July 1939 – April 13, 2000
Raised in Cleveland, Mississippi
In 1961, Mississippi-native Sam Block was stationed at an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, as Freedom Riders streamed into Mississippi. He watched them excitedly. “I just wanted to be part of it,” recalled Block, “to be part of a movement that was doing something to eradicate the conditions that I was forced to live in all my life but wasn’t able to do anything about.”
After leaving the Air Force, he returned to his hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi and soon ran into an old family acquaintance and movement stalwart, Amzie Moore. “Get involved with the Movement,” Moore urged Block. With Moore’s help, Block, then 23-years-old, quietly set up a group of semi-underground citizenship schools around town.
This work caught the attention of SNCC’s Mississippi project director Bob Moses, who was planning to expand SNCC’s voter registration efforts into the Delta region. He asked Block where he would like to work. “Greenwood, Mississippi,” Block responded, thinking back on the lynching of Emmett Till in nearby Money, Mississippi. Moses asked again if Block was sure that he wanted to work in Greenwood, a bastion of the white supremacist Citizens’ Council. Again, Sam said yes. He arrived in Greenwood early in the summer of 1962.
Block’s entree into Greenwood marked the beginning of SNCC’s voter registration project in the Delta. He entered the cotton processing city without an established network of contacts. He remembered “hanging out in the pool halls, wherever people were, the Laundromat, run around the grocery stores,” to meet people. He also went from door-to-door “sort of testing the pulse of the people.”
It did not take long for his presence to become known. His landlady received threatening phone calls and asked Block to move. He lived out of an abandoned car for a time and had difficulty finding enough food to eat. But he was committed. “If I got a chance to do anything to help people, especially black people, then I was gonna do it.”
Gradually, it became clear that Block wasn’t just going to “stir up trouble” and leave. His willingness to stand up to white supremacist power slowly gained him local support. When the sheriff told him to get out of town, Block didn’t even flinch. “Well sheriff, if you don’t want to see me here, I think the best thing for you to do is pack your clothes and leave, get out of town, ‘cause I’m here to stay.”
As Block sunk his roots into Greenwood’s Black community, he recognized that there was a hidden anger and desire for change. Local people “were looking for someone who could give form and expression to ideas and thoughts they had had for years,” reflected Block. He became friendly with long-time civil rights leader, Cleveland Jordan, a respected member of the local Elks Lodge who schooled him on local county history and introduced Block at the local churches as well as to local people who he thought might be helpful to the voter registration effort. Together, they brainstormed organizational strategies that might work in Greenwood.
Block was continually arrested, but the Greenwood Movement slowly started to gain momentum. It reached a boiling point in February 1963, when Block was arrested for a seventh time for “making statements calculated to incite the breach of the peace.” Over one hundred local Black people angrily packed the courthouse. “They were drinking out of the [white] water fountain. They really had their chests stuck out. They came to get Sam out of jail,” recalled SNCC’s Willie Peacock. Part of their anger was caused by the devastating impact of the cut-off of the commodity supplemental food program in retaliation for the growing voter registration campaign. As Bob Moses noted, “For the first time they were seeing the connection between political participation and food on their table.
This reprisal by white power in Greenwood and Leflore County, and both the local Black response to it and the national attention it drew, put the voter registration effort in Mississippi on the front pages of newspapers for a time and set the stage for the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of 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).
Interview with Sam Block by Joseph Sinsheimer, December 12, 1986, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University Libraries.