The civil rights movement in Jackson encompassed the direct action protests in Mississippi’s capital city in the early 1960s. The grassroots campaign to end racial discrimination in Jackson emerged out of the Tougaloo College and North Jackson Youth Councils of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The wave of sit-ins that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 inspired similar protests in Mississippi, but the state NAACP’s conservative leadership, fearful of violent reprisals against African Americans, remained focused on voter registration drives. Nevertheless, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary for Mississippi since 1954 and only paid worker in the state, recognized Youth Council members’ desire to engage in coordinated protests in the capital city and helped organize a boycott of downtown businesses around Easter 1960. In March 1961, nine Tougaloo students and members of the NAACP Youth Council carried out a meticulously planned sit-in at the whites-only Jackson Public Library on North State Street. After explaining to the librarians that they needed books that they could not obtain at the “colored branch,” the nine Tougaloo students were confronted by police and arrested for breach of the peace. The prolonged incarceration and trial of the Tougaloo Nine prompted prayer assemblies at Jackson State and outside the courthouse. The police saw these gatherings as unlawful demonstrations and responded with dogs, clubs, and tear gas.
According to Myrlie Evers, the Tougaloo Nine sit-in represented “the change of tide in Mississippi.” Jackson-area students and Youth Council members throughout the state now attempted sit-ins at various public spaces, among them the zoo and Jackson’s buses, parks, and swimming pools. Outsiders also spurred local movement activity: two months after the library sit-in, waves of Freedom Riders began arriving at the Trailways station in downtown Jackson, provoking more than three hundred arrests by the end of the summer. With most riders choosing to remain in Parchman Prison and the Hinds County jail rather than posting bond, African American churchwomen in Jackson organized Womanpower Unlimited to help the riders while they were in jail and after their release. For the next several years, Womanpower Unlimited, led by Clarie Collins Harvey, raised funds and coordinated support for local and out-of-state activists whom police detained during peaceful protests. The arrests and trials of the Freedom Riders also brought in a new group of civil rights workers, as David Dennis and Tom Gaither of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and James Bevel, Diane Nash, and Bernard Lafayette of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) continued to organize in Mississippi after their release from jail. In early 1962 the Council of Federated Organizations brought the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and local groups into a statewide civil rights coalition.
From late 1961 through 1962 much of the Jackson NAACP’s efforts centered on voter registration drives and legal challenges, including an ultimately successful lawsuit to enroll Jackson State student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. A suit to remove segregated seating aboard Jackson’s privately owned buses won in court, but many white drivers ignored the court order. The newly organized Jackson Nonviolent Movement, led by Gaither and Tougaloo student Joan Trumpauer, then spearheaded further boycotts of buses. Yet, like an attempted boycott campaign of white-owned downtown businesses in December 1961, the bus boycott failed to garner massive support from local blacks.
With the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and the renewed hope that change was possible, civil rights activity picked up once again. In October 1962 the NAACP’s North Jackson Youth Council, advised by Tougaloo sociology professor John Salter, coordinated a boycott of the Mississippi State Fair for Negroes. This time, most people stayed away from the fairgrounds, and the Youth Council planned a more comprehensive campaign. Recognizing that the holiday shopping season typically drew thousands of African Americans to the white-owned businesses along Capitol Street, Salter and the Youth Council members coordinated an economic boycott of downtown businesses. Activists demanded equal hiring practices, the use of courtesy titles, and an end to segregated seating and restrooms. With the campaign receiving endorsements from Evers and the local SNCC and CORE representatives, the boycott leaflets now officially bore the name Jackson movement.
Black students distributed leaflets and spoke in churches throughout the community, and by Christmas 1962 Evers deemed the boycott “60–65 percent effective.” When neither Mayor Allen Thompson nor white business owners gave in to any of the demands, movement leaders extended the economic boycott into 1963. Emboldened by the campaign in Birmingham, where city officials finally agreed to form a biracial commission and begin dismantling racial discrimination in businesses, movement leaders hoped to utilize direct action tactics in Jackson. In May, with the boycott in its sixth month, the state NAACP announced the possibility of future mass marches, picketing, and demonstrations. In addition to the earlier demands, the movement called for the mayor to create a biracial committee, hire black policemen and school crossing guards, and desegregate all public facilities. In a final effort to avert a Birmingham-like confrontation, Rev. Edwin King Jr., Tougaloo’s new chaplain, organized a series of interracial ministers’ meetings to encourage dialogue among city and state religious leaders. After white ministers refused to join their black counterparts in demanding an end to racial discrimination in Jackson, and with Mayor Thompson refusing to budge, the direct action phase of the movement commenced on 28 May.
For a week and a half in late May and early June 1963, coordinated protests took place throughout the city. On the first day, five students and teachers were arrested on Capitol Street for carrying signs that declared, “Jackson Needs a Bi-Racial Committee,” while at nearby Woolworth’s lunch counter, one of the most violent sit-ins of the civil rights movement began to unfold. For more than two hours, Tougaloo students and adults sat on stools while a growing white mob hurled racist insults and sprayed ketchup and mustard on them. As police watched from outside the store, some in the mob threw the students on the floor: at one point an ex-police officer pulled student Memphis Norman to the ground and stomped repeatedly on his head. When members of the mob began to pick up merchandise to use as projectiles, the manager finally intervened and ordered everyone out. The nationwide media coverage of the violence at Woolworth’s provoked a temporary change of heart for Mayor Thompson, who privately told some black ministers that he would agree to some of the movement’s demands. The ministers reported the concessions to a jubilant crowd at a mass meeting that night, but the mayor announced that he had not agreed to any deal, and demonstrations resumed. During the next week, Jackson police arrested more than six hundred people, most of them high school and college students, for picketing and attempted sit-ins. Police arrested several Lanier High School students who gathered at lunch to sing freedom songs, while movement leaders and ministers staged a kneel-in on the steps of the Federal Building on Capitol Street. The largest demonstration occurred on 30 May, when police clubbed several marchers and arrested four hundred students as they walked down Farish Street. The city incarcerated those arrested in makeshift jail cells at the livestock area of the State Fairgrounds.
The direct action protests diminished as the national NAACP grew weary of supplying bail funds and the Hinds County Chancery Court granted the mayor an injunction that prohibited the movement from coordinating future demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience. Convinced that any civil rights activity would result in arrests and recognizing that mass demonstrations were no longer financially feasible, Evers and King argued for smaller, targeted protests. Evers and King sought to confront white Christians more directly regarding the immorality of segregation and planned a series of church visits throughout Jackson. On 9 June, black students attended worship at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, while ushers at several Baptist and Methodist churches turned other students away. However, police refrained from making any arrests. The easing of tensions did not last long, for two days later, a sniper killed Evers in the driveway of his home.
Anger over Evers’s murder awakened people’s activism. Mass meetings filled to capacity, and people took to the streets of Jackson in spontaneous marches. Thousands packed into the Masonic Temple for Evers’s 15 June funeral, where friends and civil rights leaders from across the country eulogized the NAACP leader. In keeping with an arrangement with city officials, the mourners marched silently from the temple down Farish Street to the funeral home. When the end of the procession reached the funeral home, after most of the out-of-town leaders had departed, the hundreds still present began singing freedom songs. They then marched back toward the intersection at Capitol Street, the central target of the movement’s boycotts, sit-ins, and protests for the past six months. A verbal back-and-forth with the assembled police soon turned violent, as stones flew through the air and police ran forward with dogs and clubs. Police arrested more than two dozen people, including Salter and King.
The funeral procession and the unplanned protest on Capitol Street marked the final demonstrations of the Jackson movement. On 18 June Mayor Thompson, pressured by the Kennedy administration, agreed to meet some of the movement’s demands, including hiring black policemen and crossing guards. This agreement fell well short of the original demands, failing to provide for desegregated public facilities and businesses or for a biracial committee. Yet encouraged by NAACP leaders and more conservative local ministers, a majority at a mass meeting at a Pearl Street African Methodist Episcopal Church voted to accept the compromise. While this decision represented the end of Jackson’s mass movement, smaller protests and activities continued. King led students, faculty, and out-of-state ministers back to local white-only churches for the next ten months, resulting in more than forty arrests. Tougaloo activists also waged an increasingly successful campaign to desegregate the city’s entertainment venues by encouraging performers to cancel scheduled appearances. In the end, the desegregation of Jackson’s public accommodations and businesses occurred through federal law and reluctant local compliance. In July 1964 Jackson Chamber of Commerce leaders called on the city’s businesses to comply with the new Civil Rights Act, a request reluctantly seconded by Mayor Thompson.
- Daphne Chamberlain, “And a Child Shall Lead the Way: Children’s Participation in the Jackson, Mississippi, Black Freedom Struggle, 1946–1970” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2009)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Susan Erenrich, ed., Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (1999)
- Myrlie Evers-Williams with William Peters, For Us, the Living (1967)
- Debbie Z. Harwell, Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964 (2014)
- Carter Dalton Lyon, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign (2017)
- M. J. O’Brien, We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired (2013)
- John R. Salter Jr., Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979)
- Michael Vinson Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (2011)