1964 — The Jim Crow South: a personal photo-journal of my trip with Harvey Edwards to make a fund-raising film for SNCC

Harvey Richards, important movement photographer and documentary film maker

 

In the Spring of 1964 I was asked by photographer and documentary film maker Harvey Richards to be his assistant on a month-long trip he was planning to make in the Southern states of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.  The purpose of the trip was to gather material for a documentary film that would be used to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  After he left a career as a machinist and union organizer, Harvey devoted the rest of his life to documenting important social issues and movements.  He made 22 documentary films on many subjects, including farm labor, the civil rights movement in the Bay Area and in Mississippi, and the peace and anti-war movements.  He also made two films in 1961 about women and children in the Soviet Union.  All of his films and many of his beautiful photographs are available on DVD or streaming from  hrmediaarchive.estuarypress.com, a website run by his son, Paul Richards of Berkeley, CA.

SNCC voter registration drive in Mississippi

 

At the time of our trip, in March, 1964, SNCC was organizing to conduct summer voter registration campaigns and to support the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP), which was running candidates such as Party founder Fannie Lou Hamer. 

 

SNCC's 1964 "Freedom Summer" was a campaign to bring hundreds of black and white supporters to Mississippi to register black voters.  Planning for Freedom Summer began in February 1964.   SNCC and CORE speakers reached out to students on college campuses across the country, drawing standing ovations for their dedication in braving the routine violence perpetrated by police, sheriffs, and other segregationists in Mississippi.  SNCC recruiters interviewed dozens of potential volunteers, weeding out those with a so-called "John Brown" complex" and informing others that their job that summer would not be to "save the Mississippi Negro" but to work with local leadership to develop a grassroots movement.

Charles McLaurin, John Bradford and Amzie Moore

 

In Mississippi we met SNCC worker Charles McLaurin and photographed him doing voter registration work.  In the photographs shown below, he is educating a young Mississippi mother about the importance of voting in order to give a voice to the needs of black communities.  We also met with Amzie Moore, leader of the NAACP in Cleveland, Mississippi, and John Bradford, a SNCC worker involved in the voter registration campaign.  Amzie Moore was the person responsible for having convinced SNCC that the movement should concentrate on registering black Mississippians to vote.  Mr. Moore took us to locations where we saw company-owned sub-standard housing, country sharecropper families and their shacks, "insulated" with old newspapers, and met a dignified older farm worker, "Hiram," working behind a plow pulled by mules.   We filmed and photographed numerous segregated theaters, health clinics, swimming holes, restaurants and hospitals.  We visited and filmed the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama where the KKK bombed the building in September 1963, murdering four young black girls.

Living conditions 

 

We filmed distributions of clothes and commodities in the tiny town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  I photographed well-dressed students streaming out of a black, segregated high school, a choir of young black women who sang at a meeting for FDP candidate Fannie Lou Hamer,  rural children living in a tiny, modest wooden homes, a girl washing clothes in a cast-iron pot heated by a wood fire, boys chopping wood for cooking stoves, children playing on a makeshift teeter-totter board rocking over a metal barrel, families living next to smoke-belching factories and the handsome and beautiful faces of poor black people surviving with quiet dignity.

Staying Safe

 

The KKK and the White Citizens' Councils advertised their dominions with graphic road signs, and we took care to try to blend in with the locals and not draw attention to ourselves.  We were in Mississippi two or three months before the murders of civil rights workers Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner, but we were already aware that if the wrong people got wind of what we were doing, we could be in serious trouble.  

Lasting impressions that changed my life

 

Our month-long trip made a lasting impression on me.   Afterward I felt like I had visited not just another part of America, but another country:  a beautiful, lush, green hothouse of unfamiliar flora, vibrant, wet deltas, verdant grassland savannas and spooky mangrove swamps and bayous.  And: the wide, slow-moving but powerful rivers.  I wasn't used to the humidity and the moist, heavy smells of the land.  I had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in integrated communities with large black populations, but the South was different, and the black people that we encountered seemed different.  They appeared to be connected to something powerful, something that I wasn't aware of back home.  I was too young and immature to consciously understand what it was I was seeing and feeling, but I could photograph what was around Harvey and me, and the impulse to capture it all on film was strong.  These  photographs are still alive and visceral for me.  They still give me a sense of the strong, proud children and grandchildren of slaves who called Mississippi and Alabama "home."

How to view these photographs

Move your cursor over any photo and left-click if you want to see a larger version.

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Roadside Ku Klux Klan sign, Alabama.

Theodore Bilbo statue in the Mississippi State Capitol Building, Jackson, Mississippi.

Roadside White Citizens' Council  sign, Mississippi or Alabama.

 

The Klan, Theodore G. Bilbo and the White Citizens' Council.

 

Theodore Bilbo was a politiician who twice served as governor of Mississippi and later was elected a U.S. Senator.  Bilbo believed that black people were inferior; he defended segregation and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

 

The Klan's history goes back to the 1860s, but in the fifties and sixties this extremist hate group existed in the form of localized and isolated groups that used the KKK name. They focused on opposition to the civil rights movement, often using violence and murder to suppress activists. As of four years ago,  the KKK was still active and its total membership was estimated at 3,000 to 6,000.  Citizens' Councils (commonly referred to as White Citizens' Councils) were a network of white supremacistextreme right-wing, overtly racist organizations, concentrated in the South. They opposed racial integration of public schools, black voter registration drives and integration of public facilities.  In addition to overt violence, KKK and White Citizens' Council members used intimidation tactics, including economic boycotts, firing people from jobs, distributing  propaganda, and threatening civil-rights activists.

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Alabama--the Confederate flag flies again.

Mississippi's "Welcome" sign is fairly subtle compared to Alabama's.

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A commonplace building motto takes on an ominous quality over the Quitman County Courthouse, Marks, Mississippi.

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Do things really go better with Coke?

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Mississippi healthcare for blacks available 6 hours a week. "No one registered after 2 PM."

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Mississippi movie theater, "colored entrance."

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Charity Hospital of Louisiana, New Orleans, LA.

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"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see"

 

Lyrics from the old Christiian hymn by English poet John Newton, adopted and adapted by Southern churches, especially black churches.

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Sixteeenth St. Baptist Church, Birmingham Alabama--bombed September 15, 1963, killing four young girls and injuring 14 other churchgoers.

Tombstone, Mississippi

Flooding, Mound Bayou, Mississippi

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Headstones in a white graveyard, Mississippi.

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Plowing in Mississippi.  His shirt says "Hiram."

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Charles McLaurin, SNCC voter registration campaign, Mississippi.

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Amzie Moore, head of the Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP and the main figure behind the 1964 Freedom Summer.

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Plowing in Mississippi with a two-mule team.

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Charles McLaurin, 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration campaign, Mississippi.

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John Bradford, Mississippi SNCC worker.

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Amzie Moore, standing in front of company housing for Federal Compress, which stored and shipped cotton bales.

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Harvey and I got ahead of Amzie Moore's car to take a photo of him as he carefully maneuvered the back roads of Mississippi, stopping on a one-way bridge.  This rickety, isolated bridge gave me the creeps.  In the movies, bad things could happen after dark on such a bridge.  

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Mound Bayou food, toys and clothing distribution.

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Mound Bayou food, toys and clothing distribution.

Mound Bayou, Mississippi

Mound Bayou, in the  Mississippi Delta, was a town founded in 1887 by former slaves, with a vision that was revolutionary for its time.  From the start, it was designed to be a self-reliant, autonomous, all-black community.  For decades, Mound Bayou thrived and prospered, becoming famous for empowering its black citizens. The town also became known as a haven from the virulent racism of the Jim Crow South.  By the time this photo was taken, in 1964, many residents had moved on to find better opportunities, and most of those remaining lived below the poverty line

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Mound Bayou, Mississippi;  toys were a welcome part of the clothes and food distribution.

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It seemed as if everyone in this tiny town of Mound Bayou knew each other.

SNCC wortker John Bradford doing his job registering voters in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

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Mound Bayou residents waiting their turns at the distribution of food and clothes (left, below, above)

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Young boy, Mound Bayou.

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Four men at the Mound Bayou, Mississippi food and clothes distribution.

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Mother and daughter, Mound Bayou, Mississippi food and clothes distribution.

Boy with toy pistol, Mound Bayou, Mississippi food and clothes distribution.

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Local teenage choir, singing at a rally for Freedom Democratic Party candidate and civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi.

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Young boy, Mound Bayou, Mississippi food and clothes distribution

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Three children living with their mother (not pictured) in a Mound Bayou, Mississippi  tar-paper shack

Little girl in her yard, Mound Bayou, Mississippi

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Feeding the family chickens, Mound Bayou, Mississippi

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His daddy's old belt, Mound Bayou, Mississippi

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Boy playing in the dirt, Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

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Two boys on a porch, Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  An outhouse is in the background.

Two girls on a makeshift teeter-totter, Mississippi

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Chopping a log into firewood for a stove, Mississippi.

Girl washing clothes in a wood-fire heated cast-iron pot, Mississippi.

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Outdoor ping-pong with smoke-belching factory in the background, Mississippi.

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Little girl in her yard, Mississippi.

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George Washington Carver High School students in Birmingham, Alabama walking home.  This was just one of many all-black Southern schools with this name.