Laura McGhee, born on 5 March 1907, and her three sons represented the kind of activists who proved crucial to the civil rights movement in Mississippi. In the 1950s and 1960s, the widowed McGhee owned a fifty-eight-acre farm outside Greenwood in the Browning Community, and she welcomed workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to stay and to hold rallies. Throughout the 1960s McGhee was the matriarch of a determined family that fought discrimination in Leflore County, especially during the 1964 Freedom Summer Project. McGhee instilled a fierce sense of responsibility and self-worth in her children, and the family tested the applicability of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and won notoriety for its boldness.
McGhee’s sons—Silas, who later became a member of SNCC’s national executive committee; Jake, a future officer in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; and Clarence, a paratrooper—took on segregation as individuals and as a group. In 1964 Silas, a high school senior, attempted to integrate Greenwood’s all-white movie theater, but a crowd assaulted him. In July 1964 three Klansmen kidnapped and beat Silas, an incident that led to the first arrests under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Silas and Jake returned to the Leflore Theater seven more times to desegregate it. During one effort a mob attacked and injured the brothers, and when FBI agents failed to rescue them in the hospital, Clarence, who was home on leave, arrived with armed protection. By August 1964 white authorities arrested all the McGhees on a variety of minor criminal charges, and on 16 August gunmen shot and wounded Silas for leading sit-ins at local restaurants. The shooting stimulated the first daytime demonstrations and youth marches in Greenwood.
Laura McGhee became famous among activists for her refusal to be cowed by intimidation and violence. McGhee came into the movement after the 1955 shooting of her brother, Gus Courts, a Belzoni activist. During the 1960s the McGhee farm became a center where African Americans and activists received lessons in self-defense and voter registration techniques. McGhee demanded respect from whites and rejected what she considered illegitimate authority. In a life of struggle against night riders, firebombings, discrimination, and people who wanted her land, McGhee resisted aggressors by any means available. She kept a rifle inside the front door to defend the family and warned the local sheriff that if he failed to stop drive-by shootings on her home, he would pick up dead bodies the next time she called. She also beat up a policeman during a demonstration in Greenwood and struck an officer who arrested one of her sons. McGhee also served as one of Leflore County’s eight delegates at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party state convention in Jackson. The family earned the respect of many movement activists for fighting discrimination with or without outside help. The McGhees, in the words of historian Charles M. Payne, “out-SNCCed SNCC.”
She died on 30 April 1984.
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement (1997)
- Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1968 (1998)