Eddie Carthan and the struggle for Black empowerment in the Deep South

In Jackson, Miss., when the air is heated all day by a blazing sun, it doesn’t cool off at night. Instead, like a sponge, it soaks up the moist winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. I remember how, on a hot and humid July night in 1981, I counted the steps from my car door to the motel entrance, praying that there would be an air conditioner inside.

No such luck, and the piercing stare of the old white woman behind the check-in desk didn’t make me feel any cooler. A mosquito, circling under the lamp hanging 3 feet above my hand as I signed in, dived to take a chunk of my left arm. I cussed as I dropped the pen to slap the insect. The woman, wagging her forefinger, said, “If the Lord God didn’t want the bugs, he wouldn’t have made them.”

It wasn’t the greatest start but I was determined, as a reporter for this newspaper’s predecessor, the Daily World, to do what I was sent to do — tell the story of Eddie Carthan, a 33-year-old man who, when he was only 29, had been elected the first African American mayor of a Mississippi Delta town since Reconstruction, and who was now in jail, accused of murder.

The next day I met Aaron Henry, a state legislator who had led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its historic battle against the state’s segregationist Democrats, and Charles Tisdale, editor of the Jackson Advocate, long considered one of the nation’s leading African American newspapers.

‘Sometimes they only throw rocks’

Henry told me about an important march taking place. I went to it and saw 30 poor Black farmers and two lawyers picketing outside the Mississippi Supreme Court, demanding bail for Carthan, who they said was the victim of a frameup. Six Ku Klux Klansmen, one dressed in full Klan regalia sitting atop a horse, were there, giving out leaflets calling for “removal of all Black murderers from office.” The leaflets were signed by several Jackson “businessmen.” Some of the same names appeared on flyers printed by the Jackson, Miss., Election Committee for Ronald Reagan, which Tisdale showed me later that day.

The first time I walked into the office of the Jackson Advocate, two of the four front windows were boarded up. Tisdale said a Molotov cocktail had recently been thrown through the plate glass. “How often does that happen?” I asked. “Only a few times a year,” he said, “Sometimes, they only throw rocks.”

He phoned Carthan’s wife and set up a meeting with the family for me. It was at those meetings in the Carthan home that I learned many details of what was nothing less than a conspiracy to stop any meaningful Black political representation from happening in Mississippi.

Mississippi stories

In exchange for Tisdale’s help, I agreed to write some other stories that the Advocate, along with the Daily World, could print.

I traveled to several Mississippi towns where the water department was run by close relatives of Carthan’s prosecutor. When they tripled the water bills, 600 people refused to pay and their water was shut off. For weeks, nearly a thousand folks in the Delta donated their cars, trucks and bodies to haul water to the victims. They brought it in every kind of receptacle imaginable, from towns as far as 20 miles away. The company was forced to restore the water without the rate hike.

I went to Parchman State Penitentiary, one of the nation’s largest prisons. I saw the units they had there for hundreds of mentally retarded youth. There was no therapy and there were no treatment plans. Like other prisoners, these youth performed unpaid labor on nearby cotton plantations owned by wealthy whites.

When I visited Carthan in the Holmes County jail, there was an old African American woman in one cell and a Catholic nun in another. The nun had participated in a march to free Carthan. The old woman had been arrested for sitting in a bus shelter during a torrential downpour. The nun said she had been given a rice and bean ration that had ants crawling in it.

The struggle in Tchula

When Carthan took office as mayor of Tchula, Miss., the town was completely segregated. The 15 percent white population lived on one side of the tracks, the 85 percent Black population on the other. The streets in the Black side were unpaved and had no sidewalks or streetlights. Many homes were without indoor plumbing and there were no social services.

With some available federal funds, Carthan began work on building public housing and a day care center. The newly hired workers had spent half the year as low-paid labor on cotton plantations and the other half as welfare recipients.

When Carthan was elected in 1977, four other Blacks were elected to the five-member board of aldermen. A 3 to 2 majority backed Carthan’s agenda.

In 1978, however, one of Carthan’s supporters on the board resigned. Many people in town told me he had been forced out by threats against his family, himself and his home.

The pro-Carthan alderman was replaced by another African American, Roosevelt Granderson, a convenience store clerk. I was told that Granderson had been the biggest drug dealer in the Mississippi Delta. He turned out to be a close ally of John Edgar Hays, a wealthy white cotton farmer and the only white member remaining on the board after Carthan’s election. From then on, the opposition was able to block Carthan at almost every turn.

Murder and conspiracy

In 1980, Tchula’s police chief quit because of ill health. Carthan appointed an African American to the post. In violation of the law, the majority on the board of aldermen appointed its own, white, police chief. When Carthan tried to enter City Hall with his duly appointed police chief he was roughed up by several policemen, charged with assault, convicted and sentenced to three years in jail, and forced to leave office.

The board of aldermen then installed Granderson as mayor. In 1981 Carthan’s two remaining supporters on the board were defeated after an election that later was shown to be full of irregularities. Carthan’s white predecessor was also returned to the mayor’s seat.

Three weeks later, Vincent Bolden and David Hester of East St. Louis robbed Granderson’s store, took him in the back and killed him. The prosecution, ignoring evidence that Hester had once sold Granderson $200,000 worth of cocaine, claimed Carthan had hired the men to kill his old opponent.

The prosecution struck a deal first with Bolden, and when that fell apart then with Hester. In exchange for testifying that Carthan had hired the two, Hester was to get off with a lesser charge.

Local Black farmers raised the $115,000 bail required to get Carthan out of jail. Actor Ossie Davis went on a 66-city tour to raise funds and build support for the struggle to free Carthan.

‘Still a little way to go’

After Carthan was acquitted on the murder charge in 1982, he traveled around the country to support other victims of frame-ups, and to thank the many organizations that had helped his struggle for freedom. I had coffee with him in New York then. He thanked me for my stories and I told him how glad I was that his terrible ordeal was over. He smiled a little, saying, “I think there’s still a little way to go.”

After his father died in 1983, Carthan began growing cotton, soybeans and wheat on the fertile land of the Delta farm his father had left him.

In the 1980s and ’90s he led a struggle by Mississippi small farmers fighting to keep their land. He fought cotton gin owners who refused to gin the cotton grown by Black farmers, forcing them to travel 30 or more miles to have it done at a higher cost. He exposed the connections between the gin owners and local banks that discriminated against poor Black farmers.

Today we see right-wing Republicans go down to defeat in elections in Mississippi. We have an African American president who said recently, “Our destiny is not written for us, but by us.” I remember all those people I met in Mississippi 30 years ago — Aaron Henry, Charles Tisdale, the old lady and the nun in the jailhouse, the staff working in the back room of the Jackson Advocate office to avoid objects hurled through the front glass, the people hauling water along hot, dusty roads, a brave family without the man they loved, and Eddie Carthan himself.

They all helped bring us to a place we would never have dreamed possible — but a place from which “there’s still a little way to go.”

jwojcik @pww.org

Comments

comments