The Freedom Movement in Mississippi – 1963: Teaching About the 50th Anniversary
The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of significant events in the 1963 Civil Rights Movement or Southern Freedom Movement. Some are well known; others have received less attention. All offer opportunities for either framing or focusing study of the Civil Rights Movement.
A key resource for learning and preparing to teach about the 1963 anniversary events is the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website. Created and maintained by veterans of the southern freedom movement, the site features first-person accounts of the struggle, as well as documents, photographs, bibliographies, and other resources. The immediacy and personal nature of the resources make them highly engaging reading.
We begin by sharing dates and resources with a focus on Mississippi. Here are more 1963 anniversary events from other parts of the country.
Featured below are key events of 1963, linked to additional resources from the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
Clyde Kennard’s Freedom and Death. Clyde Kennard, a WWII veteran, returned to his home of Eatonville Mississippi to help the family farm. Kennard had finished the first three years of his political science degree in Chicago and intended to transfer to a University in Mississippi to complete his degree. There were no black colleges in southern Mississippi in the 1950s, so Kennard applied to Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. Between 1955 and 1959, Clyde Kennard applied three times to the Mississippi Southern College. He was denied admission every time on a series of technicalities. Kennard had no intention of silently giving up on his education. He wrote of his attempts to gain admission to the College in a letter to the local newspaper, the Hattiesburg American.
In September of 1960, Kennard was arrested and tried on the fabricated charges of stealing $25 worth of chicken feed from the Forrest County Cooperative. In just ten minutes an all-white jury found Kennard guilty and sentenced him to seven years in prison. During his incarceration Kennard was forced to work at the notorious Parchman Prison’s cotton plantation. Within a year Kennard was unable to work due to intense pain and was hospitalized where it was discovered that he had cancer. After doctors notified him that he was unlikely to live much longer, friends, family members, and supporters led a campaign for his release. In February of 1963, he was released and flown to Chicago where he died on July 4, 1963. Read more and see copies of his letters to the newspaper here.
Woolworth’s Sit-in. After an ongoing boycott of white-owned stores proves incapable of breaking segregation, student activists trained in nonviolence sit in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Jackson.
They are surrounded by a mob of whites who curse them, punch them, kick them, and douse them with mustard, ketchup, and sugar. The direct action gives rise to mass meetings, mass marches, mass arrests, and an iconic photograph of the protestors, above. They included Anne Moody, whose autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi would become a classic text of the times.
Police brutality in Winona Jail. Movement activists from the Delta returning from Citizenship School training in South Carolina are brutally beaten by law enforcement in the Winona, MS jail after they attempt to eat at the bus depot’s white lunch counter. Among the group are three local teenagers, SCLC organizer Annell Ponder, SNCC field secretary Lawrence Guyot, and former sharecropper and voting rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer, who suffers permanent damage from the attack. The incident draws national public attention to the campaign for voting rights.
Assassination of Medgar Evers. Upon returning to his north Jackson home after a late meeting, NAACP state field director Medgar Evers is murdered in his driveway by KKK and White Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith, of Greenwood, who shoots him in the back at close range with a high-powered rifle. His wife and two children witness his death at age 37. A WWII veteran, Evers had traveled the state organizing NAACP chapters since 1952, and played a key role in the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and in the Jackson Movement.
Free Southern Theater. SNCC members John O’Neal and Doris Derby join actor/journalist Gilbert Moses and thespians at Tougaloo College to form the Drama Workshop, which grows into the Free Southern Theater (FST). Racially integrated and dedicated to social change, the FST takes live theater to poor, rural, mostly Black audiences across Mississippi Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia. Refusing to play to segregated audiences, the FST’s Freedom Summer Tour stages free performances of In White America, Purlie Victorious, Waiting for Godot, and others in churches and improvised community spaces. Acclaimed artists Harry Belafonte, Langston Hughes, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Baldwin, Loraine Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, and Lincoln Kirstein support the project.
Freedom Ballot (or “Freedom Vote”). In a radical challenge to the concept of voter “qualification” (which in Mississippi required prospective voters to pass an arcane literacy test), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee holds an unofficial statewide “Freedom Ballot” based on the principle of “One Man, One Vote.” Designed to demonstrate that large numbers of Blacks will vote when afforded the right to do so, the event draws more than 80,000 people, who defy white intimidation to cast ballots. The Freedom Ballot lays the foundation for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which will challenge the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ the next year.
Generally speaking, the struggle for the vote distinguished the entire year. In Greenwood, local blacks angered over a food blockade by white officials and incensed over the repeated arrest of SNCC field secretary Sam Block stage the city’s first mass protest on the date of his trial. The protest inspires a mass meeting of 250 people, the largest to date. Soon local blacks who once feared being seen with Movement workers repeatedly brave police dogs, club-wielding cops, and economic reprisal in the attempt to register to vote. By year’s end, some 1500 African Americans have attempted to register. The local Movement burgeons, and voter registration efforts expand into surrounding Delta counties. Corresponding drives take place in Laurel, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, and Vicksburg.
In Holmes County, farmer Hartman Turnbow is one of the first African Americans to register to vote since the end of Reconstruction. After he leads 12 others to the county registrar, Klan nightriders firebomb his house.
In Sunflower County, sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer is fired from her job and evicted from her home after she and 20 others attempt to register to vote. It sparks her lifelong commitment to the Movement.
In Itta Bena, 150 blacks respond to the assassination of Medgar Evers with a memorial voter registration mass meeting which is tear-gassed by Klansmen. Singing freedom songs, the people immediately march to the town hall, where 45 are arrested, given a five-minute “trial” and sent to the Leflore County prison farm. A week later, 200 African Americans show up at the courthouse to attempt to register; many are sent to the prison farm. To dramatize the struggle for the vote, SNCC targets the all-white Democratic Primary, preparing local people to show up at the polls and demand the provisional ballots afforded citizens illegally prevented from voting. On August 6, nearly 1,000 blacks across the state cast provisional ballots.