Home > Uncategorized > Unsung heroes of the Mississippi movement – posted 2/21/2023

Unsung heroes of the Mississippi movement – posted 2/21/2023

We have all heard the expression “living history”. When I was in college, I had several professors who could make learning come alive but as an adult, it seems rare to have that “on fire” type experience. So I feel very lucky that I just came back from a week long trip south that embodied that extra passionate learning dimension.

The trip was a civil rights tour organized by the Nation Magazine that started in Jackson and moved to Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. A group of over 20 got a chance to meet with activists who were in the thick of the struggle.

When considering how social, racial and political change has successfully advanced in America, there is no better crucible to look at than the civil rights movement of the 1950’s-1960’s. While there is so much more that needs to be done, that movement is a case study in success, even if won at a terrible cost.

There would have been no Great Society programs or voting and civil rights legislation without the pressure from below. Racism lost ground and both black and white people gained because of the civil rights movement. One thing that has struck me are the number of heroes, some known and most little known, who made the change possible. To this day, that heroism remains under-appreciated and insufficiently acknowledged.

While there were heroes in all the Southern states, the Mississippi movement deserves special mention. Mississippi was the heart of darkness. Back then, it was a hellhole of segregation. There was a reason Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddamn”.

Slavery’s legacy was brutal. In 1823, Mississippi passed its own legal code restricting slave movements and activities. Slaves could not buy or sell goods. They could not own or possess firearms. They were forbidden to learn to read or write. After Reconstruction and after federal troops left the South, white supremacists went on to impose a fascist type regime characterized by lynching, terrorism and voter intimidation.

Still, before the worst happened, Mississippi had two Black U.S..Senators, Hiram Revels who served from 1870-1871 and Blanche K. Bruce who served from 1875-1881. Revels was picked to fill and finish a Senate term and Bruce was elected by the Mississippi legislature to serve a full term. Mississippi had had no senators since it withdrew from the Union in 1861. Revels and Bruce were the first two African Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Shortly after, the law totally abandoned black people. Although black people made up a sizable part of the Mississippi population, the system of segregation and white supremacy never changed fundamentally until the civil rights movement came along. Civil rights workers walked into the lion’s den and death was frequently right around the corner. I wanted to highlight five activists who personified the bravery of the Mississippi movement:

Medgar Evers gave his life for the civil rights struggle. Before he was shot in the back and assassinated in 1963, he had traveled the state of Mississippi for years as field secretary of the NAACP. He spoke at mass meetings, documented acts of brutality, encouraged voter registration and coordinated protests. His family’s home was firebombed in 1962. Evers said. “I am looking to be shot any time I step out of my car…If I die, it will be in a good cause. I’ve been fighting for America just as much as the soldiers in Vietnam”.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s wife, was also an ardent activist and she worked with him on voter registration drives and on organizing civil rights demonstrations. They were both targeted for death by white supremacists. After her husband was murdered, Ms. Evers-Williams fought hard to see his killer brought to justice. It took three trials and 30 years before the assassin was convicted. After Medgar’s death, she continued her activist life, including becoming chairperson of the NAACP in 1995.

James Meredith met with our group. He is now 89 years old. He had served eight years in the Air Force. In September 1962, when Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, the university sent him a telegram denying admission. Meredith sued and after a long court battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that he had to be admitted. When he attempted to register, racists provoked a bloody riot. President Kennedy had to ultimately call in national guard and army troops. 23,000 soldiers stood guard over the Ole Miss campus. Federal marshals suffered 180 injuries including 28 gunshot wounds. Two people died. Protected by armed soldiers, Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss. Federal marshals escorted him during his entire year on campus.

Hezekiah Watkins, now 75, was the youngest Freedom Rider in Mississippi. He was 13 when arrested at the Greyhound Bus Depot in downtown Jackson. Watkins also met with our tour group and generously told us all his story. Accidentally pushed into the Greyhound building where blacks were not allowed, he was immediately arrested and taken to Parchman Penitentiary where he was put on death row for five days. In his book Pushing Forward, he says he asked an inmate at Parchman what it meant to be on Death Row, The inmate replied, “Your ass is gonna be fried”. As a 13 year old Watkins describes his initial incomprehension and how the experience changed him.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, a Toronto native, moved to Jackson in 1954 to lead Jackson’s Beth Israel Congregation. In his sermons he spoke out against segregation. Moved by the sacrifice of the Freedom Riders, he tried to organize the state’s rabbis to visit them at Parchman since about a third of the Freedom Riders were Jewish. None of the rabbis agreed so Nussbaum did it alone. Every week he drove to the prison in Sunflower County to deliver personal items and to lead a short worship service. In 1964, Rabbi Nussbaum organized a Committee of Concern which raised money to rebuild black churches. Due to his efforts, Rabbi Nussbaum’s temple and home were bombed.

When people talk about the civil rights movement so much focus is on Dr King and his outstanding contribution. Without taking anything away from Dr King, learning about the Mississippi movement requires way more appreciation of the lesser known foot soldiers who sacrificed and sometimes died.

Since February has been Black history month, remembering and honoring the Mississippi movement is very appropriate. I would suggest that all the talk about critical race theory and being woke is a diversion. It is a way to shift focus away from Black history. Teaching American history honestly means, in part, learning about Mississippi history. I cannot help but think about words I saw on the wall at the Legacy Museum:

“For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned and burned.
For the tortured, tormented and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.”

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ronni Wise
    February 22, 2023 at 3:13 am

    Hi Jonathan,



  2. Sue DeWitt-Burns
    February 22, 2023 at 3:44 am

    Thank you a million times over for each and every one of your articles. You have brought light to so many issues, some I’d have not otherwise even known existed. Sue Burns NH

    • February 22, 2023 at 12:03 pm

      Thank you Sue. That is really sweet of you to say. Jon

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    February 22, 2023 at 4:50 pm

    What an amazing trip! It must have been so moving to meet James Meredith and the other OGs of the Civil Rights Movement. As Sue says, you have shed so much light on this era, it’s feeling more and more like a privilege to have come of age in those times–and also an obligation to share our insights.

    • February 22, 2023 at 4:51 pm

      I will send you a couple pics, Jean. It was amazing!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: