August 17, 1940 –
Raised in Walls, Mississippi
For Leslie McLemore, working in the Movement defined the direction of his life. “You’re thinking that you’re going to change the world and the circumstances around you, and that’s an exhilarating feeling. Sure, there was fear, but it was overcome by the fact that you knew you were making a difference,” said McLemore. “It’s unlike any feeling that I’ve had since.”
McLemore was born in the small town of Walls, Mississippi located on the northern edge of the Mississippi Delta. In the fall of 1960, he enrolled in Rust College, which had already become a hotspot for organizing work. Inspired by the sit-ins happening in North Carolina, Rust College students decided to boycott the local segregated theater, which ultimately closed its doors rather than integrate. “We got our feet wet,” said Rust College student and SNCC field secretary Willie Wazir Peacock, “That was the first thing we did.”
McLemore quickly became involved in student organizing efforts. He served as president of the campus chapter of the NAACP, and formed a “Speaker’s Bureau” with Frank Smith, John Morris, and Johnnie Harris to canvas the community and speak at churches. In 1963 he started working closely with SNCC, which was organizing the Mississippi Freedom Vote and laying the foundation for a political party “that we felt would be responsible to the people we were working with, an organization that they actually controlled,” reelected SNCC’s Mississippi project director Bob Moses of those early days.
As the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was taking shape during the 1964 Freedom Summer, he joined Frank Smith, Walter Tillah, and Ms. Ella Baker in the D.C. office of the Freedom Democratic Party where they spoke with members of Congress and traveled to state conventions around the country to convince delegates that the MFDP, not the exclusionary state party, should be seated at the Democratic National Convention. “And I was the only Mississippian on the staff,” said McLemore. “Part of the whole thing was that here was a bona fide Mississippian, you know, young college guy, southern accent, bad grammar and the whole bit, so I came across as being genuine.” McLemore was also elected to serve as an MFDP delegate at the National Convention.
After Atlantic City McLemore went back to school, but he carried the teachings of the Movement with him. While pursuing his doctorate in Government at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, McLemore wrote his dissertation on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which he hoped would “contribute to an understanding of how a small but highly organized group, even in an atmosphere of hostility, can alter power relations.” He ultimately returned to Mississippi, where he joined the faculty at Jackson State University and he helped found the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy in 1997. Dr. McLemore also served for multiple years on the Jackson City Council and is the co-author of the book Freedom Summer: A Brief History with Documents.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994), 175-177.
Leslie Burl McLemore, “The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Case Study of Grass-Roots Politics,” 1971, University of Massachusetts Amherst, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Leslie McLemore interviewed by Joseph Sinsheimer, February 14, 1985, Joseph A Sinsheimer papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Frank Smith interviewed by Joseph Sinsheimer, May 23, 1986, Joseph A Sinsheimer papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Interview with Wazir (Willie B.) Peacock by Bruce Hartford, July 2001, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
List of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Delegates, August 1964, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
“The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” 1964, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Adam Lynch, “Fifty Years of Unrest: THE JFP Interview with Leslie McLemore,” February 28, 2007, Jackson Free Press.