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Thunder of Freedom

Thunder of Freedom: Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi

Sue [Lorenzi] Sojourner
with Cheryl Reitan
Photographs by Sue [Lorenzi] Sojourner
Foreword by John Dittmer
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  • Book Info
    Thunder of Freedom
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4095-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Photographs
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    John Dittmer

    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 “freedom schools,” and helped organize the Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the state’s white-supremacist delegation at the Democrats’ national convention in Atlantic City. The attention of the world had focused on Mississippi that summer after the disappearance of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County. When, nearly...

  5. Reflections on the Local Movement
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    Lawrence Guyot
  6. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    Sue [Lorenzi] Sojourner
  7. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  8. Part 1. Becoming Part of Holmes County

    • 1 From California to Mississippi August–September 1964
      (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 ten o’clock. The day had been hot and hectic because my husband, Henry, was doing some final repairs on our 1959 Simca. He got it started and running semifine. Henry and I took turns driving and sleeping, and the next day we looked for a...

    • 2 What We Walked Into: Early Voter Registration Efforts, Winter 1962–September 1964
      (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 local organizing. Movement strategists hoped the outside workers would bring the movement to the attention of their families, hometowns, and the press, so the world could see what workers in Mississippi had been facing every day.

      In 1960 black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth stores...

    • 3 Mileston September–October 1964
      (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 who had stayed on, plus Abe Osheroff, who made no secret of his intent to entice us, especially Henry, into his exciting community center construction project.

      Often in our first crack-of-dawn mornings, Henry did construction with Abe while I drove off with Mary, John Allen, Don Hamer, Larry Stevens, or Mike Kenney, the...

    • 4 The Holmes County Community Center November 1964–January 1965
      (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 farmers who had gone to South Carolina for teacher training by the SCLC.

      The teacher training began with the Highlander Folk School, which established citizenship schools in 1954 in South Carolina to help adults learn to pass literacy tests on the way to voting. The schools spread across the South until the state...

  9. Part 2. Working with the People

    • 5 The Congressional Challenge and Marching for Freedom January–July 1965
      (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 race had demonstrated that blacks would vote if the white system allowed it.

      The MFDP was challenging the legality of seating the “regular” (white) sixty-eight-member Mississippi delegation to the August 1964 Democratic National Convention. Spearheading the strategy for the Congressional Challenge effort were both Bob Moses, a SNCC and COFO organizer and the designer-director...

    • 6 School Desegregation, Head Start, and the Medical Committee Spring 1965 to Early 1966
      (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 it came, it wasn’t going to be easy. The Head Start teachers assisted in preparing the students. Zelma Williams said, “We helped the parents decide which of the children were the strongest. We sat each child down and told them all...

    • 7 Voter Registration December 1964–December 1965
      (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, Mr. Eugene, went into the voter registration office first. He asked to register to vote. He was told it was against the law, but if he insisted, he would have to do two things—pay a special tax, called a poll tax, and tell Mr. McClellan...

    • 8 The Greenville Air Base Demonstration and the Community Action Program January–December 1966
      (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 were struggling under.

      Before we left Holmes for the meeting, Mrs. Carnegie had told Henry and me that she would go to the meeting, but she certainly did not want to go to jail again. She insisted she was just going to...

  10. Part 3. Building Political Strategies

    • 9 Political Organizing January–June 1966
      (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 Holmes for several months after Freedom Summer, started looking at maps. He spent hours poring over maps of the county, figuring out the lines of the beats, the electoral subdivisions...

    • 10 The Meredith March June–July 1966
      (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 push. Many of us were upset because his one-man effort diverted attention away from the election efforts.

      The movement reality of needing to respond to Meredith and participate in the march frustrated, even angered, many of us. Then, surprisingly, the march ultimately enhanced...

    • 11 The November 1966 Elections and Coalition Building Fall 1966–January 1967
      (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 needed.

      One of the sharpest was Bob Colman, a white Australian who was a quick learner and very energetic. He was well suited to work with local people, Henry, and me. He worked well on his own as well as...

    • 12 Reading “The Some People” Story and a Trip North February–April 1967
      (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 a piece could help, for this was a meeting that brought together the new coalition committee and the...

  11. Part 4. Developing the Slate of Candidates

    • 13 Selecting the FDP Candidates from Holmes January–June 1967
      (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 politeness, that local people would be unable to do it without Henry.

      However, Henry’s withdrawal opened the way for professionals to step in and for all leaders to fully embrace their leadership roles. Before this time, Howard Taft Bailey sometimes deferred to Henry at meetings with what seemed to us...

    • 14 Black and White Issues with SNCC Workers Summer 1967
      (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 he was the first plantation person to join in the movement work. He came to learn more clearly about the movement, and he had the specific, passionate goal of organizing his...

    • 15 The Success of the 1967 Holmes County Elections September–November 1967
      (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 Montgomery for Beat 2 supervisor, John Henry Malone for Beat 3 supervisor, Willie James Burns for Beat 4 supervisor, John Daniel Wesley for Beat 4 justice of the peace, Griffin McLaurin Jr. for Beat 4...

    • 16 Changed Lives: Celebrating the Movement and Its People
      (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 it, I don’t remember any event to honor the First Fourteen and others who tried to register in those earliest days: Alma Mitchell Carnegie, Sam Redmond, John Daniel Wesley, Reverend Jesse James Russell, Rosebud Clark, and Hartman Turnbow, Annie Bell Mitchell, Charlie Carnegie, Norman Clark, Chester Hayes, Ralthus Hayes,...

  12. Afterword
    (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 the most thoroughly researched county in the state. Some of their work was funded by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. I spent much of that time photographing, recording, and interviewing local people and writing descriptions of them and their activities.

    The Head Start program in Mileston,...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 277-280)
  14. Chronology of Movement Events in Holmes County and the United States
    (pp. 281-294)
    Cheryl Reitan and Kimberly Stella
  15. Index
    (pp. 295-310)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 311-312)