In 1934 Rev. William Albert Bender began serving as chaplain at Tougaloo College near Jackson, and he was serving in that capacity in 1946 when he voted in the first statewide election since the US Supreme Court outlawed all-white primaries in 1944. Though local newspapers warned African Americans not to vote, and Theodore Bilbo, one of the candidates, urged white voters to prevent blacks from doing so, Bender persuaded two Tougaloo students to drive him to Ridgeland to cast his ballot. He was a registered voter, but when he arrived at the polls, he was stopped first by three white men and then by the deputy sheriff, who drew his pistol. Bender was ultimately denied his vote, and shortly after the incident, a cross was burned on the Tougaloo campus.
After returning to Jackson, Bender filed a complaint with the US Attorney General’s Office, and a US Senate committee began investigating the election, employing Bender as a key witness to link Bilbo’s campaign speeches to the intimidation of black voters. While under investigation, Bilbo agreed to take a leave of absence for his health, and he died before he could rejoin the Senate.
In addition to leading one of the first open and organized challenges to the State of Mississippi’s discrimination and denial of civil rights, Bender was a leader of Jackson’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was instrumental in the organization’s suit to equalize the salaries of public schoolteachers. Because of Bender’s accomplishments in Jackson, one of the organization’s attorneys, Thurgood Marshall, recommended him to serve as the first president of the group’s Mississippi State Conference, responsible for coordinating statewide efforts and initiating new chapters.
- 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)
- Mississippi Digital Library Website, Tougaloo College Digital Collection, http://www.msdiglib.org