Interviewer: Madison Davis Lacy, Jr.
Production Team: A
Interview Date: October 18, 1988
Camera Rolls: 1007-1008
Sound Rolls: 103
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with John Jackson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 18, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
First of all, I've heard that Lowndes County was a very violent place for Black people. You were a young boy growing up here, a teenager, and did that give you any kind of special attitude towards White people, or did you see them as evil or anything.
Of course we had an attitude, because we didn't feel like they were treating--
Now let me just stop you right--
--because nobody knows ah, --
I need to answer the question, OK.
OK. Yes, Lowndes County was a violent place, and ah, 'cause growing up as a youngster we were afraid of White people, because what they had done to Black people.
Can you add to that a little bit more, any particular experience that you remember as a child?
Well, I remember when I was--and we used to go places in the town. Ah, I used to go to certain fountains, and my daddy would tell me, "You can't go to that fountain, because it's for Whites." And it was--
--we had different water fountains. So we used to ask why? And we were very concerned about that.
OK, when the Selma-Montgomery March came through Lowndes County what effect did that have on you?
Everybody was afraid. I was afraid , I didn't know what was going to happen. We had saw what happened in Selma on Bloody Sunday. And of course, I did not go to Selma because I was afraid. But we all was concerned, wanted to know what could we do to help, if in fact the March did come through. Finally it came through, we saw the National Guard, guarding Dr. King and other Civil Rights workers: John Lewis, and other people coming through, and we felt that we did have some ray of hope.
Here, let's just step down here for a moment.
Just going to the Selma-Montgomery March as it walked through, err, as the March passed, I`d like you to describe for me something that you saw that day.
Immediately we saw State Troopers, National Guards, and ah, policemans. And of course, we were trying to see the famous Civil Right leaders, Dr. King and the others. And when we saw those, I felt kind of confident. But before that very devastated. Because I was afraid, I didn't know what was going to happen to Black people, we were trying to get the right to vote, we were trying to get registered to vote, and trying to--there were rumors going around that Civil Right workers were gonna be coming in. People were afraid, and when they came through I was kind of, still afraid, but there was a little ray of hope I figured that they we--there were possibilities that we could be some protection force. If in fact we tried to improve our conditions and some people immediately joined the March. Of course, I still, ah, stood by and watched, 'cause I was amazed because I was always kind of afraid of being non-violent. I really was, ah, not a non-violent person, ah, and at that age I just didn't know what I could do. I wanted--we were concerned, I was concerned about what could I do to help. And, and it was really just an amazing situation to see that we, finally after ah, people were beat up in Selma, that we did have some protection. And the right to continue to march to Selma, to Montgomery.
All right, it was right after that march that some people from SNCC started coming in here and helping out and helping out in the county, if you can describe what that was like.
People were kind of, standing, watching, and, ah, discussing what we could do now. The March had went through, people had a ray of hope, and Civil Right workers came in. We were afraid of them, some people wouldn't talk with them. I was a student, of course, in school, and, ah, they would come to the schools to see what was happening in the educational level. To begin to talk to students, and I had an opportunity to meet some. And I got kind of excited, they were risking their lives coming in, and I wanted to know what I could do. And we began to discuss some things that we could do as students, and I found out that they were students. From the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. So I got a little courage, and I got involved with them, and began to meet with them, to, to see what we could do as students. And began to talk to older people that I knew. My parents, my father, got actively involved right after we began to talk to them, and they began to visit homes throughout the community. And folk, ah, I believe some of our leaders were ready for some type of leadership to come in to give them encouragement to take a stand.
All right you mentioned your father. Your father of course took kind of a shine to some of the fellas from SNCC and especially Stokely Carmichael. Tell us how your father was about that.
Ah, he, kind of took a like to Stokely and, and Bob Mants, and Scotty B. and the other fellows. And I believe there was more of that destiny of love for them, because they were risking their lives coming in here. Because his statement was, ah, "If we're not for ourselves, then who can be for us?" And, ah, I mentioned a house that we had available--vacant. Because they were being shot at and run out of the county, every afternoon they had to leave before sundown. 'Cause they were afraid that they were going to be killed. And he finally gave them permission to start staying overnight.
So this is the Freedom House?
That's the Freedom House.
Did you ever hang out at the Freedom House?
All the time--
--Sure, tell us what it was like. By the way you're giving me some nice energy now. I really appreciate it, just keep it up, tell me what it was like.
Well, meeting different people coming in to meet the civil right workers--and you meet all kinds of different students coming in, both Black people and White people were coming in to assist in different projects. They would sit up and discuss, ah, ah, the importance of us having the right to vote, and educating us to the point. And at the same time trying to find out what we really wanted to do. And that's what's most important about SNCC. They weren't the kind of students who--that organization, that Civil Rights organization wasn't one of the kind of organization that would go into a community and impose things on people. They would want--they would tell us, what was happening, try to educate us with what was going on. And then talk to us about things that we wanted to do. Did we think we should have the right to vote. Did we think we should fight in the armies, did we, did we think we should have better schools, or better buses, and that type of thing. And of course folks started responding. We do that at night, we'd sit around the Freedom House half through the night talking. Most of the time we were afraid, and watching for the Ku Klux Klan. So we would, be woke, we wouldn't be asleep, so we'd sit there twelve, one o'clock at night. Talk, about issues and those, kind, kinds of things.
High school boys are often looking for role models, did you find one then?
Stokely was a good role model. Stokey Carmichael was a good role model. He was a very educated person, articulate, and smart, and we, I really admired him wholeheartedly.
OK, but even after the Voting Rights Act was passed there was still some violence that happened to many people who tried to help out here, of course, Jonathan Daniels was killed. You told us yesterday that you had been shot at 17 times. And you told us about a story when you were on the porch. I wonder if you could tell that story to us right now.
We had began to send people down to get them registered to vote. And people had begin to come together to meet, I talked about the five men who met, seven men who met, and decided to work with the Civil Right workers. See what they could do to change the situation. Ah, there was certain groups had moved against Blacks in term of sharecropping, funding, ah, people, so those people made up their minds to, to take some kind of stand. And of course, my father was one of those people, and, ah, those who went down to get registered were evicted. And so people came together to see what they could do about that, because they didn't have places to stay. And they created what you called a "poor people land fund" and they began to buy property and Miss Viola Smith gave them, a place for them to camp. And they put out tents for those people, and, ah, what they were doing was organizing themselves so they could build them homes, so they could become self-sustained. They don't own their own homes--because a lot of people were afraid to get registered, afraid to get down to vote, because they would be evicted from the plantations, and those few who stayed on, ah, places were their father, people owned their own land, they were still afraid that they wouldn't be financed. So at that particular weekend they had set tents, and they had agreed to put them on, put it on Highway 80. Were everybody could see it, right where the March went through. And somehow or another, they, we had Uncle Toms during that time too, and they went back and told them that it was gonna put the tents on my father's place. So I figured, ah, that's was the reason that night we would all, ways, we were always trained to try to protect ourselves. And of course along with being educated politically and getting the right to vote, SNCC also told us self-protection, because a lot of people had died across the country. And, ah, that night we, we used to pick cotton, during the day. And we leave the cotton, it was in August, middle of September, on the the porch until you get a full bale and then you take it in. But--I was lying on, watch that night, because there were other people who were up to the tents, we had pitched tents for more than 38 families that had been evicted off plantations just because they went down and registered to vote. And those people didn't have anywhere to stay, so we got tents that were donated from Michigan to, ah, put those people in, until the--we could find homes for them. Because we didn't have any houses around here. And this is--so I was lying there that night, and there has been threats on burning my fathers house, and other people who were actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. And I happened to be there on guard that night with a little rifle in my hand at sixteen. And, ah, a flashlight came on the porch where I was, and, ah, a shot went off. They shot two or three times, and of course I fired back because I was scared. And they ran on down the road. And my sister was in the house next door, who taught in this county, and, ah, by herself. So I got in the car to go down to see if I could assist her or get the tag number. And before I could get close enough to get the tag number, they fired on the car, and they shot car up. There was about 17 bullets in the car. And of course, the Civil Rights workers came, and people came to see what had happened. And the next day the FBIs came, and they said--I managed to get just part of a tag number. They said they found the truck, and that they were hunting. And you know there's a law against hunting at night. But they were hunting, so I guess they were hunting Black people. And they were getting to burn some of the people's houses, and burn crosses in front of people's houses that were actively involved in the Civil Rights movements. It was really devastating.
As a kid what was some of the--
OK, Mr. Mayor, I wonder if you could recall the very first time you ever heard of the Black Panther Party and what your reaction was to that?
We were kind of excited about the Black Panther Party because we had tried everything, we had had so much problem getting ready to devote so much par--so much problem trying to get our people encouraged, and to run for political positions. And then all of a sudden they raised the fees, they wouldn't allow us to participate in the democratic process. So we--when they brought up the--I think the way it was presented, Everybody was excited. Because they said, well, they have the rooster which represents the Democratic party, the elephant which represents the Republican party, why can't we have a Black cat to represent us. Everybody knows how a cat look, and we were excited. Because we knew that if a person could read and write they sure knew the difference between a cat, a elephant, and a rooster**.
Well when that primary finally took place, May 3rd, 1966, I gathered it was a very exciting occasion. I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit, from your perspective as a young boy what it was like that day.
Even though we didn't win a single position, but we were so excited because--
I'm going to stop you down because, at that point this is just a primary in May--
--Yeah. OK. OK.
--the elections you weren't running for position, so I just want you can remember about the occasion.
People came out and were able to mark the X on the cat and we were just excited. We were just excited, that our people had the courage to run for those positions. And we were gearing up to go into the general election. And a lot of people turned out in support of the party, and that's what really gave us momentum. I think more than sixteen hundred people voted.
Do you remember something that happened, just give me some flavor of the day. Was there anything special that stayed on your mind.
Well we, were afraid in the very beginning again. I don't know, it looked liked every time we start a process we were always afraid because we knew, ah, how Whites felt about Blacks, and how they had tried to stop us from gaining our equal rights. And of course we would set up people to watch and protect if we thought they were going to come in and destruct it. But there were people prepared, to try to protect our women and children that day. And it was kind of, ah, I was afraid in the very beginning. But ah, we had people set up to let us know if they were coming. And they would ride by and look and we had the FBIs there and that type of thing, but ah, by the number of people that turned out, gave us another ray of hope that it could be done, and people were just excited.
I've seen some film and I know that there was music that day, and people standing around and singing. I just wonder if you could remember some particular occasion, somebody who came that day that you never thought would show up. Or someone like--someone real--
There were a lot of citizens came, that I thought wouldn't show up because you know, yeah, they, a lot of them were saying, "I don't want to be involved in that mess." And finally some of them turned out. But I was mostly going picking up people a lot that day, and I didn't have an opportunity to stay and stand around and watch everything that day. But the, just to come out and exercise their right that day was just, just exciting.
You say you were picking people up that day, was that in a bus?
In a car.
But what did people talk about?
Well people would, ah, say, "Well if I get kicked off my place, I just, we just have to find me a place to go." They were talking about what they were going to do if certain things should happen. "If they come up here, we're just going to have to defend ourselves." "I'm not afraid of the White man no more." And that make you feel good, you know. Ah, they were saying all kinds of things, so they were talking about, ah, ah, what had happened in Selma, ah, on Bloody Sunday. And how the March was successful and they had the National Guard to protect us. You think we can get them to protect us if something should happen. All kinds of things were running through our mind. And, and I think I--one old lady, Ms. Mary Jane Jackson, would always say, "I got my guns, and boys we ain't gonna let them bother y'all." And the Civil Rights workers were risking their lives, so they made them all kind of, get a ray of hope that, that something was going to happen. People started thinking something was really going to happen.
Then you talking about guns reminded me that you were talking about one of the first times you met Stokely, and he was for non-violence, and you had a comment for him. Tell us that little story.
Ah, I told him, ah, I was--
--not really non-violent.
Start it over again please.
OK. Ah, repeat the question again.
Well, just talk about Stokely. Don't say him, because nobody can--
Uhum, uhum, OK. Ah, Stokely always was say that he's going to, he had a gun but we really never seen it either. So we were always saying, that if you really want to make it here in Lowndes County you gonna have to get you a gun to protect yourself. I think that was either my father told him that, or it came up in one of the discussions. But, ah, they would always, in our discussion they talked, and talked about self-protection. And so people would always, especially in our meetings we were afraid of the Klans, they would, some of the fellas would train local people. Not civil rights workers, would bring their shotgun or their pistol to church.
As a reverend, though, at time when you, said that you'd informed Stokely that you weren't non-violent. I wonder if you could just tell us about that.
I believe that was, the second time I had met him at the high school. And he was saying that, ah, ah, we gotta be non-violent. And, ah, saying that we discuss in the Bible were it said, somebody hit you in one cheek you turn the other one. And we were saying, the young people were saying, "we`re not gonna let them just walk up and hit us and kill us.", and that type of thing. I think we discussed it, on several occasions.
OK, let's just step down here for a moment. I think we may be all done.
OK, and give me that same kind of energy, and, ah, all set by me. OK, so tell me why did your father give Freedom House to the SNCC people.
He decided to take a stand--
Don't say he.
OK. My father was concerned about the, s-s-survival about the Civil Rights Movement.
Start over again.
My father was concerned about, ah, the civil right workers: Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants, and those fellas who were coming in and out. They were afraid, they were being shot at, they were being chased off plantations, they were being run out of Lowndes County. And the threat was out that they were going to kill them. And ah, an ah, that`s the Ku Klux Klan, and the White racists were gonna kill the civil rights workers. Because they were coming in and stirring up "mess", that's, that's what they called it. And, ah, here we had property, the only vacant house in this area. And so I said to him, I said, "Nobody is using the house, and they--", they would waste, well, they used to come in and stay late at night and talk to some people, but they were afraid to go back to Selma. Because it was so dangerous on Highway 80. And finally one day, he said to them, "You all can stay over there, if you can, if you can make it." And finally they started moving in, and they stayed at, ah, he opened up the Freedom House for them.
Talk about the violence, I mean there was a lot of violence towards Black people at that time. Talk about that.
Yes there was a lot of violence towards Black people in Lowndes County. I think, when they first started talking about trying to make sss, make some changes, a man that they thought was actively involved in going to the meetings in Selma was shot at, over in Gordonville, I believe, and that got the momentum going. Ah, the word got around that there were people actively involved and they would do all kinds of things to intimidate you and harass you. They would, like I said, they would stop financing advancing farmers. They would intimidate you, they would hit you up over the head, the sheriff was, ah, name was Otto Moore at that time and Sheriff Rawls, a deputy. And ah, they would just, they would be, they would be violent only as well as the Ku Klux Klan. So they was, it was really a situation where we were struggling for life and death. And if you were caught in the wrong the situation, you probably would be killed.
I heard about a place called Skull Hill, do you know what that is?
I've heard talk of Skull Hill, but I'm not too familiar with it.
OK, tell me how you first became active in organizing work.
Well, I was at, ah, Lowndes Central High School and I was a junior there, going into my senior year. And as I said, the sit--we were watching what was happening in Selma and Montgomery, and I got, I was curious, and after meeting the civil rights workers, and they were young students too, I wanted to see what I could be, so we talked about the issues, and we talked about things that we did not have at our school, and I got concerned. We started raising questions about that, there was no heat even in our schools. Ah, there was no cafeteria, there was no library, there was, ah, we didn't have heat on our busses. There were overcrowded classrooms, there was 42 in my classroom at that time with one teacher. Ah, just sub-standard schools, we just, and we got concerned, we started asking why did the White children have better schools? Why? And we couldn't get an answer to any questions, so we started organizing, and we finally organized one of the first boycotts in this county probably. Because all the students, after they found out that I was doing the organizing, they fired me on the bus and all the students walked out. And of course then I had a meeting with the superintendent, and they began to try to do some of those things to quiet us down.