Tallahatchie County native Willie B. Wazir Peacock worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the early 1960s as Mississippi communities mobilized to demand civil rights, beginning a four-decade career of advocacy for social justice.
Peacock was born in Charleston, Mississippi, on 5 September 1937. His father, a World War II veteran, worked as a sharecropper. In 2001 Peacock explained that his time on the plantation gave him a “chance to see what slavery was probably like.”
Peacock received a music scholarship to Rust College in Holly Springs and hoped that higher education would give him skills to improve the lives of black southerners. While at Rust in 1960 Peacock heard of the sit-ins staged by North Carolina A&T College students in Greensboro. He organized a group of students to boycott a segregated Holly Springs theater that relied heavily on the patronage of Rust students. Rather than integrate, the owner closed the theater. After that boycott, the students turned to voter registration. These activities brought Peacock under the surveillance of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which described him as a “notable racial hate promoter.”
In the fall of 1960 SNCC and Peacock began working on voter registration in Ruleville. Peacock’s involvement with SNCC continued in the fall of 1961, when he met activist Bob Moses, who was seeking workers to aid voter registration in Tallahatchie County. In the summer of 1962 Peacock continued working with Moses, Amzie Moore, and Frank Smith in Holly Springs. They first met with black civic leaders to encourage the creation of a credit union and then gathered affidavits from those who had attempted to register to vote, sending the documentation to the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department.
After Peacock graduated from Rust in 1962, Moses and Moore recruited him to continue organizing. Peacock traveled to Greenwood in the middle of the night , entering the SNCC office shortly after workers had fled a Ku Klux Klan attack on the building. Peacock volunteered to stay, recognizing the need to maintain a presence in the community despite intimidation. The workers canvassed rural Leflore County for the Voter Education Project, later expanding to Ruleville, Cleveland, and Indianola. In Ruleville, Peacock met Fannie Lou Hamer the day she volunteered to register to vote, beginning her long career in civil rights activism. Peacock also chaired the food relief committee during the unusually cold winter of 1962–63.
In the fall of 1963 discussion began regarding what would become the Freedom Summer Project. Peacock opposed the inclusion of white student workers, fearing their effects on the creation of an indigenous black leadership in the movement. Peacock, whose family had long been active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, explained the rift between local, southern-born workers and northern volunteers by noting that “we had spiritual values, most of them did not. . . . They tried to rationalize everything. Because of our different realities, we clashed on many issues.”
On 8 June 1964 Peacock, Sam Block, James Jones, and James Black were badly beaten at the Lowndes County Jail after being pulled over for an alleged traffic violation on the way to a SNCC meeting in Atlanta. Their wounds were still visible a week later when they traveled to Oxford, Ohio, for the orientation for summer volunteers, providing a searing illustration of what lay ahead. Holding fast to his opinion on the Summer Project, Peacock spent the summer of 1964 in New York and Madison, Wisconsin, with the SNCC Freedom Singers.
After his close friend, Sammy Younge, was murdered while attempting to enter the white restroom at a Tuskegee gas station, Peacock moved to California in April 1966, working for a program that sought to bring together blacks and Latinos and as an adviser to the Brown Berets. In 1970 he returned to Mississippi to participate in advocacy projects while working at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. In 1988 Peacock worked for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.
Peacock returned to California the following year, working at a center for developmentally disabled children and adults and continuing his civil rights advocacy. A frequent speaker for the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy in Jackson, Peacock participated in numerous civil rights history programs. He died on 17 April 2016.
- Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (2006)
- Dustin Cardon, Jackson Free Press (27 May 2016)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1995)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- James Foreman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972)
- David Levering Lewis and Charles W. Eagles, eds., The Civil Rights Movement in America: Essays (1986)
- Alan Lomax, Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934–1997, ed. Ronald D. Cohen (2003)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Joseph A. Sinsheimer, Journal of Southern History (May 1989)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1965)