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Charles McLaurin

Raised in Jackson, Mississippi

In the wake of the Freedom Rides, young Mississippians led the way in remaking SNCC into an organization of organizers. Charles “Mac” McLaurin, emerged from the direct action campaigns and sit-in protests of the Jackson Movement, but when Mississippi NAACP state field secretary Medgar Evers, introduced him to the idea of voter registration, he thought that it was “something that can change what is happening.” He joined SNCC’s first voter registration organizing efforts in the Mississippi Delta.

In early August 1962, McLaurin–then 21 years-old–began SNCC’s voter registration project in Sunflower County. Within a few days of his arrival there, he drove three women to the county courthouse in Indianola–the youngest was 65. He waited for them outside after they entered. “I want to vote,” each one told the circuit clerk who registered voters. Watching them walk into the courthouse, the young SNCC field secretary realized that he “was no longer in command; the three ladies were leading me; I was following them.”

Charles Cobb, Charles McLaurin, and Bob Moses do voter registration in a Mississippi church, 1962, Danny Lyon, dektol.wordpress.com, located in MFDP Records, WHS

As McLaurin and fellow SNCC field secretaries, Charlie Cobb and Landy McNair, carried more Sunflower County residents to the Indianola courthouse, reprisals grew. When Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper on the nearby Marlowe Plantation, returned from trying register in late August, she was kicked off the plantation. Then in September, night riders fired retaliatory shots into Black homes, injuring two teenage girls and sending a clear, threatening message to Black Ruleville. Support for the voter registration project McLaurin was leading dried up overnight.

But McLaurin, a native Mississippian, knew that just remaining visible in town was important. So in addition to continuing to encourage voter registration, the SNCC workers chopped wood, picked cotton, and pitched in with local residents’ daily work and life. As it became clear that they weren’t going anywhere, Black Ruleville residents inched back to movement involvement. Explaining this, McLaurin wrote, “Talk with the people, laugh with them, joke with them; do most anything that gets some attention on you, or on some kind of conversation. It is very important to learn what bugs them.” Churches, homes, barbershops, and basketball courts. These were the places where SNCC built a Movement, and Mississippians like McLaurin taught non-southern SNCC workers how to do it.

McLaurin formed a close and trusted partnership with Mrs. Hamer, serving as her campaign manager when she ran for Congress with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. McLaurin continued organizing with Mrs. Hamer around political and economic issues through the 1970s, helping her start Freedom Farm Cooperative. He settled in Indianola with his family and worked as the Assistant Public Works Director until his retirement.

Sources

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).


Charles McLaurin, “Notes on Organizing,” undated, Samuel Walker Papers, WHS


Letter from Charles McLaurin to John F. Kennedy, September 21, 1962, Sally Belfrage Papers, WHS

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Letter from Charles McLaurin to Jim [Forman], December 18, 1962, crmvet.org


Report from Charles McLaurin, April 24, 1963, Sally Belfrage Papers, WHS