Raised in Greenwood, Mississippi
Cleveland Jordan opened the door for SNCC in Greenwood, Mississippi. As he dug into the community, Sam Block, SNCC’s first organizer there, relied on older local leaders like Jordan to build trust and show him the ropes in the community. When Block arrived in June 1962, Jordan “sat me down and gave me a whole history of what had been going on in Leflore County.” Jordan gave him “names of those who he felt also were still interested in getting a voter education movement started.” The local history, political information, and contacts that Jordan provided were invaluable as Block and SNCC began working in the Black community. Jordan even secured SNCC’s first Leflore County meeting space at Elks Hall, where he was a member.
David, Jordan’s youngest son, recalled, “my father was a pusher for human justice and he was a part of the marching and he was a part of the struggle.” Having raised 5 children while sharecropping, Jordan always sought to change the political reality of Black southerners. In the late 1950s, he was an active and vocal member of Greenwood’s Citizen League. He managed to successfully register to vote in 1943 or 1944, when Black voters “were no threat and nobody cared.”
Unapologetic and determined to politicize the Black Greenwood population, Jordan “made people nervous by raising, with commanding eloquence, the issue of disenfranchisement at any meeting he happened to attend, no matter how inappropriate it might be to the subject at hand.” Similarly in the fields, his son remembered, “He pounded [voter registration] into our heads…It was kind of like a deliverance were to come.”
A Deacon at Zion Baptist Church in Greenwood, Jordan was a deeply religious man with a fourth-grade education. “He couldn’t do much reading anywhere else,” his son remembered, “but he could read and understand the Bible. That was something miraculous that I never could understand.”
With an “enviable reputation as a prayer leader,” Jordan often opened voter registration meetings and set the stage for Movement work. Block remembered that the prayer songs had a huge effect on the local people. “Grip toters and chicken eaters” were Jordan’s names for local ministers unwilling to stand with the Movement. He proved to be a crucial spiritual and political leader in Greenwood who addressed what Bob Moses called “one of the biggest problems in Greenwood,…the lack of real support from the ministerial or professional communities.” At an April 1963 meeting at Wesley Chapel in Greenwood, Cleve Jordan urged other local religious leaders to become allies. That day, 31 ministers signed on to “endorse the Freedom Movement one-hundred percent and urge our members and friends of Leflore County and the state of Mississippi to register and become first-class citizens.”
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: 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).
Interview with David Jordan by Joseph Sinsheimer, December 3, 1998, Joseph A. Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.
Interview with Sam Block by Joseph Sinsheimer, December 12, 1986, Joseph A. Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.