An Oral History


Harry Kegler

Interviewer: Worth Long

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.



Harry Kegler was born May 21, 1949, in Grenada County, to the late John and Roberta Kegler. He and his wife, Beverly Hervey, are the parents of four children. In 1961, he moved to New York and worked in construction for fifteen years. Additionally he worked at George Washington University, attending school at night.

As a young man, Mr. Kegler became a Muslim and attended the NAACP church. In 1983, he returned to Grenada and joined the construction crew at Wal-Mart Company. Additionally, he worked at the NAACP Museum and Neely's Tax Company.

Table of Contents

Childhood 1

Meredith March 2

Hunger strike in Parchman Penitentiary 3

Burning of Bell Flower Church 4

Arrested 5

Dr. Martin Luther King 7

Mule train 9

Malcolm X 12




This is an interview for the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with Mr. Harry Kegler and is taking place on March 22, 2000. The interviewer is Worth Long.

Long: OK. Would you tell me your name and where and when you were born?

Kegler: Harry Kegler.

Long: Uh-huh. And you were born where, please?

Kegler: Grenada, Mississippi.

Long: Uh-huh. And, tell me about growing up in Grenada.

Kegler: Growing up in Grenada was very hard. Back in the early fifties, you know, when I was growing up, as a young boy, you know, I had to go through a whole lot, struggling and going through white supremacists, and segregation. You know, and everything. You know. It was very hard. My mother, you know, she had to work for white people, ironing and sewing and everything for white people. And as I was growing up, she couldn't attend to us because she had to attend to white people. And as I was growing up, I didn't understand at an early age, but as I grew older, I understood that it seemed as though that everything was just sort of blank-like. But as a kid, I grew older and I understood that my mother couldn't do that much for us, so she had to attend for whites. Like I said, when I was growing up, I didn't understand why my mother had to go and do for them, more so than she did for us.

And my mother died at a very early age, and my father did, too. So, as I went on, I began to understand a whole lot, and then, as I grew older, I started moving about. And then, you know, I got in civil rights and stuff like that there, and I began to learn a little bit more about what was really going on.

Long: Tell me about that. Tell me about that civil rights stuff. How did you first get enlightened to the need for civil rights, and then, what did you do?

Kegler: I learned, you know, when they came to Grenada. I was about fourteen, and I got involved, and I learned when I got involved that that's what I really wanted to do. I wanted to help civil rights and the nonviolent organization, SCLC. And once I got involved, I met a lot of very interesting people, and from there--.

Long: Name some of those people. Who did you see or know?

Kegler: I met Hosea Williams. I met Andy Young. I met Reverend Abernathy. I met Dr. King. It was [a] various number of people that I met along the way in the struggle. James Meredith, Cottonreader, Leon Hall, and J.T. Williams. It's just many, numerous amounts of people I met that inspired me to go on and make a better person out of myself.

Long: Tell me about the first thing that you participated in. Like the Meredith March. Can you tell me about your relationship to that?

Kegler: Well, we walked along 51 Highway. At that particular time, it was [Highway] 51. And we was coming into Hernando, Mississippi, where [James Meredith] was shot from a distance. No one knew where the shot came from.

Long: From an ambush.

Kegler: He was ambushed. At first, I was behind the line, and when I found out he got shot, I ran up. Right today, we didn't know who shot him, where he got shot, or where he got shot from, or where the shot came from. So, we went on. And it took the ambulance so long to get there, we really thought he was dead. But, fortunately, he wasn't dead. So, he told us to don't worry about him. To go on. So, we went on.

Long: Where he got shot?

Kegler: He got shot in behind because he was shot from behind. Because didn't no one know, at that particular time, people screaming and hollering and everything. So, we didn't know what really went down. But in the end we found out that he got shot from behind.

Long: And then when they continued to march, did you join that at a later time, when he got out of the hospital?

Kegler: Yeah, we were still on, pursuing the march, because he told us he would be all right. Don't worry about him. Keep on. Keep the spirit up. Keep on. Everything would be all right. So, we came on into Memphis. And after we got to Memphis, we overlapped there for a while, and then we come on through Memphis, and we took the Nashville route. And we kept on marching all the way through till we got to Knoxville. And from Knoxville, we kept on up until we got to Bristol, Tennessee. After we left Bristol, we come on in to some parts of Virginia, and then we come on through down the bridge, Fourteenth Street from Roanoke to Richmond, and from Richmond into Washington. That was the Fourteenth Street Bridge into Pennsylvania Avenue which led us to the capitol of Washington, D.C.

Long: Now, we're going to get back to that. That's the mule train that you're talking about.

Kegler: The mule train.

Long: Right. Now, on the Meredith March, they came on down to and through Grenada and went to Jackson, Mississippi, and they came back to Grenada?

Kegler: They came back to Grenada, and then [it was abducted].

Long: What did you see in Jackson. They said there were some celebrities and everything down there.

Kegler: We seen Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Burt Lancaster. There was many, numerous amounts of people, and when we got to the state capitol in Jackson, they told us to sit on the grass, but they had signs everywhere written that we couldn't sit on the grass. And they told us to sit on the grass, and we was arrested. They told us to sit on the grass. We sat on the grass, but we was arrested when we sat on the grass. And from there they hauled us off to different parts of the state of Mississippi. Some went to [the] penitentiary. Some went to various different jails.

Long: And that was when y'all got back from Grenada?

Kegler: No, when we was in Jackson. We was in Jackson, Mississippi.

Long: Oh, I see.

Kegler: We was hauled off there, too, and we were released, but we was told when we got in [the] penitentiary, not to eat. So, we didn't eat. Some people passed out because--.

Long: Hunger strike.

Kegler: Hunger strike. So, some ate. Some didn't eat. And some wanted to eat that couldn't eat. So, I'm the one that didn't eat, and I survived for four days. After the fourth day, they brought some soup in to us. Some ate. Some got so sick they just passed out because they couldn't eat. They was too sick. Couldn't even drink water. That's when I met Dick Gregory. Dick Gregory was a comedian, and he was there with us. And then Dr. King, he was there, too. He told us, "Just be calm. Everything will be all right." So, we stayed calm and everything, and after awhile, everything came to pass, and we all come out.

Long: Right. Now, how did folks decide they were going to go back up to Grenada. They just--?

Kegler: They had ways. Cars, trains, buses, everywhere. And then, we regrouped. And after we got here, that's when they started the march, again. Said they was going on the mule train. There was a lot of people that was left there and then, when they got here, I got back on, again.

Long: Right. So, let's talk about Grenada. I know we mixed--. It's a whole lot of history, and maybe we're mixing up the mule train with the Grenada march, the Meredith March, but tell me about Hosea and Leon Hall and Cottonreader out in front of the courthouse on those marches. And then when they arrested people and took them to Parchman in the vehicles. Tell me about that particular time.

Kegler: This particular night it was all kind of hell-raising. They was burning down churches. They told us to go up there on the square, sit down on the grass, and when we got out there, they was throwing bottles, brickbats, shooting shotguns, everything. Everything just seemed like it broke a-loose all at once. And Cottonreader told us, "Just be calm. Everything's all right." A lot of people got hit with bricks, bottles. Leon led us up there and then--.

Long: That's Leon who?

Kegler: Leon Hall took us up there. He led the march, and when we got up there, we started singing freedom songs and "We Shall Overcome," and "This Little Light of Mine," and all kinds of freedom songs. And it was several leaders that we dealt with this particular night, and once we got back to the church, we found out that the church was burning. They'd burned down Bell Flower Church. Almost burned [it] to the ground, and they took their time about putting the fire out. Then, we didn't have no place to set up camp, so we had to camp at the school on Telegraph, which is called Willie Wilson Elementary School, not too far from Carrie Dotson which is right up the street from the elementary school. And so, we had the camp site right there on the campus of Willie Wilson. And we stayed there for several days until we resumed ourselves into the other march that was coming through, which was the train.

Long: Now, let me, real quick, realize that--. How did people who were arrested during these demonstrations, how did they take you to jail? And which places did they take you?

Kegler: At this particular time, they put you in whatever they could put you in. They put you in cow trucks. They put you in cattle trucks. They put you in hog trucks. As long as it was so many, that they really didn't care, so they would haul trucks from a cow field, just threw you in the back of it, and just took you. You didn't know where you was going. They didn't care where they were taking you. Some they killed. Some that they just threw up in there. Some they drowned in the Yalobusha River, and it was just phenomenal how they did it. They didn't care, and we were so scared and frightened that we didn't know where we was going. We was just there. It was just the grace of God that some of us survived after all these many years.

Long: Where did they take you?

Kegler: They took me to [the] penitentiary.

Long: What place?

Kegler: Parchman. Parchman, Mississippi.

Long: Uh-huh. So, now we are retracing the story that you were telling when they got you on the grass. Is that right?

Kegler: Yeah. They got me on the grass, and said they were going to kill me. But they didn't know who I were, so unfortunately some was killed, but by the grace of God, I wasn't. One of those big policemen was standing on my fingers, and he didn't know that I was one of the guys that he was really looking for, and I never opened my mouth, and he never seen me or heard me. Say, "If I catch him or if I see him, I'm going to kill him." He didn't really know that he was really on my fingers. I just lied there.

Long: Yeah. So, they rounded y'all up and put you where?

Kegler: In a cattle truck. Like they were hauling away cattle. Shipped us off to Parchman, Mississippi.

Long: OK. And what did they do when you got to Parchman?

Kegler: We slept on old mattresses, and cold floors and cold walls, air conditioning on you all night. Fan up in the ceiling.

Long: Did you have on warm clothes?

Kegler: No, we didn't.

Long: What did you have on?

Kegler: The clothes that we had when we first got there off the cattle truck.

Long: Right.

Kegler: They was wet, mildewed, and everything, and that's the way it was until we left there. We had no change of clothes. No nothing.

Long: Where did you go to the toilet?

Kegler: It was a toilet inside the cells. Inside the cells.

Long: Right. OK. And what happened? Were people quiet or were they singing? Or what? Who was in charge?

Kegler: In my cell, I was in charge.

Long: Uh-huh. And what about the prisoners? The trustees?

Kegler: After they found out what we was there for, they treated us like dirt. After they found out. Well, we knew we hadn't committed no crime, so, the boss told them to treat us as though we was criminals. Just to scare us, because we were just kids. So, they really wanted to put a lot of [fright] into us.

Long: How old were you then?

Kegler: I was fourteen.

Long: Right. And they nicknamed you? What did they call you?

Kegler: Slim.

Long: Yeah. But your full name was?

Kegler: Harry Kegler.

Long: And you were born in Grenada?

Kegler: I was born in Grenada.

Long: In the state of?

Kegler: Mississippi.

Long: Mississippi. OK. Now, did any of the trustees come and talk to y'all?

Kegler: No. No, trustees. Criminals that had been there for years. That had really did serious crimes, to try to frighten us. By we being children, believe me, they did frighten us, because we were scared to death. Mm-hm.

Long: Right. When y'all started demonstrating in the jail, singing and stuff, what did they do?

Kegler: They couldn't stand it. They said they were going to take us out and beat us and kill us and everything, but we still sang, and after awhile, they let us alone. And before we knew it, they hauled us out of there and took us back to Grenada and let us out, brought us back to the church. But the church didn't exist, so we [were] sent to another church. But the church that we normally went to, it was burned down. When we got back to Grenada, it didn't exist anymore.

Long: Right. Tell me real quick about what--. Did the demonstrations start, again, after the kids got back and--?

Kegler: Yes, it did. It started down Pearl Street. That's when we had a lot of leaders here in Grenada. We had Andy Young. We had Hosea Williams. We had J.T. A lot of leaders there, came to Grenada, then.

Long: J.T.?

Kegler: J.T. Williams. Andy Young. Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, we had some strong people was here when we got back, and so, from there, they set up a group, and then everybody got together, then we led it out to meet the train. Them that wanted to go, went. Them that couldn't go, they wished us well, and we went on.

Long: Right. Now, you're saying Dr. King was in Grenada before he went up to Memphis, Tennessee, and met martyrdom?

Kegler: Yes, he was. Mm-hm.

Long: Can you tell me about that?

Kegler: The (inaudible) management started from here. When he left from here, he was going to make a speech. Make a speech at this hotel after he left Grenada, that particular night.

Long: Uh-huh. He was going to a mass meeting at a church.

Kegler: He was going to a mass meeting, and from there he went to his hotel.

Long: And that was the Lorraine Motel?

Kegler: Lorraine Motel. Mm-hm.

Long: All right, now lastly, I need to have you to talk about--. Now, your father was alive, then, right? What kind of work did he do?

Kegler: My father was a shoe salesman. And my uncle worked at the Grenada Dam. Mm-hm. He worked at the Grenada Dam. He was a foreman.

Long: At the reservoir.

Kegler: At the reservoir. Mm-hm.

Long: And your mother?

Kegler: My mother worked for white people.

Long: So, let me hear their names, so we have it down.

Kegler: Roberta.

Long: Her name was Roberta.

Kegler: My mother's name was Roberta Kegler.

Long: Uh-huh. And your father?

Kegler: My father was named John. John Kegler.

Long: Uh-huh. Where did they come from? How did they get here?

Kegler: My daddy was born in Charleston, Mississippi, and my mother was from Coffeeville, Mississippi, and they came to Grenada.

Long: I see. And how many children did they have?

Kegler: She had twelve boys, and two daughters, which both are deceased. And I got two brothers that are deceased.

Long: Now, tell me finally about the conditions that existed before the demonstrations and the conditions that existed after the demonstrations. Can you compare those things?

Kegler: No, you can't because it was worse before than they are now because at this particular time, my mother worked like a slave. My daddy worked worse than a slave. Now, today, it seems like it's worse than it was yesterday. It's hard to try to compare it. The only thing we can do, day in and day out, is try to exist. You don't never know how things are going to come about, but we only can do the best we can, how we can, when we can.

Long: Uh-huh. OK. Now, you know, it's hard to tell the story of Grenada and especially an oral history, I have found, because of those two movements: one, the Meredith March which came through Grenada and went to Jackson, and then turned back and came back to Grenada. And the second one was the mule train that started up in north Mississippi and then came on in part through Grenada and then went over to Atlanta and went up.

Kegler: The East coast.

Long: Yeah, went up the East coast. Now, it's my understanding, you were also on the mule train?

Kegler: Yes, I was.

Long: Uh-huh. Who was the wagon master? What did he look like? The guy that was your--?

Kegler: He was an old grey-haired man. Wore a white shirt and wore coveralls. I knew his name, but today I have forgotten it.

Long: Yeah. And one of the young persons with it was Bolton? Was it?

Kegler: Well, yeah, Bolton. And it was several leader masters, and today I don't know them all.

Long: Yeah. Was Cottonreader on the mule train, too?

Kegler: Yes, he was. Cottonreader was on the mule train. And another guy named Chester. I didn't know his last name, but I know his name was Chester.

Long: He was a short guy from Philadelphia?

Kegler: Philadelphia. His name was Chester, and it was another guy named, a fat guy, his name was Lester. Big, fat guy from Atlanta.

Long: Big Lester?

Kegler: Big Lester.

Long: Yeah, he was with SCLC, too.

Kegler: Yeah, he was with SCLC.

Long: Yeah. And what did all the SCLC people have in common?

Kegler: They all believed in one thing, you know, nonviolence. That's what they believed in. Nonviolence.

Long: Uh-huh. And, were they fearless, kind of?

Kegler: No, they wasn't fearless. They stood for what they believed in. They taught us the same way. Don't fear the white man. You know. Everything will be all right. Don't worry about it.

Long: So, even if they were scared sometimes, they just went straight ahead?

Kegler: They went straight ahead. They showed no fear. Showed no fear. We got beat and everything, but we still didn't show no fear. That's what brought them down.

Long: Yeah. Now, you went as far as Washington, D.C. on the mule train, whereas a lot of people went to Atlanta, got on the train and went up. And this was after the death of Martin Luther King?

Kegler: Yeah.

Long: What it look like out there on that march where they were, at the capitol? What were they--?

Kegler: Some, me, myself, I wore out a pair of boots, because I had to keep people in line. I guess that's why I got bad feet today, because I had to keep people in line. Keep them marching, singing. Keep their hopes up. Singing and going on. And marching. Kept a lot of salt tablets, you know, to keep people from--. Lot of folks fell out. It was hot, extremely hot, and we just had to keep on going.

Long: What were some of the groups up there? Did they have--? I know everybody looked like they were nonviolent, but what--?

Kegler: But a lot of them wasn't nonviolent. We had the Vice Lords from New York. We had the Mighty Blackstone Rangers from Chicago. We had the Panthers from L.A. They had the Cribs[?], which they wasn't called the Cribs; they was called the Green Hornets. There was groups from all over the country. You know. And then they had the--.

Long: What they do?

Kegler: This big organization out of New York called the Cipes[?] or the Cepes[?]. It was a big organization.

Long: But they all prayed for peace out there on the march?

Kegler: They all prayed for peace, but all of them wasn't there for the same purpose we was there for. Some was there for strictly violence. That's what they came there for. But, [fortunately], it wasn't no violence. Not far as I could see.

Long: Yeah. It was different for you in Grenada. All of the groups that came to Grenada, wasn't no violent groups, were there?

Kegler: Not blacks. They stayed within themselves. It was only just the whites.

Long: Now, were there any visits by a group like the Panther Party or--?

Kegler: No. NCC.

Long: And SNCC came in.

Kegler: SNCC came in, but it was Stokely Carmichael. You know, they wanted to raise a little hell, but I was over in Holly Springs. They had a little setup over there, and I was over there for a while.

Long: Stokely was up here.

Kegler: Mm-hm. I didn't like what was going on, so, I resumed, you know, my company. I went on back to SCLC.

Long: Right. What about when they started hollering, "Black power!" Coming down on the Meredith March? Had you heard about that?

Kegler: Mm-hm. I heard about that, too. And I started to get with them, and I got with them for a while. And I said to myself [that] this really wasn't me. This wasn't the way. And then, I told myself [that] I just better go back where I came from. And I went back to SCLC. Back in the them days, when you're fourteen years old, you just don't know what you're getting involved with. You know. So.

Long: Right. Well, what do you think that black power was about, that they were talking about?

Kegler: It was strictly, "If you're going to hit us, we're going to hit you!" Like Malcolm X, which it's necessary. You do what's necessary. Necessary means, "If you do something to me, I'm going to do something to you." You know. And he said, "Whatever means necessary. You come on mine, I'm coming on you. You come down on me, I'm coming down on you."

Long: Right. That's that "eye for an eye."

Kegler: Mm-hm. And that's what he believed in. You know. And at the time he was killed, I was in Washington, D.C. That was in sixty-five. You know, he got killed in a hotel. I think it was the Regency. I think it was the Regency, but I'm not sure.

Long: No, he was up in New York.

Kegler: Yeah, I know he was in New York. I thought it was the Regency.

Long: No, it was the Ballroom he was killed in.

Kegler: Yeah. Yeah. Sure.

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

Long: Yeah. Up in Harlem.

Kegler: Yeah, he got killed right in the center part.

Long: That's right.

Kegler: He got shot down.

Long: Yeah, I went to his funeral. It was up in Harlem.

Kegler: Mm-hm. Yeah, I was in Washington. I was in D.C. We heard about it.

Long: Yeah. How did you feel about that when Malcolm went down?

Kegler: I felt drained because I knew they had dropped a good leader. It wasn't the idea that I believed in everything he said, but when he said, "what means is necessary," I went along with that.

Long: Right.

Kegler: You know, because we had got tired of being battered, beaten, and everything, and I just thought maybe it was time for me to switch up and go with this side. You know. I said, "Yo! I'm going to deal with this side. I'm going to start being the way those guys be."

Then one man told me, said, "That ain't the way, either." So, I came on back to reality, and I got back where I came from, being nonviolent.

Long: Right. Were the people in Grenada, were the people who were in power, were they nonviolent?

Kegler: No, they wasn't nonviolent. They just didn't get involved.

Long: Tell me about it.

Kegler: They were just scared.

Long: OK. Tell me about the white people who were here. What did they do?

Kegler: The white people, they weren't scared. They was running around like a chicken with his head off. They didn't know what to do, either, because they figured that those kind of people were going to come here, and burn them out or mess them up. So, it never happened, but they started shutting down and started closing down early and everything. You know. And stuff like that there. But it never came to pass.

Long: What about folks who had jobs during that time? Were their jobs threatened? Did your father have problems? Your mother? Your mother was working in homes at that time. What did she say?

Kegler: Yeah. They got fired and everything. And a lot of them, they were working out there at Lowndes[?]. A lot of them got scared. A lot of them, they was scared to get involved because they was afraid that they would lose their jobs. See? So, they didn't--.

Long: Lowndes was a factory?

Kegler: Mm-hm. They was scared that they would lose their jobs, and they just didn't get involved. A lot of them were scared.

Long: So, who were most of the people you saw out in the street? About what age?

Kegler: Younger people.

Long: Younger people.

Kegler: But the older people, they shut their doors down. You couldn't knock on their doors. And then when you'd knock on their door, they wouldn't respond and shit like that so, you couldn't get no representation to them, so, the younger folks was out there because at that time, they didn't have no jobs. So, they would be out there. But the older people, they were scared. Then a lot of them wouldn't let their children out. See. I'm the type of guy, you know, I didn't have that much to lose. See, my mother and father--. I was brought up in poverty. So, hey, I was born in the streets. See, the streets really was my home. So, I got more respect in the streets than I did if I was up in there with my mother and father. You know. I had to sleep on top of a lot of my brothers, so, it gave me relief when I was in the streets.

Long: Right. So, you had how many brothers?

Kegler: Twelve. And two sisters. So, when I was in the street, I was at home. I had fun when I was out there. And whatever they'd call on me to do, I did it. You know. It didn't make me any difference. I was out there. I didn't go home, so, I just made it my business to do something worthwhile to help folks. I was out there. All through the night, I made sure (inaudible). They could count on me. I would go from one church to the next church, seeing what needed to be done, and if it wasn't there, I'd go from Vincent Chapel[?] to Bell Flower and from Bell Flower to New Hope. All those churches were sort of like combined. You know. I would go from one place to another. I had something to eat. Then a lot of times, I would sleep in the church. I'd leave that church, and I'd go to another church. Mm-hm. Every now and then I would go home.

Long: Right. Now, what about--? What was the main church called?

Kegler: Bell Flower.

Long: Bell Flower.

Kegler: Bell Flower was the main church. Back in the sixties.

Long: Yeah. And that's where Dr. King spoke when he came in town?

Kegler: That's where he spoke.

Long: Did he live over in that same neighborhood?

Kegler: He lived in the same neighborhood, at Ms. Tidwell's[?]. She was a schoolteacher. Ms. Tidwell. Mm-hm.

Long: I see. Uh-huh. Now, we're going to wrap it up, but I'm proud that you would take time to do this on the one hand, and I'm proud of your history because you have gone through everything as it relates to your home.

Kegler: Thank you.

Long: Uh-huh. Your mother came from Coffeeville. Your daddy came from Charleston. You were born here. And so, this is your home.

Kegler: This is my home.

Long: Right. So, in respect, let me say that I know you still are kind of out on the street, that you rule the street.

Kegler: Yes, I do.

Long: Yeah. So, I just wanted to appreciate you going back to the period when you were a soldier in Dr. King's Army for the civil rights movement. This is going in the Tougaloo Archives in your name. And your full name is?

Kegler: Harry Kegler.

Long: And you don't have a middle name?

Kegler: I do.

Long: What was it?

Kegler: Kay.

Long: Harry Kay.

Kegler: Mm-hm.

Long: And your nickname is?

Kegler: Slim.

Long: Slim.

Kegler: Mm-hm.

Long: Thank you for this, Slim.

Kegler: Thank you.

Long: OK.

Kegler: Peace, my brother.

Long: Yeah. Peace to you, but don't stop.

(End of the interview.)


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