Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #47: Doomed Theatre

Leflore Theatre, 1940s

“One black family which was to play a prominent role in the integration activities that summer [1964] was the McGhee family. The mother, Laura McGhee, was both mean and crazy. She had caused a scene at the Red Cross office [where Sara’s mother, Jessie Evans, worked] one day, and Mama said she was afraid of her. The sheriff said he had carried her to the State Hospital at Whitfield on once occasion for a mental condition and that she fought the deputies who were carrying her down.

“Laura had two sons, Jake and Silas, who were to become famous in the efforts to integrate everything in town. They were attacked and shot at and arrested but remained undaunted in their efforts. Shortly after the Civil Rights Bill was passed, 18-year-old Silas spent about twenty minutes in the Leflore Theatre. He told police some white boys hit him several times and told him to leave and poured a cold drink on him. He was accompanied by three Negro youths who left without buying tickets.

“The theater was owned by Paramount Richards in New Orleans, and the manager, Harry Marchand, had been told to obey the Civil Rights law and allow anyone to buy a ticket. He was severely harassed by the Kluxers for carrying out their orders as were the employees of the Holiday Inn, which was under similar orders.

“Every night or so Jake and Silas and a few others would appear at the theater, and more trouble would start. There were service stations on the three corners around the theater, and large crowds of whites would gather in them to see what was going to happen. CB radios in cars and trucks had just become popular, and many of them had one. They used these to notify others to come to the area of the theater. They would show up, many with small Confederate flags attached to their antennas and Rebel flags on their cars and trucks. They were not all from Leflore County. Many came in from Carroll and other surrounding counties. On Sunday afternoons they would ride around the theater watching every movement the Negroes might make.

“Most of the white people stayed away from the theater because they feared there would be trouble, and it looked as if the theater would have to close. That would have suited the mayor and Hardy [Lott, City Attorney], who had told the police to cruise a block or so away from the trouble spot but not to take any action. There were times when anything could have happened, and there would not have been a policeman around.”

Jackson Daily News article from 1969

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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