Robert Clark wins election in Holmes County
Robert G. Clark’s path to the Mississippi state legislature was not direct; nor was it even anticipated. Like many Black public school teachers in Mississippi, Clark refrained from joining the Movement in the early sixties. In 1966, he even campaigned against local MFDP leader Burrell Tate for a seat on Holmes County’s Community Action Program (CAP) board–an elected body that determined the distribution of federal poverty funds at the grassroots level. He won.
However, while working within the system Robert Clark quickly became disillusioned. He found he could not bring about the changes he wanted. So in late 1966, he began attending MFDP meetings and entered into extensive discussion with movement leaders, including his former rival Burrell Tate.
At first, local activists were suspicious of Clark, but eventually he won them over. Sue Lorenzi, a Northern white volunteer, remembered Clark as “very, very sharp and interested in learning … He was well known and respected by many.” In 1967, Clark agreed to run for state legislator on Holmes County’s MFDP ticket. He won and became the first Black person elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives since Reconstruction.
Robert Clark’s election was the fruit of years of grassroots organizing in Holmes County. Holmes was unique by Mississippi standards–in the 1930s, New Deal legislation broke up many of the county’s largest plantations and redistributed the land to Black farmers. By the 1960s, Holmes had more independent landowning farmers than other county in Mississippi. These landowning farmers were the backbone of the local movement.
In the winter of 1962, news spread throughout the Delta of SNCC’s voter registration work in Leflore County. Several farmers from Holmes, including Hartman Turnbow and Ozell Mitchell, made the thirty mile trek to SNCC’s headquarters in Greenwood and asked SNCC to send a field secretary to Holmes so they can start their own voter registration drive. SNCC sent over native Mississippian John Ball, who helped local people organize weekly voter education workshops at the Sanctified Church in Mileston. The following April, fourteen people went to the county courthouse to attempt to register to vote. Soon, SNCC’s Hollis Watkins and Lawrence Guyot joined Ball in Holmes, and the Movement became one of the strongest in the state.
The MFDP quickly took root in Holmes County. Local people saw the party as vehicle for concrete political power at the the local and state level.
In 1967, when Robert Clark ran for state representative, twenty-two local positions were up for election, including county supervisor, justice of the peace, sheriff, circuit clerk, and state representative. The MFDP ran candidates for twelve of those positions.
To ensure a strong Black turnout in the elections, the party intensified its voter registration drives. The final deadline to register to vote in the November elections was June 24. So MFDP organizers made sure to get as many eligible Black voters to the federal registrar as possible. The party also organized a voter education program replete with comic books about the contested positions. “Our books helped get across how crucial it was to have leaders and officers elected at the most local level,” remembered Lorenzi.
On election day, MFDP poll watchers were placed at the county’s 14 different polling sites, and the party’s candidates traversed the county to encourage people to vote. In the end, the MFDP won two of the elections–Griffin McLaurin Jr. won constable position and Robert Clark became the Holmes County’s state representative.
Clark’s election signaled the emergence of Black electoral politics in Mississippi. Three years earlier, only ten Black people were registered to vote in Holmes, though the county was roughly 75 percent Black. By 1967, the Black community of Holmes County built one of the strongest and most sophisticated political organizations in the state and propelled one of its own to the Mississippi House. Clark was the first Black Representative in the twentieth century. In 2003, he was the longest serving House member–a testament to the strength of Holmes County MFDP.
There is still an MFDP in Holmes County.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Sue Lorenzi Sojourner with Cheryl Reitan, The Thunder of Freedom: Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2013).