Unlike the events of the prior 10 years, Pillar of Fire, the second volume of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning magisterial trilogy about the civil rights movement, has little to say about Mississippi in 1965. Branch understandably turns to Alabama and the Selma-to-Montgomery voter registration march. The events in Selma initially began and ended quickly, first on “Bloody Sunday” March 7 and again on “Turnaround Tuesday” March 9.
On “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama state troopers and county possemen, acting under the Alabama law of posse comitatus, attacked and beat the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and sprayed them with tear gas. Later mounted troopers charged them on horseback. On “Turnaround Tuesday,” the Reverend Martin Luther King led 2,500 marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where he stopped the throng for a prayer vigil. Reverend King then told them to return to their lodgings never having left the city limits, the result of a secret agreement with John Doar of the Justice Department.
Only later did he tell the marchers about his agreement with Doar, explaining it was to prevent them from violating an existing court order.
The third and final march from Selma began March 21, the result of a federal injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson. The participants walked the 54-mile trek to Montgomery in four days, traveling along Jefferson Davis Highway in route and arriving on March 25. News reports estimated that 25,000 people joined the marchers for the final leg of the march to the State Capitol.
Before Judge Johnson issued his injunction, President Lyndon Johnson had called a joint session of Congress on March 15, asking for the enactment of a new federal voting rights law under the Fifteenth Amendment enabling all citizens to exercise their right to vote without regard to race or color. The Selma-Montgomery march is seen as the catalyst for Congress’s enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law on August 6.
But there is more to the story about the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including the contributions made by different Mississippians, as Professor John Dittmer reveals in his award winning history — Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (University of Illinois Press 1995) (530 pp.).
During a special session of the Mississippi legislature called on June 9, 1965, by Governor Paul Johnson, the legislature repealed the state’s discriminatory voting laws. Mississippi’s voting laws were under Congressional review as a result of a challenge filed in January 1965 by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (“FDP”) to the seating of the Mississippi delegation following the November 1964 general elections. According to Professor Dittmer, “Johnson told legislators he wanted to bring voting and registration requirements into line with those of northern states to pave the way for a court test” when the proposed federal voting rights act was adopted and “of course, repealing the discriminatory [state] statutes might also undermine the congressional challenge” of the FDP.
While the Mississippi legislature was convened, the FDP organized a one-mile silent march, starting at the Morning Star Baptist Church and ending at the State Capital. On the morning of June 14, the Jackson police arrested the demonstrators for marching without a permit. More than half of those arrested were students from Lanier High School. That morning and over the next two weeks, the Jackson police arrested over 1,000 people who attempted to march in parades organized by FDP. The police placed them into vans and took them to the livestock pens at the State fairgrounds where they were confined in deplorable conditions, given substandard food, and, according to the Reverend Ed King, subjected to psychological harassment, with some policemen pretending that the arrestees were about to be gassed and then fumigating them with DDT. Unlike Selma, there was little media coverage and virtually no outside support for the protestors. According to Dittmer, only a very few parents of the students who had been arrested came to their help. On June 30, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit enjoined the City of Jackson from making any further arrests and ordered that the arrestees be released.
Matt Herron, a SNCC photographer in Mississippi, took one of the iconic images of the voting rights movement, which was on display during the past year at the Mississippi Museum of Art, along with the works of nine other civil rights era photographers. During the special session, Mrs. Aylene Quin of McComb and her two children were at the East Entrance to the Governor’s Mansion on June 18, carrying hand-printed posters and small U.S. flags protesting the arrests and incarceration of the voting rights demonstrators at the State fairgrounds. Herron’s black and white photo captured Mississippi trooper Huey Krohn, a driver and security guard assigned to Governor Paul Johnson at the Mansion, struggling to take a U.S. flag away from Anthony Quin, the five-year-old son of Mrs. Quin.
Herron sent the photograph over the local wire service, and the next day The New York Times and other newspapers across the country published the photo.
In July, the State legislature enacted new voting laws. Governor Johnson urged all elections officials not to interfere with anyone’s attempt to register to vote. Congress later dismissed the FDP’s challenge to seating the Mississippi delegation and to the State’s voting laws. Dittmer writes that the Selma-Montgomery march may have been the catalyst, but the FDP’s actions in Mississippi and Washington kept the issue of voter discrimination at the forefront of the Congress’ agenda, aiding the proponents of President Johnson’s bipartisan voting rights package as they worked for its adoption.
Professor Dittmer taught at Tougaloo College from 1967 to 1979 in Mississippi. As his book’s title, Local People, suggests, he takes a “boots on the ground” approach writing about key local events and key local people in the Mississippi movement — not just its iconic figures. In addition to reporting about the events in Jackson, Dittmer also goes into great detail about what took place later that year in McComb, where the Klan burned crosses in the front yards of residents and firebombed the local newspaper’s offices because J. O. Emmerich, the publisher, denounced the Klan in his editorials. He also describes the events in Natchez, where the Klan engaged in the same terrorist tactics as they had in McComb and Pike County, and an African-American boycott of white Natchez businesses in November and December gained significant concessions for local area African-American residents.
Many readers, even those who lived in these towns during these turbulent events, may have either forgotten or perhaps never even heard about much of what Professor Dittmer covers — all the more reason to dive in and read. His writing is fresh, concise, and undated. In the final chapters, he brings an historian’s perspective to his subject, explaining what he believes the different organizations that made up the Mississippi civil rights movement accomplished and where they fell short in their goals rather than simply reporting about what happened. If there is only one book that you read about this time in Mississippi history, this is the book that I would recommend.