An Oral History

With

Obie Clark

Interviewer: Donald Williams

Tougaloo College Archives

This interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation Project.

Funding for this project was provided in part by the Mississippi

Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and

the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

1999

Biography

Mr. Obie Clark was born in rural Kemper County, Mississippi in 1932, one of eight children. His father was a farmer who, in Obie's words, ". . . made five or six bales of cotton a year and then . . . lived off the land." He attended Pleasant Grove Elementary School, and was graduated from Whisenton High School in 1952. He received a scholarship and attended Mississippi Industrial College, where he majored in biology. In the summer of 1953, he was drafted into the Korean War, served two years, returned to college, graduated in the fall of 1958 and began teaching science and coaching boys and girls basketball from 1958 to 1967 at Porterville High School.

Mr. Clark conducted graduate study in biology at Tennessee A and I College, Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. He is a member of first Union Baptist Church.

Mr. Clark organized LEEP, a community action agency now known as the Multi County Community Service Agency. He is active in the NAACP.

Table of Contents

Army service in Korea 2

Undergraduate and graduate degrees 2

Klan targets First Union Baptist Church in Meridian 4

Bishop Duncan Gray and the Committee of Concern 4

Klan violence against Jackson and Meridian Jews 5

Thomas Tarrants, Sam Bowers, Wayne Roberts, and Kathy Ainsworth 5

Whisenton High School 7

"Scrapping" cotton 7

College scholarship and draft into Korean war 8

Teaching at Porterville High School 9

Multi County Community Service Agency 9

At-large elections 10

Integration of Meridian's public swimming pool 11

Gerrymandering of school zones in 1969 12

Elected president of Meridian NAACP 13

Polly Heidelberg confronts Klansman while picketing Winn-Dixie 16

Registering voters 21

AN ORAL HISTORY

with

OBIE CLARK

This is an interview for the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with Mr. Obie Clark and is taking place on March 13, 1999. The interviewer is Don Williams.

Williams: Mr. Clark, do you know any of the people on this list here? I have interviewed those folks.

Clark: Yes, I know all of them.

Williams: OK. Did you know Buford Posey[?]? I think he's up in Oxford, now.

Clark: I probably would--. Listen, I'm not a good politician. I remember people by face more than I do by name. I bet I would know him if I saw him.

Williams: OK. Now, how do you spell your name?

Clark: O-B-I-E.

Williams: Obie. Clark. C-?

Clark: L-A-R-K.

(A segment discussing scheduling of the interview is not included in this typed transcript.)

Williams: And, where were you born?

Clark: I was born in rural Kemper County. K-E-M-P-E-R. Kemper County.

Williams: Kemper County. And what is your birth date?

Clark: My birth date is ten, thirty-one, thirty-two.

Williams: When did you first go to Meridian?

Clark: I moved to Meridian from rural Kemper in 1959.

Williams: OK, since fifty-nine, have you lived anyplace other than Meridian?

Clark: No, just in Meridian since then.

Williams: OK. Have you ever been out of the state? To live anyplace else?

Clark: Well, I was in the military, in Korea for twelve months.

Williams: Was that the Army? Or Marines?

Clark: Army. I believe that was from 1953 to fifty-five. And of course, I attended school back during the days in which the state of Mississippi would pay the tuition for people with bachelor's degrees to go to any other university anywhere in the country as opposed to going to the all-white universities here in the state.

Williams: Yes, I remember that.

Clark: So I took advantage of that program in the sixties, and I went to Tennessee A and I one summer and Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and the University of Minnesota. In 1964, I was at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul Campus during the hot summer.

Williams: I used to live in Roseville, which is just north of St. Paul. I stayed there about three years.

Clark: Is that right?

Williams: Yes. OK. St. Paul campus. Yes, I know exactly where that is. OK. And that was 1964?

Clark: Nineteen sixty-four.

Williams: OK. Now, when you graduated from Tennessee A and I, what did you--?

Clark: No, no. I graduated from Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs.

Williams: OK. And what did you major in?

Clark: Biology.

Williams: OK. When you were doing these graduate studies, what were you in?

Clark: I have done graduate study in the field.

Williams: In biology.

Clark: In biological science. Either biology or zoology.

Williams: OK. When did you graduate from Mississippi Industrial College?

Clark: Nineteen fifty-eight.

Williams: Nineteen fifty-eight. When did you first become a registered voter? Remember?

Clark: Well, I was afraid. Well, I wasn't afraid, but I didn't register in Kemper County because every time you, if you went to the courthouse up there, they would call you a communist, in Kemper County, where I'm from, so I registered to vote in 1959 or sixty. I'm not too sure.

Williams: OK. Let me ask you this. What church did you attend during the fifties, sixties, and seventies?

Clark: Same church I'm attending now. First Union Baptist Church.

Williams: First Union. And, who was the presiding minister there?

Clark: The president of the NAACP. The late R.S. Porter.

(There is a brief interruption in the tape.)

Clark: As a matter of fact, I became a member of First Union Baptist Church and one of the reasons I joined that church was because of the pastor of the church who was Reverend R.S. Porter, the late R.S. Porter. And, he also was president of the Meridian branch of the NAACP.

Williams: OK. And what year was that, when you joined? You remember that?

Clark: That was in 1961.

Williams: OK. And who followed Reverend Porter?

Clark: The late--all these ministers are dead now--the late Reverend Roy Brown. Reverend Roy L. Brown. And he left, and then the Reverend Bradley [was next]. I forget Reverend Bradley's first name. Reverend Bradley. B-R-A-D-L-E-Y. And, he's deceased, now. And then, Reverend Charles Jackson, who is our current pastor.

Williams: OK. Now, I understand that First Union Baptist Church had a lot of stuff going on over there.

Clark: We were the civil rights headquarters in the city. We were--. Back then the Klan got so bold in Meridian, you know, they posted a monthly newsletter and our church's name appeared on it and therefore there were many nights that I pulled shift with other deacons and other people in the community to guard that church from being bombed. Right there on Davis Street, second floor. I've still got my Browning automatic shotgun. And as a young man, then, I was just wishing! I was just wishing they would turn that corner off of Davis Street onto Thirty-eighth, so I could take care of business. I sat there many nights. We had shifts, you know. We had it set up where we had a taxi company that would drop me off and pick up somebody else and stuff like that.

Williams: OK. Was that a black-owned taxi company?

Clark: Yes.

Williams: Do you remember the name of the taxi company?

Clark: Meridian Cab Company.

Williams: Are they still in existence now?

Clark: Yes. New owner.

Williams: OK. Now, who organized your kind of defense or guard unit?

Clark: Well, it was a combination between the church and the NAACP, because my pastor was president of the NAACP, and we had our meetings there, so we sort of made it a joint thing.

Williams: Do you remember what year this was?

Clark: That was in the late sixties. Like sixty-nine. Because, you see, in 1969, there were twelve black churches in Meridian burned or bombed in a six-month period, you see. And these churches that were burned, most of them didn't have insurance. And those that did have insurance, the insurance had been canceled. And those that tried to get insurance couldn't. Now, there was a group of ministers who came together, called themselves the Committee of Concern. A biracial committee. Duncan Gray, who lives in Jackson now but he holds a high position in the Methodist Church. Bishop Duncan Gray. Ask him about it, he'll tell you that the white ministers who came together to try to help raise money to rebuild these churches and help get insurance for those who didn't have it, a lot of them were run out of town by their own congregations. They were pressured by their white parishioners.

And, then, of course, you can relate with this, because after they had bombed or burned those twelve black churches during that six month's time, we would go to the FBI, police, and they would tell us they were doing all they could to apprehend those who were burning and bombing the churches, but there was nothing they could do. But then, when the Ku Klux Klan shifted its focus from the black community to the Jewish community in Meridian, and, one Sunday morning, you know early, the Jewish synagogue went boom! And, that's when the law enforcement community and the white politicians got serious about that kind of violence.

Williams: Was that the first time that the synagogue had been bombed?

Clark: It had already been bombed in Jackson. But now, the guy who was the bomber for the Klansmen, the--. They had a man whose name you will recognize, Thomas Tarrants, who was a professional bomb-maker for Sam Bowers, out of Hattiesburg. Now, if you recall, in the summer of sixty-nine, I'm almost sure, firebombing of the Jewish synagogue, and their next target was Meyer's [Meyer Davidson's] home, one of the Jewish leaders there in Meridian. And on a hot summer Sunday evening in July, they came to Meridian with a bomb to bomb this man's house. But, now, in the meantime, two Klansmen had become informants. A lot of people think the federal government put up the money, you know, and all like that, to break the back of the Klan, but the Jewish leaders combined in Jackson, Mississippi, with the late Al Bynum representing the Jewish interests here, and attorney William Ready in Meridian, representing the Jewish interests there.

They came together, and the Jewish leaders of these two communities put up a reward and there were two brothers in Meridian who were known Klansmen, went for the reward money by becoming informants. Wayne Roberts, if you recall, is the one who admitted under testimony, that he fired the shots that killed Schwerner and Goodman in Philadelphia, and his brother Raymond, they were the ones who became informants. OK. Now, in the meantime, after the Jewish synagogue had been bombed, the chief of police, the late Chief Gunn, formed probably the first S.W.A.T. team. Meridian probably had the first S.W.A.T. team of any city in this country. He formed a S.W.A.T. team and made a public statement that he ordered his officers, if they saw anybody fooling around a church of any kind, to shoot to kill. Shoot and ask questions later. And so, when these Roberts brothers became informants and going after the reward money; so, when they got ready to bomb Meyer's home that night, they informed the authorities. So the authorities had Thomas Tarrants under surveillance from Jackson all the way to Meridian, with his bomb. Ms. Kathy Ainsworth, [an] elementary school teacher here, drove the car, and when they got to Twenty-ninth Avenue, they turned down toward Mr. Meyer [Davidson's] home. They had moved the family out to a motel, the authorities had. And so, they had the house surrounded with our S.W.A.T. team, dressed in black.

And when they came down there, Tarrants got out with his bomb in one hand and his revolver in another one and went up and put that bomb on Mr. Meyer [Davidson's] lawn. That's when they came out shooting. And when they came out and asked him to halt, he put the thing down and ran back to the car firing back at them. And Kathy Ainsworth opened the door and a bullet killed her right there on the scene. Somehow, he got around her body. She was driving. He got under her body somehow, and got behind the wheel and took off. And they had to chase the man several blocks. Two Navy men--you know, there's a Navy base out fifteen miles north of Meridian. They heard all the shooting, so they came out to investigate, just out of curiosity, and one of them got shot and killed with a stray bullet. So, this man, you know, he went several blocks before they apprehended him. And, they shot him all to pieces, and he had shot Chief Hatcher, who was the head of that unit. He took a slug in his chest. They had to take him to Atlanta that night for open heart surgery. He's still living. Two black officers were on that squad. Both of them are dead. But, anyway, that was what sort of really broke the back of the Klan in Meridian, was that experience.

Williams: Let me kind of regress a little bit. You were born in Kemper County in 1932. Let me just state that your recollection is pretty good here, with these names. I usually have to drag names out of people, but you're just right on top of them, Mr. Clark. Coming up as a kid, when did you first realize--? Tell me about your family. Your dad. What did your dad do?

Clark: Well, my daddy was a farmer. We called it, you know, he was a farmer, but, a farmer. He was a good dad, a good man. And he had his pride. He purchased his own land. And he raised eight children on the farm. Cotton was our cash crop. We didn't grow cotton like they did up on the Delta, you know. We just made five or six bales of cotton a year, and then we lived off of the land. We had two mules. Two hundred and fifty-eight acres of land. So, we were poor, but we didn't realize we were poor. We didn't get no government assistance. Didn't want none. There wasn't none, you know. But, anyway, when I graduated from high school--. Now, this is the home county of the late Senator John C. Stennis. Now, my daddy borrowed money from the Stennises to make his crops there in De Kalb, Mississippi, which is the county seat. So, when I graduated from the little rural elementary school there--.

Williams: Do you remember the name of it?

Clark: Yes. Pleasant Grove.

Williams: Pleasant Grove Elementary. OK.

Clark: That little rural school there had one teacher, Ms. Davis, Luvenia[?]. And so, Senator Stennis was going around campaigning for reelection, even though he didn't have to. But he was going around, you know, using politics, telling the white people, not to worry about black kids riding on a yellow school bus, like the white children were riding. He said his granddaughter will be picking cotton before black kids will ride in yellow school buses. So, when I graduated from elementary school, in order to go to high school--. We lived twelve miles from De Kalb, and we didn't have transportation. So one year, my daddy--. Well, let me go back. The high school was created by a gentleman from right up here in Canton, Mississippi. Mr. W.H. Whisenton came from Canton, over to De Kalb, and established the high school, and they named it after him, Whisenton High School.

Williams: How do you spell that?

Clark: W-H-I-S-E-N-T-O-N. Mr. Whisenton. Sam Houston Whisenton. Now. So, after he got his school, he didn't have no way to get the kids to school. So he built a dormitory. And so, it helped kids. You know, now they talk about, you live a mile away from the school, you're entitled to a bus ride, but people [were] living a mile and more, and couldn't get back and forth. So, he built a dormitory to accommodate the black parents in that county. And then, in the forties, late forties, the school board got liberal enough. We didn't know anything about no school board. We didn't know who was making the decisions. But apparently it was the school board, got liberal enough to allow men to go out and buy two-and-a-half-ton trucks and let them build, they called it a bed, or whatever, on the back of it. One of them put a little house on it. A little house on it! And, you hauled children around in it. All them curves.

Man, I rode that bus, man, that thing leaning. Dangerous as all go. But that is how we got to high school. And when I graduated from high school, I had one objective, and that was to go to the city, because I had seen some of my uncles and cousins who had left Kemper County, you know, out of the fields, and they were tough-skinned and all that, but when they went up North, then in a couple of years they would come back, their skin was all smoothed up and they had their hair all processed, driving a car. And, I thought that was like, you know, the promised land. So my objective when--. I didn't care nothing about no college. When I graduated from high school, my objective was to--. If I get too personal here, you tell me.

Williams: No, no. Come on.

Clark: --was to go to Chicago. I didn't even know how I was going to get there, or Detroit. Based on that perception that I had. And so, when we finished picking cotton that year after I graduated from high school, which was in 1952. We had finished picking cotton over in September, and we were scrapping. Now there is a difference between picking cotton and scrapping. I'll break that down to you later on.

Williams: Yes, please, tell me what that is.

Clark: Picking is when it all comes out, and you go down there and you pick, you know. You pick seriously. You got cotton all over the place. So, then, you've got some little secondary blossoms there, you know, and after you go through the first time, in the fall, these little secondary things will bust open. So, it wasn't like the first round, you know. So you go went back and scrapped it. We called that scrapping. And so, we saw these three men coming across the hill. And life was simple. And I immediately recognized one of them, was a gentleman who had graduated from high school the year before I had, Marvin Love. And the second one I later identified as my high school coach, football coach. And then the third one, we just didn't know, as they approached us.

And so, when they came there, the gentleman who was with them was a recruiter, you might call, from Mississippi Industrial College, over in September, recruiting football players. And my coach had recommended me and the other guy. And they had played. By the time I got there, they had played. The games had already started. They had played two games, but they were still recruiting. So that's how close I came. This is a United Methodist Church college. No. African-American. A.M.E. Whatever. So, I never will forget it, because I was sitting there with my sack on my shoulder, and they explained to my daddy that they were going to give me a four-year scholarship; it wasn't going to cost him nothing. So, they explained it to him like that.

When they put it to him like that, I remember my daddy was standing there, he cleared his throat. He always cleared his throat. He said, "[Clears throat.] All right, since it ain't going to cost nothing, I'll let him go, but I got to have him back in two weeks to help me get that corn in." (Laughter) And so, that's the way they took it. I went to Mississippi Industrial College, stayed two weeks, came back, got the corn in, and went back. But that's how I give the Methodist Church credit for putting me in a position to break that cycle of poverty. Otherwise, I don't know where I would be.

Williams: So, you returned back to Meridian in fifty-nine.

Clark: No, after I graduated from college in fifty-eight, the reason why it took me so long, you know, fifty-one, fifty-two I graduated from high school--.

Williams: And what was the name of that high school?

Clark: Whisenton. W-H-I-S-E-N-T-O-N. Whisenton High School.

Williams: OK.

Clark: I went to Mississippi Industrial College as a freshman and then I was drafted into the Korean War that summer after my freshman year. And so, I served two years and then I came back and went back to Mississippi Industrial. And I graduated in the fall of fifty-eight. And then I started teaching, in fifty-eight, that same year.

Williams: And what were you teaching then?

Clark: I was teaching at Porterville. That's in Kemper County. Porterville High School. I was teaching science and coaching boys and girls basketball. Now here again, I never did apply for a teaching job because you know back then, the only thing a black person could do with their college degree was teach. Other opportunities just weren't there. But anyway, I did not apply for a job teaching. Man, I had already been accepted at Wayne State University.

Williams: In Detroit.

Clark: In Detroit. And I was going into the Master's program there and I had an aunt who was an R.N. and lived there by herself and she was working as an R.N. in Detroit, and I was going to live with her and manage her rental property and go to school. She was going to provide me with a car, and everything. But then, two weeks before school was out. Here again, my high school coach called me. Wrote me, rather, and offered me a job teaching there because it was his first year as principal of the high school, and he offered me a job teaching a course in boys and girls basketball, so I took it, and that's why, you know, I'm in Mississippi, I guess, today. I taught there from fifty-eight until sixty-seven. Those were tough years, brother. I tell you, they were tough years, because the school board had two systems--one for white folks, one for us. And our program just didn't get no attention, you know. We got the buses that were worn out. I drove the school bus. But, it was dangerous how they made--the stuff they had us riding on and all. So, the first chance I got, I couldn't handle it, man, I got out of there, and I started working in the community. I organized a community action agency and worked for it until, you know--.

Williams: OK. When you say "community action agency," did it have a name?

Clark: Yes. It is called Multi County Community Service Agency, now, but then, when I organized it, it was an acronym, we called it LEEP. It was an acronym. I don't even remember what the acronym, you know, what the letters meant. Lauderdale Economic Development Program or something like that. It's in Lauderdale County. But I tell you, when I got involved in the community, I don't care about the names, and all the people. I just have to tell you what I know.

Williams: Yes, of course. Come on.

Clark: Now, when I came to Meridian and got involved with the NAACP, in 1959, I noticed, after I got to know the leaders, the black leaders, I noticed that there was a close bonding between the black leaders and the white leaders. Very close.

Williams: Could you tell me some of the black leaders and some of the white leaders, who they were?

Clark: OK. Let me tell you the black leaders: Charles Young.

Williams: Right. I've interviewed him. Yes.

Clark: Reverend Porter, Albert Jones, Ms. Polk, James Bishop, the late Connie Moore, and Dr. Kornegay. But Dr. Kornegay was sort of outside at that time. He wasn't actively involved. But what was happening, I just couldn't understand it. I was a young man. I couldn't understand how these black leaders could be so closely bonded with the white leaders and then at the same time look at all of these oppressive policies and laws and ordinances that they had against us. So, I became a black leader, you know, along those lines. I wasn't elected to nothing, appointed to chair the education committee of the local chapter of the NAACP. But we leaders, you know, the white folks called us leaders, and we were leaders, but we sort of met their standards.

But when I would see things like the at-large election, the white leaders had in place, and they put that on us, and so one year, OK, the at-large election in Meridian went like this: you had five wards. OK. So, they required you to live in your ward in (inaudible). You had to qualify and live in a ward. So ward four was the ward First Union was in and it was the ward that had a black majority, automatically. So one year, we decided that we wanted to--and I felt very strongly about this-- that we should have some voice in the decision-making level (inaudible) city and county government. At that point, it was absolutely zero. So, I supported the notion that we should run somebody from the ward, and Reverend R.S. Porter was the first candidate to run for city council for the city of Meridian. And he won handily in the ward. Very well. But when the votes from these at-large wards came in, they took it away from us.

So four years later, we came back and we ran a local attorney, the late Thomas R. Hogan. Hogan campaigned in the district, in the ward. Same thing! We won; and, we lost with the at-large election. Then a year or so later, we had a special election, Reverend E.L. Henry, a high-ranking black man, in Jackson, now, with the Methodist Church. He was the third person that we ran for city council and Reverend Henry is United Methodist. We were sure we would win that election, because that was in the summer. You had kids home from college, man, we got--

Williams: What year was that.

Clark: I don't know.

Williams: OK. I'll found out. No problem.

Clark: But anyway, we lost a third time. And that's when I got Mr. Roscoe Jones, Ms. Luvenia Whitlock[?], Ms. Barksdale[?], and the Reverend Johnson. We came over here and sat down with Frank Parker and got him to represent us in a lawsuit challenging the at-large election. But the leaders didn't have no problem with it. That's what confused me. That's what frustrated me. And so, I could pull away from the leadership and get me some other folks to try to get this problem solved, and became the lead plaintiff in the district. Now, what happened, Charles Young, when the city found out what we were going to do, they called a quick council meeting and they drew up a plan where they were going to give us four wards, and the fifth one would be at-large like the mayor. And they gave that plan to Charles Young, and Charles Young took Aaron Henry and went to Washington and told the Justice Department that that's what black folks wanted in Meridian. And I saw Aaron over here in Jackson the next week, and I said, "Aaron, y'all are wrong." I told Charles he was wrong. We can't concede nothing. We are a minority and we are going to be conceding a ward.

And so, Aaron told me, "We're going to do the same thing for you that we did for Charlie. We'll present your plan."

I said, "No, us got us a lawyer." (Laughter) So, we used Frank Parker, and the city divided the city into--at least, got us one black supervisor and the first black warden, as a result of that, Dr. Hobert Kornegay became the first councilman. He will tell you that. He became the first councilman who was able to be elected from Ward Four. Now, so, then there other things, you know, like the swimming pool. Black people here in Jackson woke up one day and discovered that the public pools belonged to them also, and they decided they were going to use them.

So the city officials in Jackson said, "No." They closed them. Cemented them over. So the city officials in Meridian saw that and they made note of it and so, what they did, they took advantage of the situation and they created a private swimming association, and they leased Highland Park pool, in the big park there, they leased the swimming pool to that private swimming association. So, in order to be a member, you had to pay a $25 membership fee. That's no problem. But then you had to be recommended by five members in good standing. That Ole Miss stuff. So, here again, I'm pleading with the leadership. You know, my friends. Ten years, now, from 1959 up to 1969, now. I'm saying, "Gentlemen, we shouldn't let this stand. Let's fight it." The black leadership wouldn't touch it.

So, here again, the Methodist minister Reverend J.C. Killingsworth[?] and I, got the Lawyers' Committee.[?] We sued the city over this action, and they knew they couldn't win. So they gave me and Killingsworth membership privileges. We could take our immediate family, our wives and children, for free. Anybody else, we had to pay fifty cents extra. They waived the five-member requirement as a part of the court order. So, when we won, on the same day, my son Cedric[?] Clark, he's thirty-four now. He must have been about five or six then, in 1969. He was born in sixty-four. But anyway, the same day that Neil Armstrong, the first American to put his foot on the moon, that's the day, I asked everybody to stand back and let my son Cedric's first black foot went in that swimming pool out there. Symbolically. So Killingsworth and I were determined to have a black person in that pool from the time it opened to the time it closed. That was our commitment. I was working and he wasn't, so he was there, and I'm sending my kids and paying fifty cents for other folks' kids. So it got to be a costly proposition because white folks got smart on over in July and August, when it got real hot, they started coming out there at night when we were gone. So then we had two shifts. Killingsworth in the daytime and I'm at night.

So we went to the black leaders, and we told them, we said, "Man, this thing is wearing us out financially. (Inaudible) fifty cents a guest." So Reverend Porter had twelve children. Charles had five. And we asked them to join. Just by paying $25, that would give us a whole lot of kids to go. You know, their kids, it wouldn't cost them nothing, because the kids could go on their membership. Reverend Porter asked them. They told me and Killingsworth this. He had some negative stuff said about his children and then Charles' response was that his kids could go to Magnolia, to the all-black pool, free. They wouldn't take issues like that. That bonding. Man, I couldn't understand it.

And so it was in 1969, also, when the fifth circuit court of appeals, you know, voted, saying that the clock had ticked its last tock on tokenism, talking about school districts in the South. Doing away with those school districts. Now. Right now. In the middle of the school year. It was in 1969, we got that order. Don't open these schools until you come back with a unitary plan. And that's when it really got bad. School boards started displacing teachers and stuff like that. And then, for some reason, the school board felt that was important. That every school be in a white majority, so they gerrymandered the attendance zones and all like that, and so, what they did, they took these kids from the lowest socioeconomic background on the south side, in order to achieve their goal of having a white majority, and they had them way over here in north Meridian with the white leaders' children. And the first day, man, chaos broke out. It got bad. It got so bad till we wound up with a complete boycott of all the schools. Now Reverend J.C. Killingsworth and myself led that boycott. The leaders came. They came, but they came to our meetings the first few times and the children booed them. We had a meeting every night. But they hung in there. And then the superintendent told me later that one of the leaders was calling him every night telling him, "Well, give us a few more days. We'll get them back to school." They played both sides, heavily.

And it was during that time when we were on the picket line picketing East End School and Reverend Killingsworth was out in the community telling people not to send their kids across the picket line and Reverend Porter, the president of the branch was leading the picket line, and I and some of the other leaders like Connie Moore and them were out telling folks to send children to school. So Reverend Porter quit, right in the middle of that. He was standing in the picket line on Monday. Thursday he quit when he found out his officers, treasurer, first vice president were telling people to dishonor the picket line and the branch had voted to do it. That's when I told my wife, after Reverend Porter quit, I told my wife that I was going to run for president of the Meridian branch. I didn't really run to win. I told her I wanted to do it to clear my conscience because I had been with these brothers every day for ten years and I had seen--. Man, I could write a whole book about the number of times I saw these brothers sell the black folks down, you know, and sell them out. I saw it. I don't have to go by what anybody says. I saw it. Part of it. Protesting, most of the time in the minority.

But the chief of police, if he saw someone he thought was halfway, you know, getting out of line, he would call one man, Albert Jones, and Albert Jones would call us in, sit us around the table. The chief didn't know some of our names. Say, "Now, Meridian has a fine history of racial harmony. We ain't had all the problems they've had in Jackson, Hattiesburg, and all like that, because of you boys. You boys doin' a good job." And, man, that would go to my soul because I knew what he was talking about. When you'd go pay your water bill, we didn't have no black in the city government no kind of way. And I came to this conclusion: yes, Meridian does have a fine history of racial harmony, but look at the price we pay. Let me tell you something. It got so bad over there, and I started looking at this. What Meridian had gained, as a result of this now, Meridian had gained the distinction that no other city in this country can claim, and it's still got it, and that is so many black people had to leave because of economic and other reasons until they organized, thirty-something years ago, they founded in Detroit, they organized the Meridianites Picnic. They have a picnic every year. Every major city in the country's got one. Like Chicago. Los Angeles has got two. Atlanta. They'll be in Meridian this year, you know. They come back every four years to Meridian. But the white folks were scared of us. They were scared of it at first. They didn't want them there the first time, but when they found out that it was economics there, now they want them every year. But I was saying, "Now, gentleman, look here. We are selling our people too short. Look here, we ain't getting no jobs."

And they didn't care about that as long as they were being satisfied. And that's why I told my wife, "I'm going to run for president and hope I lose, so I clear my conscience." When I first moved in that neighborhood, people called me the man who watered his grass every evening. And that's what I wanted to become. I wanted to get out of it after ten years. But that night Alex Waites, W-A-I-T-E-S, who was field director of the NAACP at that time here in Jackson, and we had a man in Meridian who was on the national board, named C.R. Darden, who ran against Aaron Henry, the first time for president of the state conference and Aaron beat him. And C.R., when C.R. died, I was scared to be in a room by myself, because C.R. hated me so. He saw me as a young upstart, didn't know what I was doing, and when I ran for president against his faction, Charles Young, Reverend Porter, all of them. Reverend Porter was my pastor! But I just couldn't take it any more. I said, "I got to do it." Buy anyway, that night there was an electrical storm in Meridian and so I had contacted the state because they had violated the election procedure by not allowing my name to be put on the ballot, the black leaders. And Alex came over there and took all the abuse from Mr. Darden. See, at that time, the national board, which Darden was a member of, you know, paying a salary of a staff over in Jackson.

So, Darden threatened him with all like that, but Alex Waites said, "If you go with this election, then I'm going to recommend to the national office to declare it unconstitutional because you ain't doing it right."

And so Reverend Porter saw the handwriting on the wall and said, "Well, you can just write his name in."

And Alex said, "No. There is no provision for a write-in. The name must be on the ballot." So he had the election committee go and put my name on the ballot, and I landslided! Now Mr. Reed, Professor Reed, the late W.A. Reed Jr., who was the principal of the high school there, for all those years, and the junior college. I did my practice teaching at his school.

Williams: What was the name of that school?

Clark: Harris High School.

Williams: Harris High School. OK.

Clark: And, it was strange that every morning Mr. Reed had a faculty meeting. He didn't have a faculty meeting every week or every other week. He had a faculty meeting every morning at 8 o'clock or whatever. And I found out after I had done my practice teaching. I didn't understand it then; didn't question it. But after I had done my practice teaching and came back to Meridian, and started working in the community, I found out why. Because the black leaders didn't even know who the superintendent was. They didn't know who the school board members were. But every concern they had pertaining to education, they took it to Mr. Reed. And they expected Mr. Reed to deal with all that white bureaucracy that he worked for.

So Mr. Reed told me later that when, they didn't know who I was: young buck coming here from Kemper County, going to run against Mr. Young and his machine. So Mr. Reed told me, and I found out why Reed had to do that, because they were attacking Reed, because they expected Reed to do this and do this, and he didn't have no authority. They didn't help him by going before the school board and superintendents and raising hell or doing what they needed to do. So Mr. Reed said, he just told this teacher, said, "Who is this guy Obie Clark? (Inaudible) against him." Said, "Y'all need to come on and let's go, both, across this." If they don't want him, then he must be alright for us. (Laughter)

So that's how I got to be president in 1969. And I have caught hell ever since from the white and black coalition there. They come at me with everything. My house was shot into in 1985, twice, two weeks in a row. High-powered weapons. I don't believe it was the Ku Klux Klan. I have been sued more times than I can name just by trying to advocate for people. The biggest lawsuit that hit me was, we have in Meridian the largest cult in this country. Cult, c-u-l-t. Headed by a black man. And to show you how things are twisted, too. And I helped him get organized. Because he came to me with this concept of taking poor people, on food stamps and so forth, putting all their resources together and doing something for themselves. That sounded like, you know, a cooperative effort. So I helped him get organized, helped him arrange to get his first (inaudible) over there. And after he got organized, I guess five or six years later, some of his members started coming to me and talking about how much abuse was going on.

And he sent some of his people over here to contact WLBT, channel three, to do--. They had a weekly program on, called Probe. Raye Dillon was the producer. So, she did a documentary on catfish farming, the test of it up in the Delta at the time. And he saw the program, Bishop did. So he sent his people over here to get her to come over there and do a promo on his thing. I helped him get his charter, you know, for a nonprofit arm of the church. It's called REACH, Incorporated. Acronym for something. And when she came over there, she went over in what he called the Holy Land. He had fifty-something acres right across the state line over in Emale, Alabama. And she saw the communal living and the substandard living over there. And he had people out in these old beat-up trucks all over the country, selling peanuts, peanut brittle, and begging for money to help support his children's home in Meridian, which he did not have. It's purely a cult thing. And so, when Raye Dillon saw his side of it, she called me and asked me if I was familiar with it. By this time, I have talked to a dozen of his people about how they were being abused. In other words, if you were going to be saved, then you've got to keep him happy. And one lady said she had nine children and she was getting $600 worth of food stamps. She didn't even open--.

(End of tape one, side one. The interview continues on tape one, side two.)

Williams: --interviewed Howard McGlothin. This is side two. And, I had Mr. Ready and him and I had interviewed Charles Young. As a matter of fact, he was the first one. Then I interviewed Mrs. Jo Lynn Polk. Well, what's her mother's name, Dr. Polk's wife?

Clark: It's Evelyn. Evelyn Polk.

Williams: Yes. And then I interviewed Faye Inge and her mother. And I interviewed Dr. Kornegay and Reverend Barbour and Reverend Cameron.

Clark: Yes. He's at New Hope.

Williams: Yes. But anyway, let me ask you this. You mentioned the NAACP. What other organizations do you think were important during the civil rights struggle? I guess the sixties and seventies.

Clark: SCLC. COFO in east Mississippi was very important. It was headed up over there by Michael Schwerner. They actually got out there in the streets and did some stuff and it was the organization that sort of sponsored the summer project that led to those three civil rights workers being killed. They did some--. I remember the late Polly Heidelburg.

Williams: When did she die?

Clark: She died about two years ago.

Williams: OK.

Clark: Polly. I always tell this, when I try to motivate young people about the importance of registering and voting. And sometimes I get emotional, even now, when I recall Miss Polly's experience. Now, you remember I told you about the two Klansmen who turned informants over there, the Roberts brothers.

Williams: Yes.

Clark: So, Miss Polly, and her friends, and the organization COFO, were picketing the Winn-Dixie store over there. And these Klansmen, Wayne Roberts, Lee Roberts and them, came down and set up a counter picket line. So Miss Polly and her group were going clockwise and they were going counterclockwise, and Miss Polly--. They had their hoods on, in broad open daytime. And Raymond pulled his hood off and stood up to Miss Polly and told her all the things that he would do to her. Miss Polly said it scared her so, she lost control of her body functions and wet her pants. She would say that. So after he got bumped out of the Klan by becoming an informant, he decided he wanted to run for Justice of the Peace in Miss Polly's district. So we had a political rally one night at Miss Polly's church, St. John's Baptist Church in East End, and he along with all the other candidates came to the political forum.

Williams: What year was this? Do you remember?

Clark: I don't remember.

Williams: OK. We'll find it.

Clark: But he was standing up front, you know, with all of the candidates in a black majority district, now, asking for support. Then Miss Polly, it was her church. So she was sitting in the back and Miss Polly got permission to speak, and she took her time with her head down. I can see her now, and everybody just waited till she took her time and walked up the aisle with her head down and then she stopped right in front of Mr. Raymond Roberts and then she told him and the audience about that experience she had when they were counter picketing her and she used the best language that she could to describe to the people what happened to her with all that fear he put in her. And she still was looking down. She hadn't even looked at him. Then, when she finished, she looked up at him and said, "And now, you say you want to be my judge." You know. And he got on his knees. He apologized. Guess what? Black folks in that district voted him in. He got elected. But he didn't serve a whole term because they got him for embezzlement and something, stealing from the county.

Williams: Yes.

Clark: But I call that an instance where she really used her ballot to equalize and to gain and demand respect.

Williams: You know, I talked to a number of people. And you remember Howard McGlothin? He was one of the street corner boys.

Clark: Yes. Vaguely.

Williams: What did they call him, Fireball? The guy with the red hair. And they would be out on the corner causing trouble and everything, but they were saying that you were kind of like the match that lights the firewood. They said that you didn't take no stuff. That you were really a model for them to emulate. The young folks. And they said, "Yes, Obie Clark, he didn't take no mess." What I want to ask you, since you were so independent, how did the existing black power structure and the white structure deal with you?

Clark: Every hole they could, they dug it for me. They used to. OK. Like I say, I formed the Community Action Agency there and became deputy director at first. And then later on, I became the director. And so when I became director, man, they sent a blue-ribbon committee down to me. Chamber of Commerce came to the office and said, "Man, look, you are doing an outstanding job here. Ooh, you are doing such a good job. We've got one problem. You're wearing both of these hats. You're director of this agency and then you're with the NAACP. Can't you find somebody who you can put out there in the NAACP and you sort of back up and let them be spokesman. In that case, we could do so much more for this agency financially." And all this good stuff. So I listened to them. And so, when they finished, (laughter) I was serious. I think.

I said, "Well, gentlemen, I believe in the philosophy while at this job, I use to support my family. But insofar as the aims and objectives of the NAACP, I am more committed to the aims and objectives of the NAACP than I am this organization. I volunteer. As a matter of fact, it costs me money to be president of the NAACP. But if I have to make a choice, I am going to give up this job and choose the NAACP. But I'm going to ask some questions and I am going to get some answers to some questions before I make that decision. The NAACP, first of all, is a civic organization, and I should be free as an executive of this public agency to participate in any civic organization that I choose." And I used the superintendent of education as an example. I said, "He is the chairman of this, chairman of that." And then (inaudible), "As a matter of fact, the United Way board is made up of executives from throughout the community. Now, I'm going to find out some answers to some questions." I wasn't threatening them. I said, "But I'm just going to know the answers to how that can be, other than to be labeled as a double standard." So they left. They never did come back, directly, but they came at me other ways.

Williams: Let me ask you this. You remember when the three civil rights [workers] Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner--

Clark: I was in school that summer at St. Paul.

Williams: OK. What was your reaction when you first heard about that?

Clark: OK. Like I say, I was in a science institute. I was driving a 1961 Volkswagen with a Mississippi tag on it, so people sought me out for discussion. Now there was a professor. I don't remember his name, but there was a law enforcement institute, nationwide, had seventy-five people in that law enforcement institute that summer, you know, juvenile judges and officers and all that. So he sought me out, and I wound up guest lecturer for his class and he posed some questions to me. He said that, now, it seems to him that the time that black people would have demanded first-class citizenship would have been after World War II as opposed to the sixties. Black GIs had been fighting side by side with whites and then when they came home, resumed that second-class citizenship. He asked me why. And I told him that--. And I used the fact that when we were growing up, up in Kemper County, it was known as Bloody Kemper. We knew it as Bloody Kemper. Now there is a book, some white editor or publisher has published a book called Bloody Kemper, but it is not about what we called Bloody Kemper. It was about two white families feuding against each other. But we called it Bloody Kemper because of violence committed against black folks--lynchings and hangings and all.

Our parents told us about that, people they knew. And so when we got to be teenagers, Mr. John Long, who owned the cotton gin, who owned the general store, and he owned the grist mill, and he owned the moonshine, you know the still that made whiskey. You know, he owned all those things. And our parents, when we got to be teenagers, our parents called us in and told us that it was time that we started calling Mr. Ben, Mr. John Long's children, who were along our age, that we start calling them "Mister," and "Miss." And they told us always, they taught us, said, "If you go to the store, and the general store is closed, don't go to the front door to get their attention. You be sure you go to the back door." They taught us how to be second-class citizens.

So I told that class there, that I assumed that this was basically a carryover from the kind of teaching that we had received from our parents. They were not Uncle Toms and Aunt Janes, they taught us that for safety. They knew other folks who had--. And we knew people, who had stepped out there and made it appear as though they wanted to be first-class citizens and overnight they were gone. We knew people like that. Lost their property and had to leave their family.

So, then the other thing was, I told that class, at that time, when the three civil rights workers were missing, I told them, predicted to them that law enforcement was going to be part of it. I mainly was thinking about the Mississippi Highway Patrol, but as it turned out it was not the Mississippi Highway Patrol as much as it was the sheriff and his deputy up in Neshoba County. You see. And then, being up there, you know, I just read the paper and the news all about what was happening in Mississippi. I had some white class mates who said, "Man, you're going back down there?" And it affected me. Man, you know when I got to Memphis, I was scared to come home. I pulled off and went down on Beale Street and bought me a thirty-two to come home. You know, that's how bad it affected me. But, I was teaching then. So, you know, I had a contract with teaching up here and then I was doing community work in Meridian during that time, so I really wasn't into direct involvement at that particular time. But I don't know, you know, I've got a reputation, I know, there, as you mentioned, depending on who you talk to.

Williams: Tell me, what do you think are some of the most important activities in the civil rights movement in Meridian that caused a change? Or some things that you say were historical things. Certainly, the kidnap and murder of the civil rights workers. What would you think is the most pivotal point?

Clark: I think the S.W.A.T. team that I referred to, and they captured this terrorist bomber over there. I think that the fact that we used the resources of the Lawyer's Committee to sue the city on at-large elections. Two of the black officers who were in black that night were not covered by civil service. We took them to court and got them covered by civil service. And then, after every (inaudible), I have been the lead plaintiff to get more black representation in the city and county government. I think the only other thing was registering and voting, man, because I can remember, I can see a complete metamorphic process here, when, in the early sixties, when black folks were denied and intimidated for wanting to vote and then with the Voting Rights Act in sixty-five, you can see the white politicians, along about then, used to seek us out. By that time I was a black leader, you know, the Chamber of Commerce (inaudible). And, they would seek us out at night. We used to call them "back-door sweethearts" because up to that point, Governor Paul Johnson, on Memphis television, "I don't want the Negro vote." And any white politician who acted like he wanted the black vote, you know, was doomed. The one who was hollering, "Nigger, nigger" the loudest got the most votes. So then, the process changed with black folks getting on the ballot. Registering in numbers.

And so they used to come to us. And in Meridian we were organized. We had some political organization over here by the ward. I was ward man from ward five. Beat five and I supervised elections there. And we would wield a lot of power. White folks thought we had more power than we really had as black leaders. They thought we could just herd up black voters like you do cattle or sheep and lead them to the polls. But I never did believe in that. But as it turned around, we were able to make a difference and that ballot gave us a level of respect that we never had had before. So I can remember the time in which a white candidate called me as the beat five man, and said, "Obie--." That election, there were, like, fifteen candidates and an incumbent. A special election for supervisor in my district. And so this white man called me one night, and we estimated that at that time there were about twelve hundred black votes, registered voters in the district.

Williams: Out of a total of what?

Clark: Well, in that particular district, we are talking about twelve hundred out of a total of about twenty-five hundred. OK. But, there was one black candidate, Albert Jones, the first black candidate to run for public office in Lauderdale County, for supervisor, and we persuaded Albert to run because (inaudible) fifteen whites out there running for that position, and we said, "Man, we ought to be able to slip you right on in." But Albert wouldn't let us campaign for him. He wouldn't let us set up no organization or nothing. He went in and he won about eleventh or twelfth place.

But before the election, this white guy called me and told me, "Obie, you know there are some Klansmen running."

I said, "I would suspect so."

He said, "What you need to do, to be sure that we don't get a Klansmen in there, you need to take them twelve hundred votes, give me--." Just like I had them in my pocket. "Give me six hundred and give Jones six hundred and be sure that we get in the runoff. That way we eliminate that Klansman."

I said, "Well, what is going to happen, sir, in the general?"

He said, "Well, I'll beat it." (Laughter)

You know, just go on with it! So what I'm saying is that, now, you know, see, we knew as we went through this metamorphic process, there's a certain point there, if the white community thought that a white candidate seeking public office was looking or courting the black community, that was the kiss of death. So they would come to us in the middle of the night and we would respond by analyzing the candidates, and I guarantee the record would show, that we had our beat meetings Monday night before the Tuesday election, and that's when we endorsed candidates, to minimize the backlash. And it was very effective there for a few elections until they got bold and started coming out.

Williams: I'm going to kind of cut this because I know time is getting short, but let me ask you this. Now when registering voters, did you have any problems, or what were the obstacles in getting people registered.

Clark: Now, actually, as time, you know, at one point, black folks just knew not to go down there in Lauderdale County, but now, there was one thing that was fortunate about Meridian and Lauderdale County. We never had any real intimidation from the power structure about black folks registering to vote. You know, once the Voting Acts Right passed?

Williams: Yes.

Clark: Mrs. Luvenia[?] Whitlock and her husband, Tommy, they spearheaded that and black folks never had any real problems, after they got away from reading the constitution and all like that. See, black people, I'll tell you, just a few of us, few of us, would dare to go down there and try to register when you knew what you were going to be faced with: reading and interpreting the constitution, and all that crap, after you had payed your poll tax. But after all that was eliminated, you know, then Lauderdale County really didn't fight it. You know you could go down, no problem. But then there was a barrier there, that fear.

Man, one of the reasons I quit teaching up in Kemper, my principal was leading our children, you know, he was a principal, educator. And back then, everybody got their tag in October, and my school and where he lived were twelve miles east of De Kalb courthouse. And Mr. Spencer would drive over there, sometimes five and six times to get his tag. If the sheriff's car was parked out there--. We were not buying our tags from the sheriff's office, we were buying them from the tax assessor. The sheriff's office was next door. Here was the principal, now, leading our children, educating our children, he was so afraid of the sheriff, he would drive up there five or six times, to be sure the sheriff was not in the courthouse before he got his tag. And, that was the attitude he had.

We had three young men in 1964, who came to our school to do their practice teaching. They made pre-arrangements. When they drove on the campus that morning, this is the second high school, I was at the second high school in the county at that time. The school was named after him, like over in De Kalb, Whisenton High School, and over there, I had Spencer High School. And these young men drove up on the campus that morning to fulfill their obligation to do their practice teaching there. My principal sat them down in the office, and he got in his car and he left. Two or three hours later he came back. He had been all over town, and told every white person, who these men were. In sixty-four, he didn't want the white folks to think that he had imported some civil rights workers in there. That's the kind of mentality he had, and I couldn't handle that. Here we were supposed to be teaching our children citizenship and all that. And here he is with that kind of mentality.

Williams: Well, Mr. Clark, I want to thank you for this interview, and I think that you have a lot of things to say, and I am going to ask you if I can do this in two parts. Kind of give you a break today, but at your convenience, I would like to get with you and go into a little bit more details about a lot of areas that we didn't cover. So, but thank you very much.

(End of interview.)

 
 

This page created by Instructional Media Unit Webteam, and maintained by Charles Bolton.
iTech
The University of Southern Mississippi
http://www.usm.edu/crdp/index.html | Last updated
25 October 2003 3:37 PM AA/EOE/ADAI