Mississippi: An American Journey
100 Years of Lynchings
Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America
A key organizer for King’s SCLC, James Bevel was one of the principal architects of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which put hundreds of school kids in the streets in 1963. One way or another he was also involved in most all the major campaigns in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides, usually recruiting volunteers and educating them in nonviolence, as he did in Jackson during the Rides.
In an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about how responsive the children of Birmingham were to the idea of nonviolent direct action, much more so than adults. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has recently been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
James DeVinney: You talked about the indoctrination of adults. What was the adult thinking?
James Bevel: In ’63 in Birmingham most adults felt that segregation was permanent. That it was just that way, a permanent system. People’s homes and churches had been bombed, people had been lynched and killed and there was no process by which you could gain redress to your grievances. The adults had a conditioning.
As organizers you had to get people who had not experienced all of that and who had confidence in themselves and in our system of law.
The young people in Birmingham were susceptible to the principle that the attitudes and opinions of white people did not constitute law. That that was simply tradition and custom and if we lived according to the New Testament and the Constitution, then we would forge a new law rather than having to live by the attitudes and opinions of the dominant people at that point.
DeVinney: Tell me a story about what it was like when you started to train all those children.
Bevel: I had come out of the Nashville movement and the Mississippi movement, where we had basically used young people all the time. And at first King didn’t want me to use young people in Birmingham, because I had 80 charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor against me in Jackson, Mississippi, for sending young people on the Freedom Ride.
At that point that was about only five to ten, twelve adults who would go on demonstrations each day. My position was, you can’t get the dialogue you need with so few people. Besides, most adults have bills to pay, house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills.
But the young people — they can think at the same level but are not, at this point, hooked with all those responsibilities. So a boy from high school, he get the same effect in terms of being in jail in terms of putting the pressure on the city as his father and yet he is not, there is no economic threat on the family because the father is still on the job.
So the high school students was like our choice.
We said to them you’re adults, but you’re still sort of living on your mamas and your daddies. It is your responsibility, in that you don’t have to pay the bills, to confront the segregation question. We went around and started organizing say like the queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars, so you get the influence and power leaders involved. And then they in turn got all the other students involved. . . .
DeVinney: You’re telling me a lot of the philosophy, but what happened when you brought these kids together. I know there’s a story in here somewhere.
Bevel: First thing we did, there’s a film, The Nashville City and Story. It was an NBC White Paper. We would show that film in all of the schools. Then we would say to the students, you are responsible for segregation, you and your parents, because you have not stood up.
Our position was that, according to the Bible and the Constitution, no one has the power to oppress you if you don’t cooperate. If you say you are oppressed, then you are also acknowledging that you are in league with the oppressor. Now it’s your responsibility to break league with the oppressor.
If you don’t second his motion on what’s wrong, his motion on what’s wrong will die, and you make a motion in terms of what’s right, and second your motion, and that motion will become alive. As long as you go along with segregation, you second Bull Connor’s motion. Don’t second his motion. Put your own motion on the floor. Schools and business shouldn’t go on as usual as long as you’re involved in being oppressed.
DeVinney: Tell me about the kids. How did they respond?
Bevel: They responded beautifully. Your first response is from the young women. I guess, from about 13 to 18. They’re probably the more responsive in terms of courage, confidence and the ability to follow reasoning and logic. Nonviolence to them — it’s logical that you should love people, you shouldn’t violate people, you shouldn’t violate property. There’s a way to solve all problems without violating. Nonviolence is uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient. But if you maintain your position, the threat goes away.
DeVinney: Who was the next group to respond?
Bevel: Then the elementary students. They can comprehend. I guess the last guys to get involved was the high school guys. Because the brunt of the violence in the South was directed towards the young males. The females didn’t have the kind of immediate fear, say, of white policemen, as the young men did. So their involvement was more spontaneous.
DeVinney: I don’t want to philosophize about this too much. I want something visual, if you can describe how the kids responded or behaved. Can you do that?
Bevel: Now, say in a nonviolent movement — I think King makes a statement that it’s not like punching a bunch of buttons and you get automatic response — people with all their frailties make up the matrix of a movement. So if you have a philosophy —
Devinney: OK, OK, but you’re giving me philosophy again. I want to know what the kids did. How does a 6-year-old girl respond in the midst of something like the Birmingham events?
Bevel: Children are children. They act like young people act, and they didn’t always go around acting like, you know, monks.
One little girl in Birmingham came to me and said, “I want to demonstrate.”
And I said, well you’re too little and beside you’d have to understand Jesus Christ and Gandhi and all that stuff, and you’ve got to be born again.”
And she said, “Well, I been born again. I’m member of a church and I’ve been baptized.”
I said, “Well, I still think you’re too little.”
And her mama said, “Well, she been thinking about it and she’s not too little, she goes to Sunday School.”
She goes to Sunday School and she lives out her conviction. My position was, well, if you understand what the cross is about and you don’t have no problem with getting killed, and you don’t have no problem going to jail, and you understand that you can’t sue nobody, ’cause this is something you take upon yourself. If that’s the way you feel, if you feel about it like I do, then you can get involved. And it was on that basis that that young girl was involved.
Jesse Harris was one of the many Riders from Jackson, Mississippi, a newcomer to the movement who got his first education in nonviolence while locked up in Parchman with the likes of James Farmer, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Civil Rights would become his life for the next ten years. After the Rides, Jesse worked as an organizer all over Mississippi, from the cotton fields of the Delta to the mean streets of McComb, until 1971. It is a record of perseverance and endurance at a time when many in the movement left the state for other campaigns after a year or two.
The following are excerpts from my interview with Harris in 2007.
On being recruited to join the Freedom Rides by James Bevel, a member of the Nashville student movement and a fellow Mississippian:
James Bevel came to the place where we hung out at — it was like a pool hall. He said, “Hey, we got this bus coming in. People are gonna be protesting at the Trailways bus station and they need local support.”
That’s where my education stated.
People had to be orientated in the philosophy of nonviolence. Because we were gang members, now. You might say that I was one of the leaders of the Georgetown Gang. When I went to jail, when they heard that I was in jail, the whole gang came in right after me.
When I got out of jail, everybody said, “Hey!”
And I said, “Well, you gotta go, too. You ain’t nothing until you go to jail. You Uncle Tom ’til you go to jail.”
On his time in Parchman:
I didn’t understand nonviolence. I learned all that when we was in Parchman with James Lawson and John Lewis and all of ‘em. That’s the way we occupied our time. We was engaged in discussions. I was picking up not only the philosophy of nonviolence but the history. These people had been active back in the 1950s, in the 1940s. I learned so much.
Before they got there, I think somebody set forth — I think it was James Farmer — said, “Well this is what we’re gonna do. This is the agenda while we’re here. We’re gonna get up in the morning, make up our bed, say our prayer, and we’re gonna start our discussions at 9:00.”
I didn’t talk about nothing. I was listening. [Laughs.] I was loving it. Yeah, I was learning it.
My favorite was Bernard Lafayette, because he more like the hood type, in his conversation. What you call the street talk. He can relate that back to where I came from, to those of us who were from the Jackson area. We relate to him because he was funny and he was intellectual. Lawson and Farmer, they were talking like they giving a lecture at Harvard University or something, especially when Lawson was talking about the Bible.
On organizing in Mississippi:
In Laurel, I went down to the county clerk and said, “I’m here to encourage people to register to vote.”
She said, “OK, but don’t bring no more than two at a time. I can’t handle but two at a time ’cause I got other work.”
I said, “Oh, two at time? Okay.” I was there the next morning with about 150 people. [Laughs.]
She said, “By God, you son of a bitch.”
Everybody was up there singing. That was a demonstration to encourage the people in the area.
On organizing in churches:
I went to churches. You know the part about announcements — “If anybody here got an announcement . . . ” That’s why I went to church, to make announcements. [Laughs.]
I raised my hand, they say, “Alright.”
I get up. I say, “Well, it’s important for everybody to become a citizen and the only way you can become a citizen is to register to vote. How many people here ain’t registered?”
Ain’t never been so quiet.
“Don’t you think it’s about time? Jesus Christ said ‘if you take one step, I’ll take —’” [Laughs.]
Then there go the confusion again. “Wait a minute, Mr. Harris. We don’t talk politics in here. We do the Lord’s work. When we go to church we don’t do politics, so we gonna have to set aside here for you.”
See, when I get in a situation like that, I go and put some handbills out in the community. We put the date, time, place for the church meeting without even asking for permission. [Laughs.] See? People show up, then I explain why we can’t go inside. [Laughs.] That’s nonviolent, now. That’s a nonviolent tactic. In a lot of cases, the Klan say, “Okay, arrest them old troublemaker, Freedom Riders headquarters, the church are agitators, troublemakers. We’re gonna burn this place. We gonna threaten to burn the church down.” So when they burn the church, then what we do is go get that minister. That minister all upset about his church being burned. He said, “Well, damn it. Something gotta be done about this. They burned my church.”
If the people let us use the church when we go in, we don’t say nothing. We give all the responsibility to that minister or to the deacon or to that person. “Okay, Reverend, you lead us off in prayer,” and we’d be glad. “Sister, could you sing a song? Don’t you want to help us sing this song?” See, you getting people involved and let them feel that they’re joining, it’s their whole project, their whole program. That’s a nonviolent tactic. That’s organizing. I ain’t no leader. I’m an organizer, see? When people get involved then they feel good about it. I ain’t no Freedom Rider. You a Freedom Rider. All us Freedom Riders. I ain’t no outside agitator. [Laughs.] I’m from Mississippi. I’m from the community. My uncle live right down the road there.
On organizing in the Delta:
For us to get on the plantation is another thing. We had to hit the road to get to where people lived. The whole county was a plantation. You dress like the locals ’cause you don’t want to be identified.
I used to go out in the field picking cotton with all the other folks. The overseers didn’t notice me. A lady looked up — I’m picking the row next to her — “Hey, you new, huh?”
“Oh, okay. How long you been working here. I ain’t seen you before.”
That kinda thing. I’ll be talking about, “Well, have you ever registered to vote yet?”
She said, “Oh, you them people I heard about in town.” [Laughs.]
I said, “Yeah. Why don’t you come to the meeting.”
“Oh. I’ll be glad to come.”
At least I invited ‘em. You had to get out there in order to give them that invitation.
On working with Bob Moses:
I think Bob [Moses] had the most influence on all of us. Yeah. He was the state director for SNCC and the voter education project.
The way he worked with us was unique in the way of organizing. He gave you the impression that you came up with the idea. [Laughs.] He make you think that you the one, ’cause you the one gonna be working on it.
He’d say, “Okay, this project, Jesse, I want you to go to McComb and set up a project.”
“When I get to McComb, what I’m gonna do?”
“Set up a voter registration project. You can do that. I seen you do it when you were working over there. Now you can do the same thing over here. This is a person that you contact when you get there.”
That’s all he gave me, a contact person.
When I get there, I say, “Hey, I’m here. I’m here to work on voter registration.”
“Oh, okay. Now what is your program?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?” [Laughs.]
You in a position like that, something gonna happen automatically. And all because Bob gave me the opportunity. He had faith that I could do it. That was the first time in my life somebody approached me about anything.
On May 25, 2011, as part of a week-long commemoration in Mississippi of the 1961 Freedom Rides, many of the Riders who had been incarcerated in Parchman that summer returned to the prison and toured Unit 17, the maximum security building where they had been locked up.
In 1961 Unit 17 was also the site of death row and the gas chamber, which was located in the rooms off the main cell block to the right in the diagram above. Unit 17 no longer houses any prisoners, but inmates are still executed here, now by lethal injection.
Rick Sheviakov. In the background is David Baer, son of Rider Byron Baer, who was Sheviakov’s cellmate and died in 2007.
Judith Frieze Wright
In 1961 Dodie Smith-Simmons wanted to be a Freedom Rider. A native of New Orleans, she had joined the local youth chapter of the NAACP at age 15. Now she was 18, a member of CORE and a veteran of marches and sit-in. But instead of going to Jackson and getting arrested, she worked behind the lines. New Orleans was an important staging city for the campaign, a way-point for Riders coming from the west coast and elsewhere. Smith-Simmons and her CORE colleagues housed and fed the Riders on their arrival, trained them in nonviolence, then put them on trains and buses into Jackson.
When the federal government announced on September 22 that it would finally enforce the law, abolishing segregation in southern bus and train stations, it appeared that Smith-Simmons had lost her chance. But Mississippi provided nothing if not opportunities for Civil Rights activists. Many cities continued to segregate their stations, so New Orleans CORE began sending Riders back into Mississippi.
On November 29, 1961, Smith-Simmons and four others road a Greyhound bus to from New Orleans to McComb, Mississippi. On arrival they were denied entrance to the station’s waiting room due to a supposed gas leak. They returned a bit later and successfully integrated it, at which point they were attacked by a gang of whites and driven from the station. Claude Sitton, the New York Times reporter who had covered the Rides all summer, described the scene as a repeat “on a smaller scale [of] the riots that greeted Freedom Riders last May in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.”
The Riders managed to escape without any help from the McComb police, who were nowhere to be found, or the FBI observers on hand, as always, to observe and nothing more. But if they were paying attention that day, they did get to see Dodie Smith-Simmons become a Freedom Rider.
Above, Dodie Smith-Simmons photographed outside the old bus station in McComb on April 16, 2012.