Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #12: Days of Demonstrations

“I usually stood across the street from the Court House to observe the demonstrations and then helped the folks from the Commercial with the stories which were sent in to the Commercial Appeal on my teletype in the kitchen. They made fun of my darkroom under the stairs but processed all of their film in it. I would have loved to take pictures of the events but did not dare carry my camera down there because some of the local white characters resented the news people almost as much as they did the Negroes.

“There were many times which things looked as if they were going to get out of hand, and I was afraid I would be caught in the middle of it. One time when some of the Negro women started cussing the police and one bit the hand of an auxiliary policeman, I got scared and ran into Thompson-Turner Drugstore and called the Tri-State desk [at the Commercial Appeal] and asked [Editor Gene] Rutland to send someone down here, that I did not feel it was a good place for me to be.

“On the day of the first march, two of the local hotheads stopped Newsweek reporter Carl Fleming on the walk in front of the Court House and tried to choke him with his camera strap. Needless to say the story he wrote was not very complimentary. I just knew one of the newsmen was going to get hurt before it was over.

“Those who made the marches to the Court House were an odd assortment. There were a lot of old people, some in overalls and always an old crippled Negro who did yard work all over North Greenwood. I don’t think some of them even knew what they were marching for but had just been stirred up in the church meetings the night before. They were being led by leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and other Civil Rights workers, some of whom obviously came to Greenwood because they saw it as an opportunity to be seen on national television.

“One of these was Negro comedian Dick Gregory, who tried his best to be arrested and had told some of his cohorts that they could reach him at the Greenwood jail. The police grabbed him from both sides and escorted him away, but he was terribly disappointed when the police would not arrest him. Part of their tactics was to get themselves arrested and thrown in jail because that assured them of more headlines. When all else failed, Gregory stood on the steps going into the Police Station and told Police Commissioner B.A. ‘Buff’ Hammond, ‘You have probably got more Negro blood in you than I have.’ When asked what he said, Buff just laughed and said, ‘I’m not worried about my ancestors. They’re resting peacefully. I’m more worried about saving Greenwood.'”

Ed. note: Karl Fleming (Sara’s spelling of his name is incorrect) wrote a very interesting autobiography of his journalism career, Son of the Rough South.  His time in Greenwood is extensively covered and it is well worth reading.

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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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