A Boycott in Mississippi
Speaker 1: Hey, this is Josh Levine, the host of One Year. I hope you’re enjoying our season of 1986. This week, I’m going to turn things over to my Slate colleague, Joel Anderson.
Joel Anderson: In 1985, Reverend Michael Freeman left his small Methodist church for a new assignment 3 hours away. He was moving to a town in the Mississippi Delta. Reverend Freeman assumed it was poor and desolate, like much of Mississippi. But Indianola took him by surprise.
Speaker 3: I mean, I didn’t expect what I experienced. The lady who drove the Jaguar, I was down the street from me.
Joel Anderson: This was an integrated neighborhood.
Speaker 3: And right now this is a black neighborhood.
Joel Anderson: Not everybody was driving a JAG. But in his new neighborhood, Reverend Freeman was surrounded by people who expected to send their kids to college.
Speaker 3: And that’s what Indianola was drawn to become. The town itself, you know, I thought it was a nice place to stay and live.
Joel Anderson: Indianola is a town of 8030 miles east of the Mississippi River, about halfway between Memphis and Jackson. A stream that’s lined with cypress trees runs through the center of town. It’s called the Indian Bayou. That’s where Indianola gets its name. When Reverend Freeman got the town, everyone was getting ready for a celebration. The 100th anniversary of Indianola founding.
Speaker 3: Oh, everybody’s talking about it. I mean, everybody’s excited to see B.B. King.
Joel Anderson: B.B. King was born on a plantation 20 miles away. But he always called Indianola home. And the summer of 1986, the legendary blues guitarist was going to take a break from his world tour to headline The Big Centennial Party.
Speaker 4: Yes, you to have a good thing, man. You’ve got to do what you want to do.
Joel Anderson: On the surface, everything seemed pretty good, full of promise and possibility. But then Reverend Freeman started talking to some local teachers at his church.
Speaker 3: And they would explain that schools are not getting all the books that they need on time. They are not getting new uniforms. So I ask why? I mean, why are you not getting them?
Joel Anderson: Based on what he was hearing. This wasn’t just a matter of underfunding. There were rumors that resources that were supposed to go to the public schools just never got there.
Speaker 5: I just remember people telling me how black principals was asked to sign off on invoices for materials that never showed up in black schools.
Joel Anderson: David Jackson had a child in the public school system.
Speaker 5: We had purchased computers years before we ever got a computer. You know, it was what it was.
Joel Anderson: So where was all this stuff going?
Speaker 5: Maybe I shouldn’t say this because we never was able to prove it. They say it will lead to a lot of the resources. Were the the public schools in L.A. went to the academy.
Joel Anderson: The academy was Indianola Academy, a private school. That’s where almost all of the white students in town went from kindergarten through 12th grade. The public school system was almost entirely black. For Reverend Freeman, all of this was really troubling. Like David Jackson, he had kids in the Indianola public schools.
Speaker 3: I said, well, who’s in charge of the public school? And they would tell me. And I said, That’s not right.
Joel Anderson: The people who ran the public schools, they were almost all white. That was the story all over Indianola. The town was about 60% black. But white men held the positions of mayor, police chief and fire chief.
Speaker 5: All of them with at the same table. Let me say let me put it that way. They played golf together. They went to a club meeting together. Whatever.
Speaker 3: That majority black population that was participating in the system was not in charge of the system. The white power structure had, I guess, implemented the plantation system in a lot of ways.
Joel Anderson: When David Jackson and Reverend Freeman looked at the public school administration, they saw a group that didn’t look like them or represent their interest.
Speaker 3: People who really didn’t have a vested interest in educating black kids control in the educational system. That as a father.
Speaker 5: Without the ability of having a black superintendent and a majority black board, there was no control.
Joel Anderson: Indianola wasn’t so different from a lot of other places. In 1986, all over America, many of the promises of the civil rights era still felt unfulfilled. But what was different about Indianola was what the community did about it.
Speaker 4: A small town in the Mississippi Delta has become the focus of a bitter battle. The old guard does not want to relinquish any of the power that they’ve held there now. And in following and trying to hold on their every little bit they have.
Joel Anderson: A whole lot of people were fed up with how things worked in Indianola, so they took dramatic action using tactics borrowed from the past. People all over America had their eyes on Mississippi. They wanted to know one thing. Who would win the battle for Indianola?
Speaker 6: It ain’t so glamorous now, but we had no way.
Speaker 3: I hadn’t been there long, and now all of a sudden, I’m in the midst of a community uprising.
Speaker 5: I think that old saying it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the straw.
Joel Anderson: This is one year, 1986, a boycott in Mississippi. Separate and unequal schooling was supposedly abolished in America three decades before 1986. But a group from Indianola made sure that didn’t happen.
Speaker 4: If you want to know how integration has been held outside Mississippi for this long, you must first call on the Citizens Council, an organization dedicated to states rights and racial integrity. Support comes from Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and 85,000 living white citizens of Mississippi.
Joel Anderson: The first Citizens Council, sometimes known as the White Citizens Council, was founded in July 1954. That was just two months after the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate and Brown v Board of Education.
Speaker 4: Why? Why should the Negro feel any more discriminated against than a white man for associating with some kind of white people who are segregated don’t seem to resent it.
Speaker 7: What they were mostly known for was using sort of economic. I think terrorism is a fair term for it.
Joel Anderson: Jay Todd Moye is the author of Let the People Decide, a book about the civil rights movement in Indianola and Elsewhere and Sunflower County, Mississippi.
Speaker 7: They would have the town banker call in mortgages. They would have employers threatened to fire employees so that if African-Americans exercised their civil rights, they lost their job. They lost their home. They lost their livelihood.
Joel Anderson: The Citizens Councils expanded in size and influence all over the South. Some people call it the white collar Klan.
Speaker 7: So it’s probably the most effective pro segregation organization that that’s created in this.
Joel Anderson: Period that comes out of Sunflower County, correct? Yeah.
Speaker 7: The first meeting was held in Indianola.
Joel Anderson: Indianola wasn’t just at the vanguard of American white supremacy. It was also a center, a civil rights resistance.
Speaker 4: We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Joel Anderson: Fannie Lou Hamer was raised in Sunflower County and worked on cotton plantations there in the early sixties. She risked her life to register to vote and to get her neighbors registered. We are not.
Speaker 4: Fighting against these people because we hate them, but we are fighting these people because we love them and we have all if they can save them now. And I believe tonight that one day in Mississippi, if I have to die for this, we shall overcome.
Joel Anderson: Black children in Sunflower County grew up amid these civil rights battles when the promises of Brown v Board went unfulfilled. They were the ones who suffered.
Speaker 5: We had a five room school out here in the country. It didn’t have running water. It didn’t have inside plumbing at all.
Joel Anderson: David Jackson grew up north of Indianola in the 1960s. As a kid, he helped his parents pick cotton in the fields.
Speaker 5: I still live on the road that I was born on when I say born on. That’s exactly right. My wife delivered me right down the road on Charley Ellis Plantation, and I live on Charlie Rose Road right now.
Joel Anderson: When David’s country school eventually shut down, he was supposed to go to an all white school nearby.
Speaker 5: It keeps on bringing all of the little black kids from the country to the way school. They just closed it down.
Joel Anderson: Instead, David was bussed to an all black school. Like other segregated schools in the area, it was underfunded and poorly maintained. It was even written up for having no fire extinguishers.
Speaker 5: Separate but equal, they call it, I think. But we know better.
Joel Anderson: In 1976 years after the ruling in Brown v Board, it looked like things were finally about to change. That January, a federal judge told Indianola that segregation was over for real this time.
Speaker 7: They finally said, Enough. Stop coming up with these piecemeal measures. Stop dragging your feet. You have to integrate your schools.
Joel Anderson: The judge said that white kids and black kids in Indianola would have to go to school together right away. But that’s not what happened.
Speaker 7: When that decision came down. White parents just in droves left the public schools almost with the flick of a switch.
Joel Anderson: Indianola. White leaders have been preparing for forced integration. As soon as that federal ruling went into effect, they put their plan into motion.
Speaker 7: And Indianola the way they remembered it was the court decision came down on a Friday and on Monday all of the white kids went to Indianola Academy. It was slightly more complicated than that, but that’s essentially what happened.
Joel Anderson: So many students left that the white public high school shut down in an instant. The composition of Indianola public schools had totally changed, but the people who controlled those schools stayed exactly the same.
Speaker 7: The vast, vast majority of public school students were African-Americans. The majority of teachers and employees were African-Americans. But the leadership was all white.
Joel Anderson: The superintendent of the Indianola school district, D.B. Floyd, had taken over three years before the federal court order.
Speaker 8: And the school board, which was predominantly white, helped convince him to stay and maybe increasing his salary. And they did that over the years.
Joel Anderson: That’s Jim Babbitt. He was the editor of the local newspaper, The Enterprise-Tocsin.
Speaker 8: They wanted their man to be there. That would maybe not push so much for expensive improvements of the public school system.
Joel Anderson: Dr. Floyd stayed in office all through the 1970s and into the eighties. During those years, the public schools got so overcrowded that they risked losing their accreditation. But the school board did nothing to fix the problem. Then there were those rumors that Reverend Michael Freeman heard about money in equipment getting diverted to Indianola Academy.
Speaker 3: If you got a budget and the public school system is not getting the resources, where did you spend the money? They were investing in the school system just when the public school system.
Joel Anderson: It seemed like it was going to stay that way. But in 1985, Jim Abbott’s newspaper got a big scoop. The superintendent had been given a secret raise even as he fought to prevent Indianola teachers from getting salary increases.
Speaker 8: I think it’s so embarrassed him and so he pretty much immediately announced that he was going to retire. And so that set into motion a search for his replacement.
Speaker 3: The school system affected all our families. So I want to see some changes made.
Joel Anderson: Reverend Freeman understood right away that the open superintendent position was a huge opportunity, a chance to change how the system worked.
Speaker 3: Well, it’s simple. Whoever controls the superintendent’s spot controls the money. If you’re in charge of the money, you can direct it in another direction.
Joel Anderson: For a lot of people, there was an obvious choice to fill the superintendent role.
Speaker 5: Rather Mary Robert.
Speaker 8: Merritt.
Speaker 3: Dr. Robert Merritt.
Robert Albert: Yes, my name is Robert Albert. I want to tell you what my philosophy is. Things don’t just happen. You must make them happen. The only place you will find success come in before work is an addiction there.
Joel Anderson: This is from a 1991 interview with Dr. Robert L Merritt. Dr. Merritt had a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a Ph.D. in education administration. He’d been a fixture in the town’s schools for 26 years, helping to mold generations of Indianola ones.
Speaker 5: I was the class clown, you know, and one of the features Sydney to his office and I was petrified.
Joel Anderson: Of the Campbell grew up in Indianola Robert Merritt was a principal.
Speaker 5: He let me wait and he let me sweat. And he finally came in and he sat down and he just begin to talk. Wow. He began to talk to me about young men that were making a very significant contribution in the world.
Joel Anderson: Dr. Merritt inspired OFA with the story of a pastor who’d made himself a pillar of his community. He told OFA that he had that potential, too, so long as he applied himself.
Speaker 5: The tactful ness that he used as an educator and as a father figure. That conversation will be forever etched in my psyche.
Speaker 3: I just thought he was just one of those person that made you feel good to be around as a man.
Joel Anderson: Reverend Freeman threw his support behind Dr. Merritt. And he wasn’t the only one. The school board received more than 1000 letters and signatures promoting his candidacy. The Mississippi School Boards Association was impressed, too. They told the Indianola board that Robert Merritt should be their top candidate. Hiring him would be a historic move.
Speaker 3: It was the first time that they would have had a black superintendent.
Joel Anderson: How much did it matter that Dr. Merritt was black?
Speaker 3: Just a black person would not been a good person to put in that place, but a black person with his credential and his family life. That changes everything. Because then the teachers, the everybody in that system looks up to him.
Joel Anderson: Now, it was up to the nearly all white Indianola school board. The chairman was one of the town’s most powerful people a banker and church deacon named Odell Godwin.
Speaker 8: He was smart. He was well-read. He had an extensive vocabulary.
Joel Anderson: Newspaper editor Jim Abbott.
Speaker 8: Sometimes when he would come into our office, he would he might not say the N-word, but he would say words like monkeys and things like that that were just really kind of shocking for somebody. I thought of his stature, but that was his personality.
Joel Anderson: In October 1985, the school board met secretly at Godwin’s home on an old plantation, and they invited a white man from a different Mississippi school district to join them that day. They essentially offered that man the superintendent job. They hadn’t even interviewed Dr. Merritt.
Speaker 8: The word got out that they had done this, and when it was finally announced, the superintendent crisis began.
Speaker 3: We don’t know anything about the other guy. I just got to know the guy right now. The other guy is not in the community. The other guy is coming in and. I’m going to be in charge of something that he knows nothing about. You want the best for your kids. You want the best for your family. And all of a sudden, now it’s a possibility that could be taken away from you. So what are you going to do.
Joel Anderson: With the black community? Was about to do what changed? Indianola forever.
Joel Anderson: When news got out about the school board’s secret meeting, the black community in Indianola was furious. It was clearly a sneaky attempt to stop a qualified black candidate, Robert Merritt, from becoming the superintendent.
Speaker 3: We said, no, we’re not going to allow this to happen. And we talk about what pressure we can put on the community.
Joel Anderson: All of the people who supported Dr. Merritt made their outrage known. When the outsider white candidate heard there was a backlash brewing, he withdrew his application. The board could have hired Dr. Merritt right then. Instead, they started the search process all over again. This time Indianola was black residents were determined not to leave it to chance. In the birthplace of the White Citizens Council, they formed their own organization, the Concerned Citizens.
Speaker 7: Concerned Citizens, as a one issue civil rights group.
Joel Anderson: Historian Todd Moye.
Speaker 7: It’s able to bring together basically the entire African American community in Indianola around this issue of fairness and hiring and fairness of treatment of African-Americans and the Indianola schools.
Joel Anderson: Concerned citizens wanted Robert Merritt to get the superintendent job. But they also had another goal ousting the chairman of the school board, O’Dell Godwin. Godwin had hosted that secret meeting at his plantation home. Beating him would be a huge symbolic victory. It would also give Dr. Merritt supporters another seat on the school board.
Speaker 5: So they asked me the committee asked me what I’d be interested in running. I said I hadn’t thought about it.
Joel Anderson: David Jackson had started out going to that country school with no running water. Now, he was a 29 year old college graduate and a married father of two. He worked in affordable housing and knew people all over town. David decided he was willing to run for office, although his mother wasn’t sure it was a good idea.
Speaker 5: Like, okay, you’re going against the establishment. These folks been running the school district? Well, ever since every other school district. And you’re trying to take out the chair that been there for probably 20 some years. You don’t know what they’re going to do.
Joel Anderson: O’DELL Godwin had never faced a challenger before as far as anyone could remember. It was the first time any school board member had been in a contested election. The concerned citizens knew waging an open war against Godwin would be risky. So David Jackson’s campaign unfolded quietly in living rooms rather than public events.
Speaker 5: I used to love to use sunny evenings when people would be at home, and I had time to sit out and chat a little bit. And I would say, why not have representation that would fairly represent your interest in the school district? You know, you’re not getting it now. Nobody ever come in and ask you what you know, what do you think is best for your kids?
Joel Anderson: Based on history, he should have been an underdog in the race. But he couldn’t help but feel like the favorite.
Speaker 5: I knew that the only way that we could lose the election is that black people didn’t come out to vote. That’s the only way we can lose it.
Joel Anderson: Black people did come out to vote. Jackson won by an almost 2 to 1 margin.
Speaker 5: We really showed up. It was overwhelming and it was great. It was great. It felt great.
Joel Anderson: Concerned citizens had toppled the school board’s most powerful member and replaced him with one of their own. While the board was still majority white, David Jackson would now get to vote on the new superintendent. The board had narrowed its list to two candidates once again. One of them was Dr. Marriott.
Speaker 5: The second person on the list was Willie Grissom of a smaller school district, but not school district. But he was white.
Joel Anderson: Willie Grissom had lived in Indianola for the past 11 years and he’d served as the principal of a local elementary school. But he still didn’t stack up to Robert Merritt.
Speaker 5: I’m going like, okay, this is a slam dunk there. Robert Mayor was a man of conviction. He was going to be fair. He got to be honest. That’s the way he is.
Joel Anderson: But when it was time for a decision, David’s fellow board members went the other way.
Speaker 5: Nobody came out to say, no, we don’t want that Negro. You know, it didn’t it didn’t come out like that. It came out that, you know, we don’t think he’s the best person for it. I don’t even know what they felt because it was crazy. It wasn’t about education at all.
Joel Anderson: On March 24th, 1986, the board announced that Willie Grissom would be Indianola new superintendent. The vote broke along racial lines with the white candidate getting the support of the three white board members.
Speaker 5: And that’s when a pride my expression at all. My dad would say, Oh, Hicks broke loose. Like I in the work.
Joel Anderson: That same evening, the concerned citizens called an emergency meeting at Saint Benedict. The more a Catholic church that had been a hub of civil rights activism in the 1960s. More than 700 people showed up.
Speaker 3: You trying to keep the house from exploding, people angry at people ready to go?
Speaker 5: The community was outraged.
Joel Anderson: Dr. Merritt’s former student, Rosa Campbell, was working as a substitute teacher at the time.
Speaker 5: You’re going to put somebody in who we don’t know, who don’t know us, who doesn’t eat with us, who doesn’t conversate with us? No, no.
Joel Anderson: Very quickly, the conversation shifted from outrage to action.
Speaker 3: And we go, We ain’t done yet. But we are discussing how to get the majority structure that changed our mind.
Joel Anderson: The court said, and been enough to change the system. Neither had voting. But with everything else failed. There had always been one tactic that civil rights activists knew they could call on.
Speaker 4: If we could just get about 50 or 60% of the Negroes of Montgomery not to ride buses, this would be an effective boycott.
Joel Anderson: The Montgomery bus boycott of the mid 1950s didn’t just get attention. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr got results.
Speaker 4: The 11 month old protest against the city buses will be called off and the negro citizens of Montgomery, Alabama will return to the buses on a non segregated basis.
Speaker 3: When an injustice occurred. You got to put pressure on the majority of the community to respond, and they told us how to do that.
Joel Anderson: In 1986, Reverend Michael Freeman and the concerned citizens decided they had no choice but to dust off an old strategy. They were going to boycott Indianola white owned businesses.
Speaker 3: We have tried our very best to reason with you, but the only thing you don’t understand is economic oppression. So here it comes.
Joel Anderson: The Concerned Citizens hit the streets at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 26, 1986. That morning, hundreds of Indianola gathered outside the school district headquarters and in the shopping district downtown.
Speaker 4: I’m at a picnic with my right, but you’re right. I may not get it, but it did come out.
Joel Anderson: They carried signs that said, Don’t cause this town to blow up and down with the 1950s. This is the 1983.
Speaker 4: Defense Academy said step back like I’m a person. You know.
Speaker 5: When the boycott started, I saw a coming together in Indianola that I’d never seen before. I saw a camaraderie.
Speaker 4: This is important to our society, community, and to our schools, which is why we don’t need him. It was wrong for him to just go in her room like this.
Speaker 3: It was very strategic. It wasn’t something that you just go jump and do.
Joel Anderson: The boycott extended to gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and clothing shops. The only businesses that weren’t targeted were once black residents considered essential banks, pharmacies and the Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store. The business boycott was just one part of the protest. The Concerned Citizens also organized a walkout in the Indianola public schools.
Speaker 4: For the second straight day. Classrooms and the public schools, which are 93% black, were almost empty as students took to the streets to protest the appointment of a white school superintendent by the local school board.
Speaker 5: Some of the teachers say nobody showed up. No students showed up for their class. So when you get that, you know the results. You know it’s working. It’s working.
Joel Anderson: The Indianola school board was shocked by the widespread solidarity. They worried they were going to lose attendance based funding from the state. So they called off classes for the entire week. And it wasn’t just the school board that was starting to panic.
Speaker 3: The downtown area. They start hurting first real bad.
Speaker 10: Not only did the black customer stay away, but the white customers stayed away, too.
Joel Anderson: That’s Lee Silverblatt. She had two kids at the Private Indianola Academy where her mother taught Latin. Her parents also owned a business downtown Lee and co-owned a clothing store on the outskirts of Indianola.
Speaker 10: They didn’t want to come and have to deal with somebody’s house. And Adam, don’t go in there and don’t shop or whatever. They were afraid if they did come in and defied the picket lines that there would be repercussions against them later or against someone in their family.
Joel Anderson: It must have been that you knew a lot of the picketers, right?
Speaker 10: Some of them, yeah. Some of them we did. It really hurt my parents feelings, and I can’t say that I blame them. One day they looked out and one of the ones doing all the shouting, Don’t shop here and the picketing in front of it with somebody that owed him a bunch of money. They had been so nice to to extend credit to. And they she was out there now going here to shop not let.
Joel Anderson: For business owners like Lee and Silverblatt, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Easter Sunday was on March 30th, five days into the boycott.
Speaker 10: So it was pretty devastating because you’re sitting there with all these Easter dresses and Easter outfits and nobody’s coming in to Bam.
Speaker 3: And that’s what an economic boycott does, is shut off resources, shut off money. You’ll see your cash register not ringing and that will get your attention.
Joel Anderson: The boycott also took a toll on Indianola black community. Parents had to scramble for childcare with the schools out of session and workers missed paychecks as their white bosses lost money.
Speaker 3: People could lose their jobs. And then you got when you lose your job, you got a house payment. You got all kind of bills to pay. And we are willing to take those chances.
Joel Anderson: As the boycott stretched into a second week. Black Indianola and showed no signs of relenting.
Speaker 4: As for the merchant boycott, it will continue, continue and continue.
Joel Anderson: At an organizing meeting on April eight, they urged each other to stay strong.
Speaker 4: If we can you a black man by one hand a year of in and out of Mississippi. Mr. B.B. King. Why can’t we have a black man but simply tell you that the mayor.
Speaker 6: We got to get knocked me out again. But we don’t get.
Joel Anderson: One person who didn’t speak at that organizing meeting was Robert Merritt himself. He didn’t appear at any rallies are march on any picket lines. Instead, he just continued to go to work.
Speaker 8: I think part of their tactic was, you know, let his record speak for itself.
Joel Anderson: The newspaper editor, Jim Abbott.
Speaker 8: You know, he’s got his Ph.D.. He’s been a successful principal here for so many years. And the decision should be on that.
Joel Anderson: Well, Dr. Merritt stayed silent. The concerned citizens expanded their protest in April. They sent picketers to the town’s major intersection at Highway 82 and 49.
Speaker 3: The public could see it. It’s a major highway. So anybody would drive through that major highway. We didn’t want to stop because they could see that we were boycotting that town so they would keep driving. And that’s a lot of dollars.
Joel Anderson: In white Indianola, tempers were starting to run high.
Speaker 8: My wife, Cindy and I were sitting in our car in sonic driving and waiting on our hamburger order. And we had our windows down and we heard a bunch of yelling.
Joel Anderson: The yelling that Jim Abbott heard was coming from Highway 82, where black high schoolers were standing silently with protest signs.
Speaker 8: And right at that time, a carload of white students drove by and were yelling at them, curse words, the N-word and the picketers yield back. And we immediately canceled our food order, raced down to the Concerned Citizens headquarters and told them what we had just observed because there was a potential powder keg.
Joel Anderson: Within the hour. Concerned citizens banned high school students from protesting along the highway. The organizers had no choice. If anyone lost their cool, it could discredit the entire movement.
Speaker 4: Do not. Do not provoke anyone.
Speaker 3: When you’re in a movement, people go and say stuff to try to rile up. They’re going to use some racial slurs, but you have to wave, animas, smile and keep going.
Speaker 4: People can read. You sign on them. You don’t have to say anything to them.
Speaker 3: I’m just glad nothing else happened. We came close a couple of times.
Joel Anderson: There were threatening phone calls and people driving by the picket lines with guns. One Sunday, someone put Ku Klux Klan literature in mailboxes and on the windshields of cars. But no matter how things escalated. Concerned citizens followed the tradition of nonviolence. They also resisted calling in national civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson. They knew that when organizers came to help in the 1960s, white locals branded them as outside agitators.
Speaker 7: One response to that was for white people to just dig in their heels and say, Why are these outsiders coming in and kicking up dust causing trouble?
Joel Anderson: Historian Todd Moye. You know.
Speaker 7: We have good race relations here. Why don’t they leave us alone to handle this problem ourselves?
Speaker 3: So to bring in a power hitter during that period of time doing that situation, it could have got explosive. We had enough power with people right there to get the job done.
Speaker 4: And we’re going to keep on marching until we get what we want.
Joel Anderson: Still, by April 1986, the boycott was a major national story.
Speaker 4: There is a broad school boycott underway tonight in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. This one recalls some of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
Joel Anderson: Reporters from all over the country descended on Indianola. Local white residents seized the opportunity to share their perspective with NPR.
Robert Albert: We love the black people in Indianola. One of the dearest friends that I have in this community is the lady that has been made of our church with the closest of friends. I love the black people. In Indianola.
Joel Anderson: White business owners told the press that they were at risk of losing everything.
Speaker 4: You’re not going to be able to pay your rent and utilities and employees salaries. You’re just not gonna be able to do it.
Speaker 10: We felt like we were, you know, not at fault, but suffering the consequences.
Joel Anderson: Leon Silverblatt clothing store never made up for the losses they suffered that Easter. Her business was hanging on, but just barely.
Speaker 10: I, I had empathy for the protest. I had empathy for how they felt. It probably wasn’t just that one issue of the superintendent. It was probably a build up of feeling frustrated that they hadn’t been heard.
Joel Anderson: Did you wish that they had tried another tactic?
Speaker 10: Yes, because I think that it was not a decision by the merchants. It was a decision of the school board. So we did feel like we’re being punished for something we really didn’t do. But at that time, you know, boycott was the first thing a lot of people thought about. So maybe they could come up with something else to do. I don’t know if it got everybody’s attention real quick, so maybe it did do what they wanted it to do.
Joel Anderson: Just as Reverend Michael Friedman had predicted, the pocket book pressure was working. The longer the economic boycott lasted, the more business leaders felt compelled to bring it to an end.
Speaker 3: So now that white business men, they want to talk, they really want to talk now.
Joel Anderson: They reached out to you?
Speaker 3: Yeah, they reached out to us saying, you know, what can we do? We have one thing you can do. Put Dr. Merritt in as the superintendent of schools. That’s non-negotiable.
Joel Anderson: On paper, the only group that could install Dr. Robert Merritt was the same body that had passed him over the Indianola school board.
Speaker 5: They felt like they had made a great mistake. They know they had.
Joel Anderson: The newest person on the board. David Jackson saw that the white members were starting to regret their decision.
Speaker 5: But they were trapped. At that point, it wasn’t anything that they could really do. Once they got in the water, they were wet.
Joel Anderson: Even if the white school board members wanted to change their votes, there was a major complication. The superintendent they just hired, Willy Grissom, had already signed a contract.
Speaker 5: And Grissom said, No, no, no, no. What are you going to do, fire me? I left my job. I already I’ve given my resignation where I came up. And you going to tell me that you change your mind? No, I’m staying.
Joel Anderson: Grissom’s contract ran for three years with an annual salary of $45,000, about $122,000 today.
Speaker 5: The white board members said, okay, well, we stuck with him. The community said, No, you stuck with him. We have not stuck with it. We’re sure they don’t know all of them. And they went on with the boycott.
Speaker 4: I call upon you today, Dr. Grissom, to consider what you are confronted with. If you do not have the teachers to support you, you do not have the students to support you. You are fighting a losing battle.
Joel Anderson: By the middle of April. It was clear that the school board wasn’t going to resolve anything, but the town’s struggling white business owners knew they couldn’t leave it at that.
Speaker 10: They were concerned people that said they did not want this to just totally mess up the economy and whatever and Indianola and they we needed to try to work together to find a solution.
Joel Anderson: The Chamber of Commerce organized what it called a biracial committee. It was made up of five blacks and five whites. There were clergymen, including Reverend Freeman. There were also attorneys and business owners.
Speaker 10: My mother was the president of the Chamber of Commerce that year, and so she became the chairman.
Joel Anderson: Historian Todd Moye says that at that time, the existence of an interracial group was a big step in itself.
Speaker 7: In the context of the Mississippi Delta, it’s actually a pretty big deal to put together a group of people like this and to give them power to negotiate, you know, a social problem on behalf of both sides of the community.
Joel Anderson: The bi racial committee started getting together at least twice a week, and the white community leaders began to understand why Black Indianola felt so committed to Robert Mary.
Speaker 8: What I do remember is a sense of clarity.
Joel Anderson: Stan Runnels was on the committee. He was the priest at the town’s White Episcopal Church.
Speaker 8: It wasn’t like, what? We’re doing this because we ought to, you know, are we? We got to show some kind of solidarity. There was a real sense of this is just the right thing and Dr. Merritt is the right person.
Joel Anderson: The biracial committee was an agreement. Robert Merritt needed to get hired. That meant Willie Grissom had to go. So one evening, a delegation of white clergy went to pay Grissom a visit. Sending an all white group was intentional. They went to Grissom to feel comfortable.
Speaker 8: I don’t think we had tea and crackers or anything like that, but he kind of calmed down when he saw that we weren’t reading the riot act to him, and he kept talking about how he would do a good job, how he cared about the kids. We didn’t get a hard no. We just didn’t get a hard yes.
Joel Anderson: Grissom knew he was facing an uphill battle. Indianola Board of Aldermen called for him to resign. Nine of ten biracial committee members publicly backed that request, and more than 500 parents signed a letter telling Grissom he wouldn’t have their support.
Speaker 8: It got to the point where Grissom actually realized, even if I stay in this job, I do not have the support of 90% of the parents or more of the school district. Jim Abbott How can I be an effective superintendent of education when I. Nobody likes me, you know?
Joel Anderson: But even as his support eroded, Grissom demanded what he was owed. So there was a stalemate. The boycott was now a month old, and the concerned citizens were threatening to keep it going all the way through the town’s centennial celebration. No one in the business community wanted that. It was becoming clear that there was only one way to bring the protests to an end.
Speaker 10: So then they went around and collected money from all of us businesses in town to pay off the contract.
Speaker 4: A group of white business owners will pay Grissom $90,000. Attorney Tommy McWilliams says he is not sure where all the money will come from, but Grissom will be paid. The Delta lawyer also doesn’t view the compromise as blackmail.
Speaker 10: I think most people just said, okay, we don’t want to do it, but what else are we going to do? Let’s just do it and get this over with. You know, most of the people were gave over $1,000. The convenience store people may have given 25,000. I mean, there was it was a pretty substantial amount.
Joel Anderson: Do you remember how much you gave?
Speaker 10: It was more than we could afford to give. I remember that.
Joel Anderson: Willy Grissom resigned as the superintendent of schools on April 30th, 1986.
Speaker 4: According to the members of the press, the members are citizens of this community.
Joel Anderson: The next day, the Indianola School Board called a press conference to name his replacement.
Speaker 4: I would like to announce to you this afternoon that above board unanimously selected Dr. Robert Merritt as the superintendent of the N.A. Seven School District.
Joel Anderson: The concerned citizens had warned the boycott was over. It had been 38 days.
Speaker 3: Once they announced Dr. Merritt, it was going to be soup kitchen. We all went to church and celebrated.
Speaker 4: I’m thankful to God for having looked over us as we watched and marched on picket lines and help us to look for a greater good in the city of Indianola and help us to look for a deeper and abiding understanding.
Speaker 3: The community had achieved a goal that never had been. She before is like going to a football game and you just made a touchdown and you won the Super Bowl. We.
Speaker 4: Oh.
Speaker 5: There was an eruption of praise and adoration. I’ll just never forget. I’ll never forget being there and seeing the enthusiasm, the excitement, the joy that, look, God has blessed us. The mission of the boycott of 86 is complete. It was. Oh, hallelujah time.
Joel Anderson: The night got even more meaningful when the man of the hour was introduced.
Speaker 4: At this time, I bring before you the new superintendent in an elementary separate school district, Dr. Robert, on merits.
Joel Anderson: Dr. Merritt had mostly stayed silent during the boycott, but now, finally, it was time for him to address his supporters.
Speaker 4: Ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a pleasure for me to stand here before you tonight. It is indeed a historical moment. Yes. A right to stand before a people that I. So long.
Speaker 6: Yeah. Yeah. And so we’re.
Speaker 4: You have been. A bright light, as a matter of fact. You’ve been such a bright light at the darkness. Couldn’t put it out. Yes, sir. You gave me the tenacity to hold on.
Speaker 4: Let’s move forward to place Indianola on the map as perhaps the best school district in the United States.
Joel Anderson: With the boycott over Indianola could now try to get back to normal, beginning with the centennial celebration starring B.B. King. Woke up this morning.
Speaker 4: After another one of those crazy dreams.
Speaker 10: I hated the boycott. I hated that we had to spend the money to pay the other guy off. But at the end of the day, it probably turned out the way it was supposed to turn out.
Joel Anderson: Robert Merritt took over as superintendent just after the Centennial Party. He got to work right away.
Speaker 3: We saw resources coming. There’s a whole lot of things just change with him being in that spot. So he was a man for that time.
Joel Anderson: Dr. Merritt set up, PTA was established, a curriculum council staffed by parents and teachers and secured money to build a new school to finally relieve the overcrowding.
Speaker 8: He inherited a school district that had so many needs. You know, he accomplished so much. Program after program.
Joel Anderson: His tenure was so successful that some white parents began to return their children to the public schools. When he retired in 1994, the number of white students in the system had doubled to 14% of enrollment. Today, Robert Merritt is 93 years old, living in his hometown of Aberdeen, Mississippi, with his wife of 68 years. They even named a middle school after him in Indianola.
Speaker 8: When it’s all over and done with. Everybody breathes and goes, Man, we should have done this in the first place.
Joel Anderson: But not everyone in town believed that the boycott had been worth it. One white resident told the local paper, I hope that no group will ever try to hold Indianola hostage again. At least four businesses closed permanently because of the losses they suffered. The economic impact was estimated at $3 million. That’s nearly $8.1 million today.
Speaker 3: That’s the price you pay and you can’t take blame for that. And that’s what happens. It hurts both ways. We both are hurting when we go to this situation.
Joel Anderson: 36 years after the boycott, Indianola is still hurting the well-off community. Reverend Freeman moved to in the mid 1980s has been decimated by white flight and industrial decline. And a lot of the gains that Dr. Merritt made in the school system have been lost. By 2019, the number of black students in the district schools, they climb back to more than 95%. The private school Indianola Academy still serves nearly all the white students in town.
Speaker 7: This is a civil rights victory that is never entirely a victory.
Joel Anderson: Historian Todd Moye.
Speaker 7: It’s one that has to be fought again and again and again.
Joel Anderson: But not everything the concerned citizens fought for has vanished. Today, four of the five school board members serving Indianola are black. So is the superintendent.
Speaker 5: So we’ve come a long ways, but we still got a ways to go.
Joel Anderson: When O.C. Campbell was in school, his principal, Robert Merritt, told him he had the talent to be a pastor. Now he is for two small Baptist congregations, one of them in his hometown. Arthur is Indianola greatest ambassador. He loves to brag on that small town in the Mississippi Delta, home of the B.B. King Museum. And the high school’s undefeated 1975 football team. But for him, nothing tops the boycott. It’s what he wants the world to know about.
Speaker 5: Indianola 86 will be forever etched in my mind and in my heart. Fannie Lou Hamer. I could see a smile in from heaven because you know her statement. I’m tired of being sick and tired and that’s what had happened. And then, you know, we were tired of being sick and tired and we did. We did it. Yeah, we did it.
Speaker 1: Joel Anderson is a Slate staff writer. Next time on one year, 1986, a cute story about a very hungry sea lion transforms into a full on ecological crisis. And everyone in Seattle has to choose sides.
Speaker 4: They would call up and they would just start cussing and telling us to leave those sea lions alone. And and then if you continued harassing them or you did any harm to them, we’re going to start shooting at you guys.
Speaker 1: Evan Chang is one year’s senior producer. This episode was produced by Joel Anderson Sam Kim, Derek, John, Sophie Summergrad, Madeline Ducharme, Evan Chang and me Josh Levine. It was edited by me, Evan Chung and Derek John, Slate’s senior supervising producer of Narrative Podcasts. Our senior technical director is Merritt Jacob. Holly Allen created the artwork for this season. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1986 at one year at Slate.com. And you can call us on the one year hotline at 2033430777. We’d love to hear from you. Some of the audio you heard in this episode comes from Jim Abbott in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Speaker 1: Special thanks to Verna Ransom of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. Walter Gregory. Charles Motley. Norval Ward. Dr. Adrian Brown. Susan MATTHEWS. Christina Carter.
Speaker 1: Richie Sohl were then. Bill Carey. Katie Rayford. Ben Richmond. Caitlin Schneider. Cleo Levin. Seth Brown. Rachel Strom. And Alicia montgomery. Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with more. From 1986.