Never Turn Back: An Interview with Sam Block

Magazine cover with photo of rocky creekbed surrounded by green forest

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 2, "Worth Fighting For." Find more from that issue here.

The following article contains anti-Black racial slurs.

When Sam Block entered Greenwood, Mississippi in June of 1962, he launched one of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC or "Snick”) most important and most violent voter registration campaigns. For six weeks, Block struggled alone to gain the respect and support of Greenwood’s black community until reinforcements arrived. During that time the city’s White Citizen’s Council—the “Gentleman’s Klan” — did their best to “encourage” Sam Block to leave town. Block and fellow workers Willie Peacock and Lawrence Guyot were harassed, arrested, and beaten as they spread their freedom message from Greenwood to the surrounding plantations. 

The immediate response from most of the black community was fear and suspicion. Block recalls how the young people would “walk on the other side of the street” when they saw him coming and that he was “no longer welcome" in the town’s poolhalls after people discovered who he was. One black resident recalls that the older women in the community would sit on their porches at dusk and talk about how “ugly" Sam Block was. It was their way of hiding their fear and their excitement about having a civil-rights worker in their Delta town. 

The black community’s fear was not unjustified. Eight years earlier, Emmett Till had been brutally beaten and drowned just for whistling at a white woman. He was not the first nor the last black lynched in the area. Whites controlled Greenwood’s entire legal, political, and economic structure. Self described as the “Cotton Capital of the World,” Greenwood was built, sustained, and surrounded by cotton. Because of its proximity to the Yazoo River, the city became a center for cotton growing, ginning, and compressing in the late nineteenth century. By 1963, the Greenwood Cotton Exchange, representing 42 different local firms, handled more than 800,000 bales of cotton annually, second in sales only to the Memphis market, three hours to the north. These labor-intensive operations demanded the submission of the Delta’s blacks, who in 1960 still comprised the majority of Greenwood’s population and almost two-thirds of Leflore County’s 46,000 inhabitants. In October 1962, the Leflore County Board of Supervisors, worried about the threat of SNCC’s fledgling voter registration campaign in Greenwood, voted to stop distributing surplus food to 22,000 county residents, claiming that the county could no longer afford the storage and distribution costs of the food program. Sam Block and other SNCC workers charged that the board’s decision to terminate the surplus food program was an “intimidation tactic,” a “retaliatory action" against the voter registration campaign. “Commodities are the only way that many Negroes make it from cotton season to cotton season,” one SNCC worker explained. “If this is taken away from them, they have nothing at all." 

By mid-winter conditions were desperate and the SNCC staff organized a national  food and clothing drive for the poor. Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte helped the campaign with publicity and fundraising, and within a matter of weeks SNCC workers were handing out thousands of pounds of food in Greenwood. The food drive turned out to be a major catalyst  for the Greenwood voter registration drive. Hundreds of plantation workers came into Greenwood to receive the free food and continued on to the county courthouse to attempt to register to vote. 

The success of the food drive led directly to increased Citizen Council intimidation. On the night of February 20, arsonists destroyed four black-owned businesses and unsuccessfully tried to burn down the SNCC office. Ten days later, white hoodlums attacked a car carrying three civil-rights workers. Thirteen .45 calibre bullets ripped through the car, seriously injuring Jimmy Travis. 

The Travis shooting opened the third phase of the Greenwood campaign. In less than two weeks, over 25 fulltime civil-rights workers moved into Greenwood in a display of support for the city’s black community. Local blacks began daily marches to the county courthouse, demanding their right to vote. For two weeks, beginning in late March, Greenwood’s black community was afire, as city officials tried desperately to find some way to quell the disturbances. A national television audience watched as Greenwood police employed dogs and clubs against the demonstrators. 

Two weeks later, the country’s attention shifted to Bull Connor's Birmingham, Alabama, and federal officials were able to maintain a temporary truce in Greenwood. But the Delta town continued to occupy a central place in the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Freedom Summer Project of1964 which SNCC coordinated with other civil-rights groups through the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). 

What follows is an interview with Sam Block, one of SNCC’s most successful organizers. Block now lives in Wilmington, California and thinks often of returning to Mississippi. Although Block’s story is unique, it is one of dozens of similar accounts that provided the foundation for the civil-rights movement in Mississippi and across the Deep South. A new generation of black Americans had come of age, a generation that had simply had enough; like Sam Block, they resolved to “never turn back” in their fight for freedom. This interview is one of more than 30 conducted by Joe Sinsheimer for a book he is preparing on the Mississippi Freedom Movement with the support of a fellowship from the Lyndhurst Foundation. 


I was born and reared in Cleveland, Mississippi — 110 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee and 110 north of Jackson, Mississippi. I was born in 1939. It’s quite a history as to how I got involved in the civil-rights movement It goes back to when I was approaching my teens, probably nine or ten years old. 

My mother worked for a federal district judge in the state of Mississippi. She reared his kids. She cooked, she did everything for the family. And this was our livelihood. My father was unemployed because of injuries he had sustained at the cotton compress where he used to work. And I used to mow the lawn of this particular judge every weekend. It looked to me like five or ten acres, and it would take me all day to mow. Well, one Saturday it had rained, and I was unable to mow the lawn. But I needed some money to go to this basketball game — it was a tournament at the high school. I walked to the judge’s house, perhaps four or five miles from our house, which my mother walked every day to and from work. 

I didn’t think about what I was doing, I just walked to the house and knocked on the front door. The judge himself came to the door and he said, “Sam, what in the hell do you want.” And I said, “Judge, I wanted to know....” He said, “Wait a minute, first thing you know that you don’t come to my front door of my house for any goddamn thing. Now you get your little snotty-nosed black ass away from this front door and go on around to the back and knock and I will come and you will tell me what you want.” 

Now my mother had always taught me that here is a man that loved me. He and his family gave us their leftover clothes and food, and a large amount of what we had came from him. So he really hurt me — but I didn’t know how to deal with it psychologically. I did go on around to the back door and knocked on the door. Judge came to the door and said, “Yeah, now what do you want?” I said, “Well Judge Green, I wanted to know if I could borrow the $21 would have made mowing the lawn to go to a basketball tournament at the high school.” 

He said, “Well, Sam, right now I am busy. You go back home and call me back in about two hours.” This was in the early morning, say around 8:00 that morning. 

So I went home. We didn’t have a telephone at our home but across from our house, about 500 feet away, was a seed company that had a warehouse on one side of the street and an office on the other side of the street. So I slipped in this warehouse — this is how we would make our phone calls — and I called the judge. I told him who I was. He said, “Well, Sam, I am still busy. Give me the number where you are and I will call you back in perhaps another 30 minutes.” I gave him the number and sure enough he did call back in perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. 

But there was a person who was in the office of this particular seed company that I didn’t know about. They had adjoining phones so when the phone rang in the warehouse, it also rang in the office. So he picked up the phone at the same time that I did, and he answered by saying Pace Seed Company before I could say anything. So the judge said, “Oh hell, I think I have got the wrong goddamn number.” And the man in the office said, “Well, who are you calling? Who is this?” “Oh, this is Judge Ed Green.” 

So everybody in Mississippi in small towns like that knew each other. “Oh, Judge, this is Glen Otis down here at Noble Pace Seed Company.” He said, “Oh, how are you doing.” He asked about Mr. Pace and so on and so on. He said, “Judge, who are you calling for?” He said, “Oh, I was calling for a little snotty- nosed black nigger boy. His goddamn old Mammy has been working for me all her goddamn life. And you know how niggers are. They want to know if you can give them something or they can borrow something.” He said, “Oh, who are you talking about?” He said, “Sam.” He said, “Oh, I can run down there and get him, Judge.” He said, “No, no, no.” 

And by that time tears had begun to come in my eyes. I was really hurt emotionally then. It just seemed like my whole attitude changed immediately. It was so hurtening because my mother was still with the feeling and belief that this man loved us. And for him to have said just what he said about her was what hurt me most. 

I got behind those sacks of seeds and I cried like a baby. I really didn’t know how to handle my emotions then. And I made up in my mind over a period of time, from that first incident there, that if I ever got a chance to do anything to help people, especially black people, that I was going to do it. 

Another time, after I mowed the judge’s lawn on Saturday, I went back around the town way, through Main Street, and I saw white kids sitting on the stools in the Rexall drugstore eating ice cream and everything. And I just decided that I wanted some ice cream, so I went into the drugstore myself and sat on the stool. The next thing I knew a man and a woman came and grabbed me by the collar and pulled me to the backdoor and said, “You know damn well that you don’t come here and order any ice cream. If you want anything you get your ice cream back here.” 

I left and I went home. But when I got home, they had already driven down to my house and had told my mother what happened. So my mother made me pull off my clothes and she took an ironing cord and almost killed me because she said she would rather do it than have them do it. 


These lessons, and there were many more, reassured me that there was a very distinct difference between races and people. And it made me take another look at my own surroundings. I began to notice that the railroad tracks separated the black community from the white community in our little town. Our house was perhaps 200 feet from the railroad track. I was out of school a lot because of my asthmatic condition, and I would see black prisoners in stripes from the Mississippi State Penitentiary up there unloading the gravel and asphalt for the tracks, and I saw white prisoners standing there on the ground guarding them with shotguns. 

So I grew up wanting to do something. What made me realize that I had to do something was when Emmett Till was killed. And it happened right there by Leflore County. I was a teenager then. 

After I graduated from high school, I went to Harris Teacher’s College in St. Louis, and then I went into the air force. I didn’t stay very long because of my asthma. I was trying to get out anyway because what I had dreamed about being involved in all my life was happening. Students were being beaten for riding the front of the buses and other Freedom Riders were thrown in jail. And I just wanted to be a part of a movement that was doing something to eradicate the conditions that I had been forced to live in all my life. 

So I came back to Cleveland, Mississippi. I wanted to find a way to get involved in the civil-rights movement, but about that time most of the Freedom Riders were in prison and everything had quieted down a little. This was around October of 1961. So I worked for my uncle. My uncle and Amzie Moore owned the only two black service stations in that little town. 

I also began commuting to and from Mississippi Vocational College [now Mississippi Valley State College] in Itta Bena, seven miles from Greenwood. I met a lot of people from Greenwood and one of the things that I would always question them about was Emmett Till — what people thought, what did they think about the death, and what would they have done. And many of the kids were just as angry as I was but knew not what to do. 

I always liked to go and talk with Amzie Moore about various things that were happening. He lived a block or so away from our house and was a very good friend of our family, and I had expressed the feeling to him that I wanted to do something. He was a man that I really respected because he was the only person in Cleveland who was really addressing any issues. He was a man who sacrificed a good job at the post office, who they busted down to a janitor and gave only a few hours a day of work because of his civil-rights activity. He had spoken out very heavily about what had happened in Emmett Till’s case. Very, very heavily. He was basically one of the few people in the Delta who was willing to take a stand in the ’50s. 

Now when Bob Moses came to Mississippi to begin SNCC’s work, he developed a very, very special relationship with Amzie. They understood each other. Their ideologies were the same. I think that Amzie served as a teacher to Bob, not just about Cleveland, but about the whole state. He was well traveled throughout the state of Mississippi because of his activities with the NAACP. He knew people in areas and could get Bob into doors that Bob could not have gotten into himself. Anytime he had a question that he couldn’t deal with, he would call Amzie. Amzie Moore was really the father of the movement. 

So I spent a lot of time talking to Amzie when I came back to Cleveland. And he knew what I thought and how I wanted to do something. Well, I lost my job at my uncle’s service station because of an argument with a white customer, and after that, in the spring 1962,1 was approached by Reverend James Bevel of SCLC, Bob Moses of SNCC and Amzie. They asked me to come around to Amzie’s house which I did. They told me that I should be involved in the movement, and it started from there. We decided that I would work with SCLC — which was Dr. King’s organization at the time — setting up citizenship classes, teaching people the duties and responsibilities of citizenship under an alleged constitutional form of government. So I got involved and set up citizenship schools all over Cleveland. 

Bob Moses had been spending a lot of time down in McComb, Mississippi, and he felt that there was a need for a change in what SNCC was doing and that we needed to spread the movement out. So he asked me where would I like to work. And I said, “Greenwood, Mississippi.” I wanted to do something in Leflore County where Emmett Till was killed. We went to Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, spent a week or two up there training, and came back. It was Bob Moses, Hollis Watkins, Curtis Hayes, someone else, and myself. 

We had Amzie’s old ’49 Packard car. En route it seemed like the happiest part of my life. There was just a new enlightenment, a new part of my life. And I was so impressed with the songs that Bob taught us as we were driving. One of the songs that stuck with me most was the song by Woody Guthrie, ‘This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” We began to make up songs and we sang as we traveled in this old ’49 Packard. 

We put Hollis and Curtis Hayes off in Hattiesburg. And came on up to Jackson and put the other person off — I can’t remember his name. And then we went to Greenwood. Bob told me, “Now, Sam do you know that the possibility is that you could be killed?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Okay, but I want you to be sure that you really want to go into Greenwood.” And at that time it looked like tears starting coming out of my eyes and I told Bob, “Yes.” 

So Bob dropped me off in Greenwood. This was June of 1962.1 had no car, no money, no clothes, no food, just me. The first thing I had to do was find a place to stay. I knew some students that attended Mississippi Vocational College with me who lived there, and they helped me find a place to stay with Mrs. McNease, the principal of the elementary school. She really didn’t know then why I was there. As she would go to school in the morning, I would go canvassing, just talking to people in the community about voter education and registration, sort of testing the pulse of people. Hanging out in the pool halls, wherever people were, the laundromat, run around the grocery stores, meeting people. I was always introduced as a student at Mississippi Vocational College. 

I found that there were a lot of angry people in Greenwood. And I learned that there were a lot of frightened people in Greenwood, too. They knew local blacks were being killed in Leflore County and around there and nothing was being done about it. Emmett Till’s death was just one of those that got publicity, but there were many Emmett Tills in Leflore County. 

I found that the people who were most receptive to me were the older people. Mr. Cleveland Jordan sat me down and gave me a whole history of what had been going on in Leflore County. He told me about how he had decided to start a voter education movement in the early ’50s. He gave me the names of those persons who were involved in that and the names of those who he felt also were still interested in getting a voter education movement started. 

Finally, we were able to get our first meeting of about 15 or 20 people together and we met at the Elks Hall. Mr. Jordan was an Elk. And we began to set up some sort of an organizational structure, gave people responsibilities, let them know what I would be doing, to sort of watch out for me — they knew the history of Greenwood — and I asked them for suggestions of things that they felt I should do, places that they thought I should go to, and people whom they thought I should talk to. 

The movement in Greenwood was built with older people who were angry, who were looking for somebody who could give form and expression to ideas and thoughts that they had had in mind for years, that they wanted to do and just couldn’t bring together. It was not built by young people, other than myself, in the genesis. As a matter of fact, after word got around about what I was doing, students and other younger people would automatically get on the other side of the street when they saw me coming. They divorced themselves from me, period. I was no longer welcome in the pool hall. It was the older people who made up the movement in Greenwood in the genesis. 

Our second meeting was held again at the Elks Hall and I began teaching people Freedom Songs that Bob Moses had taught me. But because we were singing Freedom Songs, we were kicked out of the Elks Hall. And when Mrs. McNease found out why I was really in Greenwood and what I was doing, I was kicked out of her house. I slept in a car junk yard for a week. 

I found a place with a gentleman who was employed in a janitorial position at the post office there in Greenwood. His name was Mr. Bums. He had been to the war and saw where black men lost their lives, and yet when he returned to the country, they were still called “nigger” and “boy.” And he wanted to do something. He was angry, he knew there was a need for change. 

He had a brick two-story building, a photography studio he used, and my room was right above his photography studio overlooking the street. I wrote Jim Forman and Ruby Doris in the SNCC office in Atlanta and told them where I was and that I needed some money. I was tired of eating out of garbage cans, but if it took that to survive and get the job done I was going to do it. Bob later told me that there was just no money anywhere. 

I told Bob that I needed some help in Greenwood because we were going to take our first group of people down to the courthouse to attempt to register to vote. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I needed some kind of back up help. He said, “Okay, I will bring Lawrence Guyot and Luvaughn Brown in the next few days to help.” 

Before they arrived, we had our first mass meeting, publicized by word of mouth, in Reverend Aaron Johnson’s First Christian Church. He was the first minister to open up his church to us. He too had gone to the army, and many members in his church were very supportive. Nationally, his religious denomination was also a liberal faith. 

We had a good time at the meeting. I taught them Freedom Songs and Mr. Jordan spoke and told the people, “Well, we got somebody now that is going to help us do something. We have been wanting somebody, now here he is. I want you all to give him all the support that you can. Don’t be scared of him. Treat him just like he is one of us because he is. We have been living in fear, afraid to do something. It is time to do something. The time is now.” 


The next day as I walked the streets I met a lot of people, and the thing that they remembered most about that meeting was the songs we were singing. And they asked me when we were going to have another meeting and sing those songs. And I began to see the music itself as a important organizing tool to really bring people together — not only to bring them together but also as the organizational glue to hold them together. 

I started to give people the responsibility of thinking about a song that they would want to sing that night and of changing that song, you know, from a gospel song. Think about freedom, interjecting your own feelings and your own words into that song. And out of that grew a lot of good Freedom Songs that we would sing in those meetings and across Mississippi later on. 

After our second mass meeting, we decided that we would go down to the courthouse. We had about 21 people willing to go down and attempt to register to vote. The ages of those persons ran anywhere from 40-some years old up to 70 or 80 years old. Mr. Ledbetter, he was almost 70, he came up to me and said, “Mr. Block, I want you to put my name on that roll.” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “You know why?” I said, “No, I don’t Reverend Ledbetter.” He said, “Because I am tired of being a second-class citizen. All my life I have wanted to vote and I ain’t been able to. I am glad you are here. I am going to register to vote.” 

So I took the first group of people down to the courthouse and we went into the front of the courthouse and we met Mrs. Martha Lamb, the county registrar. Mr. Ledbetter was first in line, and he looked at Mrs. Lamb and said, “Mrs. Lamb, now I have been knowing you all your life. I am down here and I want to register to vote.” She said, “Now Ledbetter, you know that you can’t read and write.” 

He said, “I know I can’t read and write, Mrs. Lamb, but I get a check every month.” She said, “Yes, you do, I know that.” He said, “Now in order for me to get that check from the government cashed I have to sign my name, don’t I?” She said, “Yes, you do.” He said, “Well, what do I do.” She said, “You sign an X on your check.” 

He said, “Well, that is what I am going to do on this voting role. I am going to sign a X. Now whatever question you want to ask me since I can’t read or write you go and ask me the question, and I will answer it and just sign my X and you will know it’s me.” 

Well, she got so mad she told Reverend Ledbetter, “I don’t know many questions that I could ask you that you could answer, but how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?” So old man Ledbetter stood back and looked at her and scratched his head and said, “Mrs. Lamb, you know what, I don’t really know but I don’t want to go through life being an ignorant man all my life. I have heard that question asked before. If I don’t answer this question I am going to flunk this test ain’t I?” She said, “Yes, that is your question.” He said, “Well, to keep me from being ignorant the rest of my life, Mrs. Lamb, now tell me how many bubbles there are in a bar of soap and when somebody asks me again I can let them know.” 

Mrs. Lamb was so angry she called Sheriff Smith in again. She had already called him in when she first saw all of us coming in the courthouse. So now he came up to me. We were outside; we had gone outside because we had seen all these whites coming and we knew they were moving in on us. We were standing in front of the courthouse, and Sheriff Smith came and he spit in my face. He said, “Nigger,” and took his pistol out, and he shook his pistol in my face. He said, “Let me tell you one goddamn thing. I don’t want to see you ‘round here the next day, the next hour, the next minute, or the next second.” And the spit was still there on my face, and I stood there listening to him. He said, “I want you to pack your goddamn bags and I want you to leave Greenwood, Mississippi.” 

All of the people were standing around wondering what I was going to do or say. I said, “Sheriff, if you don’t want to see me around here the next day, the next hour, the next minute, or the next second, the best thing for you to do is to pack your bags and leave because I am going to be here.” Big Smitty just dropped his hand and his gun in amazement. And it seemed as if that alone gave the people who were with me all of the courage that they needed to get out into the community themselves and round up people for mass meetings and become involved in their movement. 

As we went back to our respective homes, the Sheriff and the highway patrol drove behind our cars, and as we would stop and let someone out to go in the house, they would take his name and address down. Just as a form of intimidation. And some of the people actually shouted back to them and said, “You don’t scare me no more. You don’t scare me no more.” 

I called Bob that evening and told him what had happened. Bob got Luvaughn Brown and Lawrence Guyot to come up immediately. They arrived about 12:30 a.m. that night. I had one of the black taxi cab drivers pick them up at the bus station and bring them to the office where I was living, Mr. Bums’ building. It was about 1:30 a.m. and we were sitting and talking and mapping out strategy for the next day. And about 15 minutes later, we heard a dispatch radio downstairs. We peeked out of a window and there was a policeman sitting talking to somebody, telling them yes the light is on, so on and so on. 

We called Bob and Bob said, “Well look, the thing that you should do right now is call John Doar of the Justice Department.” By that time cars were converging upon this office — tires screeching, men jumping out of cars with ropes and chains and shotguns and everything else. They didn’t know how to get upstairs. 

I called John Doar and John Doar said, “Well Sam, ain’t nothing I can really tell you to do. I will call the local FBI agent who was stationed there, his name is George E. Everette. He has been there since the death of Emmett Till. He is a good man. We put him there to investigate Emmett Till’s death and he found out things for us and you can call him at home. I am sorry, Sam, the Justice Department cannot really act until a crime has actually been committed.” 

So I hung up. By that time it looked like people were trying to break into Mr. Burn’s front door. Apparently somebody discovered that the way to get to us was through the back stairs. I called George E. Everette and he said, “Oh, I will come down there. They ain’t going to do nothing to you, they are probably just trying to scare you or something.” 

We went out the bathroom window, crawled down on top of the cafe, crawled to the back of the building and went down the TV antennae — about the size of my arm — and we went to David Jordan’s house, Cleveland Jordan’s son. But he put us out of his house because of his fear. So we went over to Amzie’s house in Cleveland and called Bob and told him that we had escaped a lynch mob. Bob said, “I will come right over. I have got a person with me who has just finished Rust College. I want you all to meet, he wants something to do.” It was Willie Peacock. 


We came back to the office early the next morning and all the records had been destroyed and thrown all over the place. The windows and the door were open. And Bob and Willie were in the front office asleep. 

So we continued to work. Bob stayed for awhile and left Willie Peacock there. Guyot and Luvaughn Brown stayed, they came in and out. Later on, the Greenwood police arrested Mr. Bums and charged him with bigamy. They wanted us out of the building. And that was a way of putting pressure on Mr. Bums to make sure we were thrown out of his building. 

A lady by the name of Mrs. Hattie Mae Smith who owned a beauty salon sent word for me to come over right away. Mrs. Smith said, “Look, I know what you young men are doing. I have heard about you and I am a part of it. Oh I am so glad to see you. Now all of you can stay at my house.” So that is how we got our first Freedom House. 

Bob decided then that there was a need to intensify the movement in Greenwood because we did have an organization and people were ready to do something. So we decided that we should spend all of our efforts, all of us, in the streets talking to people everyday, trying to get people back down to the courthouse again to attempt to register to vote. And we did and people then began to turn out in masses. 

Willie and I began to go into the backwoods of the plantations and we organized a food drive. We were bringing food from Clarksdale, Mississippi back to Greenwood and we were feeding people. We would slip onto the plantations late in the evenings or early, early in the mornings, taking a chance. We had been told that if we go there we were going to get killed because everybody knew that this man who owned this plantation was known for killing blacks. But we said this is a chance we had to take. Some of the people who we worked with in Greenwood had family members on the plantations, and they too begged us to go out there to help them. 

The first black family that we met were the Vassels. We went into their house — Willie and I — and it was cold, I mean cold. You would be in the house and look through the holes in the floor and see the ground. What really hurt me the most was there was a newborn baby lying in the bed, and there were some springs, but no mattress. There was a coat on top of these springs and this baby was lying there covered with raggedy clothes. There was no food. 

Willie and I worked very closely with this family, and finally they began to talk to other people on the plantation there, and they began to come out in droves from the plantations, began to talk about voter registration and come to the mass meetings. We brought Bob Moses in several times to speak. We brought in Fannie Lou Hamer from Sunflower County; other SNCC workers had found her by then. We would talk with them, we would sing. 

It always seemed that the music served as a drawing card and the organizational glue that seemed to make people want to come back and be a part of whatever we were doing. Besides that they saw the sincerity demonstrated by me in the genesis and by the others as well. 

Finally we found an office on East MacLaurin. It was owned by Mr. Campbell, an old, old man whose father was white. He was black and he owned quite a bit of property there in Greenwood. He also owned several cleaners in the black community. He was an old man who feared nothing. He said he couldn’t march, but he wanted to help us because what we were doing would help his grandkids. So he gave us an office, rent free. It was a three-room building on the first floor and by that time the movement had grown, so the office was badly needed and was always busy. 

People were very, very involved, and not only older people but the younger people also. We would spend time at the little restaurants where they hung out and go around the school campus, Broad Street High School, talking to others to get them involved. 

We got five students involved first, got them to go to Clarksdale, to a mass meeting where we were going to begin organizing COFO [Council of Federated Organizations]. And we wanted to get them involved, to get their feet wet and to introduce them to Bob and other people around other areas who were doing things so that they could see that we weren’t the only students involved. 

After the meeting we were headed back to our respective areas, coming back to Greenwood and some people were going to Cleveland, Greenville and other places. And just as we were leaving Clarksdale we were all stopped and arrested and thrown in jail for violating a curfew. I think we paid a fine or something later on and got out. But those students saw for themselves what had illegally taken place in their lives. They knew that there was no curfew. The first charge they put on us was speeding, and there was no speeding. The arrests really stirred them to want to do something and they began to talk to other students. People began to hear about what was happening in Greenwood and students began to organize all across the country in support of Greenwood. One group of people out of Chicago sent a train load of food down. People really began to build a movement themselves. 


One particular night, in February ’63, we were at the church, and I told Peacock, “Look I have to have my medicine.” I am asthmatic. So we got in the car with his girlfriend and my girlfriend and drove to the office. And my girlfriend said, “Sam, don’t get out of the car, please don’t get out of this car.” I asked, “Why?” She said, “I just feel that something is going to happen.” I said, “Look, I have got to have my medication.” 

I went to open the door of the car, and six white men drove up in a station wagon and fired into the car, shooting deer slugs at close range directly through the front window. The bullet went into a house and there was a lady and a baby lying in bed there and it went directly into the mattress. Peacock hit the floor, and I hit the floor and said I had been hurt, been shot. I just had glass and stuff in my face. 

We called the police and the first policeman to arrive was Captain Usser. He told Peacock’s girlfriend, “Essie, don’t you know these two niggers right here are going to get you killed?” She said, “Well, yes sir, I see now.” And he said, “You had better stop hanging around these two niggers right here. If you don’t, you are going to end up dead.” 

Instead of taking us to the hospital, the police wanted to take us to jail because they accused me of plotting the shooting to receive cheap publicity. The FBI instead let us go to the hospital and the glass was removed from my face. We came back and continued to work. We began to give out the food and people were going down to the courthouse then in mass droves. 

People began to come out of the woodwork and tell us their problems. Like one lady, Mrs. Laura McGee, she had all kind of land in Greenwood — much of it had been taken away from her by the white power structure. One of the reasons she was having so many problems was because her brother, Gus Coats, had attempted to register to vote (I think it was in Belzoni, Mississippi) and he was shot in the head. Gus had to be hidden in a casket and shipped to Chicago. Mrs. McGee had offered us her farm, but the Federal Land Grant Bank was trying to take it from her. Amzie and Bob Moses then got involved in that special project, saving her land. And we raised the money to stop the Federal Land Grant Bank from taking it away. Her sons became very involved and were the first two students to go down to desegregate the local theater. 

The movement then entered a different phase. Instead of us trying to do everything, people themselves had taken over and local leaders were sort of directing it themselves. This was one of our intentions from the genesis. My intention going in was to go in to organize the people and eventually move myself out, work myself out of a job and move on to another area. But it didn’t happen that way because I became ill. 

So many people had gone to register and we had had such great success that Randall Blackwell of the Voter Education Project wanted to see what we were doing. He and Wiley Branton of SCLC had come over from Atlanta in late February to get a first hand look at what was happening in Mississippi. Greenwood had become really the focus of attention, and Randall wanted to see it for himself. So he, Bob Moses, and Jimmy Travis drove over, and later that night they decided that they would leave and go back to Greenville. 

Prior to leaving, Bob had noticed this car circling the block but he didn’t tell us. So they left and stopped at the 82 Grill to get something to eat and the car trailed them. Bob called Willie and I back to tell us that we should close up the office and go on home immediately because he had noticed this white car with four men in it wearing dark shades circling the office quite frequently and he didn’t know what they were up to. 

They left and took a back road. Just as they approached Itta Bena, the car pulled up beside them, went by at a high speed, and turned around and came back and fired at the car with a submachine gun. Bob called us from the hospital and said, “You need to get to the Leflore County Hospital immediately. Jimmy has been shot. Somebody passed by us with a submachine gun and sprayed bullets into the car. We don’t know whether he is going to live or die.” 

By the time Willie and I got to the hospital, Jimmy was lying on the table and I understand they refused to treat him because they said they didn’t have proper facilities. But one of the persons there said that they really didn’t want him there anyway. We took him to Jackson and that’s where Jimmy was operated on. He was shot in the neck, paralyzed, and stayed in the hospital for months, but he eventually recovered. 


After Jimmy was shot, people sure enough poured into Greenwood by the droves. We began a series of marches. And people were singing in the streets. We had a folk festival in Greenwood on Mrs. McGee’s farm. Pete Seeger, Theodore Bickel, Bob Dylan, Jackie Washington, and others came. From there, I think, Bob Dylan was inspired to go back and write the song, “Blowing in the Wind.” 

And after the shooting, the mass marches really began to take place then. That was March, 1963. One of the things that finally brought people closer to the movement during that time was when they saw the police sick the dogs on Reverend Tucker, a local minister. Cleveland Jordan told the community, “Here is a man who grows up in the cloth, as a child of God, and they sick the dog on him. Here is a man who teaches right and you got a wrong that is attacking a right. Let’s move. The time is now!” 

The churches started opening up after that, too. We had a lot of trouble with them in the genesis, not letting us hold meetings in the church. It wasn’t that they felt threatened by me or Moses. They felt threatened more by the white power structure itself. It was all about economics. Most of the ministers who ran small churches were also employed by some whites there in the town. Or their wives worked across the river for someone who was in local government there. It threatened that economic survival for the ministers to have us in their churches. Many of the ministers, I learned later on, had been told that if we were let into the churches that the church would be burned. And there were attempts to bomb many of the churches, to bum them down, and everything else. 

The churches changed not because the ministers themselves threw their arms open. It was the people in the community saying, “Hey, this is our church. Now whether you want us to have a meeting in it or not we are going to have it.” And it was because of that pressure from the community itself that forced them to open up whether they wanted to or not. It was the people. 


People were then willing to do other things, too, to go into other areas. I went into Belzoni with some other people and got them off the ground. The other area was Tchula, Mississippi, in Holmes County. Most of the people in Holmes County were farmers themselves and they owned their own land. Economically, they were much more stable and they owned their own churches. So they didn’t have to adhere to anyone. They welcomed me right away, but for some reason I had a lot more fear in me in going in those areas than when I was in Greenwood. For some reason, I just never felt comfortable in Holmes County. 

I guess I had gotten to the point where I was battle fatigued. So much had happened that I felt like I might be killed at any minute and I just wasn’t ready to die. I was beaten real bad when I first arrived in Greenwood. They pushed me under the cars and thought I was going to bleed to death. They didn’t kill me then, and they didn’t kill me with the Jimmy Travis thing. You see, the shooting of Jimmy Travis wasn’t meant for him. According to what the Klan and White Citizen’s Council were saying, it was meant for me. And they didn’t kill me that night when they fired into the car with Willie and our girlfriends. And they didn’t kill me with that speeding truck; I had to jump behind a telephone poll to escape death. And I realized that I am not a cat, and that my chances of surviving were running out. Fear of death began to come over me. 

Medgar Evers [Mississippi NAACP field secretary] had also been shot by then. Killed. He had just left us the same night that he was shot. He stopped by to let us know that he was 200 percent behind everything that was going on in Greenwood, and that if there was anything he could do to just let him know and he would be there. It was a short speech, very touching, and he bid us farewell and went into Jackson. Later that same night, when he had just gotten home, he was shot by Byron de la Beckwith. 

Now Beckwith, well, I didn’t know that he was from Greenwood at that time, but all the things that I was hearing from people afterwards, from the maids and the cooks and cab drivers, and from the white mailman, Mr. Walls — who I got to know very close and who helped the movement a lot — they all were telling me, “Look, Sam, the Ku Klux Klan is meeting. The only thing that they talk about is the death of you.” 

Quite naturally that is going to instill more fear in your heart. I am human. And quite naturally I began to get a lot more frightened and I thought a lot more then about my life. 

Right after Jimmy’s shooting, I got on the road and began to raise money. I spent a lot of time speaking in Chicago and New York and California to raise money for the movement and to get more people involved. The Atlanta office of SNCC would set those places up. We might raise two thousand, sometimes three or four thousand dollars a night. But that was still small compared to what we really needed. 

I did that fundraising because it was necessary. People felt that if anyone could tell the story about what was going on in Greenwood, it was me because it was my project. I wanted to stay in Greenwood. But the doctors felt that I had become battle fatigued. I didn’t want to die, yet I still was committed to staying in Greenwood. People there, who had begged me to stay and help, were now telling me that I should leave to protect my own life. They were that concerned about my life, and I guess I didn’t want to leave that love either. I became confused. 

I had found people who were confronting a system of oppression and racism and I didn’t want to leave that. They were confronting the segregation that I had been forced to live under all of my life and that I had longed to do something about. There are a lot of stories, you know, true stories yet to be told of what people in Greenwood did and what they were going through. 

One thing that has never been brought out is that the young lady in the car who Captain Usser had told would be killed if she kept hanging around us, well she got pregnant by Peacock. And she went to register to vote and passed. They ordered her to come back down and withdraw her name from the voter rolls, and she wouldn’t. They put a fraudalent food stamp charge on her and sent her to the Mississippi State Penitentiary for a year. She had the baby there. She had a choice. They told her to withdraw and she wouldn’t. Essie Broom was committed to change. 


The movement began to intensify, but people were not as politically advanced as they should have been to deal with the changes that came about. And that was because of a lack of leadership, a lack of ourselves being at the level of political sophistication that we perhaps should have been. We hadn’t done our homework politicially, and really there was no sustaining organizational analysis to move us forward politically and economically. We made a big mistake by failing to develop that analysis. Many of us felt that the March On Washington, in August ’63, was itself the beginning of the end of the movement. We didn’t know what the movement should do after that. 

Everyone wanted to go to Washington, of course. Busses went from all over Mississippi to Washington. People in Greenwood saw it as being a very historical event, too. And many felt that it would end the problems that we had been confronted with. In many ways, it hurt more than it helped because people thought their problems were going to be solved right after that by Dr. King, or the Kennedys, or someone else. It fooled a lot of people. And then all the poverty programs came in. 

I was really against the poverty programs. Bob had been talking about reparations, and he felt that the government owed something to people. And we began asking for some kind of program where we could get subsistence for people who were in severe need throughout the Delta and throughout the state of Mississippi. And this information was taken to Kennedy and what happened is the Kennedys summoned a socialist, Paul Jacobs, who wrote the anti- poverty program. 

Bob, Amzie, Jim Forman, and a lot of us in SNCC met with him and laid out what we were asking for. And he went back to Kennedy and came up with the anti-poverty program. But it was blown completely out of context as to what we had envisioned it being in the beginning. 

My reason for not wanting it to come into Mississippi at that time was simply because I thought it would do exactly what it did do — help to destroy the movement itself. Because once you get people like myself out of the streets and in behind a desk and around the conference tables and into a nice car, nice house, and nice family, our commitment will automatically and immediately diminish. And it did. And then if you were still committed to being an activist, they developed the Hatch Act. As a federal employee, you can’t just get out and demonstrate because you’re subject to the Hatch Act. 

It destroyed the movement. People who really began to benefit from the poverty programs were persons who really didn’t need it. And I think the government reached its objective. It set people back ten years almost by itself. People who were out there in the community and got jobs said to themselves, “We have made it.” But when those things were snatched out from under them, they found themselves head over heels in debt. They couldn’t feed their families. It destroyed families. And I saw that. 

I’m sort of glad I stood out as a sore thumb in the latter years of SNCC and the movement. I was adamantly against the ’64 Freedom Summer campaign, bringing all those students into the state of Mississippi, be they black, blue, white, or green — but especially whites — because I didn’t think that the timing was right People were not politically advanced enough to deal with what could happen, and what did happen. 

One of the main reasons that I felt that we shouldn’t have brought the white students in — and Amzie agreed with this — was that they would sabotage the movement. The movement would be infested and infiltrated with CIA men and FBI men and everybody else, and it would be taken over and destroyed. I am not saying that all of the whites who were there that summer were there to destroy the movement. A lot of them tried to do a lot of good. You could tell who they were, it was obvious. But when that report came out later — was it the McComb Report? — that said the civil right movement had been infiltrated with CIA and FBI agents and their daughters and sons, then I sort of got some relief because I could say, “I told you so.” 


I just knew it wouldn’t work. I was despondent and out of it for much of that time, too. Several of us who had left Mississippi to go to the training for the students in Ohio were severely beaten on the way. This was just before the project began. We were stopped on the highway by troopers and taken to a jail in Columbus, Mississippi, and beaten severely. Roy Elders — I will never forget him — he and another patrolman took me to the back of the jail. They pulled their pistols out and ordered me to run. I said, “No sir, I am not going to run.” He said, “Yes, nigger, you are going to run.” And I wouldn’t run. The next thing I knew, I was hit with a butt of a pistol and it sort of dislodged this eye. I can’t see out of this eye at all now. 

So I was really out of it during the summer project. Willie and I had argued against the summer project from the beginning. We said it wouldn’t work, that it would turn out to destroy the movement. That was one of reasons why Peacock and I sort of became sore thumbs in the movement, and were sort of pushed to the side. Stokely Carmichael had come in by then also, and Stokely really wanted to take control over what was happening in Greenwood because of the magnitude of the movement there, the activities. It was exciting, not only exciting but exciting in a way where we could see progress being made. 

There was a lot of personal friction that we didn’t know how to deal with — people getting on each other’s nerves, and not knowing how to channel it off. If we were together again, I would definitely recommend that we look at meditation first because if we were students of yoga or transcendental meditation or the art of positive thinking, I think that many of the problems we had within ourselves, that came out in hostile ways toward each other, a lot of those problems would not have existed or would have been minimized. 

Of course, there were major differences over the direction of the movement, what it would focus on. I wanted to see us deal with economic issues and economic programs even back then. See the problem all along has been economics. Some of us were hollering that at the time but the timing wasn’t right to move to that level. We weren’t politicized to the point where we were ready to move from step 1,2, 3,4. After voter registration, we could have moved to political and economic issues, getting people into self-help programs and things that would have some longevity and that would give them some support financially. In other words help them become self-sufficient. 

But it didn’t happen that way. Our own political education was totally lacking. And unless you have a leader politicized to the point where he knows exactly what is going on and what he wants to do, then how in the world can you move people? How can you move them into doing things that you don’t really understand yourself? We were not prepared to sustain things from one level to the next. And personally, we weren’t prepared to sustain ourselves, to keep from burning out. 

People first of all should not be made to spend the kind of ongoing time in a movement that they did, you know, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That intensity is going to bum you out. It should be divided up in periods of time, in quarters — you work three months, you go to a retreat for two weeks or three weeks, then you come back. 

Second, don’t let the movement be built around you. Get community people more involved in rolling and handling the ball in the genesis so they won’t have to depend on you. And number three is have a viable program where people are going to benefit from it economically as well as humanistically. 

Much of that has been missing. You can’t sustain, you just can’t expect the same person to continue to go on and on without being forced at some point to become battle fatigued. I don’t mind them giving out, but I do mind them giving up. You see, giving out you can always get away and regroup; but people were forced to the point in the movement where they had to give up instead of giving out. That hurts! 

There was no kind of built-in organizational glue that we could use to sustain ourselves. There was nothing. And where there is nothing, a lot of people get hurt. It takes its toll. It destroys you. I am still paying the price. So are a lot of others. 


You know, I often think about going back to Mississippi and working — because I think that the problems are still just as alive now as they were in the ’60s. As a matter of fact, I think that in the past five years we have lost much more than what we had gained. It shows me that there is an immediate need for some kind of political organization there dealing with human rights and serious political issues. And if there isn’t a move to address these issues soon, we will be back where we were in the ’30s instead of in the ’50s. 

I know a number of people in Mississippi have gravitated to the Rainbow Coalition because there is not another organization or any other viable means for dealing with issues. You don’t have a SNCC or a CORE, and the NAACP is not as strong in Mississippi as it used to be. Right now I think that Jesse Jackson has too much influence over the Rainbow Coalition for it to be a viable means for dealing with political issues, for it to be the type of organization I am talking about. It could be doing more in Mississippi. I hope I am wrong, and that the Rainbow Coalition can be about more than boosting political egos. But I still think that it is needed because you don’t have any organizations out there that are really doing anything. 

What I see is that people are just going to have to recommit themselves. I think that there are many people who feel like me. And even though we do have families and kids now, I think there are some people who are really committed to going back to the early stages of SNCC, to those techniques and making some sacrifices. That is what I am talking about. I think there are a lot of people who are still committed to that ideology. 

The political timing hasn’t been right, but it is getting right. In the past five or six years, you’ve also had a lot of black leaders being picked off and thrown into prison for one reason or another, all across the country. Black politicians, black organizers, men and women, civil-rights activists of all races. People have sort of gone underground, but I think there is going to be a volcanic eruption sometime in the near future. People are again going to just put themselves out there, and you will find them at the Rainbow Coalition. It will become the viable arm because it is already there and they identify with it. But people themselves will explode, and take leadership. They are tired of being underground, of being ignored and taken for granted.