The last of a five-day serial from a book by renowned journalist and Youngstown native Simeon Booker Jr., a portion of which details his first trip to the Mississippi Delta in the mid-1950s. “Shocking the Conscience” is in book stores now. Booker is commencement speaker Sunday at Youngstown State University.
By SIMEON BOOKER JR.
Excerpt from “Shocking the Conscience”
As president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Doc Howard also became a mentor to a young civil-rights activist named Medgar Evers. A World War II combat vet, Evers moved to Mound Bayou to sell insurance for Dr. Howard’s Magnolia Life Insurance Company after being refused admission to the University of Mississippi Law School.
Evers and his wife, Myrlie, who worked as a typist for the insurance company, spoke of Doc as “kind, affluent, and intelligent,” and “that rare Negro in Mississippi who had somehow beaten the system.”
While selling insurance, Medgar Evers also promoted the Leadership Council and the NAACP, becoming its first field secretary in Mississippi. He would become well-known as a dogged investigator of civil-rights violations — including lynchings — throughout the state.
One of his biggest campaigns, however, was the organization of a 1952 boycott of service stations that failed to provide restrooms for blacks. As part of this effort, Medgar and Myrlie, supported by other members of the Leadership Council, distributed 20,000 bumper stickers with the slogan, “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use The Restroom.”
Since most of the Negroes in the forefront of the council were businesspeople and professionals, it was this group, as well as poor farmers who might support the campaign, that the white power structure targeted in response, freezing all local credit lines in order to force an end to the boycott.
To counter the economic squeeze, Dr. Howard helped to establish, and served on the board of directors of, an NAACP “war chest” at the black-owned Tri-State Bank in Memphis. The fund ultimately defeated the white credit squeeze, and lent muscle to the NAACP and the Leadership Council in the campaign to urge blacks not to leave Mississippi, but to stay and fight for their rights.
To me, as a Northerner, for a black person to live day after day under the conditions I was seeing for the first time seemed second only to a death sentence. I was surprised, therefore, when young Evers told me the lack of civil rights and even the dearth of job opportunities were actually accelerating black efforts to improve conditions rather than make plans to leave. “Because of the racial situation,” he assured me, “Negroes are closer together.” Implying that a lot more was going on than met the eye, he added, “A lot of our work is carried on underground.”
When Jet ran my interview, the magazine’s cover asked the question of the day: “Should Negroes Leave Mississippi?” Evers’ answer was summed up in the headline: “Despite Terror, Miss. Negroes Vow To Stay And Fight Racists.”
In the same Jet issue, my weekly Ticker Tape USA column mentioned that Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs would make his first Dixie speech in Mound Bayou on April 29.
On that day, under a sweltering tent with an audience overflowing into the streets of the town, Evers’ call to stay and fight would be echoed by three powerful and moving speakers. One of them was Diggs, who would prove to be a staunch congressional advocate for the disenfranchised blacks of Mississippi. Another would be forced to give up everything and flee North rather than risk his life any longer. The third would be shot dead before a new moon had risen over the Delta.