The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1966 visit to Sunflower County (2024)

Editor’s note: This article was written by Bryan Davis, publisher of The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper in Indianola. It first published on June 21 and is republished below with permission. Click here to read the story on The Enterpise-Tocsin’s website.

It all happened on a dirt pile, on a construction site.

That was not the typical pulpit for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but on June 21, 1966, on the grounds of the Sunflower County Courthouse, that would have to do.

King arrived in Indianola that afternoon with little fanfare. There was no stage or speaker system set up outside of the courthouse.

The crowd was thin by the standards of most of King’s speeches.That didn’t matter.The famed Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner was going to say what he came to say.

About 450 people, mostly local Black citizens, gathered to hear him speak. And what a speech it was.

King’s stop in Indianola probably would never have happened had it not been for James Meredith being shot on the second day of his famed March Against Fear earlier that month. That prompted King and other Civil Rights leaders to come to the state to finish the march.

His speech in Indianola has long been relegated to the footnotes of history, but the words spoken on the courthouse grounds that day may have revealed one of King’s more vulnerable moments.

Indianola resident and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Field Secretary Charles McLaurin told The Enterprise-Tocsin that the march was originally intended to route straight down Highway 51 from Memphis to Jackson, but voting rights hero and Ruleville native Fannie Lou Hamer asked McLaurin to travel to Grenada to ask King and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael to divert into the Delta.

“She said, ‘We got fear here too,’” McLaurin recounted.

King was fighting wars on multiple fronts during the summer of 1966.His primary focus was no longer on the segregationist South.He was spending a lot of time in larger northern cities like Chicago, fighting for equal and affordable housing rights.

After Meredith was shot, he agreed to join the march, and he was often back-and-forth that summer between places like Chicago, Atlanta and Mississippi.

In his own circle, there was intense infighting about the “Black Power” slogan that was becoming more popular during SNCC rallies.

King vehemently opposed the Black Power movement, so much so that he returned to Mississippi on multiple occasions that summer in order to squash momentum from that side and to promote nonviolence.

By the morning of June 21, 1966, King was back in Mississippi.

That day, the March Against Fear splintered off into two groups. The main cluster of marchers pushed on from the hot, dusty Delta town of Louise toward Yazoo City.

A smaller contingency, led by King, flew to Meridian, with hopes of arriving later that day in Philadelphia to help locals there pay tribute to Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, three Civil Rights workers who had been murdered exactly two years before in Neshoba County.

King would attend three rallies that day.One of those was in Philadelphia. The second was in Indianola. The third was in Yazoo City.

Local white leaders in Indianola and Yazoo City, many involved in the White Citizens Council, warned away counter protesters in an effort to keep the peace.

White leadership in Philadelphia and Neshoba County did not seem quite as worried about negative publicity, and many seemed to revel in the violence that followed.

The events that unfolded in Philadelphia had an immediate impact on King, and when he arrived in Indianola to speak later that day, he was fired up.

“Hatred is running very deep there,” King said of Philadelphia, according to an article in the Delta Democrat-Times the next day. “Something is going to have to be done about it.”

King vented in Indianola, and he left out no one, including state, local and federal policing agencies, as well as Sunflower County’s own Senator James O. Eastland.

“We have to get rid of Eastland if the Civil Rights movement is to go forward,” the Clarion Ledger reported King as saying at the Sunflower County Courthouse.

On June 22, 1966, accounts of King’s speech in Indianola flooded most of the nation’s newspapers. Many of those accounts were on the front pages of those papers.

By nightfall on June 21, King was in Yazoo City, his attention diverted somewhat from Philadelphia back to the Black Power movement. His tone was much more collected than it had been in Indianola.

King and the marchers left Yazoo City and traveled down Highway 16 toward Canton. A historical marker on the grounds of the American Methodist Episcopal Church in Benton commemorates King’s brief stop there along the way.

There is no such marker at the courthouse in Sunflower County.

On June 23, 1966, in Canton, marchers made national headlines again when they were teargassed by law enforcement when they tried to pitch camp on the grounds of a local public school.

Meredith would recover from his gunshot wound, and he returned to the march the day before things ended in Jackson on June 26, 1966.

King and the movement moved on, and his stop in Indianola soon faded into history.

The Road to Indianola

The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1966 visit to Sunflower County (1)

By the summer of 1966, Charles McLaurin had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a field secretary, and the Indianola resident also had embraced the notion of Black Power.

“Dr. King espoused nonviolence. Stokely never did. None of us did, especially the Mississippians,” McLaurin said. “We made a pledge to support nonviolence as a technique for change. That was a commitment. They made commitments, and Stokely often bumped heads with King about nonviolence and turning the other cheek.”

McLaurin, a Hinds County native, came to Ruleville in northern Sunflower County in 1962, and he would later play a pivotal role during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Trained by the late Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, McLaurin was on the bus ride with Fannie Lou Hamer and others that drove from Ruleville to the Sunflower County Courthouse in 1962 to attempt voter registration.

Like many other Civil Rights workers during that time, McLaurin was beaten on multiple occasions, his life was threatened, and he was arrested over 30 times.

It’s not surprising that by 1966 McLaurin had grown weary of King’s more tempered approach to change.

“Basically, we were all after freedom, it was just a matter of the approach we used in the community to organize,” McLaurin said.

Black Power did not necessarily mean violence, McLaurin said, but it scared whites and Blacks just the same.

“We knew the minute they were able to attach violence to us, we were all dead,” McLaurin said. “They’d shoot us all tomorrow.”

King was often visibly frustrated with Carmichael’s aggressive slogan, but the two remained close, photographed shoulder-to-shoulder, talking and smiling during the march that summer.

“They were often together,” McLaurin said. “They weren’t enemies. I disagreed with some of the things we did. I realized the ultimate goal was to free all of us.”

But things had come to a head at Broad Street Park in Greenwood on the evening of June 16, 1966.

King was not in the state that day, and when Carmichael and other organizers attempted to pitch tents on the grounds of a public school there, Carmichael and two others were arrested.

“Once we got back and Stokely was in jail, we made up our minds to stay in Greenwood, even if they killed everybody,” McLaurin said.

When he came out of the jail and onto the stage that night, Carmichael threw down the gauntlet.

“We been saying freedom for six years, and we ain’t got nothin’,” he said. “What we got to start saying now is Black Power! We want Black Power!”

That speech immediately received national attention, King, who was in Chicago that day, included.

It wasn’t long before he rejoined the March Against Fear to offer support to the marchers.

It was also an attempt to quell the uprising within his own movement and to reassure whites and Blacks in the South that he was committed to nonviolence.

Five days later, while the main march pushed toward Yazoo City, King was drawn to Philadelphia for the memorial service for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

Philadelphia was by no means a “City of Brotherly Love” that day.

The violence that erupted there sparked national coverage, with photographs and stories on the front pages of many newspapers, including The Ithaca Journal in New York and the Decatur Herald in Illinois.

“This is a terrible town,” King said of Philadelphia, according to an Associated Press report in the Decatur paper. “The worst I’ve seen. There is a complete reign of terror here.”

Mourners of the three Civil Rights workers were met with jeers, taunts and even some violence from about 400 whites.

“I think this is by far the worst situation I’ve ever been in,” King was reported as saying in a Sacramento Bee article. “This is a complete climate of terror and breakdown of law and order.”

Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey had left town ahead of the rally, leaving in charge Deputy Cecil Price, the man who had arrested Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney two years earlier and was at the time awaiting trial on federal civil rights charges related to the three murders, according to Aram Goudsouzian’s book Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Meredith March Against Fear.

Any additional law enforcement manpower, state or federal, seemed unwelcomed by Price and the local deputies and policemen, according to the accounts in Goudsouzian’s book.

Price attempted to block King from walking up the courthouse steps there.

“I’m not afraid of any man,” King said, according to newspaper reports. “Before I will be a slave, I will be dead in my grave.”

Several white men shouted, “We’ll help you” in response to that statement.Whites continued their taunts and threw cherry bombs, one right at King’s feet.

“Men with hatred on their faces, who want to turn this country backward,” King said during his discourse at the Neshoba courthouse, according to the Clarion Ledger.

“Negroes were stoned in Philadelphia during the day as they marched to the downtown area from a church a mile away,” the Clarion Ledger article said. “One man was clubbed.”

A pair of cameramen were “manhandled” and their equipment “smashed.”

“White youths, wielding ax handles and hoes, grabbed Negroes in the line of march and started fights that were broken up by police,” the article continued.

“King, head of the Southern (Christian) Leadership Conference, didn’t flinch when a cherry bomb exploded loudly at his feet,” the Mississippi paper described. “He said afterward he considered Philadelphia ‘By far the toughest town we have been in’…He told newsmen he would ask for federal protection in the town, because he intended to return.”

The worst violence happened after King departed, when groups of whites repeatedly exchanged gunfire with members of the Freedom Democratic Party after dark, resulting in one of the white men being shot but not killed.

According to reports, three carloads of white men drove “into a Negro neighborhood at Philadelphia at 9:30 p.m.,” and that is when the gunfire started.

By that time, King had come and gone from Indianola, and he was in Yazoo City, getting ready to start the final leg of the Meredith March Against Fear.

King’s Arrival inSunflower County

When King left Philadelphia, he flew to Sunflower County, lagging the larger group of Meredith marchers, who had arrived in Yazoo City earlier that day.

Prior to King’s arrival here, Hamer had led a morning rally from the town of Sunflower down Highway 49 toward Indianola.

“During a rest just north of the Sunflower River Bridge, march leader Fannie Lou Hamer said that, ‘In addition to the charges on the placards, the protest was against alleged police brutality and voter intimidation,’” an article in the DD-T said.

Meanwhile, Indianola police were preparing for the worst, warning whites to steer clear of the marchers and King’s speech.

“Indianola police at noon were preparing to handle crowds of up to several hundred here today after Negro leader Martin Luther King scheduled two civil rights speeches inside the city limits,” the same DD-T report said.

Originally, King was slated to give his afternoon speech at the courthouse, which was to be followed by an evening speech at Saint Benedict the Moor. The latter never happened.

Police had roadblocks prepared for downtown Indianola, the article said, while then-Chief of Police Bryce Alexander told the DD-T that about 30 law enforcement personnel were going to be on hand to prevent incidents like the ones King had encountered earlier in Neshoba County, although it is likely the Indianola authorities knew few details about the Philadelphia rally at that point.

“We aren’t anticipating any trouble here,” Alexander told the paper. “Our responsibility will begin as soon as the marchers enter the city limits. You have to be prepared in case somebody gets a few drinks in him.”

McLaurin said that he met King at the city limits on Highway 82 East.

Hamer, who had originally requested King’s presence in the Delta, had to leave before King had arrived, McLaurin said.

McLaurin escorted King and others into Indianola to the courthouse grounds.

Sunflower County was in the process of building a new courthouse during the summer of 1966, and there were few places on the property that seemed appropriate for a speech.

“There was a mound of dirt,” McLaurin said.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was the right elevation for a speech.

“Dr. King and I stood on a mound of dirt right there, and he spoke,” McLaurin said.

McLaurin’s role in the movement had evolved since Freedom Summer in 1964, but he was still very familiar with Sunflower County and the late Sheriff Bill Hollowell.

The two had formed a bond the previous four years, and they had a good working relationship.

Hollowell, like many others here, did not want to expose the county to negative press, so he would often lend protection to Civil Rights workers, McLaurin said.

On this occasion, he even allowed McLaurin to have use of the Sunflower County Civil Defense bullhorn. McLaurin and King stood atop the dirt pile on the west side of the courthouse, facing Court Street.

McLaurin said that he held the bullhorn while King vented about Philadelphia, vowing to return to that town as soon as possible.

Before long, McLaurin said, the few whites who had shown up for King’s rally were irate about the fact that King had access to the county’s bullhorn.Hollowell, he said, had to act just as indignant about it.

“He loaned me that civil defense bullhorn, and then he was back in there yelling, like I had taken it from him,” McLaurin said with a chuckle. “But I knew what he was doing, because he was around all of these white people.”

McLaurin said that he and Hollowell later had a laugh over the bullhorn incident.

Jim Pullen was one of just a handful of white people who witnessed King’s speech that day.A teenager at the time, Pullen said that he understood the significance of King’s arrival.

“He was doing a great thing and doing a great job at it,” Pullen told The E-T in an interview.

Pullen said that he worked afternoons at his stepfather’s furniture store on Court Street.

“That particular morning, the (Black) man who worked for my daddy had gotten a pretty good head of knowledge about it,” Pullen said. “He said, ‘Martin Luther King is supposed to come here today.’”

The two made a trip to a nearby store and bought snacks for the occasion.

“We went to one of the Chinese grocery stores on Second Street and got us some sardines, crackers and red soda pop,” Pullen said. “We got up in the window, and we waited for the excitement. Sure enough, there comes the crowd.”

The two positioned themselves in the store’s upper room, waiting for the main attraction.

“We got up in one of those windows,” Pullen said. “My daddy, and the other man, the white man who worked for my daddy, they’d be downstairs, and they wouldn’t be paying much attention to it at all. We thought if we get away upstairs, number one, they won’t find us. They won’t climb the steps and be coming around looking for us.”

Pullen still remembers nearly six decades later King standing on that elevated soil.

“There was a big pile of dirt they had piled up over to the front right of (the courthouse),” he said. “That’s where Dr. King found a place where he could get up and he could be seen. He gave a speech, but of course I can’t recount all of what he might have said.”

King was still visibly frustrated about Philadelphia when he climbed atop that mound.

He claimed that state, federal and local police not only “stood by” and watched the Neshoba violence unfold, but that some law enforcement officers “actually encouraged” attacks on marchers.

He not only attacked the police in Philadelphia and then-Senator Eastland, but he roasted the mayor of Ruleville as well, according to newspaper reports.

Of Eastland, King urged those in attendance to work toward replacing the senior senator, the Clarion Ledger said, if not during the 1966 election cycle, then perhaps the next one.

“We’re not seeking to destroy the white people of Mississippi,” King said, according to a June 22 DD-T article. “We’re only seeking to make them better people.”

The DD-T quoted King in Indianola as also suggesting “joining hands with my white brothers” for the progress of the state and the South.

Unlike in Philadelphia that day, the DD-T described the crowd at the Sunflower County Courthouse as being “closely guarded by county, state and Justice Department law enforcement officials.”

“All of the officials involved seemed determined to prevent any incidents which would reflect on the image of the area,” the article said. “Hecklers and shouts of derision from spectators were non-existent.”

The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1966 visit to Sunflower County (2)

Eastland’s campaign would later use King’s words in Indianola in a fall statewide newspaper ad.

“Who says ‘defeat Jim Eastland?’” the ad read, with photos below of admitted communist Phil Lapansky and King. Below King’s photo, the Indianola quote, “We have to get rid of Jim Eastland if the Civil Rights movement is to go forward.”

Still shaken from the Philadelphia debacle, King became convinced in Indianola that the Meredith March should divert to Meridian and then to Philadelphia, according to newspaper reports.

National Director of the Congress for Racial Equality Floyd B. McKissick said in Indianola that a large segment of the march should have been diverted back to Neshoba County that week, according to the June 22, 1966 New York Times.

King agreed to that.

“We will use all our nonviolent might,” King was quoted as saying.He then lashed out again at Philadelphia.

“We got to go back – it’s the meanest town in the country,” The Times reported as King saying during a strategy session with other civil rights leaders in Indianola. “If they get by with what they did today, Negroes will be scared to death.”

McKissick agreed, according to The Times, saying, “We can’t take this lying down.”

The Times reported that McKissick suggested that the Meredith marchers be divided into two parts, “One going by truck to Meridian for a 41-mile march from there into Philadelphia along Route 19. The remaining marching column would continue on its way to Jackson by way of Canton.”

“Sounds good,” King said in The Times.

Like other press who had been present in Indianola on June 21, The Times reported zero violent incidents.The paper reported that about 350 Black people showed up for the rally, along with over 100 white people.The Times reported that many Blacks in the crowd started to chant “Black Power.”

“But when the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, one of Dr. King’s top aides arrived at the rally, he also asked Negroes what they wanted,” The Times said. “When some yelled ‘black power,’ he commanded, ‘Say freedom.’”

“Freedom,” the negroes shouted, according to The Times. When the rally ended, the crowd dispersed.

“Police officials in this deep-Delta city said today that Negro leader Martin Luther King had left for Yazoo City without a single reported incident of violence,” the DD-T reported on June 22.

Although a large group of King supporters gathered at Saint Benedict the Moor later that evening to hear King, he had already left town, arriving in Yazoo City, and by that time, ready to once again engage in fierce debate against the Black Power slogan.

King rededicated himself there to nonviolence and publicly denounced the new Black Power movement.

“Violence may bring about a temporary victory, but it can never bring about permanent peace,” King said in Yazoo, according to one newspaper report. “If we don’t use black power right, we will have black men with power who are just as evil as whites.”

While the nation’s press reported in detail the contents of King’s speech in Indianola, this newspaper had little to say about it, other than a front-page editor’s note by then-editor Wallace Dabbs.

Dabbs at first was snarky, making what seems to have been a deliberate attempt to not mention King’s name in the article.

“The march brought out one important fact which all serious-minded people (in) this area should be aware of,” Dabbs wrote. “The fact is this: A person can walk to Sunflower faster than a letter can be mailed from Indianola to Sunflower. And it is also a fact that by walking the walker will arrive some 24 or so more hours sooner than the letter. This, of course, is not a slam at the Indianola postal employees. It’s just that mail mailed in Indianola has to go around the Delta twice before it heads north on 49. Ah – progress our most important product – zip code and all.”

After the flip comment, Dabbs went on to praise the whites in Indianola for not being violent during the march.

“Seriously, the people of Indianola and Sunflower County can be proud of the way they conducted themselves during the trying Tuesday,” the editor said. “(Through) efforts of local leaders and able law officers, a much undesired element of people were allowed to come in and put on a dubious show. It could have been the other way around. It could have easily turned into an incident of which the flavor could have lingered here for days and weeks to come. But it didn’t happen that way. And two bodies of officers, the Sunflower County Sheriff’s Department under the direction of Sheriff Bill Hollowell, and the Indianola Police department, under the direction of Police Chief Bryce Alexander, deserve a round of applause.”

There are few other accounts of King’s speech in Indianola.

The rally drew about half the crowd as the one in Philadelphia. First-hand stories are limited.The splintered nature of the Meredith March that day had divided the press corps between Philadelphia and Yazoo City.

Most of what is known about the content of the speech comes from the Clarion Ledger, The Delta Democrat-Times, The New York Times and the wire news service reporters who were present.

No known photographs, television film or audio exist of King during his visit to Indianola. The speech is rarely spoken of in Civil Rights documentaries, perhaps overshadowed by the larger story in Neshoba County that day.

On a day when one of the world’s most revered peacemakers was fighting wars on multiple fronts, one against the Klan in Philadelphia, and another against the Black Power movement in his own organization, Martin Luther King Jr. needed a quiet place to vent, calm down and regroup for the next battle.

That venue was a humble pile of dirt in downtown Indianola.

The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1966 visit to Sunflower County (3)

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The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1966 visit to Sunflower County (2024)
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