When Students Ignited A Change In Racial Politics

In the 1960s, a group of student activists headed to the Mississippi Delta to help empower impoverished blacks cowed by the violence and oppression that dominated in the Jim Crow-era South. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose members gather for their 50th reunion this weekend, became one of the most powerful forces of the civil rights movement.

"The Delta was the continuation of a feudal system that was a continuation of the aftermath of slavery," says Lawrence Guyot, who registered black voters in the region during the civil rights era. "That made it a difficult place to convince local blacks to step up. They were a majority of the population but had no political or economic power."

Guyot's work was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that turned students into community organizers. In the process, it became one of the most powerful forces of the civil rights movement, incubating national leaders including Georgia Rep. John Lewis and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. As the group marks its 50th reunion this weekend, Guyot and other veterans of SNCC (known as "snick") reflect on their efforts to revamp the politics of the Delta, the heart of the Deep South.

"We organized people from the prostitutes to the preachers," Guyot says. "We turned this fight into their fight."

'They Were Frightened To Death'

Charles McLaurin joined the SNCC in the early '60s, moving from Jackson, Miss., to work with the group in the Delta. His job was to canvas sharecropper shanty shacks and plantations, looking for recruits. At first, he says, he didn't have much success because there was so much fear.

"They were frightened to death," McLaurin says. "Emmett Till was killed just a few miles away over in Money, Miss. On any day, a white man could just shoot a black man down and nothing would be done about it. And there were many lynchings and hangings in and around this Delta."

SNCC workers were in danger themselves. McLaurin recalls being confronted by a plantation owner with a shotgun. Across the state, civil rights workers were killed while registering voters in Neshoba County.

Despite the intimidation, a few local leaders emerged -- most notably, sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Miss. Hamer went with a SNCC group to register to vote in 1962. Before she returned home, the news had reached the owner of the plantation where she lived.

"When we got back, I went on out to where I had been staying for 18 years, and the landowner had talked to my husband and told him I had to leave the place," Hamer, who died in 1977, recalled during an interview recorded in the early 1970s as part of an oral history project.

McLaurin says Hamer quickly became a featured speaker at SNCC events all around the country -- "to tell the story about what was happening here. Who else knew it any better than the person who had grown up here and lived on a plantation?"

'I Didn't Understand How Poor Was Poor'

Hamer grew to be a driving force in the voting rights movement. It was that practice of empowering local citizens that inspired Margaret Kibbee, a white college student from San Francisco, to join the SNCC in the Delta. The culture shock was intense.

"I didn't understand how poor was poor," Kibbee says. "I didn't understand that people really tried to live on $3 a week or $6 a week."

Kibbee was assigned to Indianola, Miss., the birthplace of the notorious White Citizens' Councils that enforced segregation in Mississippi. She says she lived with courageous black families, some of whom lived without running water or indoor toilets. Her job was to take people to the courthouse to register to vote.

"We would canvas and go through the neighborhood every day," Kibbee says. "The Voting Rights Act had not passed yet, and if you took six people up there, maybe one would get registered." Most blacks, she says, were routinely denied by white registrars for failing to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes.

Kibbee and McLaurin thought they were in for a few months of field work. Both ended up staying in the Delta and have continued their activism.

Battles Won, And Those Still Ahead

On a recent visit to downtown Greenwood, Kibbee and McLaurin pass the courthouse where SNCC workers clashed with local officials in 1963. Such confrontations in the Delta continued: Workers were shot; activists were jailed; Hamer was beaten. McLaurin says it became clear that there would be no progress without national pressure. So Hamer and other Southern blacks and whites, with help from the SNCC, formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white Mississippi Democrats.

Hamer was the congressional candidate; McLaurin, her campaign manager. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer challenged the assembled delegates: "If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the home of the free and the land of the brave?"

The effort failed. But Congress passed the Voting Rights Act the following year. And ultimately, blacks gained unprecedented political power, holding more elected offices in Mississippi than any other state.

Today, the Delta is represented in Congress by Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the powerful African-American chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

Kibbee says the political barriers have come down. "At least one thing we can say that's different: It's not like you can't go somewhere or do something or can't accomplish anything," she says.

But economic progress has been elusive. The Delta is still one of the poorest regions in the country; the unemployment rate in some counties tops 17 percent.

The SNCC veterans here agree that education is the next battle -- a topic sure to get attention at the group's weekend reunion in Raleigh, N.C.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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