Donna Stark: Old times not forgotten

February 14, 2011 11:07:00 AM



My grandfather, John Benjamin Beck, was born in 1862. His earliest memory was of his father, John T. Beck, waking him up where he was sleeping with his two older sisters in front of the fire. His father put the guns, swords, knives and ammunition he had assembled for his first cousin, Nathan Bedford Forrest, under the blankets in the bed and told the children to pretend to be asleep. The federal soldiers would not bother sleeping children and they would be safe. The soldiers opened the door, saw the children and backed out of the room. 


My Daddy, Leon J. Beck, was a twin born in 1908. Brother Mahon and Leon were children numbers eight and nine. They were a "fall crop," and so uncontrollable they shot flies off the walls of their new home in Holly Springs with 38 pistols. They were returned by Bellbuckle, a strict boys school, as incorrigible. My Grandmother Beck gave up on them and they roamed the town of Holly Springs at will.  


My daddy remembers attending a lynching as a boy. It horrified him and gave him night terrors. He also remembered Sheriff Thompson (the meanest man he ever encountered) turning away a lynch mob from the jail and protecting the black man in custody. The mob all knew Sheriff Thompson would shoot them without a thought. 


My personal memories of injustice involved my playmates, three African-American brothers, who came during the summer with their mother to our place. My Uncle Fred was the county attorney, and he made it possible for their abused mother to hide her family from her husband. 


When school started in the fall, the older boy went back to work the cotton fields with his father, while the little ones stayed behind. They would have been around 6 and 8. On a miserable rainy Mississippi winter day after Christmas, our big yellow "Holly Springs Separate School District" bus rolled past the two little boys, who were walking to the Rosenwald school in the rain. It hit a pothole and sprayed water from the wheels drenching them. The other children on the bus laughed. 


I cried to see my friends so wet after having walked so far in the cold to almost make it to school before being inundated. When I got home I asked my mother why they could not ride our bus and go to our school. She replied they had their own school that was supposed to be separate because they were black, but equal to ours, but that was a lie. 


Now I know that in 1941-42 in Mississippi the state spent $175 for every white student and $11 for a black student. The Rosenwald schools were built with grant money that had to be met with private donations for schools to exist for black students. Yet, their parents paid taxes to support the white separate school district. In the 1940''s more than 66% of black schools had no water supply and 90% had no outhouses. A description of the one black Yazoo County school by the health department was reported in the Jackson Daily News to be a place where "classes were being held ... recently, with temperatures in the rooms below freezing." (Dark Journey by Neil R. McMillen) 


My memories are of my Aunt Christine coming from Greenwood and talking of the horrible murder of Emmett Till when I was 9; when I was 17, coming from Greenwood after the murder of Medgar Evers and saying "Delay is such a fool he is making the rounds in restaurants bragging about killing Evers!" She said he came from a good family and was a member of the Citizen''s Council, but he was just a fool. 


I cannot understand Haley Barbour not remembering. He lived closer to Greenwood than I did. Where was he during the same time period? Did he not read the newspapers, listen to his family talk? Was he raised in a family of white privilege where the only black people he knew were servants? How did he miss what was so pervasive for me? We are only a year apart in age and lived in the same state. What was he doing those years in the Mississippi Delta where so much suffering took place? 


How did he think the White Citizens Council operated? Did his family not talk about the 53 Yazoo City NAACP members who asked in the mid-50s that their children be afforded an education? They did not even ask for integration, just that the money allotted be equal. In 1955 in Yazoo City the county spent $245 for white students and $3 per child for black students, yet the White Citizens Council harassed those NAACP members until 51 of them removed their names from their petition and the other two moved. Haley Barbour was only 8 then, one might say, but he did form an opinion apparently about the White Citizen''s Councils, because we heard it recently. 


When I was 18 a group of students from Mississippi College went to Tougaloo to talk about what we could do as students to facilitate justice in Mississippi. Our license plates were taken down and informants in the group gave our names to the White Citizen''s Council of Jackson. They contacted the owners of the cars and told them to stop the activity or suffer the consequences. The administration at Mississippi College let us know there would be no more visits to Tougaloo. 


The Citizen''s Councils were a cut above the Klan, and except for Byron Delay Beckwith, I never knew of them to kill anyone. They used their business associations to deliver economic threats, and their ties to the law enforcement community to gather names of the "troublemakers."  


They were not upstanding citizens of the community. They were white bigots who banned together to harass people. They were cowards and bullies. They did not sign their names to their threats. 


Let''s not white-wash history for the purpose of giving our Gov. Barbour a pass. Amnesia is convenient, but cowardly. Our towns were not Mayberry, and there were those of us who did think "diddly" about it. In fact our past is our collective past and we are still seeing the results of this unfairness in our present when 78% of white males graduate from high school and only 47% of black males graduate ("Crisis", centennial issue 2010 of NAACP). 


All the citizens of Mississippi have a history to tell and not just the powerful affluent white ones. Thank goodness they are teaching civil rights in our schools now. Maybe all children will read, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly (MLK, 1963)." 


The writer lives in Starkville.