Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #7: Commodities Controversy

Dick Gregory heading for Leflore County Court House, 1963, photograph by Sara Criss

“Some of the [Citizens] Council members were keeping an eye on every Negro who registered to vote and reporting this information back to their employer with the suggestion that they might want to fire this person. Some did lose their jobs. A list of persons applying to register was printed each week in the Commonwealth.

“I was afraid of the Klan, afraid that if I wrote something they did not like I would have a cross burned in my yard, or be threatened, or be included in the hate sheets being distributed, but I was also afraid of the Citizens Council because their members were my friends and I did not want to incur their ill will either.

“In the early part of 1963 a series of incidents took place, and the civil rights struggle in Greenwood was mounting. On March 20, the Leflore County Board of Supervisors was called into session by Fred Ross, Commissioner of the State Department of Public Welfare, to hear a proposal by the Department of Agriculture in Washington to reinstate the distribution of surplus food commodities on the expanded program which was stopped by the Supervisors in 1962, on account of the financial inability of the Board to continue the same, and because they deemed it unnecessary.

“The Department of Justice had gotten into the act and reported that there was a need for surplus food. The Board of Supervisors replied that this report was most likely made by professional agitators who had issued public releases that many Negroes were starving and hungry in the county. The Board was confronted with the proposition of accepting the offer of the Department of Agriculture to permit it to make the distribution at the sole expense of the Federal Government or to decline and ‘subject the people of Leflore County, Mississippi, to an invasion by Federal Agents and probably marshals.’

“Large numbers of Negroes showed up at the Court House to register to vote, many apparently believing if they registered to vote they would be given commodities. FBI and Justice Department officials began arriving at the Court House to photograph records along with with civil rights workers.

“The county voted to go into the enlarged commodity program for one month. The county had been distributing food to about 5200 welfare recipients. The expanded program, under which 26,000 of the county’s 47,000 population received commodities, had been discontinued in September. In February, Negro comedian Dick Gregory issued a press release stating that he was collecting food to be sent to the Leflore County Negroes who had been cut off the commodity list because of voter registration attempts. A.H.Bell, attorney for the Board of Supervisors, issued a statement as did the Mississippi Civil Rights Commission, that this was not true, that the move to cut down on commodities had no connection with voter registration.

“Two shipments of food were sent into Greenwood a week apart. Negroes signed up for the food, but in the first shipment there was not enough to go around. The Gregory incidents apparently did not create much tension, with many local citizens saying that if Dick Gregory wanted to feed the local Negroes that was fine.”

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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