I Question America: 1963–1964

Freedom Days! Freedom Schools! Freedom Summer! Freedom was the rallying cry of Black Mississippians in 1964 as demands for equal treatment intensified. Local movements matured in 1963 and grew into a coordinated statewide campaign. Coming from large cities and the countryside, people of all ages and experience gathered, working together to demand their right to equality. Most White Mississippians saw the 1964 Summer Project as an invasion of "agitators" and "communists." White determination to silence them grew more desperate and more violent. Mississippi attracted the attention of the nation, and both would be forever changed.

From the Gallery

Explore artifacts, photos, and documents featured in the I Question America gallery.

Savage Beating

Police, charged with enforcing the law, instead often brutalized Black Mississippians, especially those working for civil rights. On June 9, 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, June Johnson, Annelle Ponder, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman, James West, and others were riding the bus home to Greenwood, returning from an SCLC citizenship workshop. At the Winona bus depot, a few activists tried to integrate Staley’s Café. They were arrested along with others in the group. At the Winona jail, police and coerced Black inmates took them out of their cells one by one and savagely beat them.

When the group did not return, SNCC staff tracked them down. Lawrence Guyot drove to Winona to seek their release and was himself arrested and viciously beaten. Back in Greenwood, SNCC’s Willie Peacock immediately contacted the Justice Department and influential friends in the North to seek help. SNCC also bombarded the Winona jail with calls for Guyot, attempting to save his life by letting the police know they were being monitored. The group spent four days in jail on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest before securing bail.  

Timeline: 1963-1964

Hartman Turnbow’s Home is Bombed

Nonviolence was an effective tactic for activists, but some Black Mississippians armed themselves in self-defense. A month after Hartman Turnbow tried to register at the Lexington courthouse, his family was startled out of their sleep by night riders who hurled Molotov cocktails into their living room and kitchen. Turnbow’s wife and daughter fled while he retrieved his rifle. Turnbow exchanged gunfire with two White men and was able to drive them off. The family escaped injury and put out the fire. One of the night riders was rumored to have died of a heart attack.

Video Tour

McComb - Bombing Capital of the World

For two years after the 1961 murder of Herbert Lee halted SNCC’s activism in McComb, Klan violence kept COFO out. The summer "invasion" of northern activists increasingly agitated local Whites. Police chief George Guy headed the local chapter of the White extremist group Americans for the Preservation of the White Race. Police routinely harassed civil rights workers. One White middle-class neighborhood organized Help, Inc., to defend against presumed COFO attack. The sale of arms, ammunition, and dynamite boomed.

McComb’s Klan Klavern boasted more than 100 members, including J. E. Thornhill, a wealthy oil man with easy access to dynamite. On June 22, 1964, bombings shook three houses, including that of local NAACP leader C. C. Bryant. Over the course of the summer, the Klan bombed more than a dozen Black homes, churches, and businesses in Pike and Amite counties. Blacks posted armed guards at night. McComb Enterprise-Journal editor Oliver Emmerich remarked, "Almost everybody was hysterically afraid."

Points of Light

The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi is full of ordinary men and women who refused to sit silently while their brothers and sisters were denied their basic freedoms. A number of these heroes are featured throughout the museum as Points of Light, shining exemplars of dignity, strength, and perseverance in the face of oppression.

Dr. Aaron Shirley

Dr. Aaron Shirley

Growing up, Aaron Shirley recalled Mississippi’s African Americans having limited access to adequate hospitals and healthcare. After graduating from Meharry Medical College, Shirley returned home to accept a position as a resident of the University of Mississippi Medical Center—becoming the first African American to hold the position at the facility. Throughout his tenure, Shirley worked tirelessly as both a physician and civil rights activist to help improve healthcare for African Americans in the state. He cofounded the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Healthcare Center in 1970 and created a partnership with Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center to form the Jackson Medical Mall in the late 1990s.

Reverend Edwin King - © Matt Heron Take Stock/The Image Works

Reverend Edwin King

At great personal risk, Reverend Ed King agreed to run for lieutenant governor in 1963 as Aaron Henry’s running mate. He accepted the role reluctantly, still recovering from wounds suffered in a June car crash in which he and John Salter had been forced off the road. The Vicksburg native’s activism extended back to his student days at Millsaps College in 1958. As Tougaloo College chaplain, King joined Medgar Evers and John Salter in the Jackson Movement. He and his wife, Jeannette, transported Tougaloo students to the March on Washington at a time when sharing a car with Black people put them at risk. King also worked to desegregate Jackson’s White churches. For his activism, King became estranged from his parents and colleagues in the clergy. His parents felt compelled to leave the state.

Explore Mississippi

Many of the homes, colleges, and historic sites discussed in this gallery still exist today. Journey beyond the museum walls and explore the places where history happened.

Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Museum

Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights MuseumMuseum dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights heroes

17150 US HWY 49
Belzoni, Mississippi

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Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO

COFO Trail MarkerA human and civil rights interdisciplinary education center at Jackson State University

1017 John R. Lynch Street
Jackson, Mississippi

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