Sam Block goes to Greenwood, Mississippi
More often than not SNCC field secretaries were introduced to communities by respected community leaders. So, the Elk Hall in Greenwood, Mississippi, was filled with silent expectation as Cleveland Jordan, a local Movement leader, introduced 20-year-old Sam Block to the audience. “Well,” Jordan said, “we have been wanting somebody, now here he is. I want you all to give him all the support you can. Don’t be scared of him. Treat him like he is one of us because he is.”
Sam Block, born and raised just down the road from Greenwood in Cleveland, Mississippi, came to the small city to start SNCC’s first voter registration project in the Mississippi Delta–the large, fertile floodplain of the Mississippi River whose population was two-thirds Black and only a tiny fraction of whom were registered to vote. Just a few months earlier, in the spring of 1962, Block was introduced to SNCC’s Bob Moses by way of Amzie Moore, a family friend and longtime NAACP activist in Cleveland. Moses and Moore encouraged Block to join SNCC’s expanding effort in the state, which focused on obtaining the right to vote as a key to unlocking Black political power. It was like music to Block’s ears, who “grew up want[ing] to do something.” “I just wanted to be a part of it,” he recalled, “to be a part of a movement that was doing something to eradicate the conditions that I had been forced to live in all my life but wasn’t able to do anything about.”
“Bob dropped me off [in Greenwood],” Block remembered. “No car, no money, no clothes, no food, just me.” Fortunately, Block was familiar with the area. He had been taking classes at the vocational college in nearby Itta Bena, and a classmate found him a place to stay with Mrs. McNease, a local elementary school principal. Block spent his first days in Greenwood just canvassing the community, getting to know its inhabitants and habits. “Just really testing the pulse of the people,” Block explained. He quickly learned that local Blacks were angry with the racial violence and discrimination that they faced on a daily basis.
Block found that some of the older people in town were more receptive to his work. Mr. Cleveland Jordan, who founded a voter registration league in Greenwood in the 1950s, took Block under his wing and helped the voter registration project get off the ground. “Cleveland Jordan sat me down and gave me the whole history of what had been going on in Leflore County,” Block recalled. He also introduced the young SNCC activist to a small network of people who supported the Civil Rights Movement, including Rev. Aaron Johnson. Slowly, they “began to set up some sort of organizational structure” for a local voter registration drive.
Jordan was a member of the Fraternal Order of the Elks, which provided a national platform for Black voices in Mississippi, and he procured the Elk Hall for the Movement’s first mass meeting. Only fifteen or twenty people showed up. They sang freedom songs and discussed the importance of voting. Block explained, “unless you are a registered voter, unless you exercise that right through voting, you are still and will ever remain a second class citizen.” The message struck home. A group of people volunteered to go down to the courthouse to register to vote, despite potential violence from the white power structure.
The first trip to the courthouse was unsuccessful in terms of registering voters. Martha Lamb, the county registrar, used various tactics, including Mississippi’s literacy test, to keep Black people off the rolls. But the trip instilled a sense of change in the Black community. When the sheriff accosted Sam Block, telling him “to pack your goddamn bags and … leave Greenwood, Mississippi,” Block refused. He told the sheriff “if you don’t want to see me around here … the best thing for you to do is pack your bags because I am going to be here.”
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 143-170.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 132-180.
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionary (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985), 294-308.
Interview with Sam Block by Joseph Sinsheimer, December 12, 1986, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.