October 8, 1942 – July 28, 2009
Raised in Jackson, Mississippi
Jimmy Lee Travis exemplified the courage and resolve of native Mississippians who fought back against Jim Crow in the 1960s. “Jimmy was always willing to go anywhere or do anything to advance our struggle,” remembered fellow Mississippian and SNCC activist Joyce Ladner. “Jimmy rode the dark highways, going to some of the most dangerous places in the country that just happened to be in our home state of Mississippi.”
Travis was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. At the end of his senior year in high school, he and two friends went to the Walgreen’s on Capitol Street to pick up items for his class trip. Students from nearby Tougaloo College had just staged a sit-in at the municipal library, so the manager, fearing possible sit-in protest at his store, barred Travis and his friends from entering. Then and there, Travis decided to do whatever it took to destroy segregation and racial discrimination. The following year, he enrolled at Tougaloo, where he was swept up in campus activism alongs with the Ladner sisters, Anne Moody, Joan Trumpauer, and others.
At the age of 20, Jimmy Travis became a full-time SNCC worker and joined Bob Moses in Southwest Mississippi. Moses began SNCC’s first voter registration project in the small city of McComb in the summer of 1961. Soon after, local Black leaders “from Amite and Walthall County, which are the two adjacent counties to Pike County, came over asking us if we wouldn’t accompany them in schools in their counties so they could go down and try to register also,” remembered Moses. Despite the danger–some locals in McComb thought those counties were too dangerous– SNCC decided it couldn’t “be in the position of turning down the tough areas.” In mid-August, Travis and fellow Tougaloo students MacArthur Cotton, George Lowe and SNCC activist John Hardy set up a voter registration school in Walthall County.
Travis other colleagues who had begun in Southwest Mississippi soon extended what they had learned into the Delta. By November 1962, after months of work by Sam Block, SNCC had anchored itself in Greenwood, a cotton processing center in Leflore County. Local participation in the Movement grew throughout the winter. On February 26th, in response to Block’s seventh arrest, 150 local Blacks tried to register to vote. People were not only upset with the police, they were also angry with the county government for shutting down the distribution of surplus food commodities to poor people as a reprisal for movement activity.
Travis was active in the Greenwood campaign. In late February, he was assigned to escort Randolph Blackwell from the Voter Education Project (VEP) to the various SNCC projects in the Delta. VEP was funding the Mississippi voting rights effort via the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella under which national and local civil rights organizations worked in the state.
Travis and Blackwell attended a SNCC meeting in Greenwood. During the meeting, Travis noticed that an untagged white Buick was staking out the office. Suspicious of the car, the workers decided to call off the meeting and head to their respective projects. The Buick trailed Travis, Blackwell, and Moses as they headed to Greenville, where Blackwell was staying. Travis employed all the tricks he learned while driving the dark highways of Mississippi to lose the Buick, but before he could, over a dozen bullets ripped through the car. One lodged in Travis’s neck, just missing his spine. Bob Moses recalled, “we all were within inches of being killed.” Travis was rushed to the area hospital, where he was stabilized.
In the wake of the drive-by shooting, SNCC field secretaries from the across the South converged on Greenwood to prove that violence would not drive them away or stop the work; in fact, it would intensify their efforts. VEP’s director Wiley Branton supported the call to converge on Greenwood: “Leflore County has elected itself the testing ground for democracy and we are accordingly meeting the challenge there.”
Travis’s shooting reaffirmed SNCC’s commitment to working in Mississippi. Joyce Ladner explained that “when Jimmy was shot in the neck while riding in the car with Bob Moses, it was only a momentary setback for us. Jimmy’s steel nerves that allowed him to pick up his work and keep going reassured us that we should allow nothing, not even the death of one of our fellow workers to slow down our work.”
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1988).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University 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).
Michael Vinson Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Little Rock: University of Arkansas Press, 2011).