E.W. Steptoe speaks about living in Amite County, Clips from Freedom Bound by Harvey Richards, 1963
A Story from Here
Southwest Mississippi was known as the Klan capitol of the state. Nonetheless, there had been attempts to organize in Amite County long before the arrival of SNCC. Two “outsiders” came to Amite County in the early 1950s; one was shot and killed, and the other left the county after he was shot. In Liberty, the county seat, no white man had ever been tried for the use of violence against a Black man. Local farmer Willie Bates once asked, “[Is] there is any place on earth where colored peoples is treated meaner than in Amite County?”
In 1953, Eldridge Willie “E.W.” Steptoe started a chapter of the NAACP, but by the third meeting they were broken up by an armed invasion of Klansmen and local police. Steptoe recalls that “My uncle was so scared after that meeting, he ran into the woods and stayed there for a week, living on raw food. Then he finally came out and left the county.”
In the 1960s, SNCC’s arrival escalated the tension in Amite County. Attempts at voter registration often ended in stitches and bloodied t-shirts. Weathered vehicle loaned to SNCC workers by sympathetic farmers were sometimes run off the road or suffered from flat tires as a result of planted nails.
As they did throughout the South, churches and their messages of liberation played an important role in organizing people. Amite County’s Curtis Dawson once said to a group in Mt. Pilgrim Church, “God told Moses to pick up a stick. But Moses said it was a snake. But the Lord insisted he pick it up, and when Moses did, it turned out to be a sword. And that’s how going to the courthouse in Liberty seems. Right now it looks like picking up a snake. But once you pick it up, it will become the sword of freedom.”
A rural area in Southwest Mississippi’s red clay, Amite County’s population was 55% Black in 1960 but not a single Black person was registered to vote. The sheriff, a 6’5” tall man named Daniel Jones, was the son of the county’s Klan leader. As one of the most violent and impoverished counties in Mississippi, journalist Jack Newfield once described Amite County the “Ninth Circle of Hell.” Almost half of Black teenagers left Amite County for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Chicago because of the overwhelming poverty; 90% of Black homes had no heating or indoor toilets. It took until 1966 for the County to integrate its classrooms and public facilities and receive federal voting registrar. However, this hill country was also home to some of the strongest movement people, like E.W. Steptoe, Herbert Lee, and William Weathersby. Those involved in the Movement would often congregate in Mt. Pilgrim Church, whose rows of wooden benches were lit entirely by 3 bulbs.
Jack Newfield, A Prophetic Minority