Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #10: Trouble on Our Doorstep

“Meantime voter registration was picking up and there was a lot of tension in the community. Prior to this time [1963] Negroes had been allowed to register, but anyone registering to vote had to pass a test, and most of the blacks did not pass. Later the test was outlawed.

“I went out to the SNCC headquarters one day in March, 1963, to write up a fire which had partially destroyed the offices. [Sam] Block said all his voter registration records had been destroyed and claimed that Negroes had seen two white men running from the area at the time of the fire. SNCC Executive Secretary James Foreman then demanded that Federal troops be sent to Greenwood, ‘to protect local citizens from shootings and arson attempts.’

“On March 27, with me in the middle of preparations for Mary Carol’s ninth birthday party, things really started happening. I had the living room full of Brownie Scout decorations for the party when Criss [Russell Criss, Sara’s husband], who was meeting some Heinz big shots at the airport, called to say that as he went past the Court House he saw that a crowd had gathered and that apparently there had been some trouble. He called the paper in Memphis and told them to send someone down here to help me because he didn’t want me to get too involved if there was a lot of trouble.

“I went to the Court House and found out that eleven Negroes had been arrested and were in the City Jail, charged with breach of peace after a prayer-hymn singing march on the Court House. One of the policemen, James Switzer, had a German Shepherd which he had trained but which was not owned by the police department, and he helped the other officers break up the march.

“The Commercial Appeal sent James Kingsley, a reporter, and Barney Sellers, a photographer, down to help me, and they sent all their stories in over my teletype machine and developed their film in my little under-the-stairway darkroom. They set up a UPI telephoto machine on the kitchen floor and pictures were sent out all over the country to the various news media from our kitchen floor. There were three or four newsmen in the kitchen that night, and Cathy and Mary Carol were bugeyed as they watched the proceedings. The phone rang, and it was Russell calling from Memphis to check on things. Kingsley answered the phone and told him they were drinking up all his whiskey. I think he decided he had better get back home.”

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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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4 Responses to Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #10: Trouble on Our Doorstep

  1. jenny adams says:

    do you remember that night? were you scared?

  2. sec040121 says:

    Most of these years run together into one long memory for me, although I do remember the night that all the newsmen were there and the telephoto machine was running on the kitchen floor. Your mother and I found it hard to believe that that wet photograph, fresh out of your grandmother’s darkroom, was being hurled around the world by that spinning cylinder. And, no, I don’t recall being scared or worrying for Sara’s safety, as she had a strong sense of self-preservation. In the next few postings, the atmosphere in Greenwood will get increasingly tense.

  3. Nancy Webb Phillips says:

    And yet, she had a wonderful birthday party for you! That was your mom!!!

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