Relics of bygone era in Mississippi off the books

Published 4:33 pm Wednesday, April 22, 2009

While researching a case, attorney Ed Blackmon stumbled across leftovers of Mississippi’s segregationist past — laws enacted to discourage the fight for equal rights for blacks.

They were the same laws authorities used to arrest him nearly 45 years ago when he was a teenager attending a protest to support black voter registration. Blackmon, now a state lawmaker, knew he had the power to do something about it.

Blackmon, 60, successfully pushed a bill through the state Legislature this year to remove the laws, which were declared unconstitutional long ago. With the stroke of a pen and little fanfare, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour quietly repealed them and erased what for many was a painful reminder of institutional racism.

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“I had an indelible memory of what those laws meant and when I saw it, I was reminded of my own experience,” said Blackmon, who now has a successful law practice and has served in the Mississippi House for 25 years.

Though Blackmon’s success shows progress once thought unthinkable in Mississippi, some have wondered why it wasn’t celebrated in the public square. The bill slipped unnoticed through the legislative process — so quietly, in fact, those who had been active in the civil rights movement didn’t even know it was being considered.

Some say that could be a sign that while lawmakers were willing to wipe the racist codes from state law, they may still worry there could be backlash in a state that still struggles to emerge from its past of racial strife.

Hollis Watkins, one of the hundreds who worked to educate blacks about their rights the summer of 1964, said the gesture was good, but “for us to repeal terrible laws and not let the public know this is something we are doing” shows relics of the turbulent Civil Rights era still linger.

The removed laws date back to 1964, when thousands of civil rights activists from across the nation, many of them white college students, decided to descend on Mississippi to educate blacks and register them to vote as a means of toppling the state’s racist social order. The activists were aware of the dangers, including police beatings and arrests on trumped-up charges, but they were undeterred, said Ed King, a white Methodist minister involved in the civil rights movement.

Legislators and others who wanted to keep the status quo knew the activists usually met in churches to organize their protest rallies and registration drives. The all-white Legislature passed a series of laws that went into effect June 11, 1964, that essentially made such gatherings illegal, although the laws were later deemed unconstitutional.

The laws centered around criminal syndicalism, which roughly defined means advocating various methods to effect any social or political change. One of the laws made it illegal for two or more people to assemble or consort to encourage it. Another made it illegal for a building owner or caretaker to allow such meetings on the premises. Even uttering the certain words or phrases was against the law.

“They were very open about why the laws were needed then. I think members of the Legislature were afraid we were bringing thousands and thousands of potentially violent crazies into the state,” King said. “They deserved to be afraid. We intended to change the state, just not violently.”

Deadly violence did occur when the Ku Klux Klan ambushed and murdered three civil rights activists in eastern Mississippi’s Neshoba County on June 21, 1964. The slayings drew the nation’s eye to the civil rights struggle and helped spur passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Less than two weeks after the anti-Freedom Summer laws were approved, a 16-year-old Blackmon was arrested as he walked along a sidewalk in Canton with a group of other blacks. They had just attended a protest meeting at a local church, he said.

“They arrested us for parading unlawful assembly and we were hauled away to jail in poultry trucks. We were out in the truck in the summer sun and sweltering heat with doors closed and chickens for over an hour,” said Blackmon. The charges were later dropped, he said.

A ruling in a 1967 federal court case declared the laws unconstitutional, and no one can remember them being used since for prosecution. Blackmon said lawmakers weren’t trying to hide the effort to remove the laws from the books. He said his his primary concern was just making sure that they were dropped.

“It was a relic of the past and it will always be a part of our history, but I feel those things don’t need to be part of the code,” Blackmon said. “It’s a sign of improving times. There was no big deal made about it.”

Other Jim Crow laws have been repealed over the years, including the state’s poll tax in 1989 and its ban on interracial marriage in 1987. Both garnered heavy media coverage, even though the laws hadn’t been active for some time.

Barbour’s office and two lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill did not return calls seeking comment about the measure.

King, who still lives in Jackson, said he didn’t know about Blackmon’s bill.

“That’s usually the best way to go about things like that is to just quietly get a consensus on it and then just remove it,” he said.