Fifty years ago this week, America’s eyes turned towards Hattiesburg and the arrival of Dr. Aaron Henry, a Clarksdale pharmacist known as the chief architect of integration in the Magnolia State.
Although the lasting effect of Dr. Henry’s visit would not be seen or understood for years, many historians insist that a rally held Oct. 29, 1963, at Hattiesburg’s downtown Masonic Lodge would prove to be a significant spark to the struggling voter’s rights movement in South Mississippi.
Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, said it was by the far “the biggest, best known, and most important” of Henry’s “Freedom Rallies” held that fall across the state.
Dr. Kevin Greene, a visiting professor of African American History at the University of Southern Mississippi who has done significant research on the American Civil Rights movement, said the Hattiesburg rally was “galvanizing” to the cause of voters rights.
Hollis Watkins, a well-known activist who played a critical role in the movement during the 1960’s, said the rally helped set the record straight “once and for all” that the black community was ready and willing to participate in the Democratic process of electing America’s leaders.
“By that point in time, we had already been working several years to try to get people registered to vote in Hattiesburg,” said Watkins. “But we were being met with great resistance by the powers that be. It was time to strengthen our effort and Dr. Henry’s ‘Freedom Vote’ was the perfect vehicle for us to do just that.”
More than 300 members of the Hattiesburg black community showed up that night. According to newspaper reports of the time, more than 200 people crowded into the upstairs room and another hundred or more “stood outside in the street watching the lighted windows and listening to the speeches and the singing and stomping and clapping.”
By all accounts, it was history in the making.
The "Freedom Vote"
Henry began his Civil Rights career by organizing a boycott of gas stations in his native Clarksdale, Miss. and his activism with social issues quickly grew.
By 1959, he was elected chairman of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In 1962, with sentiments growing statewide to improve voter registration among black Mississippians, he was instrumental in forming the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the major Civil Rights movement organizations operating in the state.
And there were several of them.
In addition to the NAACP, there was the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Henry was chosen as the organization’s first president and his immediate priority was clear.
The November general election was just a few months away and in the governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Paul B. Johnson of Hattiesburg, a Democrat segregationist, would face Republican Rubel Phillips, a former Democrat and equally staunch segregationist.
Henry would later describe the campaign standard set by the two candidates as “seeing who could yell N****r the loudest.”
With Blacks prevented from voting — and having little interest in supporting either candidate even if they could vote — the newly-formed COFO would organize an unofficial “Freedom Ballot” (or “Freedom Vote”).
The goal was simple.
By showing black voters' willingness to vote in the mock election, it would make the nation realize that black Americans would in fact participate in the electoral process if given the opportunity.
In early October, the campaign began with a state-wide convention at the Black Masonic Temple in Jackson where Henry was nominated to appear on the Freedom Ballot as a candidate for governor along with Johnson and Phillips. Rev. Edwin King of Tougaloo College was Henry’s running mate.
“You have to understand that the state had begun to put a word out that local black people in Mississippi were not even interested in voting,” said Watkins. “They claimed that it was simply these so-called ‘outside agitators’ who were trying to get these people stirred up and fired up to do something they truly didn’t want to do. Of course, we knew better.”
Later that same month, nearly 100 of those “agitators” arrived from Yale, Stanford, and other schools, many of whom were white, to work as volunteers on the Freedom Ballot campaign at the urging of Democratic Party activist Allard Lowenstein, who had ties to many of those same universities.
Another chief recruiter was Joe Lieberman, editor of the Yale Daily News, who was in Mississippi at the time doing a series of stories about the voting struggles.
Within no time, the students grabbed national headlines for their commitment to the Freedom Movement, which was led nearly entirely by black volunteers.
A narrative written in recent years by the Civil Rights Movement Veterans organization said those students “shared the work and the danger that Blacks have endured for years. Some were arrested. Some were beaten. But overall violence across the state dropped noticeably during the two weeks they were in Mississippi.”
“The white students also drew expanded coverage from the press, and with it increased political pressure on the Kennedy administration. Federal presence suddenly increased (temporarily).”
As activist Lawrence Guyot was noted as saying, “wherever those white volunteers went, FBI agents followed.”
In Hattiesburg, a half-dozen students from Yale arrived to help with the mock election. Among them were Richard “Pete” Andrews, 20; Kenneth Klotz, 19; Hugh Levick, 21; and Jonathan Middlebrook, 23. (See related story, Page 10A).
Since 1989, Jerry Mitchell has built his career as a journalist on his quest to bring unpunished killers from the Civil Rights era to justice.
Thus far, the award-winning investigative reporter at The Clarion-Ledger has helped put four Klansmen behind bars, including Sam Bowers, who ordered the 1966 fatal firebombing of Forrest County NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.
Although Hattiesburg has been largely ignored for its contributions to the Civil Rights movements, Mitchell said the Hub City was a natural choice to hold one of Henry’s rallies.
“Work was already underway there to get people registered to vote,” he said. “The movement was already in motion. The timing was right.”
Leading up to the Hattiesburg rally, political pressure was already being applied to leaders of local black churches that had been approached about hosting the event.
The location was changed at least twice leading up to the rally, according to an Oct. 29, 1963, article in The Hattiesburg American.
Ultimately, the downtown Masonic Lodge was chosen over Ebenezer Baptist Church on Ninth Street and Faith Tabernacle on Ashford Street.
Henry himself was in attendance along with several other leaders including Gerald Bray, field general for the Hattiesburg-area SNCC chapter, Lawrence Guyat, a regional SNCC director, and Victoria Gray, a local SNCC and NAACP worker.
According to documents from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, also in attendance were Leland Cole and Louie Risk, hired investigators for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the state agency responsible for preserving Mississippi’s segregation laws, opposing school integration, and ensuring portrayal of the state “in a positive light.”
Cole and Risk documented the evening in a once-confidential, four-page investigative report (included in its entirety at right).
By the time the rally kicked off at 8 p.m., the upstairs room at the Masonic Lodge was completely packed, prompting Hattiesburg firefighters to make a routine check for fire hazards.
When interviewed last week from his home near San Francisco, now 73-year-old Jonathan Middlebrook, one of the Yale students who had come to Mississippi to provide support for the rally, said he distinctly remembers the firefighters entering the building.
“They were in full regalia when they came bursting through the door,” he said. “Of course, there wasn’t a fire. They were there to intimidate us. It was not a congenial visit.”
Middlebrook said he was standing near the door when one of the firefighters asked where the fire was.
“We were all operating at this level of some controllable fear, but I looked at him and him at me. Now I don’t smoke, but for some reason I happened to have a lit cigarette in my hand, so I held it up to show him. Given the images from Birmingham earlier that spring when the firefighters had hosed the demonstrators, I believe that’s one of the damn more stupid tricks of my life.”
In his autobiography “The Fire Ever Burning,” written in 2000 with Constance Curry, Henry also recalled the incident with the firefighters:
“They came charging in yelling that they were looking for a fire. Guyot yelled for the crowd to let the firemen through.
“A couple of dozen firemen soon stood in the front of the group, in full regalia, some snickering and some actually looking around for a fire, but all looking like damn fools. There was a moment of silence, and the firemen were looking to their captain, Moore, to tell them what to do. Then Guyot told Captain Moore, ‘We’re going to have a meeting here tonight, and we don’t give a damn what you do.’
“Captain Moore did not reply, but turned and let his men out.
“We had the same sort of official harassment at a rally in Vicksburg. The police and firemen surrounded the building making all the noise they could muster, but they had gotten the word from Hattiesburg that it was best not to go into the building and be laughed at by a bunch of progressive Negroes.”
Shortly after 8 p.m., the meeting was called to order and Hattiesburg’s Charles Glenn led the group in singing “freedom songs.”
In his story from the event that was published the following day, Elliott Chaze, former city editor for The Hattiesburg American, wrote that “the white Yale students stomped and clapped with the Negroes, but most of them didn’t seem to know the words.”
With police and fire sirens blaring outside on the street, Guyat welcomed those in attendance and encouraged them to stay the course.
“We are not fighting for lunch counters, schools, and churches. We are fighting for the ballot. The prime weapon a person is born with is the ballot. The ballot can change the lunch counter, the schools, the police chief, and the fire engines... when there is no fire. The police here don’t do anything but violate the laws they are supposed to enforce. I’ll bet (Democratic gubernatorial nominee) Paul Johnson never got as much police protection in his rallies as we have here tonight.”
Then it was Henry’s turn.
'The fire within us'
By most accounts, Henry’s speech was passionate and charismatic, much like the speaker himself.
At one point, as sirens were still wailing outside, Henry took to the stage and acknowledged the fire trucks down below in a much-publicized oratory.
“I would like the people blowing those sirens to know that there is a fire here alright,” he shouted. “It’s a fire within each of us and simple water can never put it out.”
Jeanette Smith, widow of former Forrest County NAACP president C.E. Smith, said she knew Dr. Henry well and wasn’t surprised at his enthusiastic speech.
“He had a love, a passion for doing the right thing,” she said. “He didn’t have a hate-filled bone in his body. He wanted everyone to be Americans. Not white Americans. Not black Americans. Just Americans moving forward together.”
On the other hand, Sovereignty Commission investigators described Henry’s speech that night as “ridiculous” and noted it was critical of the local police department. They said Henry compared Hattiesburg police to “the Gestapo in Germany and Castro’s police in Cuba.”
“It was apparent by the speeches, remarks of individuals and attitudes, that all the participants in the rally had one thing in mind: to ridicule state officials, the local police department and try to create enough confusion to have a police incident,” they wrote.
According to their report, Henry also advocated abolishing sales tax on food and placing liquor on a statewide referendum.
He also promised that within four years, black residents would have achieved full rights of citizenship.
Henry closed his comments by thanking the Yale students for making the trek to Mississippi and area civil rights workers for enduring the struggles they had encountered thus far.
“All the Negroes around here who were scared already have gone North to Chicago,” he said. “It’s time to fight, organize, and push for your rights.”
There are conflicting reports of how many of those in attendance cast ballots in the mock election.
The Sovereignty Commission claimed only 50, but Mississippi Civil Rights veteran Hollis Watkins said opponents regularly downplayed the success of those early rallies.
“The commission was a propaganda machine and most Mississippi newspapers were the same way,” he said. “Their goal was to degrade the Movement. To show weakness and failure in everything we did. Of course, we all knew the truth.”
According to the investigative report issued by Cole and Risk, each voter was asked to sign a registration sheet. Following the rally, investigators said they “found” three of the registration sheets in their pockets with 11 names of people who had cast their votes that night.
The names were turned over to Hattiesburg Assistant Chief of Police Paul Andrews, according to the report, but it’s unknown what, if anything, was done with the names.
Whatever was done, it didn’t appear to be effective.
When the official Freedom Ballot votes were cast in November, 3,500 of 7,500 eligible Blacks in Hattiesburg and Forrest County participated — the highest turnout in the state.
“We never forgot that it was the Hattiesburg rally that set the stage for what was to come,” said Watkins. “It provided the momentum and inspiration when we needed it the most.”
Statewide, more than 83,000 black votes were cast in several Mississippi communities including McComb, Greenwood, Clarkdale, and Jackson.
Southern Miss professor Kevin Greene described the October/November “Freedom Vote” project as an incredible feat – particularly in those early days of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Are you kidding me?” Greene asked. “I’ve heard all kinds of stories about that night. Dr. Henry was able to prove to the state Democratic Party that if given the right to vote, blacks would unite in a big way. Henry, himself, was a uniter. He was a spiritual leader, an economic encourager, a savvy entrepreneur.”
As a journalist, Mitchell agreed.
“If it weren’t for the Mississippi Freedom Vote, there would not have been the Freedom Democrat Party. No Freedom Day. No Freedom Summer. In fact, you can directly trace the work that was done in places like Hattiesburg to what eventually happened with the 1965 Voter’s Rights Act. It was just the beginning.”
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