Rev. Walter Nash

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rev. Walter Nash scans a 1964 edition of The Panolian that listed the names of black Panola Countians who had registered to vote. The list was intended to intimidate but became a badge of honor. The Panolian photo by John Howell Sr.

Minister remembers civil rights struggles

By John Howell Sr.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Among thousands in Panola County who view today’s television coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama will be those who recall firsthand when black Americans could not vote, much less aspire to elected office.

Rev. Walter Nash remembers.

The genial, 83-year-old minister and retired farmer was among early black registrants in Panola County.

“I registered before this,” he said as he scanned the names of applicants for voter registration printed in a legal notice in the newspaper in 1964.

The initial assault on barriers to registering Panola’s black citizens as voters came through the courts in the early 1960s. In 1961, only one black Panola resident was listed on the county’s voter rolls. Nash recalls the late Robert Miles, Rev. W. G. Middleton and C. J. Williams as having entered the Panola voting rights struggle early, gaining in the early 1960s a federal court order requiring then-Circuit Clerk Lynn Duke to register black applicants.

Even with the court order, the path to voter registration was strewn with legal obstacles enacted by an uncooperative Mississippi Legislature in the years after 1870 when the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. Among the obstacles: registrants had to provide proof of having paid their poll tax the year before and they were required to read and interpret a section of the Mississippi Constitution. The former proved to be a financial barrier. The latter obstacle, ostensibly adopted as a determinant of literacy, was so open to manipulation that it gave circuit clerks the power to pass or fail whomever he chose.

By the time of the massive registration that came with the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, the state’s legislature had in 1962 added what it intended to be another obstacle: the publication in a newspaper legal notice the names of anyone who applied to register to vote. Lawmakers reasoned that making the names of black applicants public might bring intimidation from their employers and landlords.

The publication requirement worked — at least it did initially, former resident Jean Drummond Robinson once told The Panolian. As leaders of Panola’s voter registration movement met with volunteers from northern colleges about plans for the summer of 1964, they weighed the possible consequences of their actions, Robinson said, particularly the attendant publicity.

“I was a school teacher and we weren’t sure what the school board would do,” Robinson said.

Robinson said she became one of that summer’s early registrants because her husband was then in the Army. She said she had the assurance that if she were fired from her job for registering to vote, the family would still have her husband’s income.

As the weeks of that summer of 1964 passed, more and more black registrants made their way to courthouses in Batesville and Sardis. As more names began to be listed in the legal notices each week, the publication requirement may have had an opposite effect than what its creators had intended. Seeing one’s neighbor’s name on the list may have given another courage to make the trip to Panola courthouses.

Today, looking back over the newspaper pages published almost 45 years ago, the names listed in small print read like a Who’s Who list of those who would later become active in local politics at the precinct and county level.

As Nash scanned the legal notice published Thursday, July 23, 1964, edition of The Panolian, he spotted names of old friends. “Wesley Chapman. He built my house,” Nash said.

Several names further down the list of that week’s registrants, he commented again. “Dempsey Caldwell. I pastored him,” the minister said.

The people listed on the voter registration applicants list in 1964 who have since passed on will no doubt be remembered by those who witness the historic occasion on television today.