Letters From The Delta: Ole Miss As Police State

Laurel, Miss.   Oct. 18, 1963

Claude Weaver '65 has been working for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Laurel, Jackson, and Canton Mississippi. He is currently free on appeal from a six-month prison sentence for allegedly "intimidating a family" in Canton. These are excerpts from his letters to friends in the North.

The Delta lies vacant and barren all day; it broods in the evening and it cries all night. I get the impression that the land is cursed and suffering, groaning under the awful weight of history's sins. I can understand what Faulkner meant: it must be loved or hated...or both. It's hard to imagine how any music but the blues could have taken root in the black soil around me.

From Greenwood down to Jackson...My first real taste of the Mississippi sun dropping westward ever so slowly and flaying the cotton-frothed, billiard table flatness of the Delta. Stilted shacks in willow-ringed hollows; tall merciless lilywhite factory stacks; "The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Welcome you to Tchula;" grinning, barefoot, ragged black boys skimming along the highway on a pickup truck; Tall, gaunt, stooped, tobacco chewing, strawhatted farmers--black and white. Neat brick middle-class American homes...Troopers and policemen everywhere, fat comic opera sherrifs in stenciled boots and stetsons. "K.O. the Kennedys!--Vote Rubel Phillips (Rep)" billboards, "Maintain White Democratic Solidarity--Vote Paul Johnson (Dem)" billboards, Kiwanis! Rotary! Order of the Eastern Star! White Citizens Council!

...The waitress in Birmingham called out the colored cook to wait on us. The waitress in Anniston let us wait through the fifteen minute rest stop. The waitress in Columbus, Miss. spilled cream all over my brand new overalls. We expected a good whipping or at least a week in jail in war-like Winona, Miss., but they had replaced the cafeteria with vending machines. An ancient, bespectacled colonel offered me a quarter for my front seat as we approached Winona. I declined and he returned to the back of the bus.   Jackson, Miss.   Nov. 20, 1963

At the end of the Freedom vote campaign I drove up to Jackson with one of the Yale volunteers...Hanging around the office and acting as a field worker at large I ran into J--a 25 year old cat from Miami. We talked about a Community Center program that he was in the process of designing, and the idea excited me. The voter registration program, you see, is not getting anybody registered...even in cases where there is no discrimination evident, the poll tax and literacy test are far too effective obstacles to get anything dramatic done.. We are just beginning to check the shell of submissiveness that this damned police state has built up over the past few centuries and the enemy is just getting sophisticated enough to use his economic control of the state to good advantage--not too sophisticated, though; there's a prowl car parked outside the office right now.

If what we're trying to do is get the people solidly behind our program (and a moderate program it is--even if radical by Mississippi standards) then we will have to find some better basis of appealing to them than squatting in a town for a few months shouting about the rights of man...This thing will die a young death unless we can involve the masses, and we aren't involving them fast enough or on a permanent enough basis. The Community Center project will supply all the hard-core little racist towns in the Delta with local centers for continued action. We'll attract people on the basis of felt bread-and-butter needs, let them ally themselves personally with the Movement and feel a real part of it...We're going to call for an awful lot of northern student volunteers down here this summer...

This is a pretty depressing state, and I've had a close look at some of its most depressing parts in the last couple of weeks. J--and myself were set afoot on highway 49 last week when a gun-waving state cop arrested everybody in our party with a Mississippi license and impounded our car. We later heard that he had some local yahoos out looking for us, but we walked the twenty miles from Yazoo City to Flora in the ditches along the roadside. Yazoo City is a bad problem; we managed to get a lady run out of town just for serving us in her (Negro) cafe, and a man beaten just for talking to us. We've gone in there four times, canvassing for freedom votes--we've had three arrests, an eviction, and two beatings. It's a very weird feeling to walk along a street with a billy-swinging S.S. man three feet behind you--muttering sincere threats.

J--, myself, and a Vassar girl named C-- drove up to Canton this morning to look the place over. We were looking for a town that was classically Mississippian enough to be the site of the first Community Center. Canton is so classically Mississippian that I can't stand it--cotton and ancient shacks and barefooted (there was a cold drizzle, and the streets were unpaved and muddy) black children. A city cop stopped us, noticing that we had out-of county tags (talk about provincialism), and informed us that we had better not be bringing "any of that freedom crap" in there.

* * *   Canton, Mississippi   January 21, 1964

The colored men's cage at the Hinds County Jail consists of a hundred-foot corridor with five eight-man cells on either side. Everything except the floor is made of unpainted blue steel--the floor is of ancient cracked cement. Each cell is eighteen feet wide by eleven feet deep with two barred and screened windows. There is a hole in the floor of each cell which serves as a toilet--it is flushed periodically by trusties who happen by. There is a needle-spray cold water shower in the large day room (in which the prisoners are locked from 6:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.)--along with two steel table bench combinations. No radios allowed, no sleeping in the day room.

Prisoners are fed at six and six. The morning meal consists of three cold biscuits. The whites are served first, (theirs may be warm--I don't know), a strip of "streak-o'-lean" bacon, and a tablespoon of cane syrup. Supper is one slab of cornbread (cold again), rice, and red beans. Prisoners are given a mattress and a blanket upon arrival, to be returned upon release. No uniforms are issued and neither are packages of fresh clothing permitted in...

The sheriff's deputy is a pointedly jolly individual, known to joke and giggle while in the process of beating a prisoner with his five-pound strap or shoving him into the tiny black steam-heated solitary 'hotbox' cell. The only thing which seems to upset his routine of chuckling brutality is the presence of "Freedom Riders" (He manages to make it sound like an obscenity). He doesn't like me.

When we were being transported from the city to the county jail (handcuffed, escorted by nervous shotguns), the deputy, having heard that we were coming, came downstairs to meet us. He is supposed to fill out an information blank on each prisoner, so there is a brief interrogation session before one is run up to the fifth floor cages. "Youah name Weavuh, dat raht?" Without thinking, I replied, "That's right." He leaped across the table and beat me out of the room and halfway down the hall. I finally went limp and fell to the floor, hoping that he would think that I was seriously hurt and slack off--he began kicking me in the ribs and I hurriedly considered the practicality of nonviolence in this situation. He grabbed me by my shirtfront--ripping it and straining himself--and dragged me back into the interrogation room (there I noticed that the police escort had drawn guns on the other dozen or so prisoners and everyone seemed quite nervous). All this time the deputy had kept up a high pitch shout of "Yassuh, you sonovabitch! Yassuh, you black bastard! Say YASSUH!" Now he reached into his desk drawer and I perceived that pronouncing two syllables could save me a pistol whipping. The hell with it, I thought--"Yes sir." He stood there breathing heavily and looking down for a good minute... "Get away from here."

Some of my teeth were loosened, and my ears are still ringing. My pride and my head were sore for days, but at least I was able to stay out of the infirmary (rumor has it to be worse than the jail itself).

Byron De La Beckwith (remember him?) was in a private cell right below us, and the trusties said that his meals were sent up to him by a local group of white ladies that he had sheets--changed every week--and that the deputies brought him a newspaper every day.

Things are happening quickly in Canton now. The selective buying campaign has thrown the downtown merchants and the police into a panic...they seem even more confused than we are. The s.b. campaign ... is damn near one hundred per cent effective, and the town is in a real hurt. Police cruisers have started following us everywhere we go. We have to stop hitching rides, since anyone who picks us up can be sure of getting a ticket and a stiff fine. We have no car. Repairs have not yet begun on the community center building, but we have at last found a Negro contractor who is not afraid to take the job.

Charles Evers came up to speak at the mass meeting last night, and the Madison County Movement was officially organized. Firetrucks kept passing the church with sirens full on, and the crowd laughed, as other crowds have laughed, at the old saw--There's a fire burning in here that they can't put out!" I took the guitar and taught them a few freedom songs --meetings should get more spirited as we go along; we're having them every Monday ...

Others are begining to step forward now: Mrs. D--, J--, T--, M--, G--, (C-- has just come in to tell me that G-- was arrested this morning for burning trash on the sidewalk and got out on $250 bond ... L-- lost his city job because he visited the Freedom House too often. Things are getting rough).

Merchants have been calling and dropping by all week to beg forgiveness ... A Mr. B-- got up and begged in front of last week's mass meeting. He took up nearly an hour with the heart-rending story of his long-time underground friendship for the good colored people of Canton. The committee has decided to keep the squeeze on all of them for a while--to impress them with the latent power of the Negro community ... All of their efforts at retaliation so far have been clumsy and amateurish, but the state legislature has just passed a bill making it easy for "municipalities to cooperate in the suppression of riots and civil disturbances." We may well have to contend with the Yazoo City police and the Jackson police as well as the local incompetents. We are not afraid