Ten fateful days in Mississippi, March 1962

In March 1962 I was a sophomore at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., pursuing studies in history and politics, and becoming increasingly aware of the broad social movements occurring across America. This coincided with the passage of eras from President Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy. On the campus level there was passionate energy, talk, and movement. One could sense the impact of a historical moment.

A visitor from Mississippi, Mr. William Higgs, a lecturer at Harvard, spoke to us at a politics seminar. He discussed his failed Congressional run against an entrenched segregationist, Jamie Whitten, and his current efforts to bring together progressive whites and the emerging black movement. Famed lawyer William Kunstler gave credit to Bill Higgs for developing a legal strategy, the “interpositional theory,” which constitutionally enables federal override of states’ rights claims.

It so happened that Bill Higgs had some matters down home to attend to, and thus a week later Bill and I plus two others found ourselves pulling a double all-nighter in a junky old Ford. We left winter’s snow in Boston and 45 hours later stopped the car alongside a glistening white field of unpicked cotton on Senator Eastland’s plantation. Bill continued his exposition of all things “Mississippian,” and we could now begin to grasp what he was talking about.

Thus began a ten-day whirlwind of activities. We met a wide spectrum of individuals and groups, including academics, politicians, ministers, publishers, and sharecroppers. We attended voter registration clinics and an NAACP convention. We visited college campuses and spoke with fellow students. We had lunch with James Meredith, who would soon integrate Ole Miss; we talked with NAACP leader Medgar Evers, an ally of Bill’s, who would be assassinated in June 1963 at the age of 37; we drank whisky with Nobel Prize for Literature winner William Faulkner, who would be dead four months later at the age of 64; and we interviewed the Governor, Ross Barnett.

At that time the State Sovereignty Commission of the State of Mississippi was making a concerted effort to preserve the old accustomed “way of life.” It promulgated propaganda defending the status quo, along with sincere attempts to meet with adversaries and “reason things out.” Up to a point, of course. Nobody in Mississippi had ever heard of Brandeis – a decidedly liberal place – and we presented ourselves as willing to listen to all points of view.

As we traipsed about the state, I soon realized, as an instinctive historian, that the pamphlets, broadsides, and polemics of the segregationists were all literally at hand. The Sovereignty Commission had offices in Jackson, the state capital, and were quite willing to dispense whatever literature they had; the local White Citizens Councils were also available sources. All one had to do was look, and perhaps inquire, and there it was. I assembled what I could.

All that primary material has rested in a file folder that I have held onto for more than 50 years. Knowing that I won’t be around forever, and fearing perhaps that anyone going through my papers might not grasp the significance of this collection, I recently entrusted this material to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from which I graduated in the class of 1960, and to its Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, for permanent preservation and for the use of the young scholars in Ms. Judy Wombwell’s civil rights seminar.

Editors note: Let this be an object lesson to readers who may have valuable resource materials in their possession that might be of interest to future researchers. It may be time to locate a worthy home for them so the documentation of our movements for social change does not get tossed out.

 Photo: Medgar Evers  |  Wikimedia (CC)