Martin Luther King Jr.

“When I was 25, I met Martin Luther King at a march he had in Benton. He shook my hand, and told me things were going to get better. I had already had one child and had another one on the way. But those words were touching.”

John Bove
Oxford Stories
jpbovesm@go.olemiss.edu

 

Mary Redmond

“(King) shook my hand, and told me things were going to get better.”

Mary Redmond was born in Yazoo City Nov. 16, 1938, and grew up in the segregated South during a time when African Americans “could only buy goods from a blacks-only grocery.” One particular trip to the store was different when Redmond had a confrontation with a white family.

“On the way there, my arm hit a little white girl’s arm,” she said, “and she told her dad, ‘That black girl just hit me.’ Her mom and dad started to hit my dad, and that’s when my dad told me to run home.”

As she raced home in the shadow of fear, adrenaline pumping through her veins, Redmond briefly turned back to see a group of white people beating her father. 

“I was scared,” she said. “I kept running until I got home, and I told mama. Mama got a call. That was the last time I saw my daddy.

“Mama never told me what happened that day, but at the funeral, I heard some people talking, and they said that they had beaten my daddy so bad, and still threw him in jail, and that’s where he died.”

Redmond eventually moved to Chicago after the death of her mother, but she returned to Mississippi in 1964 at age 16. She later graduated from a training school, a professional accomplishment for a black woman in the South in the 1960s.

“Things seemed a little better, but not much,” she said. “… I grew up in times when being black was a crime, a crime that we could not correct ourselves of.”

Redmond later met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“When I was 25, I met Martin Luther King at a march he had in Benton,” she said. “He shook my hand, and told me things were going to get better. I had already had one child and had another one on the way. But those words were touching. Later that year in March, I had my baby girl, my only girl.”

That year was 1968, and King was murdered a month later. However, his words lasted a lifetime, providing hope to the hopeless, especially for Redmond.

“He gave the black people hope and a dream,” she said. “And it did get better. Hell, I lived to see a black man become president. That was one of the best days of my life. I’ll never forget it.”

Redmond has witnessed change personally and nationally. Her grandson, Carl Tart, is a standout student at the University of Mississippi, a school she could have only dreamed of attending.

John Bove (3/3)

Carl describes his grandmother as a hero, saying, “She took care of me when I was younger due to the fact that my brother was born with a hole in his heart, and my parents had to move to Cleveland, Ohio, to be at the hospital with him until he was old enough to have surgery.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

“The interaction I had was short lived with him. After being released from jail, I was introduced to him as one of the youngest Freedom Riders during a march, and he asked for me to come up front with him.”

By Conner Owens
Oxford Stories
cowens2@go.olemiss.edu

 

Hezekiah Watkins

“After being released from jail, I was introduced to (King) as one of the youngest Freedom Riders during a march.”

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. This act of violence echoed throughout the nation and sent the United States into hysteria. King had an impact on the lives of many who met him. Hezekiah Watkins had a personal encounter with King.

Watkins, who was one of the youngest Freedom Riders, said he was jailed at age 13 for being a participant. When he and one of his friends wanted to get a closer look at the people who were traveling and fighting for equality, they rode their bikes to the Greyhound Station in Jackson.

Watkins said he could not see across the street, so he and his friend ran over to look inside, but when he tried to stop at the door, he said, “Troy pushed me in.”

This put Watkins on a path to fight for freedom, but it was a scary road. He was sent to jail for being a Freedom Rider that day at the Greyhound Station.

“When I was in prison, I was there with convicted killers,” he said.

Since then, Watkins said he has been jailed more than 100 times for trying to find a peaceful way to become equal in society. As an avid civil rights leader, King noticed Watkins’ activism and asked him to march in Jackson when he was there.

Watkins recalls eating dinner with King. “This place on Farish Street called Steven’s Kitchen – it was known as the place for blacks to eat in the ’60s,” he said. “I recall sitting at the table with him maybe once or twice. He was like a family member … I recall having a hamburger steak with gravy and mashed potatoes, and I remember him saying to put mine on his ticket.”

Watkins said he was in the military at Fort Lee, Virginia, when King was assassinated. “One of the guys had a radio, and I recall them saying come to the dayroom,” he said. “That’s where the TV and lounge chair were to socialize.

“There were more whites in the unit than blacks, and I’m trying to listen to what they were saying, but also understand why this guy had been murdered.

“There were some white guys behind me, and I remember one of them just breaking down and crying. I remember one of them saying, ‘What is going to become of the world,’ and I guess within 30 minutes or less, a little riot broke out on the base.”

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Watkins said the mindset on the base was different. “It affected not just me, but every soldier who was there,” he said. “Either you were sad or you were glad. For the next few days, no one talked about it.”

Watkins said losing King was like losing a family member. “You just don’t have the words,” he said. “The interaction I had was short lived with him. After being released from jail, I was introduced to him as one of the youngest Freedom Riders during a march, and he asked for me to come up front with him. Several other times, he came to Jackson. There wasn’t a lot of times I got to see him, but even when he came to town, he asked me, ‘Hi. How’re you doing?’”

Watkins said we have lost sight of the Dream, but it’s not too late to reclaim it. He said all it takes is someone to stand up and push forward.

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“My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist. I still haven’t quite figured it out.”

By Adam Horn
Oxford Stories
aghorn1@go.olemiss.edu

 

Senator David Jordan

“My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist.”

Born on Whittington Plantation, south of Greenwood, Mississippi, in April of 1933, State Senator David Jordan has witnessed the progression of civil rights from the struggles of the mid-50s to today, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Senator Jordan recalls that he had just returned from a job picking peas in Wisconsin to begin school at Mississippi Valley State College in August of 1955 when young Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Leflore County.

In September, one of his social studies professors charged his students with reading the newspaper articles written about the trial and formulating a report on what they had read. Jordan often sat with his brother, Andrew, and their friends, Samuel and T.J., while discussing the trial at length. Soon the group decided reading and talking about it was not enough; they wanted to see the trial firsthand.

Pitching in a quarter each for gas, they set out for Sumner, Mississippi for the trial. When they arrived, they took a moment to hang around outside and take it all in.

On the front lawn of the courthouse, Jordan noticed a few reporters gathered when suddenly one of the men among them shouted, “That’s Mamie Till! Emmett Till’s Mother!” Immediately the grieving mother became the center of attention, and Jordan remembers thinking she must have been an exceptionally strong woman.

Escorted by Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit, Mamie Till was asked if she thought her son would receive justice in Mississippi. Till meekly responded, “ I am just here to observe.”

After the congressman and Till entered the courthouse, reporters followed with David and his friends not far behind. Jordan recalls newspapers then had tried to raise the notion that Till was not dead, but that he had been seen in Chicago, and his death was simply a hoax intended to increase membership for the NAACP.

Jordan remembers that the man who retrieved Till’s body was on the stand. Chester Miller of Century Funeral home, a respected figure in the Greenwood African American community, stood soaked in sweat as he was hostilely cross-examined in the 95 degree courtroom by the defense who questioned the veracity of Till’s corpse. All arguments were silenced, however, when Miller produced a ring that bore the initials of Emmett’s father, found on the boy’s finger.

As the years passed, Jordan witnessed the charge for civil rights along with some of the atrocities that accompanied it. None were so devastating as the evening of April 4, 1968.

Senator Jordan recalls it was the day after he and his wife, Chris, had celebrated their shared birthday on April 3. He was at home grading papers after returning home from Marshall High School, where he taught science at the time, when the phone rang.

The call was from a nurse working at Dr. Fred Sandifer’s office who knew he had been involved in the civil rights movement in college. “Turn on your TV,” she said. “Dr. King has been shot in Memphis.”

Jordan’s heart sank into his stomach, and he ran to tell his wife, Chris. When they turned on the news, they saw ABC news commentator Sam Donaldson reporting the tragic news through tears.

“There was nothing we could do but break down crying ourselves because we were completely devastated,” Jordan recounts in his book, From The Mississippi Cotton Fields to the State Senate: A Memoir. As they flipped through the channels, every news channel was reporting the story, and many journalists were tearful.

As far as the “Dream” is concerned, Jordan feels we have made significant strides, but still have much work to do. “If I could make it back then, I feel young people should be able to make it today for sure,” Jordan said. “Young people burning the midnight oil and saving their money is how we can achieve the dream.”

Senator Jordan said he believes religious leaders should step up as Dr. King did in these politically divisive times using readings from the Bible to support noble causes. “Too many religious leaders are afraid of community reaction because the issues are political,” he said, “ but running from politics is like trying to run from the sky. You can’t do it.”

Jordan encourages others to listen to everyone, regardless of their background, because God does not see race.  “My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist,” he said. “I still haven’t quite figured it out.”

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‘It was me seeing that I was broke, and they were broken – that I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.’

Will Stribling
Oxford Stories
wtstribl@go.olemiss.edu

 

John Perkins

“It was me seeing that I was broke, and they were broken – that I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.”

Boarding a train for California in 1947, John Perkins told himself he would never return to Mississippi. The then 16-year-old held nothing but contempt for white oppressors, religion, and the South he was leaving behind.

“Are you black or white?” Perkins asked over the phone as we planned an interview and discussed a prior connection. “That doesn’t matter. I love both black and white people. I’m just trying to get a picture to remember who you are,” he added after the question was answered.

The next day, things are peaceful at the Spencer Perkins Center in Jackson. Christmas lights hang from the roof, bells twirl under the building’s welcome sign, and his daughter Elizabeth sits inside prepping more holiday decorations. Perkins, now 83, is slender and has a kind face. Donning his usual ascot and sports coat combo, he could easily pass for 70. The aura around him is as imitable as the man himself.

Before we begin, he again asks me to tell him how I know him. Several years ago, not long before she died from cancer, Perkins came and prayed with my mother in a Jackson hospital. “Now you’re here, and we’re sharing this fellowship. Isn’t that something?” Perkins asks with a smile.

Now seated at a picnic table, Perkins tells the story of a life dedicated to his ministry of racial reconciliation and community development.

Perkins was born to a family of Mississippi sharecroppers in 1930 and grew up working on plantations in New Hebron. His mother, Maggie Perkins, died of pellagra, a vitamin B3 deficiency, when he was only 7 months old. Abandoned by his father, Perkins and older brother, Clyde, were two of the six Perkins children their grandmother was able to keep.

At this time, King Cotton’s reign began to fade and left only white anger in its absence. Clyde was then drafted to serve in World War 2. He fought in Germany and returned after the war with a Purple Heart and a lower tolerance for mistreatment from whites.

One Saturday in 1946 outside a local movie theater, a Mendenhall deputy marshal yelled at Clyde to quiet down and then struck him from behind with a club. An angry Clyde grabbed the club as the marshal went to hit him a second time. The marshal then stepped back and shot Clyde twice in the stomach. The closest hospital was over an hour and a half away in Jackson, and he died later that night.

In the months that followed, some family members told Perkins he should leave town. The Perkins family was known as a rebellious one, and John was no exception. “I had never accepted the myth that I was a nigger,” said Perkins.

Fearing he might retaliate and meet the same fate as his brother, his aunt and uncle put together enough money to send him to the west cost to start a new life. When Perkins arrived in California, he was determined to live the life he thought he deserved. He believed this relied on economic success and found a job on a Union Pacific Foundry assemble line. He worked alongside white workers and took home the same pay of 98 cents an hour.

Even after ramping up production tenfold, the workers wages stayed the same. Outraged, Perkins led a successful strike that gained the workers both higher pay and benefits. This exposed him to the power of organized political action and has stuck with him throughout his life.

In a visit back home in 1949, Spencer went to a service at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Church was the only way to socialize at that time. Afterwards he spotted Vera Mae and was immediately smitten. He told her that he would marry her one day. She didn’t answer either way to his proposal.

After his return to California, they spent the next two years writing each other. In 1951, Perkins was drafted for the Korean War, and they decided to get married after he finished basic training. The newlyweds were only able to spend two weeks together in California before Perkins went back to camp and was shipped overseas.

In January of 1953, Perkins was discharged. He and Vera Mae then moved to Monrovia, California. Their first son, Spencer, was born in 1954. As a toddler, he started going to Bible classes at a church down the road. Perkins remembers that he would come home with a smile on his face, singing hymns like “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.”

Seeing the joy these classes brought Spencer peaked Perkins’ curiosity. After being asked by Spencer repeatedly to attend, Perkins went with him, and in time, opened up to the idea that God could exist for a black man.

In Mississippi, Perkins had only known the Church in the context of Southern exploitation. The white Church served as a justification for white supremacy. The black Church relied heavily on emotion, and yet still refused to speak or act on the brutality its members faced. He saw religious people as weak-willed and the Bible as a ridiculous fiction.

After his initial exposure with Spencer, Perkins accepted the invitation from a friend to attend another church and join an adult Bible study. He spent the next few months studying his Bible and was inspired by what he found, particularly the dedication of the apostle Paul. Then one Sunday in November of 1957, he made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior.

With his newfound faith, Perkins immediately began preaching in nearby neighborhoods. Soon after, he and Vera Mae started teaching daily child evangelism classes and attending leadership workshops. In these workshops, he befriended white Christians who had been similarly impacted by the gospel. This marked the beginning of a lifelong shift in his ministry.

“I was fortunate that it was both black and white folks discipling me,” he said. “Coming from Mississippi, I valued this new birth and discipleship that was higher than race even at that time.”

In 1958, Perkins became an ordained Baptist minister and began preaching at black and white churches. He soon began to feel called back to the South to minister to blacks who were still facing the same problems he’d left behind.

In 1960, with their fifth child on the way, Perkins and Vera Mae left the stability and success they’d found in California and moved back to New Hebron. Their focus was on youth-oriented ministry. After six months, they moved to Mendenhall to continue these efforts that included Bible classes in public schools and tent meetings for the entirety of Simpson County.

The philosophy of Perkins’ ministry wasn’t immediately accepted by the established religious community in Mendenhall. While wanting to address the black community’s spiritual needs, he also saw the need to focus on economic problems and community development.

In 1964, Perkins founded Voice of Calvary ministries, named after the California church that financed the startup. Voice of Calvary has touched countless lives in the communities it serves. Just one of them is Tony Mckinnis, 59, of Jackson.

Mckinnis moved from Maryland to Mississippi when he was 17. Angry over the forced move, the young man was headed down a dark path until he was befriended by the Perkins family. Seeing Perkins achieve such status despite his circumstances inspired Mckinnis. Despite never finishing the third grade, Perkins holds 14 honorary doctorate degrees, has written 10 books, and speaks all over the continental U.S.

“I would not have made it here if it weren’t for them,” Mckinnis said. “It makes you believe that it doesn’t take a man to exalt you. If God wants you exalted, he’ll exalt you. That’s what I got from watching this man.”

While he was aware of the politics of the time, Perkins was initially reluctant to become directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. That began to change in 1963 when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Inspired by King and desiring equality for his now six children, Perkins dramatically increased the range of his ministry and political efforts over the next few years.

Throughout 1965-1967, Perkins led efforts to promote black voter registration. Perkins’ goal was to challenge the white establishment, and the black vote became a real political force in Simpson County. Perkins also heralded desegregation in 1967 when he enrolled his son Spencer as the first black student at Mendenhall High School.

Continuing his push for racial equality, Perkins organized a boycott of white-owned stores in Mendenhall in the fall of 1969, due to their resistance to desegregation. Voice of Calvary also expanded to developing low-income housing. The growing influence of the black community inspired more tension and anger from white people. The worst night of Perkins’ life, and the most radical transformation of his ministry, was just around the corner.

Students from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University organized a protest against police brutality on February 7, 1970. The protest was in response to a young black man being beaten up by police for asking a white woman for a date. Police set a trap for marchers once they crossed into Rankin County. Many students, and Perkins himself, were arrested and brought to the Brandon County Jail. Perkins would not leave before being tortured within an inch of his life.

Perkins said Sheriff Jonathan Edwards, along with a mixture of deputy sheriffs and highway patrolman, spent the entire night beating Perkins unconscious multiple times. Their cool down from this exercise was taking turns drinking moonshine out of paper cups.

The beating only stopped when word came through that the FBI might be stopping by. Fearing any real consequence for their brutality, Perkins said they dragged him to his feet and forced him to mop his own blood off the jail cell floor. When that visit didn’t come through, they made up for lost time by beating him more viciously than before.

Never before had Perkins felt the kind of anger he did that night. “If I’d had some sort of atomic grenade, I’d have set it off killing both white and black,” said Spencer.

The nightmare didn’t end until the next day. Perkins was only released after a local friend posted her property as his bond. The torture has left Perkins with lifelong scars. Nearly two-thirds of his stomach had to be removed afterwards due to trauma and ulcers that formed. He also suffered a heart attack afterwards. The white-controlled appeal process led him to plead guilty to a reduced charge with no fine or jail time.

Later, when reflecting on that night, Perkins realized his ministry was incomplete, and that being a follower of Jesus required him to be better.

“It was me seeing that I was broke and they were broken,” he said. “That I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.”

In 1971, Perkins moved and expanded Voice of Calvary in Jackson. There he developed the new philosophy of his ministry, the “three Rs” — relocation, redistribution and reconciliation. This new ministry focused on the ways racism had degraded both the black and white communities.

Perkins continued to lead the thriving Voice of Calvary Ministries until he and Vera Mae moved back to California in 1982. There he established the Harambee Christian Family Center and the John Perkins Foundation. Their efforts serve many areas of cummunity need including: healthcare, tutoring and low-income housing.

Perkins’ son Spencer suffered a heart attack and died in 1998. To honor his memory, Perkins and Vera Mae made their final move back to Jackson After buying the land Spencer had owned, they built their home and the Spencer Perkins Center next door. It has developed multiple youth programs since its inception and recently launched a mentoring program.

Things were never easy for the Perkins family. It even took his children a long time to understand and embrace the family ministry. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth Perkins, originally planned on becoming a doctor. Last year, she and her two sisters became co-presidents of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation.

Though Perkins is shifting away from some of the more active leadership duties in the JVMPF, he still plan on writing and speaking. He’s currently in the process of writing what he says is his last book “One Blood: Final Words To The Church On Race.”

“I’m not going out with my head in the sand,” said Perkins.

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‘We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.’

Kaitlin Hollister
Oxford Stories
klhollis@go.olemiss.edu

Roscoe Jones and London Webster

‘We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.’

Roscoe Jones, a Meridian native and Bloody Sunday marcher, now 70, was a young adult when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but he remembers the moment he heard the tragic news. The follower of King was a college student on spring break when the assassination occurred. “We were in Chicago on our way to my aunt’s house when we heard about what happened,” he said. 

Jones said he remembers being angry. Although he says he wanted places like Chicago and Washington, D.C. to burn because of King’s death, Jones knew King wouldn’t have wanted that.

On the day of the assassination, Jones was walking down the Chicago streets when he witnessed a white man get jumped by an angry group of African American men. Soon after, Jones stepped in between them to intervene, telling the men who started the attack that he understood their anger, but violence wasn’t what King would have wanted.

Meridian native London Webster, 67, was living in uptown Washington, D.C. during the time King was assassinated. Webster was a high school student, and he believes he was in class when he heard the news. Until King’s assassination, he said most of the D.C. riots were downtown, but after the news broke, many citizens uptown feared the riots would reach other parts of the city. “Anyone was susceptible to harm,” he said. “After the riots started, we stayed inside to avoid them.”

Webster, who was young during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, said he didn’t follow King’s speeches, but he followed his message. “After the assassination, it moved me to be radical and not afraid of violence,” he said. He even began following the revolutionary socialist organization, the Black Panthers.

Both Jones and Webster agree that King was an eloquent orator with a unique ability to inspire people to do something. “No one has captivated such a large group of people as Dr. King has,” said Webster.

Jones was an active proponent of the Civil Rights Movement and president of the youth chapter of the NAACP during the Freedom Summer of 1964. He also served as co-chairman for the Freedom Summer Youth Convention in Meridian the same year. “People do not often realize that it was the young adults that were the boots on the ground,” he said. “It was the students who led the movement.”

Jones marched from Selma to Montgomery on what is now known as “Bloody Sunday,” in 1965 for the Voter’s Registration March. He said he and a group of young adults were at the church when they realized they had been left by other marchers. As they ran to catch up, they were met by a large crowd running towards the church yelling that they were being beaten. Jones said they ran back, but were met at the church by local and state law enforcement, who beat the marchers in the church and sprayed them with tear gas.

Jones worked with King on multiple other occasions, including King’s tour of Mississippi. He said one of King’s greatest fears was visiting Mississippi because it was more dangerous than anywhere else. “We prescribed to nonviolence because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed,” Jones said.

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First Union Baptist Church where King gave his speech in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jones helped prepare the city of Meridian for King’s speeches. His job was to help ensure that both locations would be filled to capacity. King was set to speak at First Union Church first, then St. John Baptist Church. According to Jones, the event at First Union Church went smoothly, but on the night of the second speech, the city fire marshal evacuated the church saying it had become a safety issue.

Things in Mississippi were so dangerous, King left Meridian in the back of hearse, because at the time, it was the safest way out of the city. “No one is going to stop and check a hearse,” said Jones.

When asked about where the world might be if King had not been assassinated, Jones said he was unsure. He said he believes King was ready for death. “He didn’t want to speak in Memphis that night,” said Jones. He did not prepare for the speech and even tried to send someone in his place.

In his final speech known as “The Mountaintop Speech,” King spoke about death and his funeral. “He had death on his mind and knew it was upon him,” said Jones.

Although Jones said King had a plan for the future, King left behind a great legacy and plan in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. “Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to be remembered as a drum major for justice,” said Jones.

Jones said King saw the movement headed in a direction he did not like. King wanted his life to be meaningful. He knew if he continued, it might not be, and he feared what the future would hold, adding, “I don’t know what would have happened if Dr. King had survived.”

What Jones does know is, “If we had the communication advantages young people now have, then we would have turned the whole state of Mississippi and the world upside down.”