I spent this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at a program sponsored by the Action, Communication and Education Reform organization in Duck Hill, Mississippi. It was a typical program that has come to be synonymous with festivities in many communities across the country to celebrate the day; there was a short march that concluded at the Binford Chapel United Methodist Church in the town, where a short program celebrated the civil rights legend.
Like most other people, I have a profound respect for Dr. King’s commitment, hard work and his ultimate sacrifice to bring about better conditions for me. But I have long said that while Dr. King and other leaders provided the direction, it was the commitment of the grassroots foot soldiers who really made the difference in forcing America to recognize the painful wounds of racism. It was the committed domestic workers who refused to ride the buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was the students who dared sit at segregated lunch counters. It was the brave, unknown citizens of Mississippi who dared register to vote. Yes, it was the work of these unknown soldiers who really made the difference. I’m always eager to hear the stories of these people whose names will never appear in history books. In a small effort to tell their stories, I’m committing to a project to find them and document what they have to say about their experiences.
One such soldier is the Rev. Willie Blue, who was the keynote speaker at the King program in Duck Hill. Blue spoke about returning to Mississippi after serving in the U.S. Navy, only to find it worst than when he left. He said that he was expected to return to working in the cotton fields for less than he was making from his unemployment compensation. Blue, however, who had traveled the world through the military, refused to return to such a life and had no problem expressing his feelings to those white people who tried to make him do so. His defiant attitude made some family members fear for his safety and he was encouraged to leave before he got into trouble. A lady from the NAACP told him that the Freedom Riders were in Greenwood, Mississippi and that he should join them.
Blue took her advice and joined activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Greenwood. He said that when he first met the workers, they were trying to figure out how to pick up Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte from the airport. Poitier and Belafonte would bring money into Mississippi to support the efforts of SNCC, because mailing it was too risky. Blue volunteered to drive one of the cars in the caravan.
While leaving the airport, Blue noticed that they were being followed by a truck carrying three white men with guns. Blue’s job was to follow the car carrying Poitier and Belafonte and prevent any other vehicles from driving alongside them. SNCC leader Bob Moses had been shot earlier when a car drove alongside his vehicle and fired inside, striking him and another SNCC activist. Blue said that the truck following them also tried this tactic, but he wouldn’t allow them to get past him. They rammed his vehicle several times in the effort, but, as he proudly proclaimed, “they didn’t get past me.”
Blue has spent his life working for civil rights in Mississippi and Chicago and now pastors a church in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m sure that his experiences of that night and many others, are some of many of thousands that may never be known. I hope to capture at least a few of these stories by these brave foot soldiers to whom I owe a great debt for the freedoms I now enjoy.