The African American people of Sunflower County waged at least three distinct if closely related civil rights movements in the last half of the twentieth century. Each responded to a unique set of concerns, each developed its own indigenous set of leaders, and each strengthened community institutions. The most significant of these movements elevated sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer to national prominence and brought national attention to Sunflower County.
The first black freedom movement in Sunflower revolved around Dr. Clinton Battle, a gifted physician who resurrected the county’s moribund chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1951 and encouraged more than one hundred blacks in the county seat of Indianola to register to vote for the first time. The NAACP chapter was vibrant enough that it was chosen to host the annual meeting of the Mississippi State Conference of Branches in 1953. However, Battle’s organizing was crushed by another advocacy group that originated in Indianola, the Citizens’ Council. Using tactics that won the Citizens’ Council the nickname of the “white-collar Klan,” the group convinced NAACP members to renounce their membership and end their activism. Working in close cooperation with law enforcement authorities, the council drove Battle from the state in 1957, ending this period of community mobilization.
Battle’s movement drew support from all classes in the African American community of Indianola and outlying communities, but it was led by members of the black middle class. In comparison, the movement that developed in Ruleville, roughly twenty miles north of Indianola, beginning in 1962 was a poor people’s movement. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including Charles Cobb of Washington, D.C., and Charles McLaurin of Jackson, moved into Ruleville in the summer of 1962 to build support for a voter registration campaign and to help local people develop the leadership skills they would need to solve the problems they faced. Sunflower County blacks worked in an economy based solely on the production of cotton and owned few of the fields. They lived in a black-majority society based on the core concepts of white supremacy and racial segregation and a political order that denied them the right to vote. In other words, the problems facing them were many and complicated, so for the SNCC strategy to bear fruit, it would have to develop sustainable institutions that could succeed only over the long term.
Fortunately for Cobb, McLaurin, and others, William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church was willing to provide them with a home base, and a critical mass of devoted local freedom fighters developed. Chief among them was Hamer, who in short order demonstrated phenomenal abilities to define the systemic obstacles that black Sunflower Countians faced in terms they could all understand, to convince others to join her in dangerous civil rights work, and to embarrass her opponents. Hamer personified SNCC’s motto, “Let the People Decide.” She began her long and difficult journey as a civil rights worker when she and seventeen others went to Indianola with McLaurin to attempt to register to vote in August 1962. She returned home to Ruleville to learn that the owner of the plantation on which she and her family sharecropped had demanded that she either revoke her application for voter registration or leave the plantation. She left. Before the year ended Hamer had become a SNCC spokesperson, raising money for the organization on a national speaking and singing tour. In 1963, while returning from a citizenship education workshop in South Carolina, she and several compatriots were jailed in Winona, Mississippi, for violating local segregation statutes. Hamer was severely beaten in jail; she carried the physical and emotional scars for the rest of her life, but she used the experience to rally support for her movement.
In 1964 Hamer’s home served as a headquarters for the volunteers in Sunflower County’s Freedom Summer project, which received a disproportionate amount of national attention because of Hamer’s growing stature and because of its proximity to US senator James O. Eastland’s plantation in nearby Doddsville. At the end of the summer Hamer led a group of black Sunflower Countians who had joined the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where they attempted to unseat Mississippi’s all-white delegation. At the convention Hamer testified in front of a national television audience about the Winona beating and other injustices she had suffered in Sunflower. “All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens,” she said. The challenge failed, but Hamer and others focused national attention on the problem of voter registration of black southerners. The US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act the following year.
Hamer’s movement found it difficult to sustain its momentum after 1965. The steady work of voter registration continued, but so did violence against black activists, and years would pass before African Americans achieved proportionate voting strength in the county and elected their own representatives. Hamer died in 1977 believing that most of her battles had been fought in vain. Arguably the most impossible nut for Hamer and others to crack was the creation of equal educational opportunities for black students. Sunflower County schools never truly desegregated. As soon as a federal court ordered the county’s schools to integrate—more than fifteen years after the US Supreme Court’s initial Brown decision—white families enrolled their children in all-white private academies. Yet local whites dominated local school boards and held the highest administrative positions in schools throughout the county at least into the 1980s.
The Carter family of Drew, in the northern part of Sunflower County, first challenged the so-called freedom of choice plans that kept their district schools segregated by race in 1965. Sharecroppers Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter persevered through economic intimidation, threats, and nighttime drive-by shootings into their home to send ten children through previously all-white Drew schools, seven of whom continued their education at the University of Mississippi. Blacks in Indianola challenged white domination of the nearly all-black school system in 1986, creating the third of Sunflower County’s three major civil rights movements. Calling themselves Concerned Citizens, Indianola blacks launched an economic boycott of downtown merchants when the school board hired a white superintendent over an African American candidate whose qualifications were demonstrably superior. Concerned Citizens drew on lessons learned from the two previous Sunflower County movements and forced the Indianola school board to hire the group’s preferred candidate, Dr. Robert Merritt. In so doing they realized the three movements’ shared goal of self-determination. Blacks in Sunflower County finally won seats at the table where important decisions affecting them were made.
- Chris Myers Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (2008)
- Constance Curry, Silver Rights (1996)
- Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (2000)
- Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)