Raised in Itta Bena, Mississippi
The manner and background from which young Mississippians, like Euvester Simpson from Itta Bena, made their way into SNCC and the Movement varied. Exposure played an important role in their choice to fight for something better. Simpson’s parents valued education and wanted their daughter to attend college. So, before her sophomore year of high school, they sent her to live with her sister in Wisconsin.
When she arrived in Wisconsin, she was amazed by the resources she found in her new school. There was gym equipment, art classes, and for the first time, she had white classmates. She returned home for her last semester of high school in 1962 and learned that SNCC had started a voter registration project in Greenwood, which was only a few miles from Itta Bena. A friend invited her to attend a movement mass meeting, and after the meeting, Simpson asked her father for permission to get involved in the Movement. He agreed on condition that he speak with the person in charge. Euvester Simpson did not know who that was, but she had a telephone number for the SNCC office and gave that to her father. SNCC field secretary Lawrence Guyot answered the phone and later told Simpson, “Your father put me in charge of you.”
The seventeen-year-old Simpson became a regular at Greenwood’s COFO office where SNCC, CORE, and SCLC maintained headquarters. She drew on her Mississippi roots to help her be a more effective voter registration worker: “First I would introduce myself. I would tell them that I was from Itta Bena to let them know that I was not from out of state.”
Before long, SCLC organizer Annell Ponder, recognized Simpson’s leadership potential and invited her, along with Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and June Johnson, to attend a citizenship school training in South Carolina. Before they left Mississippi, Ponder told the women that she would sit in the white section of the bus station every time they stopped. Mrs. Hamer, Johnson, and Simpson agreed to join her. The women arrived in South Carolina safely. On their return to Mississippi, however, the bus stopped in a town called Winona, and they entered the white section of the station. The police arrested them within minutes.
While in jail, June Johnson, Ponder and Mrs. Hamer were brutally beaten. Simspon sat up with Mrs. Hamer all night, applying cold towels to her forehead in an attempt to bring her fever down and take the pain away. “The only thing that got us through that … we sang,” she remembered, “We sang all night. I mean songs got us through so many things, and without that music, I think many of us would have just lost our minds or lost our way completely.” When SNCC’s Lawrence Guyot heard about their arrests, he went to inquire about them. He too was arrested and beaten. The brutality Simpson witnessed in jail only convinced her to get more involved with the Movement. She decided to put her education on hold and make the Movement her top priority.
For the next few years, Simpson organized with SNCC full-time. She worked on voter registration projects in McComb, Greenwood, and Hattiesburg. During the 1964 Freedom Summer, she worked in the COFO office in Jackson. She also helped coordinate the Freedom Vote and traveled to Atlantic City to support the MFDP’s challenge of the all-white Democratic Party.
After the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, Simpson decided it was time for her to return to school. SNCC helped a few young organizers interested in going to college find scholarships to pay for their education, and in 1965, Simpson enrolled in Tougaloo College.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Octavia Thurman, “Euvester Simpson,” Jackson Free Press, February 27, 2013.
Interview with Euvester Simpson by John Dittmer, March 12, 2013, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.