Political Leadership and Civil Rights
In 1964, two of the most powerful leaders in America lived a few miles apart from each other in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Both represented the Democratic Party, but there the similarity ended. One was a long serving US Senator, a University of Mississippi educated lawyer, cotton farmer and plantation owner, and ardent defender of segregation. The other was a former share cropper with a sixth grade education, a strong singing voice, and an unstoppable will to vote and change the world. He was Senator James O. Eastland and she was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. He prevailed in 1964, but she ultimately won the civil rights revolution that swept America.
The Delta has been home to many great leaders, often representing diametrically opposed causes. Nathan Bedford Forrest, former slave trader and Brigadier General (CSA) as well as founder of the Ku Klux Klan, owned plantation property in Bolivar County; yet the Klan was asked to leave Greenville by Leroy Percy, former US Senator and iconic leader of Delta society, in a public debate on March 1, 1922. The White Citizens Council that opposed integration and spread across the southern states was founded by Robert 'Tut' Patterson in Indianola in 1954; yet the struggle for voter’s registration and civil rights was led by Delta citizens like Aaron Henry (Clarksdale), Amzie Moore (Cleveland), Fannie Lou Hamer and Charles McLaurin (Ruleville), and Sam Block (of Cleveland, but most active in Greenwood), not to mention Marion Barry, born in Itta Bena and four term Mayor of Washington, DC.
Blanch Kelso Bruce, the first African American US Senator to serve a full term lived in Rosedale. Isaiah T. Montgomery, born a slave south of Vicksburg, founded Mound Bayou as an all-black municipality and, as a member of the state legislature in 1890, voted for a Constitution that disenfranchised black voters. His eulogy was preached by Walter Sillers, Sr., his friend, and confirmed advocate of segregation. Walter Sillers, Jr., went on to serve in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1916 to 1966 as one of the most powerful members and as Speaker for his last 22 years. Charles (Charlie) Capps, Jr., known to many as Mr. Chairman, carried on the tradition of political leadership by serving in the House of Representatives between 1971 and 2005. Senate Concurrent Resolution 596, passed in 2005, commends him for many activities, including his support for higher education, and describes him with these lines: “…as a "Gentleman Statesman" possessing a congenial nature, the ability to listen effectively and a good sense of humor -- qualities which have enabled him to resolve volatile and controversial situations;….”
Bennie G. Thompson, currently serving his eighth term as US Congressman for Mississippi's Second District, Chairs the Homeland Security Committee. Mike Espy was the first African-American to represent the Second District, a district in which Fannie Lou Hamer originally challenged Jamie Whitten in 1963. Mike Espy (born in Yazoo City) went on to become the first black US Secretary of Agriculture, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Largely because of the Delta, Mississippi today has more black public officials, including Mayors, County Supervisors, Aldermen, and State Senators and Representatives, than any other state, something that truly amazes many Americans.
No discussion of political leadership would be complete without mentioning Haley Barbour, recent Governor of Mississippi and Yazoo City native. Barbour was the Chair of the Republican National Committee, and had run for the US Senate, prior to becoming Governor in 2004. Among his initiatives were a Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and a Civil Rights Heritage Trail throughout the state.
The Delta has a long and glorious heritage of political action and leadership, and many of the struggles that define our country took place here. It is hard to imagine what America’s human and civil rights situation would be today without the people and events that happened in the Mississippi Delta.
(c) Luther Brown 2012