Raised in Mississippi
Reflecting recently on what brought him into Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement, MacArthur “Mac” Cotton said the Movement had always been part of his existence. His grandfather was murdered for teaching local people to read. One day, when he was fifteen-years-old, Cotton was walking into a church service in Mississippi when a white boss stopped one of the local Black sharecroppers. He was furious that the sharecropper went to the church instead of plowing that day and told him to go back to the field. Instead the sharecropper began to walk away. The boss grabbed the sharecropper and shot him six times. People were afraid to carry the body away, and it lay there for hours. Decades later, MacArthur Cotton was still angered by what seemed like the people’s indifference that day. “Nobody really said nothing, nobody really did anything,” he said. “Things like that just happened. It happened all the time.”
Mac Cotton began working with SNCC while a student at Tougaloo College, joining full-time SNCC activists and fellow Tougaloo students like Dorie and Joyce Ladner, Jimmy Travis, and Joan Trumpauer. Together they helped establish a Non-Violent Action Group on campus. This campus group helped prepare each of these students as they later become SNCC field secretaries. Cotton left school for a time to organize with SNCC in literacy and voter registration efforts. He was one of the first SNCC organizers in Wathall County in dangerous Southwest Mississippi.
He was a Freedom Rider, too, and was arrested and put on death row for 39 days for trying to buy a bus ticket on the white side of the bus station. In Jackson, he was also arrested for distributing civil rights leaflets “without a permit.”
Joining SNCC’s work in Greenwood, Cotton led two hundred people to the county courthouse to register, which got him arrested. Cotton, George Greene, and other SNCC organizers were sent to the notoriously brutal Parchman Prison because of their work helping Greenwood’s residents to register. While in Parchman, Cotton and Greene were forced to lay on cold steel beds. Cotton was hung up by his hands for three hours in his cell.
Despite this physical abuse, Cotton stayed with the work. When in a new area, he would take coffee breaks to get to know what the people were thinking. He found that among those he approached that “the same people have me as a friend. They have become willing to discuss some of their more personal problems.” Cotton later reflected that a key aspect of organizing was not “creating” leaders in local people, but helping them to see themselves as leaders.
After the Movement, MacArthur Cotton worked on the Algebra Project in the Mississippi Delta, advocating for quality public education for all students.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University Illinois, 1994).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).