An Oral History


Griffin McLaurin

Interviewer: Harriet Tanzman

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.



Mr. Griffin McLaurin was born on December 30, 1940, in Covington County, Mississippi. As independent farmers who owned their own land, his parents farmed their own ninety-six acres of farmland plus another 250 acres that they rented. His siblings were four sisters and three brothers. As they were growing up, all of the McLaurin children worked the farm to make a living for the family.

Mr. McLaurin attended Mileston Elementary School and High School as well as Tchula Attendance Center. As a young adult, Mr. McLaurin's quest for a job to support himself took him from Missouri, to Milwaukee, to California. Loving farming brought him back to Holmes County where he pursued farming as his lifestyle.

In the sixties, Mr. McLaurin became an activist in the civil rights movement, including working with voter registration, meetings, running the local community center, as well as standing guard against violent reprisals from militant white supremacists.

In the seventies, he ran for the office of constable in beat four, and for the first time since Reconstruction, an African-American, Mr. McLaurin, was elected to the position. Currently, using funds from the Kellogg Foundation, Mr. McLaurin works with young people, teaching them to organically grow, and then to market a few, choice vegetables that are in great demand.

Table of Contents

Childhood 1

Farmer's Home Administration Office 2

Education 3

Loans from the FHA 4

Attempting to register to vote, 1963 5

Mel Leventhal and the Constitutional Defense Committee 8

Meetings in the Sanctified Church 9

Initial Head Start organization 9

Displaced plantation workers 10

Local community center 12

Running African-Americans for office 13

Election to office of constable 14

Organic farming 17

Kellogg Foundation 18




This is an interview for the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with Griffin McLaurin and is taking place on March 6, 2000. The interviewer is Harriet Tanzman.

Tanzman: [This is Harriet] Tanzman, and I'm talking with Griffin McLaurin in Mileston, Mississippi. Thanks for being with us, Griffin.

McLaurin: Thank you for having me to give this interview.

Tanzman: OK. Mr. McLaurin, why don't we start with some background? Where were you born? And when? And something about your parents and your family? A little bit about that.

McLaurin: I was born December 30, 1940. And I was born in Covington County, Mississippi. [In] fifty-one, we moved to Holmes County, Mississippi, where I am residing at now.

Tanzman: And your parents' names? And what did they do?

McLaurin: My parents was Griffin McLaurin Sr. and Annie Mae McLaurin Dampton[?]; [they] was farmers all their lives.

Tanzman: Did they have their own farm?

McLaurin: Yes, they owned their own farm, and that's what we were raised on. It was four sisters and four brothers of us. Four girls were the oldest, and four boys were the youngest. And that's where we all grew up and was educated in the Mileston community, and from there to colleges across the state.

Tanzman: What kinds of crops were you farming?

McLaurin: At that time our main [crop] was cotton, soybeans, corn, and truck patch.

Tanzman: And what kind of acreage did you have here?

McLaurin: We had ninety-six acres of farmland that we were farming here on this place where we're at, now. And we also rented another property of 250 acres.

Tanzman: Was this part of the project? Could you describe how you all got the land here in Holmes County?

McLaurin: Yes, this was part of the Mileston units that was set aside in forty for the Negro that was underprivileged for having any land, and my father's brother helped set this project up in 1940. He was working out of Farmer's Home Administration office here in Holmes County.

Tanzman: What was his name?

McLaurin: His name was B.F. McLaurin. And he also helped my father purchase this farm that we have, that he had. And during that time, he was working out of the Farmer's Home Administration office, and he stayed on Marcella[?], and then he helped with the first part of the setup in forty, and then later on they set up Marcella, and then on, the rest of it was set up. And when he finished that project, he moved on to Coahoma Junior College in Clarksdale where he became the president for thirty-six years of that junior college.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. OK. And so this was a way people who didn't have land could achieve it. They were working it, and then it became their own land?

McLaurin: Right. That's what the government had did in the forties. They set this--. This was (inaudible) from the "forty acres and a mule" project was talked about in the 1800s, and early 1900s. And the government set this project up in the forties and gave every farmer that was eligible for it, at least seventy-five to 100 acres of land that was required from the government.

Tanzman: OK. So, this whole area was black-owned land. Was it?

McLaurin: Yes, it was totally owned by blacks on this project.

Tanzman: And did you grow up working? Were you going to school? There were eight of you. Were you all going to school and working afternoons and so on, on the farm?

McLaurin: Yes. This was our total resource and income was working on the farm. And that's all we ever did was worked on our [farm]. During that time, we came up on our father's farm, growing cotton and soybeans and corn and growing truck patches.

Tanzman: Where did you go to school?

McLaurin: I went to Mileston Elementary [School] and High School until I got to the eleventh grade. And when I got to the eleventh grade, they had built Tchula Attendance Center, and that's where I finished high school at.

Tanzman: How did you all get back and forth to school?

McLaurin: Well, during the time when we came in here in fifty-one, we had school buses, so we rode school buses every day.

Tanzman: And could you tell me, after high school, were you working with your dad on the land? Or did you go away?

McLaurin: No, we didn't have--. It wasn't enough resource here.

Tanzman: To go to school?

McLaurin: Right. I had two sisters had finished college. My father had put them through college, my older sisters. And then my baby sister, she was in college, then. And she was at Alcorn. And my brothers and I, we finished high school, and then we went up to Coahoma Junior College where my uncle was the president. And during that time, my father wasn't able to supply all of us, and I quit and went out and got a job and starting supporting my own self.

Tanzman: What kind of work were you doing?

McLaurin: Well, I went up in Missouri, and I worked for a furniture company up there for a while. And then from Missouri up to Milwaukee, and Milwaukee to California, doing odd jobs and during that time it was pretty hard to really get a steady job to be able to, you know, make a decent living if you didn't have a skill or education to back it up.

Tanzman: And, what brought you back to Holmes County, then?

McLaurin: Well, Holmes County, when I left California in the early sixties, I just was, I would say, a man that just was oriented from the farm. I just had that in my blood, and that was my life. The South.

Tanzman: Did you love it?

McLaurin: I loved it! Just loved it. And that's the reason I came from the north, south, and east and came back to the farming operation because that was my lifestyle. And so, I have worked on the farm all my life.

Tanzman: Was it hard to get loans sometimes? How was it with the FHA? With the government loans and furnishing the crops?

McLaurin: Oh, in the seventies, when I really went out and got in the farming business right, I was farming a little over 150 acres of cotton, about 200 acres of soybeans. And during that time, we was putting in applications to Farmer Home Administration, but they would accept the application, and you probably wouldn't hear nothing. If they made you a loan, it would always be in June or July, but during that time, you had to establish some other credit. And I got established with the Merchant's and Planter's Bank in Tchula. And every time I would go and put in for the loan, and I just come on back and put in for me a loan at the bank. And finally, I would get the one at the bank before I would get any hearing from the Farmer Home Administration. So, I never did get a loan from the Farmer Home Administration.

Tanzman: Yeah, if they gave it to you in June, that's way beyond the point, [that] you needed it, like, in February or March?

McLaurin: Yeah, because it was much too late. If you had just waited on that, you never could have got no crops in the ground. And so, that's the reason we had to go and try to acquire operation funds other places besides Farmer Home Administration.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. They were discriminating?

McLaurin: Yeah. Because, see, I had put in for a home through the Farmer Home Administration and this part of my father's farm that I was trying to purchase at the same time. And they gave me all kind of run-around, saying it wasn't large enough to farm on, and it wasn't large enough to build a home on, and they just kept on. Every time I put in an application, they would just tell me, "We can't do it because it ain't large enough to make a farm out of." So, during that same time, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, I had been elected as a constable, and Robert Clark had been elected as a representative for the state. And him and I worked up a farm plan, and I presented that to Farmer Home Administration, and they turned it down.

Tanzman: You mean a farm plan for the farmers from this area?

McLaurin: No. I worked up a farm plan for this ten acres that I own now, because they told me that I had to have a farm plan to be able to acquire loans from the Farmer Home Administration. And Representative Clark and I worked up one. And we presented that to them, and they yet turned me down. So, finally I took and was able to save money over a period of time, and was able to buy this ten acres, and then they came and said I was eligible for a loan to build a house, or whatever, then.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. After you saved it.

McLaurin: After I saved enough and purchased; 5,000 and something dollars to purchase this land I have here.

Tanzman: Let's backtrack a little. I know you were elected in that big election in sixty-seven, and served as constable, but to go back some to the earlier time of the movement, there, in the early sixties, what got you involved at first in the trying to register to vote, and trying to get other people involved?

McLaurin: Well, during that time, it was a serious matter that we as blacks could get involved with the operation of being a citizen of this country. And during that time I was a young man, and we had a lot of older people that was involved.

Tanzman: More people of your father's generation?

McLaurin: Yeah, most of those people were my father's generation. All our younger people, my age, had left and went to the north and everywhere else to seek employment, and that left just a handful of us younger people here. Mostly myself and a couple more, and that's where I got involved and started to dealing with the civil rights movement and going to the courthouse to get registered to vote.

Tanzman: When did you first go down?

McLaurin: I went down in 1963.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Oh, after the first group went?

McLaurin: Right. I think I--. From what I see, I was probably the second group because I went up there the second time. I didn't go up there the first time, but I went with the second group up there.

Tanzman: Was that with Ozell Mitchell[?]?

McLaurin: Right. Norman Clark[?] and Dan Wesley[?] and Roberta Clark[?] and the Russells and Davis, Crook Davis[?]. We all went there. And the first thing they say, "Boy, what y'all want?"

And we told them, "We come to register." And Crook Davis said something.

They said, "Boy, you go down to the Welfare Office and get you some commodities."

And so, he answered and said, "We're not looking for commodities."

"What did y'all want, then?" Say, "Y'all go on out there under that tree." So, they sent us out there under the tree. And we had to stay out there under the tree. And during that time, they had all those dogs, and everybody else was standing around with their guns and all that kind of stuff, but we stayed there.

Tanzman: Was that Crook Davis, Shadrach Davis?

McLaurin: Yes.

Tanzman: S-H-A-D-R-A-C-H.

McLaurin: Right. Shadrach Davis.

Tanzman: So, they sent you out to a tree?

McLaurin: Yeah, they sent us out under a tree, and told us to stay out there till they could wait on us, and we stayed out there maybe three hours, four hours before anybody came out there and said anything. You know, just let us stood up out there. And finally they did come out there and ask us what we want.

Tanzman: Was that the registrar, McClellan?

McLaurin: Yeah, he was involved. They was other whites with him. You know. It wasn't just him by himself, but it was others there with him, because I think Calvin, our sheriff was there with him and quite a few more of the citizens.

Tanzman: Was that Calvin Moore?

McLaurin: Yeah, that was Calvin Moore. He was sheriff during that time. And he was along with them, and four or five more of the citizens that was standing in the courthouse door with the guns and them big dogs, and so they all came over there and stood around and McCullough[?]. That's what he was named. Henry McCullogh. He was the one that started talking to us.

Tanzman: The guns and the dogs were the deputy sheriffs? People they just deputized that day?

McLaurin: Yeah. It might have been one or two of them deputies, but most of them was just deputized to, I guess, harass us when we come up there [and] keep us out of the courthouse. That's all I can see.

Tanzman: Pretty frightening. Did they let anybody go in at all?

McLaurin: Not that day. They told us to come--. Well, they didn't tell us to come back. I think we went back the next couple of days, and then that's when they asked us had we paid our poll tax. And we asked them what was that, and then they tried to explain to us what a poll tax was. And then they, finally, gave us a sheet, had, I think, around ninety-nine questions on it. And we didn't know nothing about it, and I'm pretty sure they--. (Laughter.) And so, it was Greek to us because we didn't know nothing about all that and the poll tax and all this stuff that had to [be] paid because we hadn't, you know, hadn't ever been informed about it.

Tanzman: They wanted you to pay a poll tax going back a few years, didn't they?

McLaurin: Yeah. They wanted us to pay poll tax, which we didn't know anything about poll tax. If we had to pay them, and we wouldn't have been knowing what we were paying them for, anyway.

Tanzman: What kinds of questions were they asking you? Do you remember any of them?

McLaurin: Well, mostly, that day, they were just asking us what did we want. And everything we said, it was just like a joke to them. You know. They were just--. One said something; the other one would laugh about it. You know. And act like, you know, we was just, didn't know what we was doing, and we should have went on home, and never returned. But we did. We went, but we returned.

Tanzman: All of you came back despite that?

McLaurin: We came back the next day.

Tanzman: This was in May, 1963?

McLaurin: Right. Mm-hm. And finally, they did give us them big sheets of paper, but, quite a few of us put our names and address and different things on them, but that was it. You know. We didn't know how to fill out all those questions [that] was on there.

Tanzman: They were asking all kinds of questions that they probably couldn't answer themselves.

McLaurin: Yeah, because the same questions that they had asked about the poll taxes, and all this here, looked like somebody just drew up some information and presented it to us to harass us because they knew we didn't know anything about this.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Did they do anything about putting names in newspapers? The people who tried to register? Did they publish--?

McLaurin: No, they didn't do anything. Only thing that they did was just ask us, during that time, "What do y'all want?" Just like we just come up there to set around and look. And they know what we was up there for. And we indicated we was up there to register to vote.

Tanzman: And did you come back until then? Or, how did you end up getting registered?

McLaurin: We went back and finally, after they filed that lawsuit, and they told them that we didn't have to fill out that, they got a smaller form that had maybe eighteen or twenty questions on it. And we filled them out, and that's when we got a chance to get registered during that time.

Tanzman: When did you actually get registered?

McLaurin: I'm not really sure, but I think it was around August or September, somewhere like that.

Tanzman: That same year?

McLaurin: Same year, right. Mm-hm.

Tanzman: They filed a lawsuit about the form?

McLaurin: Right. I think it was Mel Leventhal, the one [who] was negotiating during that time.

Tanzman: He was the lawyer from the Constitutional Defense Committee.

McLaurin: Right. That's right.

Tanzman: Did you or your family suffer any reprisals? Was there any harassment because you did go down there? Or problems about getting loans, specifically around that?

McLaurin: Well, we had, at least, I had quite a few threats on my life, and my brother. And I don't remember no threats against my father, but I was sent quite a few bad things. I'm sure it had to come from the white side, you know, because blacks were the ones who brought it to me. But--.

Tanzman: You mean notes?

McLaurin: No, it was just word of mouth.

Tanzman: Oh.

McLaurin: Yeah. It was just word of mouth. Yeah. Right. So, we didn't let that bother us because they said several times that they were coming to burn my house down and they were going to do this and different things, and we went right along just like we always had, and figured that whatever was going to be, was going to be.

Tanzman: Were you guarding your house at all?

McLaurin: Well, during that same time, yes, we were guarding all our houses and along with that community center up there, during that same time, because it was somebody, we had formed a little group that was controlling the community and keeping an eye on our community center up there.

Tanzman: You had a group of farmers that were looking out for the security?

McLaurin: Right. During that time, most of the same people that had went up for the registration to vote, those were the ones that we, you know, we were having meetings in the Sanctified Church up there, before we got the community center built. And after we got the community center built, then that was later on down into the--. That was sixty-four, fall of sixty-four. And then--.

Tanzman: You moved over to the center to meet?

McLaurin: Right.

Tanzman: But the Sanctified Church was the first place?

McLaurin: That was the first place. Right.

Tanzman: What was it called?

McLaurin: It was just Sanctified Church. Now, it's New Jerusalem, but back then, it was just named Sanctified Church. It was just Sanctified. I never did--. You know, I used to attend church there all the time, but I never did know at that time what--. We just called it Sanctified Church. And that's where we all got started. Well, it got burned down. So, we don't know who burned it down. (Inaudible) it got burned down. You know.

Tanzman: When was that?

McLaurin: It got burned in, it had to be early in sixty-four. I don't know what month, but it burned in sixty-four. And that's where we first started Head Start. Head Start came from that same place and then dispersed from there all over the county, and probably all over the state.

Tanzman: The church burned. It was destroyed?

McLaurin: Yeah, it burned, and they rebuilt it. And I don't know what happened, but it got burned down one night. And we had got the community center built at that time. But the church--.

Tanzman: A beautiful, huge community center.

McLaurin: Right. Beautiful community center and that gave most people in this area and other areas to come in and we sat down and that's where most of our strategy and all our information dispersed from.

Tanzman: When you were meeting in the community center, it was farmers and also plantation workers, both?

McLaurin: Not in the beginning. The only thing was there was the people that lived on the project. And Marcella, Mileston, Chaw-Chaw[?], Dawson, Good Hope. Because during that time, the plantation owners didn't allow their workers to even participate. Not even to come to Mileston. And so there was a long time, it was way, at least four or five years later before they even would come out and get involved. You know. And most times, they would send maybe one off the farm, but that would just be a person to come in, and set around, and get what he could get and carry it back to them. The information.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Came more as a representative to bring back to the plantation workers.

McLaurin: And after then, we got most of the, during the late sixty-five, four, sixty-five, we started to getting them off the plantation and different things. Getting them registered and getting them to vote. And then that's when they started putting so many of them off of the places. And then that's how so many of them got to Mileston, that they didn't have no other place to go. So, we had some vacant through this area, and we thought of letting them come in. And that's the reason we got so many of them in here, now, because they didn't have nowhere else to go when they got put off the plantation.

Tanzman: The farmers tried to find housing for them? You mean, they came and worked for the farmers here? Some of those plantation workers who were thrown off?

McLaurin: Yeah. Some of them got a chance to work for the other farmers in the area, but a lot of them, you know, they were mostly seeking shelter because they didn't have nowhere else to live after they got put off the plantation.

Tanzman: You found them housing?

McLaurin: We found them housing and got them--. Well, we educated them to be able to get Welfare and food stamps and a lot of things that they wasn't aware how to be able to get because when they was on the plantation, the man just said, "Go get such and such a thing," because everything already--. Because most of them didn't know anything about paying light bill, gas bill, water bill, nothing like that because their employer was the one that took care of all of that, and they wasn't knowledgeable of anything. And we educated them to be able to do a lot of this business for themselves. That other, you know, the plantation owner had been doing for them. You know. Because I know when we first started to getting them to file their income tax and all this stuff, and most of them during that time at the plantation, when their check would come back, they would take the check and cash it and spend it.

And until they opened their eyes enough to be able to say, "This is mine." And when they said, "This is mine," they got took off the place, and they burned the house down. And they put them off. And some people had been working for two or three generations. And they sort of rebelled against them, so they got put off. They didn't have nowhere else to go.

Tanzman: Are you talking about ten, twenty people? Or a lot of people?

McLaurin: Oh, you're talking about maybe seventy-five to a hundred people, you know. Or more. Because all of the plantations, then, had anywhere from 110 to 115 families on them. You know. Because after then, they come in and started with the chemicals and all that stuff, and then they didn't need them anymore, and they were willing to put them off. And most of them's housing was so bad, and when the government told them they had to start to having inside bathrooms and all that stuff, and so that made them put them off worser then. You know.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. And a lot of those machines started coming in, right? That displaced people. The pickers.

McLaurin: Right. The pickers and the twelve- and fifteen- and twenty-row equipment and all that kind of stuff. And tractors. Larger tractors and all that, and they didn't need all that man[power].

Tanzman: So, the independent farmers were helping teach with some of the civil rights workers, I guess, but you were helping teach them a lot about self sufficiency and how they could live off the--I mean, how they could manage to live--off the plantation. Were they then working on farms? I mean, or some of them got their own land? Or how did that work?

McLaurin: Well, during that time we kept having meetings with them and most of those that was put off there that didn't have skills and things, then some of them was hired by other black farmers in the community and some of them that was qualified to find other employment, well, they went and found other employment. So, during that time, there was quite a few of them just didn't have no knowledge of anything but a farm. You know. And those were the ones that got a chance to be able to help some of them black farmers; the black farmers hired them, and gave them a little income.

Tanzman: So, they were able to not have to leave the whole area during that time?

McLaurin: Right. And quite a few of them did have to leave the area because we didn't have enough housing for them.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. When you were having the meetings at the center, were there many threats against the center? I mean, was there a climate of fear going on then, in the mid-sixties?

McLaurin: It definitely was, because during that time, we had to spend twenty-four hours a day and night to keep them from bombing it, and they blew up a lot of cars on the road going to the center and during that time, the Highway Patrol and the sheriff, deputies, and everybody else that went toward that center, if you were walking, or riding a bicycle, you got a ticket. And they'd come in late at night and try to get to the center, but we had our guards. We stood our ground, and whenever we heard something that we thought wasn't right, we had our firepower. But they got a chance to throw a lot of dynamite and blow up--.

Tanzman: Dynamite at homes?

McLaurin: No, they wasn't targeting homes as much as they were targeting the center because there some times when they would get close enough to throw dynamite. Now, we was in--. And blow up cars all up and down the road, but they never did get close enough to blow up the community center which they were tying to blow up. Now the merchants that had the gasoline and when we first built it, we couldn't get lights at that time. We couldn't get no butane because they wouldn't give it to us. And finally, they did. One of the plantation owners told them to put some lights in for us, and they did, but it was another four or five years before we got a chance to get some butane. They never would. We had to put a wood heater in there, and then we went and cut some wood, and that's how we heated the community center.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. And it was run by the local community, basically, wasn't it?

McLaurin: The local community. We had young ladies in the community that was, had knowledge and skills enough to do these things, and different ones run it.

Tanzman: Was that Rosie Head[?] and Elise Galleon[?] and Zelma[?]?

McLaurin: During that time, yes, it was Rosie Head and Thelma Head[?] and Elise Galleon and Zelma Williams and Catherine McLaurin[?] and Rose Berta Clark[?] was all involved during that same time, too.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. And were your folks and your brothers and sisters part of this, or were your brothers and sisters mostly gone then? Were you one of the few that was here, from your family?

McLaurin: Well, I was the only one here during that time. All my brothers and sisters had finished high school and left the state. And they was in and out, every one, but they was all out of state. I was the only one left.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. And when more people were getting to vote after the Voting Rights Act was passed and people were organizing so much, Holmes County was one of the strongest in the state, I gather, for local community meetings and for county-wide meetings that every beat had some meetings going on. You were eventually part of the effort to run people for office for all the offices. Right? For a whole series of offices in the state in sixty-seven?

McLaurin: Yes. Holmes County was the first county that ran as many. We had four beats in, five beats in Holmes County, and we had a constable, justice of the peace, and supervisor on every beat (inaudible) in the county. And we ran a black on every post during that time to get them elected to serve as officers of that beat and the county.

Tanzman: And they also ran for supervisor and school board?

McLaurin: Yeah, we had people running for the sheriff's department. We had people running for the supervisor. And we had people running for the school board of education. And we also had somebody running for the state representative.

Tanzman: And that was Robert Clark.

McLaurin: That's true. That's true.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. How did you come to be the one running from, this is beat two? I mean beat four. I'm sorry. How did you come to be the one running for constable in beat four?

McLaurin: Well, during that time we had R.S. Love was the constable in this area, and he was one of the most lowdown men you could deal with. And he was just constantly harassing all the blacks and giving them tickets and locking them up in jail. And during that time, when we got registered and got the chance to become a citizen, and then we met, and we said, we formed a group of people we thought was qualified to hold office and then we selected those people, and those people were the ones that ran. And we had myself, Griffin McLaurin, ran for constable, which I won. John D. Wesley ran for the justice of the peace. Willie James Bourne[?] ran for the supervisor, and that was all on the beat level. So, then we had people running on the state level. You know. And county level.

Tanzman: Was Love someone who was in office for some time and really hated?

McLaurin: Yes. See, during that time the whites wasn't elected to any office, they was appointed to offices that their peers wanted them to have. And the person that had the most, I guess, hatred toward Negroes, those were the people that they appointed to carry that office out.

Tanzman: You mean he was appointed constable. He wasn't an elected--.

McLaurin: Right. During that time they would just appoint a person to whatever office they wanted, and then they would just serve as long as they wanted to.

Tanzman: Oh, he just--.

McLaurin: He didn't have no term.

Tanzman: There wasn't a term.

McLaurin: No, he just served years to year, and years to year. You know.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Was he appointed by the county officials?

McLaurin: Mostly during that time, they just had people in the community, in the beat, and they would just appoint whoever they want to in there, you know, from the supervisor on down.

Tanzman: The people who are registered.

McLaurin: Right. Right. See, during that time, when we got registered, and we got 696 blacks registered, and we didn't have but 96 white registered voters in beat four.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. So, you were way ahead in this area?

McLaurin: Right. So, we should have elected everybody in beat four during that time, but unfortunately we just got one elected.

Tanzman: So, was that the first year in some time that it had been an elective office? And the position of constable was opened up as an elected office?

McLaurin: That was the first time since Reconstruction that any black had been elected to anything in the South.

Tanzman: But it had gone from an appointive office to an elective office, so you were able to do that.

McLaurin: Yes. That's what we accomplished when we got to be citizens of the county, that when we ran for the office, then it wasn't no more appointments. It was just elected from then on.

Tanzman: OK. And when you first got in, who were you serving under?

McLaurin: Well, you see, all a constable is [is] a sheriff's deputy, and you serving under the sheriff, and a constable is the only one that can arrest a sheriff in his beat. And the constable has more authority in a beat than a sheriff has, but I don't know why. If you go and study the Mississippi Code and different things, they'll enlighten you on all these things, but it seems like to me it's always been the other way around, because the, I guess, the white establishment always had the sheriff way up, and the constable, he was way down.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. So, when you got in, did they--? So, this was the same Calvin Moore that had showed up at the courthouse and had tried to keep you all from voting. Was he at all cooperative or did he try to block your attempts to serve your office? Did he tell you what your office was?

McLaurin: Not at all, because during that time, when I got elected, they called me in three days before the swearing-in ceremony started, and they swore me in by myself, and then when they swore the others in, they called all those in together and swore all them in, at the courthouse. And when the county had to bond me to serve as constable, and then when the county told us that they couldn't bond us because we were--. It was me and two other people, black, got elected over the state that year, and we tried to get bonded for those offices. And they wouldn't bond us. So, Representative Clark and I went to Jackson several times and worked on some other bonding agencies because we didn't have no bonding agency, we just had some representatives in the state of Mississippi, so they refused to bond us. So, Calvin Moore and (inaudible), him and I, you know, got elected at the same time, only thing that he's supposed to told me to be able to do my duty as a constable, nobody told me. And I had to go to Jackson down to the--.

Tanzman: You had to look it up in some library to figure out exactly what your duties were?

McLaurin: Right. I had to go down and study the Mississippi Code and get information to be able to bring back for my people so I could serve them better.

Tanzman: When you actually carried out the duties of the constable, did you eventually--? Were you harassed then, too? Or did you just go about your business, and were you able to carry out what you needed to carry out? Or did they block you?

McLaurin: Yes, they did because during that time, each time I would carry some of the workers from the plantation to jail, and all they did was just call out there and told them to let them out. And they would let them out, and they would be on back home. And I had a white justice of the peace, and if I had any dealings with any of the people that were on the plantation or any whites, well, it wasn't never going to get did anyway, because he was always going to throw it out or say it wasn't anything to it.

Tanzman: Yeah. It's like they declared war.

McLaurin: Right. So, mostly I had the title, but serving as a constable like I should have, I didn't get a chance to do that.

Tanzman: And that didn't change over the course of the four years, much?

McLaurin: No, because I just had that white justice of the peace and all the paperwork I would turn into him, well, most of the time it would just get swept under the rug or just throwed somewhere, and say that he would see about it. You know.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. What happened in the following election?

McLaurin: Well, the following election, the--.

Tanzman: Was it seventy-two? Seventy-one, I guess.

McLaurin: Right. The position I had as constable, a fellow by the name of Howard Huggins, he ran for that same position, because he was the first black deputy that we had that was appointed by Calvin Moore, and when he ran, he got a few votes more than I did. And during that same time, they redistricted the beats. And beat four just was a small beat, and then they extended it, you know, to pass, put in Lexington, so that put more people in the beat, than normally was in there, and so that gave him a majority.

Tanzman: More people from another area that didn't know you so well?

McLaurin: Right. And then I got defeated that year, and it was then he served as constable, then until he--. Then he ran for the sheriff, and then he got elected as sheriff.

Tanzman: All this time you were farming. You were still farming the land, as well, right?

McLaurin: Yeah, I was. All that time I was just farming.

Tanzman: You were telling me when we spoke a few months ago a little about the land that you're farming and the fact that there are now some young people that are working in part of it, and one of the things we were talking about was organic farming, that your father--. I asked you about that kind of farming that you were doing, and you said that that went back in your family some, to do some of the farming without the heavy chemicals. Could you tell me a little about that?

McLaurin: Yes. Over the years, the seventies, and the eighties, I farmed this land and the other land, and in the late eighties, I went to I considered an experiment back with the organic farming. And it had been a part of my father's history for a long time to farm with less chemicals, less herbicide, and farmers, during that time, we used to use mostly corn stalks and other organic things that was natural. And put it back into the soil and let it grow. And I did that for eight or ten years, and I was real successful with it.

Tanzman: You got a good yield, and it was so much healthier?

McLaurin: Right. And I had a good year, each year, and I supplied this whole area with their first vegetables for over ten years, like that. And in ninety-five, I had a massive heart attack, and I was put in the hospital, and now, I had two heart surgeries, and so--.

Tanzman: Bypass?

McLaurin: Yeah, I had two bypasses, and since then the doctor had took me off of working, and I was sort of just laying around, and the young man, Calvin Head[?], he had came down and talked to me about, one Sunday morning, and talked to me about some gardening. He wanted to start this program, and he didn't know anything about farming and truck patching in the garden and vegetables. And so he came and talked to me about it. So, I sat down and talked to him about it, and so he--.

Tanzman: OK. Could you wait just a minute, Mr. McLaurin? I'm going to switch it over. Switch the tape to the other side. OK.

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

Tanzman: Calvin was the son of Rosie, the one who had worked with the community center in the sixties? And with the movement a lot?

McLaurin: That's true. He was a bright young man. He was born and grew up here in the community, and he finished high school here, and he went off to college, Mississippi Valley State and got a B.S. degree, and he came back, and he didn't want to go into teaching, and he didn't want to go off into other activities. He wanted to live and stay in our community. And when he come to me for advice, we sat down and we talked about it, and then I asked--.

Tanzman: What was his plan? He was trying to learn about organic farming so he could do it with some of the youth?

McLaurin: Yeah. That was his main goal, but I didn't know it at that time. And so, he sat down and we talked about it, and he knew I knew all the things about it. And so, that's the reason he had came to me. And then I talked to him, and I told him I'd be willing to sit down and show him and I told him I had my land here, this ten acres here that I wasn't using. And I'd be willing to let them have it to grow any kind of vegetable, and I could sort of help coordinate the effort in learning them how to do organic farming. And so, that's what we got started. He wrote a proposal, and he got funds from the Kellogg Foundation, and we formed what we now has: a youth project. Twenty-two youths that we learned how to farm organic vegetables. And so during that time, we--.

Tanzman: So, you've been teaching them a lot.

McLaurin: Yeah. I taught them how to prepare the soil and plant the seeds and do the harvest. And also taught them how to weed it and taught them how to plant different kinds of clover and different stuff to keep the ground organic for the winter and to catch the oxygen, phosphates, and potash, and different stuff out of the air and put in the ground, that you wouldn't have to use chemicals and different stuff to go in the ground. You could catch that same oxygen and potash and phosphates out of the air and put it into your ground. And then you take that clover crop that you had that fall and turn it under and then let it, you use that as organic fertilize.

Tanzman: And you are doing this at a time that a lot of farmers are full-force going into pesticides and all kinds of poisons, aren't you? So, your approach is very different from them, and it sounds a whole lot healthier.

McLaurin: Yes, because during the time that I had row crop farming with cotton, I never would put the chemicals on this ten acres of land. I always had in mind one day that I wanted to just grow vegetables, but that was before I had the heart attack. But I always just had in mind, I know one day if I lived long enough, that was always going to be used for just vegetables, and I never would put the chemical on it. And so, so far, it has paid off.

Tanzman: Are the kids--? Are they teenagers, that he has gotten together?

McLaurin: Yeah. Now, we have in the last three years, we have five of them is out of high school, into college, and we got a chance to give some of them some scholarships and the funds that we accumulated from Kellogg, we got a chance to give them a weekly stipend out of that, and then what they made from the vegetables, we got a chance to get a contract with the Cisco[?] Company in Jackson, and they bought all our squash and cucumbers and zucchini and bell paper.

Tanzman: That's a huge company, isn't it?

McLaurin: Yeah. They bent over backwards to help us because we went and sat down, and we told them exactly what we were planning, and they were willing to help us before the children could be helped. And so, we formed a group, and then we got a chance to set up a president, a treasurer, a secretary, and all in that group. And we would take the funds that we were accumulating from the gardening, and we opened up a bank account at our local bank in Tchula, and then at the end of the year when all the vegetables get harvested, then we would take that and divide it among the children because the stipend would go maybe eight to nine months, and it was cut off. And then the children could take the funds that they accumulated from the vegetables and buy their school clothes and help at home, whatever, you know.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Sounds terrific. So, it's twenty-something kids at a time that a lot of people are not farming at all at that age.

McLaurin: Right and most of them had never had an opportunity to even put a seed in the ground to even see it germinate or nothing. Most of them were so excited when they could plant a seed and see it germinate and come up and grow. And then we made sure each job--. We cut the--. I had to carry them and put them in groups of three and then they had, each one of them had a segment in the field that they had to see about, and see whichever one did the best, that's the one got the biggest [prize]. We set up a little prize to make sure that they worked to accomplish this goal.

Tanzman: You mean a prize for the one who grew the best?

McLaurin: Right.

Tanzman: That's great.

McLaurin: So, that's what we did and it worked out fine, so now, each year, as the children finish high school, then we replace them with other children in the community.

Tanzman: You said something about scholarships. Is that from the proceeds of what you're able to sell to this company?

McLaurin: Yeah. Now, we use some of that and also Kellogg had some funds that we could use also for scholarships.

Tanzman: So, this is for them to go on to college?

McLaurin: Right. For their education.

Tanzman: So, you're actually carrying on another form of movement activity. This is very much teaching them the skills and having them learn something that they--. And also it being a much healthier kind of farming for people to eat this produce. Are you also selling it locally?

McLaurin: Yes. We're selling it locally, and also we're getting our younger generation involved in farming again, because most of them, their foreparents or their parents that came up, they don't have any knowledge about where their food comes from and what it consists of. And a lot of them had never known the food that they eat to come from the soil. They just thought it come from the supermarket. You know. (Laughter.) And now, they will be able to pass this on to their younger brothers and sisters and show them the things that they were doing. You know.

Tanzman: Yeah. This must be tremendously satisfying for them to see something that they planted, to grow. Just like you had that satisfaction all these years.

McLaurin: That's so true because they ask so many questions. Our younger generation, the environment that they're living in, they don't even know it. You know. It's different to just know your books, and read and write, but you need to know your environment. You got every kind of different thing on the face of the earth, right there at your fingertips, and you don't know anything about it. And this is one of the things that I'm committed to. To help them learn every tree in the woods, the name of every tree, and the name of every vegetable that they plant and what can it yield, and, you know, all the different ways that you can prepare that food, you know, for a meal. And I had the opportunity when I came up to learn how to cook most of the vegetables that can be grown because my mother made sure that we did that because she say, "You never know what you're going to have to have in life."

Tanzman: She taught both the daughters and the sons?

McLaurin: That's true. And when the daughters was older than the sons, and they had an opportunity to leave home before the sons, so the sons had to take over where they left off.

Tanzman: Where were you in the family? Were you one of the youngest?

McLaurin: No, I'm the oldest son in the family. I'm right behind my baby sister.

Tanzman: So you're the fifth child?

McLaurin: I'm the fifth child.

Tanzman: Of the eight?

McLaurin: Right.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. And do you see that a lot of people are abandoning the farms now, or the generations are getting away from it? Do you think that the organic farming may, and the farming that is being done, that some of those kids may stay in, doing this for a living?

McLaurin: Right now, that's our main goal to get our local farmers, black farmers, in our community to sort of go into sustainable farming because--.

Tanzman: Go into what?

McLaurin: Sustainable farming. And their parents, they didn't teach them to do anything but sort of go to row crop, like soybeans, cotton. And now it's mandatory that you be able to--. You're going to have to leave the row crop, soybeans and cotton, to be able to stay on your little, small farms now. And it's a good way now if you got any knowledge of knowing how to grow vegetables, it's a good income in it. And if you put that diversity into it, that you can be able to support your family.

Tanzman: Is there much more market for the vegetables than there is in terms of prices and so on than for the soybeans and the cotton?

McLaurin: Yes. The prices that you can get now from vegetables, it would give a person a good income because the demand done got so great for sweet potatoes or cucumbers, squash or tomatoes, or zucchini. All these different kinds of plants that you can grow now that you can really--. Butterbeans, snap beans. It's just a great demand for them, if you know how to grow them. And it's a great market for them.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. And do you think that some of the younger people are thinking about staying, now, more? Staying in the county? Because I know a lot of people do leave, but do you feel like some of the ones who are working with this might want to at least continue to do farming whether or not it's in Holmes County. But that there may be a future for farming in this county.

McLaurin: Well, it's a lot of them have a bright future in the farming, and a lot of them are concerned about the farming. See, I don't think, from what I have learned over the past five to ten years, our children are not getting the basics of farming from the educational system in the county. Because I teach. They're not abreast of what the farming consists of, and they're not able to hand it on down to their child. I mean to that generation of people. And their parents are not aware. So, if we can come up with more education on farming, I'm sure, we would have quite a few more that would be able to go into farming.

Tanzman: Because I gather there are a lot of people who are renting the land. You know the children of a lot of people who were in the project, and the children of a lot of farmers who may not want to come back, but they do want to hold onto the land, are actually renting them out to other people.

McLaurin: Well, it's a lot of--. All our older people have just about died out, and now, they are yet holding onto the land. And a lot of them would be back to the South if they had some way to make a living. You know. Besides row crop, and this is one of the alternatives that we need to start looking at, more closely, because the South is the only place that we yet got enough land to be able to accomplish the people that are going to be in the future because, you know, the housing and the land is one of the--.

Tanzman: So, the South is really one of the hopes in terms of continuing. It's one of the only areas in terms of continuing this tradition. Are you farming any other area? Or is this where you're focusing? On the ten acres?

McLaurin: Just the ten acres now. Just the ten acres. That's all. And I'm mostly just, sort of on a supervisor's capacity, you know, because I let them have it, and I mostly just am giving them the knowledge that I have to share with them. To be able to raise good quality food.

Tanzman: Sounds like you're doing what your father did with you.

McLaurin: Yeah. That's the way my father taught us. That regardless of where you go and where you come from, you're going to have to learn all the things that you can learn to be able to survive in this world. And if you live out in the rural or on the farm and you've got land, you should be able to at least make you a living on it, or be able to grow you some food yourself. And that's what we don't have. We've got a lot of younger generation; the older people died out, and they're yet around, but they don't know how to grow nothing because they never was taught how to grow nothing but cotton. And cotton is all right in its place, but you've got to have some food to eat.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Right.

McLaurin: And this is what all of them now, it's quite a few of our local farmers, now they want to go into the sweet potato business, but they don't know nothing about growing sweet potatoes, so they had several meetings with me and wanted to know would I sit down, you know, and sort of get them started, and show them the type land that they need to use.

Tanzman: Are you helping them learn how to do the sweet potatoes?

McLaurin: Yeah. Now, I told them I was going to help them and get them, the main thing is being able to get the land preparation and being able to set them out at the right time.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Was that related to when Congressman Benny Thompson[?] came down and was talking with people here a while back, about that there was a market for sweet potatoes and that people came together from a lot of areas to find out about this?

McLaurin: Yeah. That's what it was stimulated from, that he came in and we had several meetings together and so many of our local farmers, or younger farmers, they're working factory jobs and different things and their land just laying out. And that's one of them things that he wanted them to be able to start supplementing that farm with that sweet potato, and if they get the chance to learn how to do it, then they can go from small to large, you know. Because they're saying it's a great demand for all that, you know, for a long time.

Tanzman: So, you think it is viable, that people can actually live from farming, now? That it's just partly a question of learning which crops and learning how best to do it? I mean, that there is still a great need for the food products?

McLaurin: Yes. It's a great need for the food products. Not only just for vegetables. You see, back when our foreparents were doing it, see, they raised the chickens, they raised the ducks, they raised the turkeys, they raised the pigs, they raised the cows. And see, all this generation, all that done left them. And that was the way that most our older generation survived because whatever they needed to eat, they already had it. They grew it on the farm. And see the farm, most of them don't know what the farm really meant. If you was on the farm, you were supposed to do 90 percent of your food from that farm. And this is something that this generation is not doing. They're not being able to grow a good mess of turnip greens because they don't know how. And this is one of the things that we need to educate them on, how to be able to do these things, because, you know, my father always taught me, you know, your (laughter) first priority was your stomach. You can buy a shirt.

Tanzman: Feed yourself.

McLaurin: You've got to feed yourself. And this is one thing that we're not being able to do. We're depending on the supermarkets, and the same thing in the supermarket, you can grow right out on your own farm.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Well, I want to thank you, Mr. McLaurin. So, it sounds like you're keeping on being active in a very real way for another generation the way you were active around the voting rights and active in the sixties, too. Yeah. Do you see that we've gained some from all that voting organizing and from that whole period?

McLaurin: You look at it in one aspect, and you see a plus, and then you look at it from another aspect, you look at a negative, because the thing that our foreparents fighted so hard for, to be able to--. They died to become citizens of this country, and our younger generation that is coming up, it just don't have the same meaning to them that it did to us, when we came along. They had the better education, but they don't have the, what our parents used to say, "the mother wit." They don't have that love that if your brother hurts, I hurt. But see, this day and time, if one hurts, they don't think about that brother. And the things that we accomplished, a lot of them are beginning to slide backwards.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. You think they don't have the same sense of community responsibility?

McLaurin: No, that's one of the things. I agree with that 100 percent. They don't have that sense of togetherness like we did when we came up.

Tanzman: Maybe part of the taking down of some of the history is to be able to figure ways, find ways to bring that to their understanding. You know, that's one reason to do some of this is to take down what was before, what people were able to come together and do, and, you know, what's still left to be done.

McLaurin: Yeah, I think that's one of the greatest aspects of it: to be able to have this information, to be able to hand down to this generation, to see how our foreparents sweated and died for us to be able to enjoy what we're enjoying today. And history repeats itself, but it takes a long time. And most times if you don't keep abreast of our people, we soon forget.

Tanzman: Mm-hm. Well, thanks very much, Mr. McLaurin. I appreciate it.

McLaurin: You're certainly welcome.

Tanzman: OK. Thank you.

McLaurin: You're welcome.

(End of the interview.)


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