Mass Arrests go to audio

inmates hoeing cotton at Parchman Penitentiary
Long line of inmates hoeing cotton at Parchman Penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta. Many of these people were arrested as a result of the Freedom Rides or civil disobedience.

From the Paul B. Johnson Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, local law enforcement officials jailed large numbers of activists. Indeed, incarceration was the goal for many of the civil rights activists. Participants hoped that by going to jail for disobeying racist and immoral laws, they could tweak the conscience of America and thereby compel federal action on their behalf. Indeed there were occasions when jailed activists declined bail. Georgia Clark, an activist from Durant, Mississippi, told one interviewer that when the jailer came to set them free, she responded by saying, "I didn't ask to get in and I didn't hear myself ask to get out. I was enjoying myself up there because we were still singing 'we ain't going to let nobody turn us around." And to get us to leave, "they accused us of stealing their sheets, and they didn't even have one worth sleeping on" much less stealing. While incidents like this one happened throughout the course of the civil rights movement, they did not always end as peaceably.

The fact is that some activists died at the hands of their jailers. Sometimes they succumbed to nightsticks and guns, while on other occasions the lack of food, medical care or ventilation brought about their deaths. Mrs. Annie Lee Stewart, an activist from Grenada County, Mississippi, recalled how awful the mass arrests were. She remembered that when John Rundle High School was being integrated, whites beat several groups of black children with "chains, axe handles, and all of that." She noted that many of the protesters suffered from broken ribs and legs.

On one occasion in 1965, authorities in Jackson ran out of room in their jails and placed activists in cattle trucks and cow pens. Here they languished for several days without adequate food or a change of clothes.

patrolmen and protesters at Meredith March, 1966
Mississippi Highway Patrolmen observe protesters during the Meredith March, 1966.

From the Paul B. Johnson Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

audioClick on the play button to hear the following excerpt. 
                                                                                                                           Total time: 1 minute, 8 seconds
I can remember, you know, my child screaming, you know, that he didn't want to turn loose and wanted to go back home. And the police were beating, and folks was hitting the streets. And the blood was running, and they took us in those wagons, and just crammed us in, and when we got out to the fairground, we was just snatched out, you know, of the wagons. And as we would come out, you know, they would just sling us, knock us and beat us. The men, they was taking the men and just beating them, hitting them all up side of the head. You could see knots swelling before your eyes and blood running. I don't like to think about it. And we came inside; they was pushing us like we was horses or something. They had called in everybody. They had called in the Game and Fish Commissioners and every kind of officer I suppose that they they could find in this state, and they was in Jackson, Mississippi. That was happening all through that day, because people kept marching, and they kept putting us in jail.
audioClick on the play button to hear the following excerpt.   Total time: 54 seconds
Just about time we'd nod off and sleep, they would come in there with that form of harassment. They would come in and move us again. And they would take shifts. And they'd shift the police just to harass us. And to torture us. And they would keep us up all night, and then we'd be trying to sleep in the day or take a little nap, they would move us and then they'd spray water. They would say we were filthy and all that kind of stuff and they, you know, bring in that disinfectant, I guess that's the reason I can't stand it now. It would get all in your eyes, you know. They would put it in there, and just empty it all down and then they would just spray with water and have it running, and it would get all on us and everything; we tried to get out of the way. Then if you get too far out of the way, then they are standing there with a stick and jooging you.

audio Click on the play button to hear the following excerpt. 
                                                                                                                 Total time: 1 minute, 52 seconds

One of the things that happened also was they was moving us around, and this woman just refused to move, she said she just ain't going to move no more. The thing that happened that day was that they grabbed this woman, this is a big woman. And they was going to drag her, and she reached up and grabbed this man between the legs and caught hold of his testicles, and they call him Red. This was the name of the policeman. I will never forget that incident, and Red throwed up both hands and lost his stick; she took his gun, everything, Red give it up, cause she got hold of his testicles, and then we all went to hollering and laughing, cause we couldn't do anything else, and he was trying to scream; the man couldn't say nothing; he was just in a mess, but Red had harassed this woman till she couldn't take no more; he was sort of no choice. So we went to calling him Red. Everywhere Red is today, he had truly been squeezed very tightly, you know. And so Red was laid out; he buckled down and went to his knees. And by that time another policeman had checked. You know, they was all out, they went to find, like I say we had made a circle and Red was in the middle, so they missed Red, you see. And it was hurting Red so bad, he couldn't even walk. Red went down and the police had moved in. And they moved in and cocked their guns and I says, you know, I couldn't talk.

-- Unita Blackwell is a Lula, Mississippi, native who became a SNCC field worker in 1964. LIke many other activists, she suffered intimidation, harassment, and incarceration. She served as a delegate for the MFDP at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. In 1977, Ms. Blackwell became the mayor of the Issaquena County community of Mayersville.