The seeds for the emergence of the civil rights movement in Holmes County were planted during the Great Depression. The federal government, through the Farm Security Administration, bought five foreclosed plantations in the county as part of the effort to turn poor tenants and sharecroppers into landowners. The agency divided these ninety-five hundred acres into more than one hundred farms, all of which contained at least sixty acres. The original tenants received the land, a home, and all the tools, equipment, and mules needed to be independent farmers. After five years, those who continued on the farms received low-interest, long-term mortgages. The landowning blacks in this community, Mileston, had their own cooperative cotton gin and mercantile store. They shared tools with each other and swapped labor. Mileston farmers developed a sense of pride and independence through owning land and being relatively free from the interference and control of whites.
In late 1962 student workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sought to establish contacts in the county of Leflore and the city of Greenwood, thirty miles north of Mileston. Some Mileston residents, among them Annie Mitchell Carnegie and her brother, Ozell Mitchell, had secretly been involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups. They and other Mileston blacks asked SNCC workers to come to Mileston, and by the spring of 1963, SNCC workers were conducting a citizenship school at the church of Rev. J. J. Russell, concentrating on lessons about interpreting sections of the state constitution, a part of the literacy test required for registration.
On 9 April 1963, fourteen African Americans from Mileston made their way to the county seat of Lexington to register. Word had leaked out about their coming, and a group consisting of the deputy sheriff, his deputies, thirty auxiliary policemen, and other white officials stood in front of the courthouse, attempting to intimidate the farmers and deter them from registering. Led by Hartman Turnbow, all fourteen took the literacy test over the next two days, but all failed.
A month later white night riders firebombed Turnbow’s home and fired shots at him. A key component of the Holmes County movement was that its participants believed in self-defense: Turnbow returned fire, and his assailants fled. The Mileston community stood firm and began holding mass meetings to drum up support. Turnbow and others traveled across the county and rallied other blacks.
Landownership played a key role in the early part of the movement. The Mileston farmers and other landowning blacks had the economic independence to weather white oppression. With the exceptions of teacher Bernice Montgomery and Rev. Russell, most educators and ministers did not join the early movement because they depended on whites for their livelihoods.
Holmes County activists took part in some of the central moments of the Mississippi civil rights movement. They played a major role in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The Holmes County movement benefited from the influx of northern students during the Freedom Summer of 1964 as well as from the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. By the mid-1960s Holmes County activists pushed not only for the vote but also for the integration of all public facilities, launching a selective-buying campaign that eventually forced white merchants and politicians in Lexington to acquiesce to many of the demands. The dedication and intensity of the Holmes County activists efforts paid off in 1968. Robert Clark, a teacher from the small hamlet of Ebenezer, became the first African American elected to the Mississippi state legislature since the 1890s.
- Kenneth A. Andrews, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy (2004)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- Jay MacLeod, in Minds Stayed on Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Rural South (1991)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (2007)
- Susan Lorenzi Sojourner, Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, www.crmvet.org