Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #51: Locked In

“A 21-year-old white Harvard student, Phillip Moore from Illinois, said Z.A.Prewitt, a local restaurant owner, hit him three times on the head near the SNCC headquarters. Prewitt was fined $25 on assault and battery charges.

“One of the most frightening experiences for us was on July 16 [1964] when three Negroes left the theater after an angry crowd had gathered. This was the fourth attempt that the same small group of Negro men had made to attend the theater. As they entered the theater about eight p.m. a large crowd of whites began gathering outside the theater, and Sheriff George Smith and his deputies arrived on the scene. At this point city police, who had previously been noticeably absent, also rushed to the scene, and Sheriff Smith and Assistant Police Chief Miller Wyatt escorted the Negroes to the police station down Howard Street. A crowd of whites followed behind them and milled about the streets. At the height of the disturbance, electric power to the downtown area was cut off for about five minutes. Police said they did not know who had cut off the power, but we later heard it was someone who was employed at the Greenwood Utilities.

“Criss and I had already gone to the police station and were standing inside when they came in with the three Negroes. There must have been 150 or 200 people standing outside the police station, and the police decided to lock the City Hall.

“Up until this time the national news media had apparently been unaware of all that had been going on in Greenwood since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and I certainly did not want to be the one to bring them back in. Since I was the only one here writing for an out-of-town paper, I knew if the Commercial Appeal carried the story they would all pick it up. I knew also that if Gene Rutland at the paper found out I was ignoring it I would probably get fired. So I went in the Mayor’s office and called the Commercial Appeal. I told Rutland what was going on and why I had not sent it in but that I wanted them to know that things were building up down here and that anything could happen.

“He got all excited and asked, ‘Have you called the Governor?’ He suggested maybe I should. He did, surprisingly, go along with me about not sending the story in at this point, but I always wondered if he called the Governor because the next morning several members of the Sovereignty Commission appeared at the Court House. The Sovereignty Commission had been set up by the Legislature to secretly investigate the civil rights activities going on in the state.

“We felt sure they would hold the three there that night at least until the white crowd broke up, but one of the policemen told us they had called a taxi to take them home. The crowd was still outside the building, and we were just positive they would find the three in the river the next morning. In fact, I called about five a.m. to ask what had happened to them, and a police officer said they had a little scuffle between them and some whites, but no one was hurt. Afterward we learned that the sheriff had stopped some of the whites a few blocks from the station and told them to leave. They were following the Negroes.

“Assistance Police Chief Miller Wyatt never did quit teasing me about the night he and I were locked up in the police station.”

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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