The Black Armies of Mississippi

Willie Causey Jr. with gun during violence in Alabama, Shady Grove Alabama, 1956 Gordon Parks
Willie Causey Jr. with gun during violence in Alabama, Shady Grove Alabama, 1956
Gordon Parks

 

The more the White terrorists did to us, the meaner we got.”

Winson Hudson,

Once, they called Harmony Mississippi the Lion’s Mouth. If the KKK ever decided to raid that little Black haven in Leake County Mississippi, they might not ever make it out again.
Harmony was a Haven Community. I mentioned it briefly when I wondered out loud if it was time for the New Deacons for Defense and Justice. In that post I dropped, casually, that the Deacons would take the protesters to Haven Communities at night.

Well, Harmony was one such Haven Community. It was a place where hundreds of Black families owned farms that bordered each other. They weren’t beholden to white farmers or merchants, and that independence gave them strength, even during the height of Jim Crow.

The men would safeguard their women from rape, which was a common, though unspoken sin of Jim Crow. Just as Black men lived with the threat of the rope, women lived under the constant threat of sexual assault. In fact, it was the rape of Recy Taylor by seven white men that galvanized Rosa Parks into the powerful activist that would later spark the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.

Recy Taylor and family, 1944
Recy Taylor and family, 1944

Taylor was a 24-year-old mother. A sharecropper in Abbeville Alabama who was walking home from Rock Hill Holiness Church late at night with three friends, when a beat up old Chevy pulled to a stop beside them. Four young, armed white men got out. One of them was had a shotgun.

Contemporary coverage of Taylor's attack
Contemporary coverage of Taylor’s attack

They accused her of cutting another young man with a knife, and said they were taking her to the sherif. At that point it didn’t matter. It wasn’t their lie that made her get into the car. It was the gun.

By the end of the night, each had taken turns with her, leaving her in a field the next morning. Because of Rosa Parks, the men were brought to trial. None of them were convicted.

Such incidents were common. The men of Harmony were determined to either stop them from happening, or get their own justice if it did.

The men from Harmony were well armed and organized. They took turns with an armed watch, using car horns and lights to signal when a stranger was entering the town. Those signals changed periodically.

Husbands and wives would take turns sleeping, to ensure that someone was always on the lookout.

The book, We Will Shoot Back recalled one incident where a white vigilantes almost didn’t return from the Lion’s Mouth. The white vigilantes had been harassing the residents of Harmony by placing bombs in their mailboxes. Resident and NAACP activist, Dovie Hudson called her boys….

‘One got one gun and one got the other one.’… and as the car got ready to put the bomb in Hudson’s mailbox, ‘My boys started shooting. They just lined that car with bullets, up and down.’

Civil Rights Volunteer Von Hoffman stayed in Harmony as during the movement. He commented, “It’s dangerous to drive off of the paved highway into Harmony after sundown, if your car is unfamiliar there.”

James Meredith was shot as he tried to integrate Old Miss during Freedom Summer.
James Meredith was shot as he tried to integrate Old Miss during Freedom Summer.

Harmony’s relationship to the civil rights movement began with a visit from Medgar Evers, then field secretary for the Mississippi branch of the NAACP. Evers, himself a WWII veteran who had fought in the Battle of Normandy, was often armed and proactive about security.

Although he had come in the late 50’s to help organize them, he quickly came to appreciate their ability to protect Evers and the other activists, despite growing threats to their.

Harmony wasn’t the only Haven Town. They dotted Mississippi, and could probably be found throughout the South. Whenever we had the means to protect ourselves, we did.

Just as the Southern Freedom Movement couldn’t have succeeded without the vigilance of the Deacons for Defense, the Deacons couldn’t have been effective without the men and women from the Haven Communities.

 

 

 

 

 

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