A Courageous Cause: Republicans and the Civil Rights Struggle by Gregory Hilton

What is expected to the largest event in Mississippi history will be held from May 22nd through the 28th. A wide variety of activities will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders who integrated interstate bus transportation, and the entire civil rights struggle.
According to the organizers, “The Freedom Riders started the movement which changed the way people thought about race in America.” President Obama is expected to be the main speaker.
The event is happening at the same time as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. There were approximately 300 Freedom Riders and 80 of them are now deceased. The others are being invited back to Mississippi where initial plans for the new $55 million Civil Rights Museum will be unveiled. The museum will “do justice and stand as a monument of remembrance and reconciliation”.
What Will You See at The New Civil Rights Museum?
The planned exhibits at the Civil Rights Museum will tell the story of bold and courageous protesters, and emphasize the prevalence of racism. For a century after the Civil War many residents of the state participated in cruelty, or looked the other way when confronted by injustice. Blacks never had the option of being bystanders in matters of race. Visitors will learn:

  • Mississippi was so violently racist that Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders hesitated to organize the state.
  • Between 1882-1968, there were 581 lynchings in Mississippi, more than any other state.
  • For over a century blacks had to pay a poll tax, and there were no integrated public schools, restaurants, hotels or swimming pools.
  • They will emphasize why the 1964 Civil Rights Act was so important. Even if a business owner wanted to serve blacks, it was forbidden by state law.
  • You will see photos and video of the first integrated Trailways bus which arrived in Jackson on July 9, 1961. A huge crowd was waiting and screaming curse words and “niggers.” There was no violence because so many police were present. However, all the Freedom Riders were arrested for violating the state’s segregation laws when they entered the “White’s Only” bus terminal. They spent the next two months in jail.
  • They had been traveling on interstate buses to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia prohibiting racial segregation in interstate transportation. Many Freedom Riders were beaten with baseball bats, lead pipes and bicycle chains.
  • There will be a prominent display about Emmett Till, 14, who was brutally beaten and murdered in 1955 after whistling at a 21 year old white woman. His body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River. The murder is now considered a landmark event in the fight for civil rights. It was the inspiration of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which began on December 1, 1955 with the arrest of Rosa Parks.
  • The next room will honor Medger Evers, the Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary for nine years, who was murdered on his doorstep in 1963. 46 years later his widow opened the new Medgar Evers Pavillion, the main arrival terminal at the Jackson Airport, which tells his story. When Evers was a teenager there was a public high school a few blocks from his house. He instead had to walk 6 miles to the black high school. The Medgar Evers House and Museum is also located in Jackson.
  • The museum will show documentaries such as Freedom Riders about the events of 1961 and Mississippi Burning about the murder of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. They had been working to register black voters.
  • The FBI arrested 18 men in connection with the murders but state prosecutors refused to try the case. The federal government had to step in, and seven men were convicted. The other defendants were acquitted by all-white juries. On June 21, 2005, the 41st anniversary of the murders, Edgar Ray Killen, 81, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
  • Vernon Dahmer of the state NAACP was murdered in a 1966 firebombing in Hattiesburg. The Grand Wizard of the KKK was convicted of ordering the attack.
  • The first Freedom Rider arrested in the state in 1961 was Lula White, 22. They quote her as saying: “People died for the right to vote. Not just beaten up, but killed. I get furious when I find out that today many people don’t bother to vote.”

Has Mississippi Changed?
Mississippi is still a poor state when judged by per capita income, but none of the nation’s five most segregated cities are in the former Confederacy. Black people are more likely to live in poverty in Indiana than in Mississippi. The state now leads the nation in having the most African-American elected officials. People in their 60s attended integrated schools.
What Were Mississippi Republicans Doing During the Civil Rights Era?
Their story is told in the new book, A Courageous Cause: A Personal Story of Modern Republicanism’s Birth from 1956 to 1966 in Mississippi by Wirt Yesger, Jr. Yeager was 26 years old in 1956 when he left the Air Force and came home to Mississippi.
Many people thought he was foolish but Yeager decided to form a Republican Party in this solidly Democratic state. He was its first Chairman during that initial decade and this was a time when segregation was the official policy of the Democrats. The book describes many internal GOP battles and there was a struggle to keep racists out of the GOP.
A resolution advocating segregation was proposed at the first statewide meeting, and Yerger was prepared to walk away from the GOP if it was passed. It failed along with every subsequent attempt. Segregation was for the Democrats, not for Mississippi Republicans.
In its review, the Madison County Journal notes the book:

Provides a documented first-hand account of the effort which occurred simultaneously to the civil rights movement. While attacks against the GOP did not compare to what civil rights leaders faced, they did encounter ridicule, threats and hatred based on the same motivation: the Democrats sought to continue white rule. The power structure of the day viewed Republicanism as threat to segregation.
Featured in the book is an example of a 1963 Democratic advertisement: ‘The best defense for our way of life is unity of the white conservative majority under Mississippi Democratic leadership.’ A Democratic campaign flyer that year proclaimed ‘Danger: a two-party system in Mississippi would end our way of life’ and encouraged voters ‘to stamp out Republicanism.’

They were correct, and their way of life was stamped out. Next door in Alabama, John Grenier, became chairman of the Republican Party in 1960 at age 29. He also helped to defeat resolutions which called for segregation, and said “Young people are sick and tired of a one-party system in the South. It is just ridiculous, and the old people will not change it. We can win. We’ve got a product and a sales force, just like a business. The product is conservatism in the South.”
For many years Republican hopes were forlorn. Progress was slow, and after 80 years the GOP finally had a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate in 1963. By 1967 the GOP was still receiving less than 30% of the vote.
Today only one Democrat remains in the state’s congressional delegation. Last November Democrats lost the State Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. Statewide elections will be held this year and Democrats have no candidates for lieutenant governor, secretary of state or auditor.

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