Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #5: SNCC and Voter Registration

“Prior to 1963 there were less than 400 Negroes registered to vote in Leflore County. In 1960 the FBI came to Greenwood to look at voting records in the Circuit Clerk’s office. County officials stated that they had nothing to hide, that Negro applicants were treated just like whites when they applied for registration.

“Then in August 1962 Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee members, Sam Block and Robert Moses, conducted a voter registration school in a building in the Negro section of town. They took a group of ten or twelve Negroes to the Court House in August to register. They had apparently notified CBS that they expected trouble, and CBS had a rented station wagon parked all day at the Court House with windows blacked out and cameras inside.

“The population of Leflore County at this time was 16,699 whites and 30,443 blacks. In Greenwood the population was 9,818 whites, 10,501 blacks and 11 ‘other races.’ In order to vote you had to register and pass a test in which you were asked to interpret part of the State Constitution. You also had to pay a $2 poll tax each year. Not many blacks attempted to register, and those who did usually failed to pass the test.

“City Attorney Hardy Lott, who was also attorney for Circuit Clerk Martha Lamb, made the statement to a Commercial Appeal reporter from Memphis that from 1955 through January 1, 1962, less than 100 blacks had qualified. ‘It has not been a case of the Negroes not registering, they just didn’t make application,’ he said. ‘A large number of Negroes had taken voter registration tests since concentrated drives were started in August sponsored by the federal government and their cohort organizations but the percentage is very small of those passing.’ Lott continued, ‘It’s not a case of discrimination on the part of the county. It is the ignorance on the part of the applicants that these Negro organizations are finding scattered around to take tests. Many can’t even read or write.’

“I always felt that we were to blame for much of the trouble we had by failing to let qualified applicants pass the voting test and then having the federal government come in and tell us that we would have to let everyone who applied and met the residency and age requirements register, even those who could not read and write. I still do not feel that anyone who cannot read or write should be allowed to vote.”

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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