native James Moore and others built on their previous gains and found new allies. In the fall of 1967 Father Nathaniel Machesky, the head of Greenwood’s St. Francis Center, a poor-relief organization, and African American ministers William Wallace of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and M. J. Black of the African Methodist Episcopal Church orchestrated what became an eighteen-month boycott of local merchants to protest racial discrimination. Members of Greenwood’s African American community were rallied by clerics and other activists, including Mary Boothe, who became director of what became known as the Greenwood Movement, and many National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party members, . Whites responded to the nonviolent boycott with a firebombing and repeated drive-by shootings at the St. Francis Center and with court orders to prevent picketing. By early 1969, however, the campaign had forced white storekeepers to hire blacks and brought paved streets and street lighting to Greenwood’s African American neighborhoods.
The Greenwood Movement remains important for at least three reasons. First, it derived potency from community energy and challenged discrimination on both the political and economic levels. Second, its sustained mass demonstrations, rare in Mississippi, resembled the earlier protest campaigns of Albany, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama. Third, the involvement of nuns, monks, and priests in the boycott made Greenwood a notable example of the Catholic Church’s participation in the civil rights struggle.
- Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement (1998)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984 (1998)
- Mark Newman, Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 2005)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)