Greenwood (Leflore County)

Frank R Parker in his book Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi After 1965 describes Greenwood, the county seat of Leflore County, as being the “testing ground for democracy for the civil rights movement.”For two years starting in 1962, multiple civil rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) came into Leflore County and Greenwood for the sole objective of registering blacks to vote. They joined a grassroots system already in place to win the right to vote for members of the black community.

The reasons that made this area ripe as a “testing ground”are also detailed in Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom. One-third of the state’s population lived within sixty miles of Greenwood in those times, and that population was a majority black. At least since the Depression, Payne describes, the black community had made grassroots efforts to organize and solidify its base, in many ways for protection rather than to pursue a singular objective such as enfranchisement. Black society may have been separated from white, but it in some ways thrived independently due to economic and social support within its own community. Two local organizations that had a great influence in Leflore County were the Elks Club and the Citizen’s League, formed in 1957-58. The Citizen’s League focused on voting rights and the voter education movement. Over time, national rights organizations would come in to help organize Leflore County efforts.

During the middle of the Movement in the spring of 1963, the responsibility for the movement in Greenwood and Leflore County began to shift back to the locals with many of the national activists moving on to other battlefields such as Birmingham. Charles Payne describes it this way:

Black people by the hundreds had gotten in the streets
and fought for themselves, they had withstood a wave
of repression as severe as anything the Delta had seen
in at least a decade, and they had set the white folk back
on their heels for awhile. For young people long disgusted
with what looked like cowardice of the older generations,
for older activists who had been working for years with
little to show for it, there was some triumph mixed in
with the disappointment. The movement hardly collapsed.
Indeed, more people were arrested in June [1963] than
in March, and they were local people. After most of the
outsiders had left, local organizers and local people went
right back to the slow process of building a solid movement,
with more confidence than ever.

The national and state organizations and the young activists had been a catalyst for extreme changes in the social order of Greenwood, Leflore County, and the Mississippi Delta. They also took their experiences to other parts of the country and the South.

Sources:

Parker, Frank. Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi After 1965.

Payne, Charles. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.