Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #48: Fireworks of a Different Sort

“I will never forget that Fourth of July, a Sunday [1964]. I rode through downtown to see if everything was quiet and noticed there was only one American flag flying on a day when normally there would have been flags in front of nearly every business and waving from the fronts of nearly every home. Surely not since the Civil War had there been such a loss of faith in our government. The patriotism, which normally seems to run deeper in Southern hearts, was not apparent on this sad day of our history. We were frightened, we feared violence, we had mixed emotions about a lot of things, and certainly we did not like a bunch of rednecks coming into town waving the Rebel flag, which we had always been taught to love and respect, as they drove around looking for ‘ni—-rs.’

“On July 8th a report was out that a group of national Negro leaders who had quietly desegregated Jackson facilities were to arrive in Greenwood. They did not show up, and we heard that some of the NAACP leaders were not agreeing with the tactics of the more militant SNCC group. The next night a gang of white men beat Jake McGhee at the Leflore Theater but he did not require medical attention.

“Every night Criss and I drove by the theater to see if there was any commotion, and usually there were was with the crowds of white men standing across the street. I always felt it was an explosive situation that could blow up at any time. One Sunday afternoon De La [Beckwith]’s son, who we called ‘Little De La’ along with several others, was carrying a sign in front of the theater saying ‘Coons go to this show.’ Big De La was watching from a station wagon parked in the alley next to the theater. I went around to the police station and told them that both De La’s were by the theater. This was during the time the police had been told not to interfere. They just looked at me and laughed, as did the mayor and Hardy [Lott], who were having a meeting in the City Hall with the two commissioners, Buff Hammond and W.G. Mize, to discuss the situation.

“After the meeting, Hardy worded the following statement to be given to the newspaper: ‘The City Council urgently appeals to the parents of all children to keep them away from dangerous situations created by the Civil Rights Act. As much as the City Council dislikes the thought, it is forced to face the fact that the federal government by court decree and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act has taken away from the State of Mississippi and local authorities the power to decide how racial relations shall be conducted, and has taken unto itself the authority formerly vested in the states and municipalities. As long as racial relations were in the hands of the State of Mississippi and its local authorities, they were handled in such a manner as to avoid the racial violence, discord and strife prevalent in the  North, but the Federal Government has now decided unwisely on a different and disastrous method of handling the matter. It is apparent that the method of handling racial matters decided upon by the Federal Government will promote racial strife, discord and violence. The City Council regards this with abhorrence but cannot shut its eyes to fact. We hope that good judgement on the part of the citizens of our City, both white and colored, will keep these troubles to a minimum, and we shall of course do our best to see that this is done. As one step toward attaining this end, we ask the parents of children to carefully control their actions during the trying years ahead.’ 

“The article was printed in the Greenwood Commonwealth the next day. It had a familiar ring to it as we remembered Governor Ross Barnett telling the crowd at the Ole Miss-Kentucky football game [that] law and order were out of the hands of the state.”

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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2 Responses to Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #48: Fireworks of a Different Sort

  1. Debbie Wiles says:

    Sara and I are working in tandem right now. Thanks so much for posting these. There’s something about having them “in the world” that gives me courage as I write Sunny’s story.

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