Word circulated throughout Vicksburg’s Black community in late February 1972 that a 58-year-old white man had raped a 7-year-old Black girl and the judge in the case only saw fit to charge the man with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and fined him $50.
Vicksburg had reached a low-point in race relations during the years before the Civil Rights Movement and was called by historian Neil R. McMillen “perhaps the most troubled city in the state.”
Years of pent-up rage and resentment were near the boiling point amongst the Black people of Vicksburg, who had seen very little meaningful change after a century of white supremacist control and over a decade of civil rights complaints. Now, the Black gloves are about to come off and all the white people of the city would be held responsible for their collective crimes against Black people.
“You cannot rape our babies and spend our money, too,” advocates of a citywide boycott announced in their new publication, The Black News, in early March.
By March 23, 1972, a month after the alleged rape of the child referred to as “Baby Doreen W…” an economic boycott like none seen anywhere else in Mississippi up to that point had started in Vicksburg.
News media across the country covered the boycott action as it went on week after week. At the head of the pack, the Washington Post assigned reporter Austin Scott to do a full analysis of the troubles in Vicksburg.
“Even Blacks who do not agree with the boycott say it has been as much 90 percent effective,” Scottsaid in his Post dispatch of May 28, three months after the boycott began.
“The boycott sponsors say they want change in almost all areas of Vicksburg life,” he wrote. “Merchants say they are hurting. Many say they’re also hurt by their inability to understand a boycott against them with grievances that are aimed mainly at city government.”
The demand was for more Blacks in city jobs, a police review board, serious disciplining of racially-abusive police and judges, a Black majority school board, and white-collar jobs in banks and downtown stores.
The boycott was very effective in its economic impact. Merchants, nearly all whites in the downtown business district, all felt the drop-off of at least 40 percent in revenue.
“There’s nothing the merchants can do about it,” one of the store owners told the reporter. “It’s a political matter.”
The front-line boycott leadership, all under 30, were Attorney James Winfield of Vicksburg (now deceased) and Rev. Eddie McBride, born in Vicksburg but raised in North Chicago, a protégé of both Jesse Jackson of Chicago and Charles Evers, then mayor of Fayette. The third under-30 leader was the Rev. Charles K. Chiplin (also deceased), a one-time child music prodigy and civil rights activist as early as his junior-high school years.
An older set of community leaders also came into the fold and remained there for the duration. Among these were schoolteacher Frank Crump; longtime activist and business owner Eddie Thomas; James K. Chiplin, father of Charles; and blind plumber and businessman Tommy Williams.
A leader in a class by himself was Albert “Bouncer” Johnson.
Johnson was referred to by some in the movement as the “enforcer.” As a member of the second line of the leadership, he regularly confronted Black shoppers who ignored the call to stay out of the white-owned businesses. He was among the first group arrested. Winfield, as the attorney for Johnson and other members of the protest group, said he fought to have the cases moved to federal court to allow his clients a fair trial.
Jessie Chiplin Wright, sister of boycott leader Charles Chiplin, recalls her amazement at the effectiveness of the boycott and the quality of the discipline that kept it within civil boundaries, and Bouncer’s role in the operation’s success.
“I was in college at Tennessee State at the time and came home on the weekends,” Wright said in a phone interview Monday. “The great majority in the African American community embraced the boycott. I was really impressed at the level of discipline and cooperative spirit that was everywhere. To do their shopping, the people formed caravans and they would go out of town and buy their food in Jackson, Tallulah, or Port Gibson. The majority of the people did just that. But there were some with little brains who went into the stores anyway, out of defiance. But Bouncer would be there to confront them. So, then they had to turn around. You have to put a little power to things when you’re trying to make your point. And so Bouncer and a few others did that to make their point.”
Black Civil Rights Attorney James Winfield, a native of Vicksburg and former law partner of NAACP Attorney R. Jess Brown, was perhaps the most important figure in energizing the boycott. Winfield, having heard of the dismissal of all serious charges against the white offender, was able to recruit McBride, a close ally of Charles Evers and the successful leader of a protest action against Sears in Jackson, to develop a plan of action for a highly-excited local Black community. A series of meetings with the newly formed Concerned Citizens of Vicksburg kept the level of enthusiasm high. By March 23, a month after the offending incident, the community was ready for action.
“I just happened to be in Vicksburg and met with Winfield,” McBride said in a recent interview. “We went to NAACP President Levi Brown and Frank Summers, founder-chairman of the Warren County Improvement Association, and met the mother of the little girl and asked them what they were going to do about the situation.
“Brown and Summers said they had told the girl’s mother to contact them if she needed their help. But she never went back to them,” McBride said.
“We talked to the community and found they wanted to confront the local authorities. So, we again asked Brown and Summers and others if they would call a meeting and bring the issue to the people. We pushed them to have a meeting, and I remember Brown at that meeting asking why don’t we have a vote. It was not to be a real vote, but just a straw vote to see how many people there would want to support a boycott. Everybody raised their hands except Summers and Brown. And they said we will bring it up at our next meeting.”
From that point in March 1972, the public call for justice kept growing without waning.
“Every night you’d see from 300 to 500 Black folks together, and children, too,” one of the participants told Scott, the Washington Post reporter.
“For weeks those meetings have filled the churches and gymnasiums with the tinkling sound of gospel piano and messages from God and the boycott committee,” he wrote. “They move to a different location every week, hopping around town to give all Black citizens a chance to come.”
Scott was able to interview McBride while the boycott was at its highest level of public support.
“It took a long time for Vicksburg to wake up,” McBride had said at one of the meetings Scott attended. “The white man does not want to go into summer with the boycott on. Had the boycott been 100 percent effective, we would have gotten some action by now. The reason the boycott has been on so long is because of Uncle Toms going in the stores. As long as they see 5-10-15 percent Black folks in the stores, they think things are going back to normal.”
NAACP President Brown, who had been opposed to the boycott from the start, resigned his position effective May 5, 1972 after the majority of the organization supported a list of 12 demands the boycotters planned to submit to the mayor and board of aldermen. NAACP vice-president Charlie Steel took up the leadership role and presented the list to City Hall.
The list of demands were: 1) The hiring of 10 Black firemen; 2) hire 5 additional Black police and fire Clyde Harris, one of the first three Blacks on the force; 3) impeachment of Judge Oscar LaBarre, the judge who absolved the white man of rape charges; 4) hire at least 50 percent Black teachers and staff in schools; 5 & 6) hire 40 percent Black staff for City Hall and the public library; 7) free all the arrested boycotters on their own recognizance; 8) appoint 50 percent Blacks to civil service board; 9) appoint 3 Black members to 5-member school board; 10) list streets to be paved and improve the worst first; 11) appoint majority Black to housing authority board; and 12) cease and desist from thwarting Black community self-determination and respect leaders chosen by the Black community.
The Jackson Daily News reported on May 26 that court hearings were being set for a number of boycott participants arrested over the previous two weekends.
At least 64 of the boycotters had been arrested. Among those, 41 adults were held in lieu of $5,000 bond each. And 23 juveniles were arrested but subsequently were released to the custody of their parents, the Vicksburg Evening Post reported on May 18, 1972.
The Black working mothers of Vicksburg made up the most notable group of protesters arrested. Arrests made in early May were so overwhelmingly female that some of the boycott participants jokingly called it “the Mother’s Day Massacre.” At least 40 of arrestees were mothers and bail was initially set at $5,000 each. It was lowered to $1,500 after a lawyer’s challenge. The protest organizers were successful in obtaining enough property bonds to release all of them from jail the day after Mother’s Day 1972.
Patsy Lewis Gibbs, a retired educator and the sister of the late Attorney Winfield, says the boycott made a lasting impact on the lives and careers of most Black people living in Vicksburg at the time.
“I think there was a positive outcome, because the boycott turned a lot of things around,” she said Tuesday. “But now a different set of Black leaders has come to town and flipped it right back into the white man’s hands. So, we’re seeing a repeat of things that happened yesterday. There was a massacre of Black people in Vicksburg years ago. They invited white men to come from West Monroe to do their dirty work. They came in here and killed off a lot of Black folk. Mississippi is known for bringing in outsiders to keep Black folk in their places. At the time of the 1972 boycott, they probably thought they could do it again. But it was a new day. To my knowledge, they didn’t bring in anybody to any extent that they were able to kill the people.”
Jessie Wright speaks of her father’s dedication to bringing a positive change for the Black people of Vicksburg that began many years before the 1972 boycott.
“My father was fired from Vicksburg Plate Glass Company in 1957 because he signed a petition to get better Black schools,” she said. “His employer told him he was a good worker and was responsible for the success of his business, but the white leaders were telling him that it wouldn’t be good for his business if he didn’t let my father go unless he took his name off that petition. So, my dad said, you’ll just have to fire me.”
The patriarch of the Chiplin family was fired but went on to establish his own glass business and a number of other businesses that helped to sustain Vicksburg’s Black community for the duration of the boycott and for many years after.
Today, 50 years later, Vicksburg has a 60 percent Black majority population, with a Black mayor, a Black female police chief and city judge, along with two Black members of the Vicksburg-Warren Board of Education.