Ekwueme Michael Thelwell explains how SNCC found a distinctive culture of survival and resistance in the Mississippi Delta, “What did you discover about local communities in the Mississippi Delta?” Choices Program, Brown University
A Story from Here
In some respects, SNCC’s deepest Mississippi roots are found in the Delta. As SNCC’s Sam Block noted, SNCC’s work in the Delta “was built with older people who were angry, who were looking for somebody to give form and expression to ideas and thoughts that they had in mind for years.”
Robert Burns was one of these older people. He was actively searching for the Movement when Sam Block arrived in Greenwood in 1962. He only had a third grade education but was an active learner all his life. He had been an Army sergeant in the World War II. Over the course of his life, he made a living doing a variety of occupations, including picking cotton, repairing farm equipment, washing machines, air conditioners, and refrigerators, as well as painting and doing photography.
When Burns heard that Sam Block had been evicted from the home of Mrs. McNease for his civil rights activities, he offered the young SNCC worker a place to stay, despite much harassment. He had long kept his ear to the ground, waiting for somebody with the courage and know-how to bring the community together in a struggle for freedom. He was sick and tired of getting talked down to by white people. In Sam Block he saw “a young man trying to do a good part.” Meeting Sam Block, Burns said years later, “was a thrill” because he felt that Block had what it took to organize Greenwood, and Burns was willing to stick out his neck to protect and nurture him.
For supporters of the budding Movement in the Delta, people like Burns, housing civil rights workers invited the wrath of the white power structure. It meant that the police and the white community had an open season to harass. Burns received an endless stream of threatening phone calls. Local toughs broke the windows of his station wagon. Burns was finally arrested on a trumped-up bigamy charges. He was released from jail on a ridiculously high bail of $10,000 that was put up by his landlady and brother-in-law. SNCC got him legal help. Until the last days of his life he referred to SNCC as “his boys.”
The Mississippi Delta was the epicenter of SNCC’s civil rights activities in Mississippi during the early sixties. The Delta stretches from Vicksburg to Memphis, and eighteen counties fall within its jurisdiction. Geographically, it is the floodplain of the Mississippi, Yazoo, and Sunflower Rivers, making the vast, flat alluvial land very fertile. Cotton was king in the Delta and produced great wealth for landed property owners, who were almost exclusively white. Stokely Carmichael described the Delta economy as “agribusiness on a gigantic scale, highly productive, heavily government subsidized, and based on the equivalent of slave labor” – Black sharecropping.
While the Delta gave plantation owners a rich life, the Black people working the land were incredibly poor often making only $3 a day. Despite making up the majority of residents in all Delta counties, Blacks were politically powerless. The Delta had a deeply entrenched racial hierarchy protected by an elaborate structure of discriminatory laws and statutes that perpetuated Black second-class citizenship. And when these political structures failed to keep Blacks at bay, white citizens used economic terrorism and physical violence to stem Black resistance.
Despite this brutal racist regime, Black communities maintained “a spirit of self-sufficiency, of independence, and of collective capability and cooperation.” The Delta had numerous Black men and women who kept the torch of resistance alive throughout the forties and fifties and laid the foundation for SNCC activism in the sixties. People like Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, Robert Burns, the McDonalds, the McGhees, and others played vital roles in shaping activism in the Delta during the sixties. Through their guidance and support SNCC field secretaries were able to create local movements of resistance in the heartland of American apartheid.
Stokely Carmichael, Ready for Revolution
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle