Movement Leaders Institutionalize Their Work: Taking on Civil Rights Causes Beyond the Right to Vote
In 1961, a dispute among the League members about the fairness of the distribution of money, food and clothing donated to it, resulted in the group dividing and the formation of a second organization, The Original Fayette County Civic and Welfare League, Inc. (referred to hereinafter as the “League”). John McFerren, Viola McFerren, John Lewis, Levearn Towles, Noah McFerren, Shephard Towles, Roy Brown and Reverend June Dowdy were the incorporators of the League. The League entered the 1960s with an urgent civil rights agenda: to increase voter registration, elect officials responsible to the community, improve the welfare of blacks through education and training, and dismantle barriers that prevented blacks access to credit and decent employment.
As early as the 1960s, the League began receiving support from organizations and people from outside the State. Reverend Maurice McCrackin and Virgie Hortenstine from Operation Freedom in Cincinnati, Ohio, raised money through their organization and extended loans to blacks who had been denied credit or faced hardship because they registered to vote.
A Newsletter is Born
In 1960, Charlie Butts, a white student from Oberlin College, came to Fayette County and worked with the League’s secretary, Minnie H. Jameson, to teach her to type and to operate a mimeograph machine. Minnie Jameson and Butts worked together to produce the League’s newsletter, The League Link, which carried news to the black community about demonstration marches, voter registration, and other activities.
|The League Link Newsletter, Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries|
Despite the fear of Movement leaders and others that the church might be burned by whites for allowing such meetings, Mt. Olive M.B. Church in Somerville, Tennessee, allowed the League to use their building to hold mass meetings with the community. Although appreciative of the church’s graciousness, the League resolved to have a place of its own, and in 1962 it purchased 2 acres of land (later adding 2 additional acres) on Old Macon Rd (now Hwy 195) for the construction of a building called the Community Center.
A New Building, New Programs and Initiatives
Raising money to pay for the land and the construction of the building proved a formidable task given the fact that the black community had few financial resources for daily living, let alone construction. Nevertheless, construction was funded by local and national monetary donations and the donation of labor by local people and college students. In March 1963, Cornell college students, led by faculty advisor, Professor Doug Dowd, drove to Fayette County and brought money to help with, among other things, the construction of the Community Center.
|Adult Education Class, League Building c. 19XX?|
Supporting Political Candidates
In 1964, students from Cornell University spent much of the summer working with the League to support the election of two candidates, Reverend June Dowdy, a black man, for Tax Assessor and L.T. Redfearn, a white man, for Sheriff.
|Voting leaflets for Dowdy and Redfearn, 1964|
Although the black community believed that election irregularities resulted in their candidates losing the election, they were not deterred in their efforts to change their community, in part, through the ballot box. In March 1965, University of Chicago graduate students drove to Fayette County, performed construction work on the CommunityCenter, and participated in a mass demonstration march with the black community to show their support of black efforts to obtain civil rights. In August 1966, for the first time in Fayette County history, the black community elected six black people – 4 men and 2 women to The Fayette County Quarterly Court (now called The Fayette County Commission), the governing body that decides, among other things, county planning and appropriations.
Movement leaders believed that the disparity in pay between black and white teachers, the physical conditions of schools attended by blacks, and the outdated educational materials used to teach black children deprived them of a quality education. Moreover, Movement leaders believed that Fayette County should comply with the holding of the Supreme Court that found unconstitutional the notion that schools for black and whites could be separate and equal. In July 1965, Avon N. Williams, Jr., a cooperating attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed on behalf of parents, most of whom were League members, a lawsuit to desegregate Fayette County Schools. The McFerrens consented to have John McFerren, Jr. serve as the named plaintiff. The following also consented to join the lawsuit: the families of Houston Malone, Houston Gray, Willie Elsberry, William Henry Ghilchrease, Simon Wilkerson and Sanford Wright.
From 1965 through the 1970s, federal district court judge Robert M. McRae presided over the school desegregation case and approved, among other things, a school desegregation plan to include new school buildings, including a new high school (now located on hwy 57) and the redesign of the educational curriculum. On the same day that the desegregation plan was approved by the court, a private academy was announced to effectively re-segregate the county’s students.
In addition to seeking enforcement of their rights through the federal courts, Movement leaders remained committed to their belief that change must come from within the community and that the black community had to initiate it. Toward that end, throughout the 1960s, Movement leaders, community members, and persons from outside Fayette County held mass demonstration marches to protest physical abuse of blacks by whites, discrimination of blacks in employment, segregated public facilities and denial of civil rights to blacks. League Leaders, including Viola McFerren and Harpman Jameson, were arrested and jailed for their activities.
"Longest Sustained Civil Rights Movement in the Nation"
Indeed, long after other movements had lost their momentum and other communities had turned their attention to other pressing issues, like the Vietnam War, the League’s leadership continued to press the cause for civil rights. In an article published by the New York Times on October 12, 1969, the Fayette County Movement was called the “longest sustained civil rights protest in the nation.”
While the League provided almost the only source of leadership on civil rights, groups comprised of young blacks in their teens and early 20s, emerged in the mid-1960s and took on a role in furthering the civil rights agenda. Some of these youth worked with civil rights workers from other parts of the country who initially came to Fayette County to assist the League. In July 1965, a few Fayette County black youth attended the SNCC Freedom School in Chicago, Illinois where they were taught black history, freedom songs, and protest demonstration tactics. Other black youth, through the media and from speaking with others, observed how other communities throughout the nation challenged the historical disenfranchisement and second-class treatment of African Americans. Some black youth viewed the League’s approach to integration as too methodical and conservative and sought more immediate results. Some black youth and civil rights workers sought immediate integration of public restaurants in Fayette County. A few were severely injured when racists operating those establishments used force to drive home the point that they would resist integration.
In September 1969, black students marched to the all-white high school and demanded to be enrolled. The Fayette County police turned these black protestors away, and many were injured in confrontations with the police. While the League and these other groups did not always agree on the tactics to accomplish their objectives, they agreed on one core principle: the time had come to end the injustices suffered by African Americans.
—Adapted from "The Fayette County, Tennessee Civil Rights Movement" by D. McFerren. Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, 2006.\
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