I Question America: 1963–1964

Freedom Days! Freedom Schools! Freedom Summer! Freedom was the rallying cry of Black Mississippians in 1964 as demands for equal treatment intensified. Local movements matured in 1963 and grew into a coordinated statewide campaign. Coming from large cities and the countryside, people of all ages and experience gathered, working together to demand their right to equality. Most White Mississippians saw the 1964 Summer Project as an invasion of "agitators" and "communists." White determination to silence them grew more desperate and more violent. Mississippi attracted the attention of the nation, and both would be forever changed.

From the Gallery

Explore artifacts, photos, and documents featured in the I Question America gallery.

Savage Beating

Police, charged with enforcing the law, instead often brutalized Black Mississippians, especially those working for civil rights. On June 9, 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, June Johnson, Annelle Ponder, Euvester Simpson, Rosemary Freeman, James West, and others were riding the bus home to Greenwood, returning from an SCLC citizenship workshop. At the Winona bus depot, a few activists tried to integrate Staley’s Café. They were arrested along with others in the group. At the Winona jail, police and coerced Black inmates took them out of their cells one by one and savagely beat them.

When the group did not return, SNCC staff tracked them down. Lawrence Guyot drove to Winona to seek their release and was himself arrested and viciously beaten. Back in Greenwood, SNCC’s Willie Peacock immediately contacted the Justice Department and influential friends in the North to seek help. SNCC also bombarded the Winona jail with calls for Guyot, attempting to save his life by letting the police know they were being monitored. The group spent four days in jail on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest before securing bail.  

Timeline: 1963-1964

Hartman Turnbow’s Home is Bombed

Nonviolence was an effective tactic for activists, but some Black Mississippians armed themselves in self-defense. A month after Hartman Turnbow tried to register at the Lexington courthouse, his family was startled out of their sleep by night riders who hurled Molotov cocktails into their living room and kitchen. Turnbow’s wife and daughter fled while he retrieved his rifle. Turnbow exchanged gunfire with two White men and was able to drive them off. The family escaped injury and put out the fire. One of the night riders was rumored to have died of a heart attack.

Video Tour

McComb - Bombing Capital of the World

For two years after the 1961 murder of Herbert Lee halted SNCC’s activism in McComb, Klan violence kept COFO out. The summer "invasion" of northern activists increasingly agitated local Whites. Police chief George Guy headed the local chapter of the White extremist group Americans for the Preservation of the White Race. Police routinely harassed civil rights workers. One White middle-class neighborhood organized Help, Inc., to defend against presumed COFO attack. The sale of arms, ammunition, and dynamite boomed.

McComb’s Klan Klavern boasted more than 100 members, including J. E. Thornhill, a wealthy oil man with easy access to dynamite. On June 22, 1964, bombings shook three houses, including that of local NAACP leader C. C. Bryant. Over the course of the summer, the Klan bombed more than a dozen Black homes, churches, and businesses in Pike and Amite counties. Blacks posted armed guards at night. McComb Enterprise-Journal editor Oliver Emmerich remarked, "Almost everybody was hysterically afraid."

Points of Light

The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi is full of ordinary men and women who refused to sit silently while their brothers and sisters were denied their basic freedoms. A number of these heroes are featured throughout the museum as Points of Light, shining exemplars of dignity, strength, and perseverance in the face of oppression.

Fannie Lou Hamer - Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01267

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer’s nationally televised testimony at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 beamed her message into America’s living rooms. She challenged party leaders to uphold America’s commitment to equality under the law. In plain language, she talked of getting fired and thrown off a Delta plantation for trying to register to vote. She offered gritty details of her vicious beating by police in the Winona jail in 1963. Hamer was an activist for voting rights and school desegregation. Until her death in 1977, she continued to speak for civil rights and advocate for poor people. 

Rims Barber - MDAH Rims Barber Manuscript Collection, Tougaloo College Civil Rights Collection

Rims Barber

A native of Chicago, Reverend Rims Barber began his journey in the Civil Rights Movement in 1964, when he joined the Freedom Summer effort in Mississippi. After Freedom Summer, Barber stayed in Mississippi working as a community organizer and activist in Canton. He worked for State Representative Robert Clark to “represent the unrepresented” and with the Children’s Defense Fund to desegregate public schools. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, he officiated the first interracial marriage in Mississippi since Reconstruction in 1970. He also officiated commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples before same-sex marriages were legal in Mississippi. 

Explore Mississippi

Many of the homes, colleges, and historic sites discussed in this gallery still exist today. Journey beyond the museum walls and explore the places where history happened.

Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO

COFO Trail MarkerA human and civil rights interdisciplinary education center at Jackson State University

1017 John R. Lynch Street
Jackson, Mississippi

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Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Museum

Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights MuseumMuseum dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights heroes

17150 US HWY 49
Belzoni, Mississippi

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