McComb, Mississippi
The Backdrop for the Freedom School Play

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McComb, Mississippi was founded in 1872 as a repair station for the Illinois Central Railroad. The railroad was a major source of employment for McComb and its tracks separated the towns 14,000 whites from its 9,000 blacks. McComb was founded by the railroad in 1872; it became a tough blue-collar town with its history rooted in labor strife rather than slavery and Reconstruction. However, the collective memory of slavery and Reconstruction was engrained within the minds of the white population and Jim Crow set the tone for race relations.

 

The McComb chapter of the NAACP was founded in 1944 and could be described as inactive until the late 1950s brought new leadership with C.C. Bryant. Bryant brought focus, organization, and commitment to the NAACP through his member recruitment efforts. As the 1950s came to an end, the McComb NAACP chapter increased membership by over 50%, yet the organization was merely carrying on a holding operation in McComb. Most of the towns older and middle-class black population was still afraid to act and become highly involved in the organization. McComb's white Citizens Council remained a constant threat to blacks.

 

In the early 1960s, Bryant became aware that Robert Moses , of the SNCC , was trying to launch a black voter registration project in Mississippi. Bryant invited him to McComb. Moses came to McComb and worked diligently to recruit black support and voters. The McComb black community opened its doors to Moses , providing him monetary donations and locations for voter education classes. The black community of McComb proved that they were ready for change. Moses was soon joined by Marion Barry of SNCC who organized workshops to teach young McComb blacks nonviolent protest methods. The young black community was too young to vote yet wanted to be involved and Barry provided them a way to participate. The young black community began holding sit-ins, resulting in many arrests and expulsions from school.

 

The event of September 25, 1961 brought the actions of the black community of McComb to a halt. On this day, Herbert Lee , a black farmer and father of nine children, was murdered.Lee was shot and killed by E. H. Hurst, a member of the Mississippi state legislature, for his participation in the black voter registration campaign. Hurst was not charged for his crime.The murder of Lee sent the black community a strong message: stand up for your rights and you may be killed. The NAACP and SNCC organizers and volunteers realized nothing would happen in Mississippi unless people committed themselves knowing they were willing to die for social change.In the end, the revival of the NAACP and the introduction of the SNCC in McComb had registered only about 12 new voters and the town remained deeply imbedded in the Jim Crow tradition. However, McComb had provided the black voter registration movement with a valuable testing ground.When the movement returned in the summer of 1964, it brought focus and intensity as the NAACP , SNCC , and volunteers were ready to instill lasting change.

 

For three years the movement remained stagnant in McComb while the white Citizens Council and the Klu Klux Klan gained power and dominance. In the summer of 1964, a presidential election year, SNCC decided to return to McComb and focus on the voter registration drive with greater strength and establish freedom schools to teach reading and math to black children. The summer of 1964 became known as Freedom Summer . The white community in McComb welcomed the Freedom Summer with fear and panic.The sale of small arms, ammunition, dynamite, and Ku Klux Klan membership increased tremendously.The violence that escalated during the Freedom Summer of 1964 gained McComb the reputation as the bombing capital of the world. The violence influenced black churches to close their doors to the movement, meeting attendance diminished, and most people did not want to risk their safety by traveling to the courthouse to register to vote.Eventually, the youth that attended the McComb freedom school became the energy of the movement.The youth were forced to conduct classes in the backyard of the recently bombed freedom school because no other black institution wanted to offer their facilities. Joyce Brown, a sixteen-year-old freedom school student expressed the students concerns in a poem:

 

 

I asked for your churches, and you turned me down,
But Ill do my work if I have to do it on the ground.
You will not speak for fear of being heard,
So you crawl in your shell and say
Do not disturb. (Dittmer 1994, 268 )

Brown's poem was a turning point that summer. The black community was moved by her words and made facilities available for the freedom school and over 100 youth became enrolled. Churches re-opened their doors to movement meetings and attendance increased as people also began to donate money and food to the volunteers.

 

The Freedom Summer marked the rebirth of the McComb voter registration movement. In the face of the most violent and dangerous activities in the state of Mississippi, the volunteers and McComb black community made significant progress. Reflecting on his McComb experience during the summer of 1964, volunteer Harry Bowie said: "You saw people with relatively low levels of education, very little money, beginning to stretch themselves, beginning to see themselves as worthwhile, to overcome the years of deprivation" ( Dittmer 1994, 271 ). The summer brought commitment, confidence, and strength to the black community of McComb as the number of black registered voters also increased. The summer of 1964 forever changed race relations and shaped the future of McComb, Mississippi.