Raised in McComb, Mississippi
On August 30, 1961, teenagers Bobby Talbert, Ike Lewis, and Brenda Travis were arrested while sitting in the white section of the local Greyhound bus station in McComb, Mississippi. SNCC’s Bob Moses had come to McComb a month earlier to organize a voter registration drive, but he had been joined by members of SNCC’s direct action wing who began training local young people for action. Talbert, Lewis, and Travis remained in jail until October 3rd for their sit-in.
Right after his release, Bobby Talbert joined the Burgland High School protest in October and landed in Magnolia jail for another month. Even though he was expelled from school, he felt that McComb’s Black community was on his side. He even boasted of gaining 25 pounds while in jail from the food brought by cafe proprietor Aylene Quin and others in the community.
Talbert vividly remembered growing up in McComb’s segregated schools. The disparities were sharp. At the white school, for example, the superintendent told students, “I’ve got a scholarship for LSU, one for Ole Miss, one for Mississippi State.” At the Black school, students were simply told, “You’re doing a good job.” His family was one of the Black families across Mississippi who resisted school segregation. The Talberts fought to get Bobby’s younger sister into a desegregated school in Pike County.
At 18, Talbert joined the McComb NAACP chapter, led by Curtis Conway “C.C.” Bryant, and its attempt to use voter registration as a path to change. “You couldn’t even do anything, man,” Talbert said about being Black in Mississippi. “You couldn’t even walk down the streets with three people… y’know, you’re a parade if you’re three people, now, so you get put in jail.”
After the McComb high school protests, Talbert became more involved with SNCC and civil rights work that eventually spanned most of the South. “See, I worked Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Maryland, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas… and Mississippi.” With every project, he picked up new tactics and philosophies from the SNCC people and local people around him. In 1962, Talbert worked on a team of 15 people on a voter registration drive in Raleigh, North Carolina. As he remembered it, they managed to register 1,632 Blacks to vote in 27 days. He credits their success to the “floating registrar” who traveled by car to different communities without the violence and intimidation of the courthouse typically found in his home state.
Nonetheless, especially during protest demonstrations, he experienced extreme violence and began to question the philosophy of nonviolence he was trying to embrace. During a Nashville sit-in in November 1962, a white bystander beat Talbert on the head and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. When Talbert, who continued to peacefully protest, was arrested, he was beaten again by police in Davison County jail. “Just take twenty people comin’ at you all at the same time…with belts, y’know and buckles, … an’ they swinging them over your head, what you gonna do? Is you gonna fight, try to fight, or is you gonna cover your head and try to get out, balled up in this knot to protect yourself.”
SNCC taught Talbert that his activism was part of the long course of Black struggle. He read James Baldwin and Richard Wright in his spare time. “I never had the opportunity to read these books before…It give you a new lease on life, y’know…so that then you can think about, then you want to do it, and can’t anybody hold you down anymore.”
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 113.
Interview with Bobby Talbert, 1965, KZSU Project South Interviews, Stanford University.
Interview with Bobby Talbert, McComb Legacies and William Winter Institute, 2011.
“200 Students at SNCC Institute Plan and Demonstrate in Nashville,” The Student Voice, December 19, 1962.