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A Christmas boycott that worked

AT THE END OF 1961, some whites in the Mississippi Delta were dreaming of a “white” Christmas when they decided to keep their black patrons away from the annual Clarksdale town parade.

Its tone changed when the Coahoma County NAACP chapter led by civil rights activist Aaron Henry sponsored a large boycott during the 1961 Christmas shopping season. Downtown stores relied heavily on illegal trade, giving the boycott immediate and lasting effects.

Medgar Evers, head of the state NAACP, and Henry had met with President Kennedy over the summer during the NAACP convention in Philadelphia. National board members traveled from Philadelphia to Washington, DC on a “freedom train” where they spoke with the president and others about the severity of their problems.

“President Kennedy listened carefully, was very cordial, and gave us a tour of the White House,” Henry later wrote in his autobiography.

Several months later, the mayor of Clarksdale decided that there would be no black participation in the local Christmas parade: his decision would lead to the first major confrontation in Clarksdale since 1955.

Aaron Henry and others were stunned and offended by the mayor’s edict. It was tradition for the black band to play at the end of the parade, followed by floats from their community. There seemed to be no reason for this decision, except that the mayor “apparently resented the progress we were making across the state,” Henry said.

The announcement came in November and was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce. Henry and Evers called for a boycott of downtown stores with the slogan, “If we can’t parade downtown, we won’t trade downtown.” Flyers were printed and a bulletin sent out calling for blacks to join the boycott; Traders felt the pressure from the start.

The leaders of the white community did not reach an agreement with the black community and the boycott dragged on. Aaron Henry voiced the opinion of the black community, when he said that he could go on forever unless there were real changes in hiring practices. When the county attorney, Thomas H. (Babe) Pearson, asked Henry to come into his office and talk about the boycott,

“We met in his office at 7:30 the next morning. He told me he knew I was leading the effort and wanted to let me know it was illegal. He read something from a law book but didn’t explain what it was like.” related to the boycott, and I told him that our lawyers had warned us that we were not breaking the law unless we used threats, force, or intimidation to try to get people to participate. I did not use my influence to cancel the boycott. He gave no explanation of the legal process involved in such an arrest and was clearly confident in his ability to put a black man in jail whenever he wanted. I told him that he would have to do just that because I had no intention of canceling it. “

Aaron Henry didn’t move, so Pearson called Clarksdale Police Chief Ben Collins out of the side room, ordering him to “take this black to jail.” The arrest was illegal, as no warrant was issued, “and I wasn’t committing a crime in his presence, but I knew even better not to argue with an armed police officer. And I didn’t mind going to jail, as I believed it.” . would result in an intensification of the boycott,” Henry observed.

When they got to the jail, Henry was left standing in the lobby because no one was sure whether or not to book him and, if so, what charge to file. Seven other Clarksdale civil rights leaders were then brought in and all were locked up, despite the lack of charges.

When Coahoma County Sheriff L.A. Ross arrived at the jail, he was angry at the forced arrest and “genuinely outraged by the whole situation.” Ross demanded an explanation from Pearson, who told him the boycott was illegal.

Two hours later, Henry and others were finally charged with restraint of trade and released. After this, the boycott reached its peak. Merchants felt the economic pinch as they lost half their customers. But Pearson had other ideas, and several days later he insisted that Henry and others be placed “on tangible bond” of $2,000 each pending their court appearance.

Originally, Clarksdale’s black leaders were brought to trial in a court of the peace and found guilty of restraint of trade. When the county court upheld the conviction, it was appealed to the circuit court, which ruled that the petition must be modified or Henry and others would be released.

But there was no amendment, and Henry and the others were not acquitted or found guilty, while the bail money was withheld. “We were out of jail but not sure of our legal status,” Henry wrote.

While Henry and others were being arrested, another group, all white, launched their own boycott. The Mississippi State Legislature passed a resolution “almost no dissent” that no loyal Mississippian should buy in Memphis, Tennessee, just across the state line and fairly close to Clarksdale.

Angry that public accommodations and other facilities in Memphis were quietly desegregating, the Mississippi legislature had already “distinguished itself,” wrote Tougaloo professor John Salter, “by publicly investigating conditions at Jackson University Hospital, where the Black and white children were leaving their segregated homes. rooms and playing together in the halls.

The Clarksdale boycott continued for three years, eventually slowing down. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was found to be “a dramatic way to end it.” Along the way, the mechanization of farm labor made its way to the Delta, and as the need for black workers diminished, the meanness of whites increased.

On June 12, 1963, while returning home, Medgar Evers was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

(Excerpt from “Where the Rebels Land, A Mississippi Civil Rights Review”, Susan Klopfer)

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