Born in Cleveland, Mississippi, in 1939 to Samuel Theodore Block Sr., a construction worker, and Alma Block, a domestic, Sam Block left Mississippi to attend college in St. Louis. After graduating, he served in the US Air Force before returning to Cleveland in 1961 to work at his uncle’s gas station and to attend Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State University). In 1962 Block lost his job at the gas station for arguing with a white customer, and Amzie Moore invited him to help set up citizenship classes for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After Block attended workshops on nonviolent direct action and voter registration at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) hired him as a field secretary and sent him to Greenwood, where he worked with Willie Peacock, Laurence Guyot, and Hollis Watkins.
During Block’s efforts to register voters and to organize mass meetings in Greenwood, he encountered violence from local whites and intimidation from the police. Block and other SNCC workers were shot at, and their offices were vandalized and burned. Whites also threatened members of the local African American community, further hindering SNCC’s organizing efforts. While Block initially held meetings at the local Elks Hall, the owners denied him access to the building after discovering that he was teaching freedom songs. Local residents hesitated to rent Block a room, and for a time, he lived in Cleveland and commuted to Greenwood. Eventually, however, several local churches allowed Block to hold mass meetings in their buildings, and Block gained the support of established and prominent community leaders, who rented him an office and raised money to purchase a car for the SNCC workers. In addition, multiple members of the community ultimately became willing to board the workers, enabling Block frequently to change his housing arrangements and thus providing him some protection from the movement’s enemies.
To gain the trust of the Greenwood community, Block frequented local hangouts and listened as residents discussed their problems. Locals soon began to help Block with canvassing and voter registration classes. The Board of County Supervisors retaliated in 1962 by cutting off supplies of surplus food to the black community, but Block and the other workers organized centers to distribute food donated from outside the state. SNCC’s food drive not only proved to be a useful organizing tool but also alerted outsiders to the Delta’s pervasive poverty. White intimidation continued, and in 1963 several black-owned businesses were burned. Block publicly commented on the intimidation, and police arrested him for disturbing the peace. The court fined Block five hundred dollars and sentenced him to six months in jail. Shortly after his arrest, however, nearly 150 blacks tried to register to vote in protest.
In 1963 Block opened a library in Greenwood that was better than any other available to African Americans in the Delta, and he participated in a mock election organized by the Council of Federated Organizations as part of the Freedom Vote initiative. Before leaving Greenwood to register voters in Holmes and Humphreys Counties, Block helped organize the Greenwood Voters League, which not only continues to function but is one of the most visible and influential groups in the Delta.
After leaving SNCC, Block moved to California, and he was residing in Culver City at the time of his death on 13 April 2003.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, www.crmvet.org
- 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)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964)