A farmer and the grandson of slaves, Hartman Turnbow was a grassroots civil rights leader in Holmes County. Born in Mileston on 20 March 1905, Turnbow spent most of his life living and working on the farm he inherited from his grandparents. Mileston was a village of black farmers, the majority of whom got the opportunity to buy their own land through a New Deal program in the late 1930s.
During the late fall of 1962 and early spring of 1963, civil rights workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Mileston at the request of some of the local farmers. The activists began teaching African American men and women the intricacies of reading and interpreting the Mississippi Constitution in preparation for registering to vote. Turnbow joined this group.
On 9 April 1963 Turnbow and thirteen other Mileston blacks traveled to the county seat of Lexington to register to vote. A phalanx of whites attempted to intimidate the “First Fourteen” and prevent them from registering. As the group stood before the crowd of angry whites, deputy sheriff Andrew Smith slapped his gun holster and called out, “All right now, who will be first?” Turnbow stepped forward and said, “Me, Hartman Turnbow, will be first.” He and another black farmer took the test that day, while the other twelve took it the following day. The circuit clerk failed them all, but Turnbow and the rest were proud that they had tried and had not suffered violence or arrest.
Exactly one month later, on 9 May 1963, white night riders fired on Turnbow’s home and threw two firebombs into his living room and kitchen. Awakened by the fire, Turnbow ushered his wife and their daughter out of the house. Turnbow grabbed his .22-caliber rifle before going outside. The attackers allowed the two females to pass unharmed but opened fire on Turnbow as he exited his home. Turnbow returned fire and wounded one of the assailants. Then he and his family put out the fire. The next day, the sheriff arrested Turnbow and several SNCC workers, including Bob Moses, for arson. The US Justice Department intervened, and the charges were later dropped. During the Freedom Summer of 1964 Turnbow allowed civil rights workers to stay at his home, which was again fired on by night riders.
Energized by community resolve and a willingness to retaliate when attacked, Turnbow and other Mileston blacks sought support across Holmes County in 1963–64. Turnbow’s fiery orations and his willingness to stand up against racist whites inspired many to join the county’s civil rights movement. Mileston residents formed an extensive organization that eventually took an important role in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Turnbow served as one of the party’s delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. With little education, Turnbow had a propensity for uttering malapropisms and once referred to SNCC as the “Student Violent Uncoordinated Committee.” Yet while standing only 5ʹ5ʺ tall, he had a knack for leadership and served as an inspiration to others.
Turnbow is a classic example of what historians of the Mississippi civil rights movement refer to when they speak of the movement being led by local people. With his roots in the local community and willingness to fight back when attacked, Turnbow and others like him made Holmes County one of the strongest areas of resistance and organization during the civil rights movement.
He died on 19 August 1988.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- Jay MacLeod, Minds Stayed on Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Rural South, ed. Youth of the Rural Organizing and Cultural Center (1991)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Sue Lorenzi Sojourner, Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, http://www.crmvet.org/
- Studs Terkel, in American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980)
- Hartman Turnbow, interview by Howell Raines, in My Soul Is Rested (1977)