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Thunder of Freedom

Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi

Sue [Lorenzi] Sojourner. with Cheryl Reitan. foreword by John Dittmer

Publication Year: 2013

The world's eyes were on Mississippi during the summer of 1964, when civil rights activists launched an ambitious African American voter registration project and were met with violent resistance from white supremacists. Sue Sojourner and her husband arrived in Holmes County, Mississippi, in the wake of this historic time, known as "Freedom Summer."

From September 1964 until her departure from the state in 1969, Sojourner collected an incredible number of documents, oral histories, and photographs chronicling the dramatic events that she witnessed. In this remarkable book, written in collaboration with Cheryl Reitan, Sojourner presents a fascinating account of one of the civil rights movement's most active and broad-based community organizing operations in the South.

Thunder of Freedom unites Sojourner's personal experiences with her insights regarding the dynamics of race relations in the 1960s South, providing readers with a unique look at the struggle for rights and equality in Mississippi. Illustrated with selections from Sojourner's acclaimed catalog of photographs, this profound book tells the powerful, often intimate stories of ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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Copyright

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Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Photographs

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pp. ix-x

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Foreword

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pp. xi-xiv

Sue and Henry Lorenzi first set foot in Mississippi in September of 1964. Earlier that summer nearly a thousand volunteers, most of them white college students, came down to work with local people and full-time civil rights activists in projects throughout the state. They staffed the community centers, taught in the new...

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Reflections on the Local Movement

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pp. xv-xvi

Sue and Henry’s credibility in Holmes County was impeccable. They were in the movement from the fall of 1964 to the fall of 1969, and they are still identified with the community center at Mileston; they are identified with those first campaigns; and they were close to Hartman Turnbow and Ralthus...

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Preface

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pp. xvii-xviii

My experience in Holmes County gave me my identity as a white, middleclass outside agitator who was transformed by the black people I worked with. From the first day my husband Henry and I entered Holmes County, Mississippi, in 1964, I scribbled notes into my journal. I kept carbons of my letters sent north and copies...

Abbreviations

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pp. xix-

Part 1. Becoming Part of Holmes County

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pp. 1-

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1. From California to Mississippi

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pp. 3-22

We whizzed along in our cozy little car. It was August 14, 1964. It was a fine night. Lightning displayed all the mountains hidden in the blackness beyond us. Puppydog smelled like dog. He jumped into the back and arranged himself comfortably on the many cushions. We had left Los Angeles the previous night, after...

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2. What We Walked Into

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pp. 23-44

When Henry and I arrived in Mississippi in 1964, the civil rights movement had the attention of the nation and the world. Nearly a thousand outsiders, mainly white, mainly college students, had come into Mississippi to join COFO’s Summer Project and work on voter registration, freedom schools, and...

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3. Mileston

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pp. 45-66

Eighteen months after Holmes County’s first “movers” attempted to register to vote, Henry and I entered the county. There were many local people who were willing to struggle, who were gaining confidence, in addition to Hartman Turnbow. We joined Mary and the four COFO Summer Project volunteers...

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4. The Holmes County Community Center

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pp. 67-78

The regular Wednesday night Mileston community meeting was one of the first activities to move into the center building. It developed out of the 1963 citizenship classes on voter registration that local leaders Ralthus Hayes, Reverend Jesse Russell, and Willie James Burns taught. All were Mileston project...

Part 2. Working with the People

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pp. 79-

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5. The Congressional Challenge and Marching for Freedom

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pp. 81-102

On January 1, 1965, a busload of thirty-eight Holmes people left for Washington, D.C., to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Congressional Challenge, the culmination of the local and state FDP strategy that had begun in 1963. The Freedom Election during the November 1963 gubernatorial...

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6. School Desegregation, Head Start, and the Medical Committee

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pp. 103-126

Along with our Congressional Challenge and voter registration projects, we also worked on school desegregation. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was clear in proclaiming that all schools in the United States would be desegregated. But you wouldn’t have known it was coming, judging from the activity of the school board and administration in Holmes County. We knew that when...

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7. Voter Registration

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pp. 127-140

The increasingly intense work on school desegregation occurred at the same time as Washington was making strides toward greater equity in voting rights. In December 1964, eight months before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Sunnymount activists Bernice and Eugene Montgomery attempted to register. Their daughter Zelpha Montgomery-Whatley, of Galilee, recalled: “My dad...

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8. The Greenville Air Base Demonstratioin and the Community Action Program

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pp. 141-154

In February 1966, several Holmes County FDP leaders drove nearly one hundred miles northwest of Holmes to Greenville, in Washington County, for a three-day Poor Peoples Conference. Almost nine hundred poor blacks from many parts of the state were gathering there with movement organizers to figure out what actions they might take to change the abysmal conditions they..

Part 3. Building Political Strategies

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pp. 155-

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9. Political Organizing

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pp. 157-172

In early 1966 we had already begun our long march to the November 1967 elections. Those local elections were unlike any other project yet undertaken in Holmes. In a way, the effort had begun years before. The first act toward voter registration in 1963 was actually the beginning of work on the 1967 elections. As early as fall 1964, Larry Stevens, one of the white outside volunteers who stayed in...

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10. The Meredith March

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pp. 173-194

James Meredith’s 220-mile Memphis-to-Jackson March against Fear started at a bad time for ongoing voter registration and election organizing in Mississippi. He began the march on Sunday, June 5, 1966, two days before the June 7 Mississippi primary elections, which we referred to as the white Democratic primary. The march interrupted the Holmes and state FDP’s intense...

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11. The November 1966 Elections and Coalition Building

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pp. 195-210

After the Meredith March excitement calmed down, we got back to work. Sometimes national politics caught our attention, such as the formation of the Black Panther Party in California that October, but for the most part, we were immersed in Holmes County politics. That summer, new outside volunteers came in to do grunt work and planning—whatever the movement leaders...

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12. Reading "The Some People" Story and a Trip North

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pp. 211-222

On a pitch dark and cold, muddy night, February 10, 1967, an elections meeting was held in a large, paint-peeling, wooden church building. I had been asked to write a short piece, something that would take ten or fifteen minutes to read to the group. Its purpose was to set a mood— to call up a feeling in the people gathered—that would help them continue in their work and become more united in their strength. Some of the leaders thought such...

Part 4. Developing the Slate of Candidates

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pp. 223-

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13. Selecting the FDP Candidates from Holmes

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pp. 225-238

In January 1967 Henry and I had announced to the FDP executive board and a county coalition meeting that we were “transitioning out” of the 1967 politics. Many local people expressed disappointment and fears over the prospect of not having us working on the elections. They insisted, perhaps out of politen...

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14. Black and White Issues with SNCC Workers

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pp. 239-258

The spirited Edgar Love paid careful attention to the SNCC workers as early as 1964. In 1965 he helped out at the community center and talked about freedom to the plantation folks he lived with. He came from Refuge, a delta plantation where he lived with his parents in a house provided by “The Man.” In those early years, hearing his steps was exciting to Henry and me because..

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15. The Success of the 1967 Holmes County Elections

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pp. 259-272

Excitement was building. We had stuck to the decision to run as Independents in November, and the black slate numbered twelve. The candidates included Robert G. Clark for state representative, Robert R. “Bob” Smith for sheriff, Mary Lee Hightower for circuit clerk, T. C. Johnson for Beat 1 supervisor, Tom Griffin for Beat 1 justice of the peace, Ed McGaw for Beat 1 constable, Ward...

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16. Changed Lives

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pp. 273-274

We rarely celebrated. We just kept on working. The files Henry and I so carefully packed were full of the struggle, the lawsuits, the posters, the data, the agendas, and the strategy. It is rare to find information on the final project outcomes of any of the initiatives. Although they deserved...

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Afterword

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pp. 275-276

Henry and I spent nearly two additional years in the county after the elections, but we stayed out of the political realm as much as possible. Henry was engaged in his economic and health research programs. He and Demitri Shimkin led an innovative and extensive study of Holmes County, making it perhaps...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 277-280

After Henry and I left Mississippi, many people assisted as I worked to get the Holmes County story into a publishable form. During the final five years, I worked closely with Cheryl Reitan, a cofacilitator of my writing group. Cheryl, a gifted editor, writer, and arranger, became as passionate as I am in believing...

Chronology of Movement Events in Holmes County and the United States

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pp. 281-294

Index

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pp. 295-309


E-ISBN-13: 9780813140957
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813140933

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century