Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #81: Trouble at the Valley

“One of the scariest situations that we found ourselves in during all of the racial incidents was at Mississippi Valley State College in February, 1970. The all-black college had been founded in 1950 and Dr. J.H.White, a black, had been president since its beginning. The school had done well under his leadership and he got along very well with the county’s white population. He was a quiet, dignified man from Tennessee, and my relations with him when I had to get news from him had always been good. When he later wrote a book about his life and the college, he asked me to write something to be included in it. I declined because I was too busy at the time and not too sure what to write.

“The college’s troubles began when the students, under the leadership of Tyrone Geddis, Student Government Association president who later went on to Ole Miss to law school, made certain demands of President White, threatening a boycott if he did not meet them. They staged a 99 percent effective boycott of classes for one week. That boycott resulted in student arrests, threats of dismissal and suspension. Black activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke to the students and promised to bring thousands of people to MVSC in support of the students. ‘You are dealing with beautiful young black men and women,’ she told President White. She described the education at the college as ‘pretty lousy.’ She urged the students to stand behind their leaders, saying ‘You will have to demand because no one is going to give you anything.’

“Geddis warned that if Dr. White did not submit to his demands by a certain time, ‘I’ll march on your like Sherman marched on Richmond.’ Later when Geddis announced to the students that the demands were not met, he told them, ‘We intend to do something about it. Until we get some kind of compliance there ain’t gonna be no class.’

“The situation continued to become very tense. Dr. White called me one Saturday night and asked that I be over there on Monday morning because the students had threatened trouble. MVSC was a state school so there were highway patrol cars all around, and the State College Board was in almost constant contact with Dr. White. Russell and I felt that we would be safe in going to Dr. White’s office since there was so much law enforcement around but we arrived before the Administration Building opened. There were signs all over the doors denouncing Dr. White. After we got in his office he locked the door since crowds of angry students were outside hitting on the windows and shouting insults. I really wasn’t sure how we were going to safely get out and back to the car. As we did leave some of them began hollering ‘honky’ at us, and I was glad to get in the car and head back home.

“The trouble continued to escalate, and I asked theĀ Commercial Appeal to send a man in to help me cover the story. They sent Ken Tolliver from the Greenville bureau over the afternoon that more than 900 students were arrested and piled in buses and brought to Greenwood. Judge Clark ordered the county to release them, and law enforcement folks worked all night handling the papers releasing them. After things finally settled down over there the student population dropped pretty drastically as many dropped out of school.

“Dr. White remained as president until he retired some time later, but the whole affair really took its toll on him. He was a nice man.”

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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