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Story
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This story really ought to start in slavery. But then again, in, say, the 1950s, a few generations after the end of slavery, life for black Mississippians looked and felt much like it had during those centuries in bondage.

Like any black Mississippian who grew up in the Jim Crow years, MacArthur Cotton can tell you stories. The story of his grandfather, who, Cotton says, was fatally beaten by whites for teaching other blacks to read. Or the story of the black sharecropper in Winston County in the 1950s, who took the day off to go to a church gathering—without his white boss's permission. Cotton was there—about fifteen years old at the time, he says.

"He [the sharecropper] didn't go to plow that day, but his boss man wanted him to plow. So ... he came up to church with the rest of the people, and, [the boss came and said] 'I thought I told you to go to the field.' And [the sharecropper] got ready to walk away and [his boss] just kinda grabbed him and shot him six times. You know, right there, he fell and laid out there."

Eventually, Cotton says, somebody picked up the man's body and carried it away. "And nobody really said nothing, nobody really did anything. Things like that just happened. It happened all the time."

The system of segregation known as Jim Crow, which had been entrenched throughout the South since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1800s, demanded conformity from everybody, black and white. Bob Zellner is white; he grew up in southern Alabama in the 1940s and '50s. His upbringing was atypical, he says, in that "my father, unlike his brothers and his father, and his father, had broken with the Klan. So as I grew up I didn't get, in my family itself, the kind of racist teaching that was more or less automatic for white Southerners."

He did get it outside the family, however. As a teenager, Zellner worked at a country store in East Brewton, Alabama. He remembers being corrected by his boss.

"He explained that I had just said, 'Yes, sir' to a black man, and 'Yes, ma'am' to a black woman. And he explained to me that if it was just he and I and a black customer, it was all right, but if there were white people around that I couldn't do that. And I explained to him that I had been raised to have manners, and that meant that to older people you said 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' and 'yes, ma'am' and 'no, ma'am.' And he said, 'Well that's all right if it's just us, but other people will get very upset if you do that.'"

In 1961, as a Huntington College senior in Montgomery, Alabama, Zellner and several other students were assigned to write a paper on the race problem for a sociology class. As part of their research, they arranged interviews—against their professor's directions—with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy.

"And as a result of those meetings," Zellner says, "five of us were asked to leave school, the Klan burnt crosses around our dormitory. We were called into the office of the Attorney General of the state of Alabama, who said, 'You're under the communist influence.' ... And to boil it down, they gave you the choice of completely capitulating to their know-nothing racism or becoming a rebel."

After he'd finished school (he refused to leave and the school backed down), Zellner became the first white field secretary for SNCC. That group had been formed as a young people's wing of Martin Luther King's group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC would be the first to mount a public campaign against Jim Crow in Mississippi—but not until 1961. Before then, even while blacks were launching bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins in other Southern states, the Mississippi movement stayed underground.

"You know, in spite of growing up in Alabama, where it's not too much different—but Mississippi! It was just—this was the last place," says John Lewis, who now represents Georgia in the U.S. Congress. In 1961, Lewis was 21 and a hero of the Freedom Rides. The Freedom Riders rode buses into the South to challenge whites-only lunch counters and restrooms. Lewis was punched and kicked by South Carolina segregationists. Rioting whites beat him bloody in Montgomery, Alabama. But what scared him was Mississippi.

"When you crossed that state line over into Mississippi, it's just this sense of something like the climate changed, the air got warmer and your heart started beating faster. ... Too many bodies had been found, black bodies, had been found in the Pearl River or the Tallahatchee River in the state of Mississippi," says Lewis.

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