The violent response to Black voter registration efforts in the Mileston community of Holmes County in 1963 was the major push that launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The legend of Hartman Turnbow, a successful farmer, expert rifleman, and a supporter of the new youth organization called SNCC was a point of pride among the early civil rights workers in Holmes County. He was also the first Black man to register to vote in Holmes County in May of 1963. When two white men set his house on fire in retaliation, he successfully ran them off with his 16-shot .22 rifle. He never looked back with regrets.
“The Negro ain’t gonna stand for all that beating and lynching and bombing and stuff,” he told a group of volunteers during Freedom Summer of 1964. “They (the white oppressors) found out when they tried to stop us from redishing (registering) that every time they bombed or shot or beat or cut credit…it just made (us) angry and more determined to keep on… and get redished.”
Turnbow became the first delegate from Holmes County elected to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and went on to challenge the regular Mississippi Democrats at the 1964 National Democratic Convention. Although restricted in 1964, they became the official Mississippi Democratic Party delegation at the 1968 national convention.
In his 1988 biography of Martin Luther King, Parting the Waters, author Taylor Branch says that Turnbow told Martin Luther King, “This nonviolent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll getcha killed.”
The top two civil rights figures in the state at the time, Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Moses, played major roles in organizing and instructing the Holmes County Freedom Democratic Party on what would be expected of them at the two national conventions. Hamer was also a regular contributor to political organizations in Holmes County.
Some older members of the Holmes County Black community say the 1967 election of Robert Clark to the Mississippi House of Representatives was probably made possible through the strong support of Fannie Lou Hamer and her rallying call to the Holmes County Freedom Democratic Party to support Clark. Clark was the first Black member of the House since Reconstruction. He served until retiring in 2004. His son, Rep. Bryant Clark of Ebenezer, succeeded him.
Sixty years later, despite having an all-Black board of supervisors, Holmes County continues to face many of the same issues that have lingered on since the days of the most rigid systems of segregation in Mississippi. Black community activists there complain that the Confederate statue still dominating the downtown business district of Lexington should have been removed decades ago. The same activists point to a brewing hostility between Lexington’s Black majority population (67 percent) and its white Mayor Robin McCrory and her white police chief.
The Freedom Democrats of Holmes County have kept their charter active and remain the only active branch of the original Mississippi Freedom Democrats. And today they are as busy as ever, fighting against the ghosts of the past that seem to have never gone away.
Thirty-year-old Cardell Wright, president of the Holmes County party, says his organization and its supporters are determined to remove the massive Confederate statue from downtown Lexington.
“One of our major problems is that our Black elected officials claim that they don’t want to offend the Confederate stakeholders in this community,” Wright said.
The Lexington mayor and the police chief are white. Many of the officers, Black and white, completely disregard the rights of Black residents when only the mere suspicion of crime is involved, he said. Over 67 percent of Lexington residents are Black.
Wright says the inscriptions on the Confederate statue that sits in front of the County Courthouse in Lexington are an insult to all Black Mississippians.
“On one side, it says, ‘The men were right who wore the gray, and right will never die,’” Wright pointed out. “And the other side says the work they were doing in the Confederacy was honor to God.”
Wright says taking down the offensive Confederate statue should be no problem in a county that is overwhelmingly Black – 86 percent. State law only requires that the statue be placed in a designated storage space, he said. “That won’t be a problem.”
Holmes County has five Black supervisors, but they are not responsive to the needs of the Black majority, Wright complains.
“They have let it be known in public forums that they are more beholden to a Confederate constituency than they are to the people who elected them,” he said.
A member of the board of supervisors, however, said after a protest rally last February that the county cannot afford to pay the cost of removal of the statue, as the state requires.
Wright and the Freedom Democrats have begun a petition drive to place the issue of the statue removal on the ballot. They will need 25 percent of the registered voters to sign on to make the drive effective, he said.
Lending her voice to the call for change in Lexington, Zelpha Montgomery Whatley, known to her radio audience as Miss Zep, says she is frustrated over the lack of progress in her hometown. She broadcasts her “Straight Talk w/Miss Zep” show twice weekly – Friday and Sunday – on WAGR 102.5FM in Lexington.
“I’m just frustrated today because this is Martin Luther King’s birthday,” Whatley said. “And maybe I should just be at home looking at my westerns rather than looking at these white folks who are saying what they say. They have told us they will not join us. And they will hold up the entire country as it relates to voting rights.”
Whatley suggested that the people of Lexington and the country as a whole should look back on tactics that worked in the past to deal with the problems that have since re-emerged in voting rights.
“After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, Holmes County said, ‘We don’t care,’” Whatley said in an interview with the Jackson Advocate on Monday. “The powers that be in Holmes said at that time the exact same thing that Kyrsten Sinema said in Arizona last Friday: She said, ‘You need not keep talking to me about Civil Rights. I’m not changing my mind.’ I think we should take her at her word.
“I think we’ve forgotten when white folk took that hard line. The only thing to get their attention was when we took our little three dollars and selectively used it. We should not keep giving them our money if they are determined to block our rights,” Whatley said.
Strategically planned economic boycotts worked in the past, Whatley said. She would like to see the Black voters of Lexington use their leverage to solve the problem of the Confederate statue there along with the many complaints of police abuse that people are facing.
“There are six towns in Holmes County. We’re going to focus on the county seat, Lexington. That’s what the people did back in 1965. And we are still focusing on Lexington today. Once the word gets out that Black folks are not spending money in Lexington, a change will come.
“We have two powerful things that will work for us if we use them correctly,” she said. “We got the one vote that each of us should use. And we’ve got our three dollars – three billion dollars collectively. Now those are the two things we’ve got. And I know that with those two things – the ballot with my three dollars – I can get anything in this country that I want. And if we could organize those three dollars, I promise you that statue in Lexington wouldn’t even exist. (Senators) Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t be flapping their wings over this whole county if everybody who says they’re upset were really upset and used their votes and dollars wisely.”