I brought something special to our national newspaper. I had always been the guy who went directly into the most interesting battles. One day while checking out-of-town newspapers in the Chicago Public Library, I came across a story about a boycott of downtown businesses in Tupelo, Mississippi. The issue and the location interested me. In the movement, we had always debated about how the Black struggle relates to everything else – especially in the South. What better way would there be to get some ideas? I rounded up a couple of friends. We were headed to Elvis Presley’s home town and the nation’s most infamous state on the question of race.
I felt a twinge of fear as we passed “Entering Mississippi” on the highway. Kudzu vines, like evil itself, grew unchecked covering all vegetation, including trees. We made it to the headquarters of the United League of Northern Mississippi in Holly Springs. One thing was immediately clear. This wasn’t a group of urban militants like the Panthers. The United League was led by Skip Robison, a construction contractor. Lew Meyers, a SNCC lawyer, was part of the inner circle, as were ministers and other community leaders. I saw evidence of a wide membership at revival style church services.
It was a great cross-section of the Black community and it extended to several nearby towns. The role of the middle class became clear when they put us up for free at a motel owned by a local African American guy. Weeks later at a larger rally, they put up dozens of us in sleeping bags at a Black-owned furniture factory. Tupelo didn’t really square with the RCP’s emphasis on a nation of a new type. We found not a proletarian nation edging toward socialism, but a popular surge for democratic rights.
We heard the list of demands: jobs, affirmative action, and an end to police brutality. The following day we attended a rally of hundreds. My job was clear – write it up and spread the word up north. Back in Chicago, I wrote a freelance piece and a feature for The Workers Voice. I convinced our small, break-away organization that we should make this into a campaign. Our whole network at the time was weary of internal strife and factional splits. The United League captured a lot of interest. It was a real, live example of what we could do. Freed from the sterility of our former leadership, we could participate in a cause that had the feel of a ‘60s civil rights struggle and yet was appearing in new forms and varieties.
I will never forget the feeling as I watched coach busses from New York, Philly and Chicago roll into the streets of Tupelo’s New South on Thanksgiving weekend in 1978. It was an achievement – practiced many a time when I had edited The Milwaukee Worker. We were about to be part of something beyond our previous experience. In all we had mobilized a few hundred northern supporters. In addition, there were a thousand more Black marchers from Tupelo and the small towns around there. A contingent of strikers from a local poultry operation revealed a level of worker organizing in this industrializing corner of that backward state.
Tupelo is not technically part of “the Black Belt”. It is in more of a hilly, woodsy topology than the alluvial black earth crescent that hugs the Mississippi River and then flattens out eastward toward Alabama and Georgia. Northeastern Mississippi does have some slices of alluvial soil and there were some stately plantations in the slave era. But in the 1980s, the area was making progress in the manufacturing sector due to the availability of labor, furniture wood, and cheap electricity from the Tennessee Tombigbee hydroelectric project. The descendants of slavery in Tupelo knew about boycotts and solidarity from the days of civil rights. They were boycotting – not for the right to vote but for jobs and opportunity. These were the particulars that I tried to bring to light in my articles.
Enter the Klan. As the Tupelo march got underway, local organizers were careful to position our northern contingent toward the rear. Up front were the locals, including the Purnell Pride strikers. As we rounded one corner, there they were — a phalanx of hooded Klan marchers headed straight toward us. We didn’t know if they were carrying guns underneath their silly robes. I had seen some of them brandishing arms earlier.
As they met our march head on, the ranks of the lead group parted to each side and the KKK strode right up the middle through the length of our column. When they reached the section of folks from the northern cities, tension heightened. Where the confrontation with the local contingent had been solemn and silent, the northerners erupted in catcalls and jeers. I saw some of our people – African Americans and whites – actually spitting on the Klansmen. How we survived this without a violent incident, I cannot guess.
Not too long after this incident there was a similar confrontation in North Carolina in which five anti-Klan demonstrators were killed. The North Carolina martyrs, tragically, had publicized their march calling for “Death to the Klan”. We were not as vulnerable because we had popularized the actual demands of the United League.
In the next period, our group sponsored a speaking tour for Skip Robinson in cities like New York, Oakland, and Milwaukee, where our loyalists were active. The campaign revealed that, despite the depletion of our own capacity in those days, there was a need to give assistance to isolated, local efforts. It brought more understanding of “the South” and “the Black struggle” than any polemical exchange. It also highlighted a weakness. By then our group consisted of only about 500 members nationwide. Such a tiny outfit was not really equipped to give ongoing support and play a role for the long haul – especially away from home base.
I lost track of what happened to Skip Robinson. I think I actually saw him — or a dead ringer — many years later over by Circle Campus. At the moment, I was talking with an intern and was too embarrassed to ask him if he was my old friend from Tupelo. Maybe I could have learned something about the changes that were wrought from those sacrifices. In researching my memoirs, I found out that he died in a questionable “car accident” in on December 18th, 1986. He allegedly ran into the back of a semi-truck on Highway 78 near Holly Springs.