interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation
Funding for this
project was provided in part by the Mississippi
the National Endowment for the Humanities, and
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
Meredith March 2
Hunger strike in Parchman Penitentiary
Burning of Bell Flower Church
Dr. Martin Luther King 7
Mule train 9
Malcolm X 12
AN ORAL HISTORY
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?
And you were born where, please?
And, tell me about growing up in Grenada.
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.
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
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.
me about the first thing that you participated in. Like the
Meredith March. Can you tell me about your relationship to
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.
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.
he got shot?
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
Long: And then
when they continued to march, did you join that at a later
time, when he got out of the hospital?
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.
we're going to get back to that. That's the mule train that
you're talking about.
Now, on the Meredith March, they came on down to and through
Grenada and went to Jackson, Mississippi, and they came back
came back to Grenada, and then [it was abducted].
did you see in Jackson. They said there were some celebrities
and everything down there.
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?
when we was in Jackson. We was in Jackson, Mississippi.
Long: Oh, I
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--.
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.
Now, how did folks decide they were going to go back up to
Grenada. They just--?
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.
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
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--.
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.
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?
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
did they take you?
took me to [the] penitentiary.
So, now we are retracing the story that you were telling when
they got you on the grass. Is that right?
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.
So, they rounded y'all up and put you where?
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?
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?
did you have on?
clothes that we had when we first got there off the cattle
was wet, mildewed, and everything, and that's the way it was
until we left there. We had no change of clothes. No nothing.
did you go to the toilet?
was a toilet inside the cells. Inside the cells.
OK. And what happened? Were people quiet or were they singing?
Or what? Who was in charge?
my cell, I was in charge.
And what about the prisoners? The trustees?
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
And they nicknamed you? What did they call you?
But your full name was?
Long: And you
were born in Grenada?
Kegler: I was
born in Grenada.
Long: In the
OK. Now, did any of the trustees come and talk to y'all?
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.
When y'all started demonstrating in the jail, singing and
stuff, what did they do?
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.
Tell me real quick about what--. Did the demonstrations start,
again, after the kids got back and--?
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
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.
Now, you're saying Dr. King was in Grenada before he went
up to Memphis, Tennessee, and met martyrdom?
he was. Mm-hm.
Long: Can you
tell me about that?
(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.
He was going to a mass meeting at a church.
was going to a mass meeting, and from there he went to his
Long: And that
was the Lorraine Motel?
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?
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
the reservoir. Mm-hm.
Long: And your
mother worked for white people.
Long: So, let
me hear their names, so we have it down.
Long: Her name
mother's name was Roberta Kegler.
And your father?
father was named John. John Kegler.
Where did they come from? How did they get here?
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?
had twelve boys, and two daughters, which both are deceased.
And I got two brothers that are deceased.
tell me finally about the conditions that existed before the
demonstrations and the conditions that existed after the demonstrations.
Can you compare those things?
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.
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.
went up the East coast. Now, it's my understanding, you were
also on the mule train?
Who was the wagon master? What did he look like? The guy that
was an old grey-haired man. Wore a white shirt and wore coveralls.
I knew his name, but today I have forgotten it.
And one of the young persons with it was Bolton? Was it?
yeah, Bolton. And it was several leader masters, and today
I don't know them all.
Was Cottonreader on the mule train, too?
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?
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?
he was with SCLC, too.
he was with SCLC.
And what did all the SCLC people have in common?
all believed in one thing, you know, nonviolence. That's what
they believed in. Nonviolence.
And, were they fearless, kind of?
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?
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.
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
it look like out there on that march where they were, at the
capitol? What were they--?
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.
were some of the groups up there? Did they have--? I know
everybody looked like they were nonviolent, but what--?
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--.
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?
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.
It was different for you in Grenada. All of the groups that
came to Grenada, wasn't no violent groups, were there?
blacks. They stayed within themselves. It was only just the
were there any visits by a group like the Panther Party or--?
Long: And 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
was up here.
I didn't like what was going on, so, I resumed, you know,
my company. I went on back to SCLC.
What about when they started hollering, "Black power!" Coming
down on the Meredith March? Had you heard about that?
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.
Well, what do you think that black power was about, that they
were talking about?
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."
That's that "eye for an eye."
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
Long: No, he
was up in New York.
I know he was in New York. I thought it was the Regency.
Long: No, it
was the Ballroom he was killed in.
(End of tape one, side one.
The interview continues on tape one, side two.)
Up in Harlem.
he got killed right in the center part.
got shot down.
I went to his funeral. It was up in Harlem.
Yeah, I was in Washington. I was in D.C. We heard about it.
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
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.
Were the people in Grenada, were the people who were in power,
were they nonviolent?
they wasn't nonviolent. They just didn't get involved.
me about it.
were just scared.
Long: OK. Tell
me about the white people who were here. What did they do?
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.
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?
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
was a factory?
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
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.
So, you had how many brothers?
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.
Now, what about--? What was the main church called?
Flower was the main church. Back in the sixties.
And that's where Dr. King spoke when he came in town?
where he spoke.
Long: Did he
live over in that same neighborhood?
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.
Your mother came from Coffeeville. Your daddy came from Charleston.
You were born here. And so, this is your home.
is my home.
So, in respect, let me say that I know you still are kind
of out on the street, that you rule the street.
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?
Long: And you
don't have a middle name?
Kegler: I do.
Long: And your
you for this, Slim.
Peace to you, but don't stop.
(End of the interview.)