Summer of 1964

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 18, 2010

Chris Williams came to Panola County just out of high school, the youngest among the almost 800 college students who volunteered to come to Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Behind Williams is Earl Tucker, “96 and a half” years old. Earl Tucker and his brother, the late Frank Tucker, were among the plaintiffs whose lawsuit eventually opened Panola’s poll books to black citizens. The Panolian photo by John Howell Sr.

Civil Rights veterans describe summer of ‘64

(View additional photos at Photo Gallery link at left)

By John Howell Sr.

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Veterans of Panola County’s 1960s voting rights struggle met Monday night at West Camp M.B. Church to recall for their descendants what they lived through and to meet the author of a newly-published book detailing the summer of 1964.

Bruce Watson, whose just-released “Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy” grippingly chronicles events of that summer, was accompanied by Christopher Williams, a volunteer civil rights worker who at age 18 came to help Panola County’s black people register to vote and ended up staying 16 months.

“The doors of West Camp were open to the Civil Rights Movement,” said Percy Bruce, welcoming Watson, Williams, church members and other guests.

“They worked here; they strategized here, they made plans here; I was here with them,” Bruce said.

Bruce described the events that made West Camp church and the nearby home of Robert Miles Sr. ground zero in Panola County for efforts to acquire the voting franchise for black citizens.

“West Camp is where it all began,” said Areace Webb, who recalled the hot, dusty conditions during the voter registration efforts of the summer of 1964. “But we came out, not just to West Camp, to Rock Hill, to Mt. Zion, Batesville, to Antioch, Graham Chapel and many other churches throughout Panola County,” said Webb.

George Watters served as the program’s emcee and recalled living nearby on Tubbs Road as a youngster. “I know one Sunday we came in and there had been some crosses burned out there on the ground,” Watters said.

“I told my daughter I wanted all of my grandchildren here,” Margaret Williams Dean said, recalling her uncle, Panola civil rights pioneer C. J. Williams. At age 16 when her father died in 1964, she was the oldest in her family, Dean said.

“It was so scary,” Dean said as she told about when nightriders burned a cross in the family’s yard. Other harassment included dead animals and hate flyers placed in their mailbox and shots fired into homes.

“This was a scary time for children,” Dean continued. “If they knew your parents were in things — now it wasn’t only our white brothers, we had some black brothers and sisters and teachers … that called us the ‘little trouble-maker’ children, and every Williams was labeled … we were labeled all over Panola County,” she said.

“I wanted my grandson to know what we were blessed with,” Dean said. “When we first started school, … they didn’t allow us to ride buses, the buses would come through with the white children on them. They would spit on us, they would throw spitballs at us, they threw paper with rocks in them …,” she said.

“I had been here 44 years before I got to be a citizen of America,” 96-year-old Earl Tucker said, describing repeated trips to the circuit clerk’s office when he attempted to register to vote. “When Mr. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, we got to be citizens of America,” said the veteran of Army service in Europe during World War II.

Tucker acknowledged the help provide by the summer workers of 1964 and named Robert Miles, C. J. Williams, Rev. W. G. Middleton and Willie Harrison among local leaders who coordinated with their efforts.

Sheriff Otis Griffin said that he was nine years old in 1964.

“I remember what my mom and my dad used to tell us; we could only go to town on Saturdays,” Griffin said. “We were instructed that when we go to town we don’t point at anybody who is white,” he continued.

“Right now, I still have faith in the future,” the sheriff continued. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

“We have come a long way, … but our children need to be told the story,” said retired educator Julius Harris. “If you don’t know your own history, people will tell you anything…,” he continued.

Chris Williams recalled his arrival with 10 other workers at the Batesville bus station at 5 a.m. on June 21, 1964 where they waited “while white people who were not so friendly were circling around us in cars. Suddenly Robert Miles pulled up in an old panel truck and brought us back to his farm. Everybody felt much relieved,” Williams continued as members of the audience laughed with him.

“He brought us to West Camp Baptist Church and introduced us to this community,” Williams said.

Williams introduced Watson, a Massachusetts historian and writer who “spent a lot of time in Mississippi … he’s helping record your story,” he continued.

“Y’all are a tough act to follow,” Watson told the speakers who had recounted their experiences. Watson said that most people are aware of the murders of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia that summer, but “there’s so much more and the story’s quickly being forgotten.”

As Nina Williams Kimble, who chaired the committee that planned the reception for Watson and Williams, made closing remarks expressing appreciation to the participants, she said, “I was told to make sure this would be known and told … about black women, that they could not walk the street with their babies in town in strollers, they weren’t allowed to do that,” the daughter of C. J. Williams said.

“And they weren’t allowed to wear pants to town, nor lipstick,” Kimble continued, “because I heard about some women who wore lipstick to town, .. they made them wash the lipstick off,” she said.