Voter registration expands into Mississippi Delta
In the summer of 1960, Bob Moses was a volunteer in SCLC’s Atlanta office as SNCC began planning an October conference. Because SCLC had so little for him to do, Ella Baker suggested that he travel and recruit students from the Deep South to participate in the conference. She gave Moses a list of her contacts and sent the him on a journey that would begin reshaping SNCC’s work for the next five years.
On that list was Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP leader Amzie Moore. He had been watching the sit-ins with great interest, and when Moses arrived, Moore had a plan in mind. He wanted to tap into the students’ energy to do voter registration in the Mississippi Delta where Black people were two-thirds of the population.
Cotton was king in the Delta, an immense, fertile floodplain of the Mississippi, Yazoo, and Sunflower Rivers. It was the heartland of white supremacy, birthplace of the Citizens’ Council. Most civil rights organizations steered clear of the Delta and Mississippi in general. SCLC’s Andy Young recalled, “We knew the depth of depravity of Southern racism. We knew better than to try and take on Mississippi.”
Cotton generated enormous wealth for white plantation owners, who dominated the politics of the state and, in some circumstances, the country. Black people worked mostly as agricultural workers, tenant farmers, and domestics–working on plantations and in white homes. White people controlled all the levers of power. They sat on the school boards, the city councils, and agricultural committees. Thus, police departments were lily-white and charged with upholding white supremacy. Any challenge to white power, any attempt at Black voter registration or desegregation, was met with wholesale white resistance, especially Ku Klux Klan violence and economic reprisal at the hands of Citizens’ Councils.
Amzie Moore quickly convinced Bob Moses that voter registration was the key to Black power in the Delta and recruited him and SNCC to work in Mississippi. Moses returned to Cleveland in the summer of 1961, but Moore was not quite ready to begin. He sent Moses to McComb and into the hands of his NAACP colleague Curtis Conway “C.C.” Bryant. Voter registration work quickly extended into neighboring Amite and Wathall counties. This southwestern region of Mississippi was the most klan-ridden in the state, and violence at a level SNCC had never before experienced forced a retreat.
SNCC and Moses began planning a Delta project with Amzie Moore and others. That effort began in the summer of 1962. Moore’s home in Cleveland served as the nucleus for SNCC’s voter registration project, and Moore himself often escorted young SNCC field secretaries to people who he knew would support the Movement.
The Delta project began in Greenwood, a cotton processing center in Leflore County and Citizens’ Council stronghold. Cleveland-native Sam Block, who had been mentored by Moore, was sent to begin it. Moore put Block in contact with Cleveland Jordan. A plantation worker for most of his life, Jordan had helped form Greenwood’s Citizen’s League and been agitating for political change since the 1950s. Jordan was invaluable. He “sat me down and gave me a whole history of what was going on in Leflore County,” Block remembered, “He gave me the names of those … who he felt were also still interested in getting a voter education movement started.” Jordan also endorsed Block and his voter registration program at public gatherings, asking local people “to give him all the support that you can.” Local leaders, like Amzie Moore and Cleveland Jordan, taught SNCC that there were local people literally waiting for them, willing to risk their lives and livelihoods and to bring them into Black Delta communities.
Clayborne Carson, et al., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts From the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008), 291-303.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1994), 126.
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), 145-148.
Interview with Sam Block by Joseph Sinsheimer, December 12, 1986, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.
Interview with Robert Moses by John Dittmer, August 15, 1983, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.