A report from the front lines of the civil rights battle in Greenwood, Mississippi–a very dangerous place to be.
October 5, 1963 SNCC: The Battle-Scarred Youngsters . . . Howard Zinn
Having just spent a little time in Greenwood, Miss., I felt a certain air of unreality about the March on Washington. The grandiose speeches, the array of movie stars, the big names dropped and bounced several times, the sheer impress of numbers — all added up, technically, to an occasion that one describes as “thrilling.” And it must have been so to participants and to the millions who watched on television. Still, while swept up in the spirit myself, I wondered if, to the Negro citizen of Greenwood, Itta Bena and Ruleville; of Albany, Americus and Dawson; of Selma, Gadsden and Birmingham; of Danville and other places, it may not have seemed the most Gargantuan and best orga-nized of irrelevancies.
There was one relevant moment in the day’s events at Washington: that was when the youngest speaker on the platform, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, lashed out in anger, not only at the Dixiecrats, but at the Kennedy Administration, which had been successful up to that moment in directing the indigna-tion of 200,000 people at everyone but itself.
The depth of Lewis’ feeling and the direction of his attack may have baffled Northern lib-erals, mollified recently by the Administration’s new Civil Rights Bill, by its bold words and by the President’s endorsement of the great March. But John Lewis knew, because the young SNCC workers in his organization are on the front lines of the conflict, that while the President and the Attorney General speak loud in Washington, their voices are scarcely whispers in the towns and the hamlets of the Black Belt.
Greenwood, Miss., just before the March, revealed in its own quiet way how the Deep South remains essentially untouched by resonant speeches in the national capital.
Surrounded by cotton plantations, Greenwood overlooks the Delta from a vantage point in west-central Mississippi. It is the headquarters for the Voter Registration Project, in which all the major civil-rights organizations cooperate, and whose working force is sup-plied mainly by the youngsters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – affectionately called SNICK). It is the seat of Leflore County, where Negroes are 65 per cent of the population and half the Negro families have an income less than $27 a week. Almost no Negroes vote, and attempts of the past year to register Negroes have been met with torch, shotgun and a dozen varieties of official brutality, intimidation and subterfuge.
The SNICK “office” in Greenwood is like a front company headquarters during wartime. As I came in one evening last August, having driven from Memphis, I was greeted by Annelle Ponder, whose younger sister I taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, and whose path has crossed mine several times in the last few hectic years. The Ponder girls are all tall, black-skinned and beautiful. Annelle has been in Greenwood this past year handling the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s part of the voter registra-tion project. She is quiet and courageous. She has been beaten by police in Winona, Miss. When friends went to the jail one day, they found her sitting there, her face swol-len and marked, barely able to speak. She looked up at them, and just managed to whisper one word: “Freedom.”