Gus Courts, a Belzoni grocer, helped organize the Humphreys County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and in parts of 1954–55 served as that chapter’s president. He was part of an older generation of black activists who worked for change in the years before and immediately after the 1954 Brown decision, and his stubborn personality saw him through many difficult situations during that time. Even as the Delta’s African American community demanded civil rights following World War II, white intransigence met black activism with a swift and sometimes deadly resolve that helped define much of Courts’s later life.
In the postwar years, Courts established connections with a promising network of Delta civil rights workers. He participated in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a group designed to promote school equality in the Delta, which linked him to such other activists as Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry. Courts’s sister, Laura McGhee, and her sons became important activists in neighboring Leflore County, and his close friend Rev. George W. Lee, a Belzoni preacher, print shop owner, and fellow grocer, also organized for the NAACP. In 1953 Lee and Courts founded the organization’s Belzoni chapter, and over the next two years, they registered a handful of Humphreys County black voters, a significant feat in a county where no African American had voted since Reconstruction. When the local sheriff refused to allow African Americans to pay their poll taxes, Lee and Courts sued. Their civil rights activities brought an upsurge in violence and threats toward the black community, and in April 1955 white supremacists killed Lee in a drive-by shooting. Courts reacted by taking twenty-two more African Americans to register to vote.
As a small businessman, Courts had a degree of economic independence, but he nevertheless faced intense pressure to give up his activism and reveal the names of other NAACP members. The white business community used all its resources to ruin Courts’s store—bankers refused him credit, wholesalers denied him service, his landlord tripled the rent, a local gas station refused to sell him fuel, and whites warned blacks not to shop at his grocery. Courts remained in business by purchasing supplies from Memphis and Jackson, but his sales eventually plummeted.
The year 1955 brought a series of reprisals across the South as a result of anger over the Brown ruling. Six months after Lee’s murder, white gunmen shot the sixty-five-year-old Courts in front of his store. Courts suffered serious arm and abdominal injuries, but despite losing significant amounts of blood, he sought treatment at the black hospital in Mound Bayou, eighty miles from Belzoni, rather than at the local hospital. Belzoni police did not seriously investigate the crime, instead blaming the black community, and his shooting received little national attention because it came shortly after the trial and acquittal of the men accused of killing Emmett Till the preceding August. The shooting forced Courts to seek financial assistance from the NAACP, and he and his wife later left Mississippi and started a business in Chicago.
Courts’s movement career coincided with an outpouring of black protest in the Delta and a retrogression toward overt violence to thwart civil rights enthusiasm. Despite the attacks on the Delta’s older black leadership, African American resistance persisted and formed the basis for future projects.
- Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls (1997)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Jet (8 May 1969)
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)