“I grew up just wanting to do something,” Ruleville, Mississippi-native Lafayette Surney recalled. “I knew something was wrong somewhere.” Surney was raised just a few miles from where Emmett Till was killed, and his uncle, George Lee, was murdered for insisting on his right to vote. So when SNCC came to the small Delta town in July 1962, Surney was primed to join the Movement.
The summer of 1962 was an important one for SNCC’s Mississippi project. Fueled by funds from the Voter Education Project (VEP), the organization started voter registration drives in several counties, including Sunflower County where Ruleville was located. Sunflower was over two-thirds Black, yet whites owned roughly 90 percent of the land. Of the county’s 13,000 eligible Black voters, fewer than 200 were actually on the voting rolls–even fewer dared to vote on Election Day.
Surney soon began attending mass meetings and aiding the voter registration effort. His association with the Movement drew the ire of the local white power structure. Local youths who joined the Movement exposed themselves and their families to state-sanctioned oppression. The dry cleaning business that Surney’s father owned and operated was shut down by Ruleville city government, ostensibly for violating a minor city ordinance. But everybody knew that it was in response to his son’s involvement in the Movement.
Out of concern for his family, Surney stopped organizing in Ruleville and Sunflower County, but he didn’t stop working for SNCC in the Delta. In the fall of 1962, he moved to Clarksdale, where he worked alongside local NAACP leader Aaron Henry under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).
Unlike other COFO projects in the Delta, which focused almost exclusively on voter registration, the Clarksdale Movement was in the midst of a full fledged desegregation campaign that had begun in November 1961. Under the leadership of Aaron Henry, a local pharmacist and state president of the NAACP, COFO demanded the city open up municipal jobs for Blacks, desegregate public schools and accommodations, and form an interracial committee to oversee the integration process. Eager to work with anyone willing to advance the cause, Henry welcomed Surney with open arms. Surney spent the next two years in Clarksdale, helping Henry organize boycotts, picket lines, and voter registration drives.
In 1964, the 22-year-old Surney became the Clarksdale project director for Freedom Summer. He coordinated the summer’s various activities, including a local Freedom School and community center. The local police targeted him for his leadership role in the Movement. In the beginning of the summer, Clarksdale’s police chief Ben Collins challenged Surney to a fight, claiming “we ain’t goin’ to have this sh** this year.” Now well-versed in the use of police violence to derail the Movement, Surney refused to get caught up in such antics.
In 1965, Surney took on an expanded role in SNCC. He was elected to the executive committee. He also took his organizing skills to Selma, Alabama, where SNCC started a voter registration project in 1963. By 1965, the Selma Movement was in full swing, and Surney participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery March when “over 2,500 Negroes were tear-gassed and beaten as they attempted … to dramatize the right to vote.” Surney’s dedication to work in the hardcore racist areas of the South made him an indispensable member of SNCC throughout the 1960s.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 22-23.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 176-177.
SNCC Press Release, “Two Negro Girls Shot in Home of Voter Registration Worker,” September 11, 1962, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959-1972, ProQuest History Vault.
Lafayette Surney, SNCC Staff Profile, undated, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959-1972, ProQuest History Vault.
Affidavit from Lafayette Surney about police brutality in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1964, Social Action Vertical File, Wisconsin Historical Society.