Media Credit

Rust College students at the Freedom House in Holly Springs, [1964], Kathleen Dahl Freedom Summer Collection, USM

A Story from Here

Walter Reaves was born and raised in Benton County, just east of the city Holly Springs in northern Mississippi. The Reaves family had a history of being tough in the face of racial discrimination. Walter Reave’s uncle was active in the NAACP during the forties and fifties, going to meetings in Jackson and other parts of the state. His uncle encouraged Reaves to pay his poll tax and become a registered voter, which he did in his early twenties.

Reave’s father consistently pointed out to his children that there “wasn’t no difference between Black people and white people.” His father also had a disdain for Black people who “flunked” for white people; he meant they worked for white people when they should have been working for themselves. He told his children that “he didn’t ever want them to do that.” Reaves maintained this spirit of resistance that made his family special. When a group of volunteers came to Benton County to establish a freedom school and work on voter registration, he“was willing to help out in anyway that [he] could.” He would spend his Saturdays with other local people printing and distributing Benton County’s Freedom Train – the local movement paper. He also became a member of the Citizen’s Club, which was active in improving public education in Benton County.

Three of his children were in the first wave of black students that integrated Ashland High School, the area’s white high school. In preparing his children to go to Ashland, Walter Reaves imparted on them similar advice that his father imparted on him. He told them that “if they call you a Nigger that’s all right. It won’t hurt you… But if he hit you you better hit him back… Let them hit you first and if they hit you you better hit ‘em back.”

Local Landscape

Holly Springs is a small town located in Marshall County, in the northern part of Mississippi. In the sixties, the town of 5,621 served as an urban hub for the rural northern counties of Marshall (its home county), Benton, Tippah, DeSoto, and Tate. It was outside the northeastern edge of the Delta, and because of its proximity to Memphis, TN, racial conditions were generally better than in the Delta. Historically, Holly Springs and its surrounding country had a strongly organized Black community. During Reconstruction, the area had a number of Black elected officials, in both local and federal government.

During the late fifties and early sixties, Holly Springs had a relatively strong indigenous movement. Students at Rust College initiated protests against segregated businesses in downtown Holly Springs. In 1960, Rust students launched a boycott against a segregated theater. They also led strikes on campus. In the fifties and sixties, there was an NAACP chapter headed up by S.T. Nero. Nero became an important contact person for Frank Smith, SNCC’s first field secretary to organize in the area. Nero and his wife showed Smith ropes, “told him how to do things.” The Movement in Holly Springs consisted of a combination of local student activists, SNCC field workers, and local NAACP members, who worked together to create “a citizenship project where we would work with people who wanted to vote.”

References

Interview with Frank Smith, 1986, Joseph Sinsheimer papers, Duke University
Interview with Leslie McLemore, 1985, Joseph Sinsheimer papers, Duke University
Interview with Cleveland Sellers, 2003, USM
Interview with Walter Reaves, 1995, USM