Itta Bena, Miss. Works to Preserve Civil Rights HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Mississippi, civil rights history, SNCC
Klansmen were sitting in cars outside Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Itta Bena, Miss., on June 18, 1963, as local Black citizens held a “Medgar Evers Memorial” voter registration meeting. One of the Klansmen threw a tear-gas bomb under the church, causing noxious fumes to rise through the wooden floor boards as the conversation went on inside the church in the small Mississippi Delta town in Leflore County near Greenwood.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Silas McGee led everyone out of the building, where klansmen then hit them with rocks, bottles and other objects. It was just six days since white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, both a member of the racist Citizens Council based in Jackson and the Klan, had assassinated NAACP leader Medgar Evers on June 12 at his home in Jackson.
With McGee at the helm, the meeting’s attendees marched past the white supremacists in protest through downtown Itta Bena, even as cars tried to run them down. The sheriff ignored the klansmen, but he arrested dozens of protesters and jailed at the Caboose, an Itta Bena jail. The protesters were charged them with disturbance and breach of peace, The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper reported the next day. The paper said then that Sheriff John Ed Cothron had arrested 58, with 29 of them minors, loading them all into a school bus and driving them to the county jail in Greenwood.
White authorities held a five-minute trial the following morning with protesters, ranging in age from children to women in their 70s; records show that 45 protesters were fined and sentenced to the Leflore County prison farm.
The Greenwood Civil Rights Movement headquarters had no money to bail the protesters out, so they stayed in prison for two months. During that time, the inmates held hunger and work strikes, and the jail transferred 23 of the 45 protesters to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, where they endured harsh conditions.
On Aug. 16, 1963, the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization based in New York that supported the Civil Rights Movement, paid the protesters’ bonds, and they were released.
The church sustained no damage from the bombing, and voter-registration work continued. One hundred and fifty attempted registrants voted by affidavit in the gubernatorial primary in Itta Bena on Aug. 6, 1963, and state authorities rejected every vote.