Charles McLaurin describes Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism in Ruleville, “The Foot Soldier,” Freedom Summer, American Experience
A Story from Here
Sunflower County, where Ruleville is located, is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. In this small town, in the summer of 1962, SNCC field workers Charles McLaurin, Landy McNair, and Charlie Cobb began to organize. Thanks in large part to Amzie Moore and the earlier work of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Ruleville had a core of strong people seeking change before the arrival of SNCC.
Even with the support of local Movement stalwarts, like Joe McDonald and his wife Rebecca in whose home the three SNCC field secretaries stayed, Charlie Cobb recalls that the community organizing work was “real slow,” involving “very small meetings at Williams Chapel … the one church that allowed us to have meetings.” The SNCC workers canvassed the community, knocking on doors, and talking with people in order to find out who was interested in registering to vote. They conducted workshops every night, where “poorly-educated working people and sharecroppers” would discuss what it meant to be a registered voter and go over the sections of the Mississippi Constitution which county registrars used to determine literacy.
This type of community organizing work was tedious and painstaking, and victories of any sort were small. At the end of the August, Charles McLaurin made his first trip to the county courthouse, accompanied by three older women. The three women got out of his car and “went up the walk to the courthouse as if this was the long walk that led to the Golden Gate of Heaven, their heads held high.” At this point, McLaurin realized that he “was no longer in command, the three ladies were leading me and I was following … The people are the true leaders. We need only to move them, to show them. Then watch and learn.”
During the early sixties, Ruleville was an itty-bitty town of fewer than 1000 located in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Just like other Delta counties, Sunflower was predominantly Black, yet whites owned approximately 90% of the land. Most Blacks were impoverished sharecroppers working on white plantations, with the average Black income ranging between only $400-$600. Sunflower was also the birthplace of the Citizen’s Council and consequentially, the local movement experienced harsh backlash in terms of both economic reprisals and physical violence. After SNCC’s arrival in August, the local power structure used local and state ordinances to punish Blacks who supported the Movement. Two Black dry-cleaning businesses were closed for minor violations. White employers fired Black workers who had connections with the Movement. And the tax-exempt status of Williams Chapel, the main meeting place for movement activities, was revoked. This kind of economic terrorism was enforced by physical violence from night riders, who shot into homes of local people associated with the voter registration campaign. While white retaliation paralyzed the local movement, SNCC workers remained in Ruleville and Sunflower County to prove their commitment to the community despite whatever trouble arrived.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
Interview with Charlie Cobb, 1996, USM