Legacies of Community, Activism and Care in Charleston, Mississippi

Legacies of Community, Activism and Care in Charleston, Mississippi

The city of Charleston, Mississippi sits at the Northern tip of Tallahatchie County, at the intersection between the Hill Country and the Delta. Driving through town on Highway 32, one sees both slanted stretches of farmland and the warm flatness of the Mississippi Delta. It is one of two county seats in Tallahatchie, infamous for its 1955 failure to convict the men who brutally murdered Emmett Till. Historically, both in Charleston and across the state, a White elite used mass racial disenfranchisement to maintain political power and denied Black 1 communities adequate access to government services. This legally-codified racial power structure partially defined life in Charleston. In response, Charleston’s Black community, like many communities across the South, created a strong network of informal social supports that pooled resources to provide communal care. Churches, for example, functioned as more than houses of worship, and often hosted women’s groups, craft circles, local fundraisers and more. Today, these informal networks continue to provide community support, and legacies of prior activism continue to inspire community advocates.

In the 1960s and 70s, Lucy Mae Boyd and Birdia Keglar, both presidents of the local NAACP chapter, used community groups and unofficial networks of family and friends in order to organize voting drives and protests. Now, Boyd and Keglar’s work still empowers and inspires a current generation of Black community leaders who work both within the governmental and legal system, as well as within the tradition of alternate social structures in order to help their community.

People bravely chip away at oppressive power structures every day.

Despite powerful academic scholarship on the importance of these social structures in community life, popular exoteric 2 discussion on community activism in the Mississippi Delta often neglects to consider the power of informal social networks and emotional supports and instead focuses almost solely on explicit political and legal activism. In doing so, these discussions don’t fully understand the processes of community-driven self improvement. Often, people bravely chip away at oppressive power structures every day.

In Weapons of the Weak, James Scott’s clearly defines his concept of everyday resistance, the aggregate of actions taken by people in order to better the near future for themselves and loved ones. Though small everyday acts may not always be made with large political connotations in mind, small acts of resistance (such as teaching skills privately when school budgets don’t allow for extra courses) work together to slowly chip away at larger political systems. Though Scott’s definition is obviously not all encompassing, it is a helpful lens to consider when thinking about folklife and activism’s intersections, especially in the context of community action in Charleston. Further, when we acknowledge the power of everyday resistance we can better understand how informal community supports and official legal activism can inspire, inform, and built on each other.

Churches, for example, functioned as more than houses of worship, and often hosted women’s groups, craft circles, local fundraisers, and more.  Today, these informal networks continue to provide community support, and legacies of prior activism continue to inspire community advocates. 

For example, consider the Johnson siblings, AC, Shirley, Charlene, and Garry, and their relationship to the legacies of both everyday resistance and legal activism in Charleston. Their memories of both Boyd and Keglar still help shape the siblings’ activism and their perceptions of their home town. Even though most of the Johnsons do not currently reside in Charleston, they remain active participants in city life and, though each now grandmothers and grandfathers in their own right, they still return to Charleston every season to their mother’s house. Alvin, or AC, heads the Charleston Day Organization, a Black-run non-profit focused on community development 3 . The organization holds frequent school supplies, food, and holiday drives, maintains a building for communal use, and hosts community events, such as the Charleston Day reunion and the annual Humility Day. 

The Johnsons and I met for the first time as they prepared for the event the following day. Sitting in their mother’s kitchen, Shirley prepped a seemingly endless amount of chicken. Charlene and AC took turns bouncing a shiny-eyed, babbling baby on their laps. Garry took care of landscaping and building maintenance outside. The Johnsons in the kitchen told me about their childhoods. They had attended Allen Carver, an all-black school. AC played football. Many of their stories highlighted the racial oppression they grew up with. When they were little, their mother often hosted Boyd, or Miss Lucy as they still call her, after Monday NAACP meetings. If Boyd tried to go to her own house, people tailed her car. Shirley jumped in, yelling over the running water, to remind AC how people had even chastised their mother since having Lucy Boyd in their home could have put the children at risk. The siblings remembered a strange event when it seemed like there had been a break-in but nothing was missing. Later, they told me that if I wanted to write about or film Charleston, I had to make sure to visit the Emmett Till Memorial and Sumner Courthouse. AC, a former quarterback and self-proclaimed “reluctant cryer,” teared up explaining how the murder shaped his childhood and affected his parents. Tallahatchie County was not a safe place to be a Black teen. 

[Birdia Keglar] She became one of the first Black people in the county to vote after successfully suing the local tax collector for not accepting her voting tax.

Though the siblings are aware that a fight against racial violence and oppression has long guided their daily actions and lived experiences, they still describe their childhoods with love and care. They speak often of powerful non-government affiliated community support structures their friends and family created and continue to maintain. Discussing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, AC and Shirley focused on successful community supports like the churches that hosted NAACP meetings. AC’s face shone with pride when he spoke about Miss Lucy Mae Boyd and Birdia Keglar, another former Tallahatchie NAACP chapter president. On a tour of Charleston, AC drove me to the church that hosted NAACP meetings and pointed out the Birdia Keglar Memorial Highway, a stretch of MS-32 that cuts right through town. Keglar founded the prolific local NAACP chapter and spearheaded the Voting Rights Movement in Tallahatchie, often putting herself at risk in doing so. She became one of the first Black people in the county to vote after successfully suing the local tax collector for not accepting her voting tax. Her activism upset a local White elite: people shot in her direction, the Ku Klux Klan burned her in effigy. 

Despite the threats, the siblings explained, Keglar kept fighting for her constitutional rights until she died. In 1966, Keglar and her friend and fellow activist Adlena Hamlett never came home from an activists’ meeting in Jackson. There was a car crash. Keglar was decapitated and Hamlett’s body was found mutilated. The Department of Justice concluded that the deaths were most likely an accident, but many Charleston residents believed that Keglar had been murdered. The only passengers in the car were so traumatized that they could not find the words to speak about the event at all, and White law enforcement officers told members of Keglar’s family not to ask too many questions. That same year, white supremacists in Forrest County, MS murdered Vernon Dahmer who, like Keglar, was the president of the local NAACP chapter and had been encouraging Black community members to vote. After Dahmer offered to pay the poll taxes of those who could not afford them, white supremacists firebombed his home and Dahmer died from severe burns and smoke inhalation. Regardless of whether the Keglar and Hamlett families ever receive true answers about what happened to their relatives, the fact remains that it was not uncommon for the Klan or other hate groups to use murder to attempt to stifle Black activism. 

Keglar’s memory helped motivate her cousin Gwen Dailey to move back to Charleston in 2000. Today, Dailey runs the Birdia Keglar Legacy Committee and also helps organize municipal elections and works with other local service groups, and her activism was written about in The Guardian in 2007 4 . Dailey’s work with elections is inspired political action of its own, and her work with the Legacy Committee helps to form contemporary community support resources both by giving out college scholarships and by hosting an annual Birdia Keglar day where people can reflect on her cousin’s political action. 

Knowing what happened to her friend, Boyd picked up right where Keglar left off and led the local NAACP chapter after her death. Four years later, in 1970, when a group of Black high school students were upset by an unjust integration plan that placed the needs of White students first, they approached Boyd, who helped them organize frequent protests and marches. For months, the students stood outside the school and marched through the town square carrying signs that said “I Am Somebody.” When a group of students, some as young as eleven, were temporarily sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, colloquially known as Parchman, Boyd immediately held a meeting and called local politicians and activists and pressured the state to release detained students. 

Shared communal memories of Keglar and Boyd’s dedication and activism still inspires community leaders like the Johnsons and the National Charleston Day Organization.  

When I walked into a local shop and asked about Boyd, everyone’s face lit up. One man could not stop gushing about “[that] sweet, brave, little lady”. A former domestic educator praised her love and dedication to her community. Apparently, she was also a talented hairstylist. The former teenage activists who worked with her praised her openness and support. Shared communal memories of Keglar and Boyd’s dedication and activism still inspires community leaders like the Johnsons and the National Charleston Day Organization.  

Consider the organization’s Humility Day, a local celebration that honors faith, education, and other community values. Held in the auditorium at Charleston High School, the very school Boyd fought to fairly integrate, the day begins with a long assembly. Politicians and preachers give speeches, and performers sing hymns and power ballads. Afterwards, children lined up to receive school supplies, and the Charleston Day Organization serves lunch to everyone. Dailey was this year’s Master of Ceremonies. Every candidate for local election was invited to give a speech and share their platform so that members of Charleston’s Black community could cast informed ballots. After the assembly, children lined up to get bags of neon notebooks and fresh pencils. Sherry served home-made barbeque, slow-smoked in the school parking lot. An excited eight-year-old girl, barbeque sauce smeared across her chin, gripped a new binder and hollered that it was perfect for math. She wanted to be an astronaut or a teacher. 

Humility Day uses ritual and performance to strengthen intra-community bonds and reaffirm shared values.

Humility Day uses ritual and performance to strengthen intra-community bonds and reaffirm shared values. The singing of spirituals like the Lord’s Prayer constitutes a form of popular religious expression; the accompanying secular songs blend pop culture and spiritual circumstances; and, the presenters’ formal attire signals the event’s cultural importance. By communitizing the receiving of school supplies, the event meaningfully grounds education in the concepts of political activism, faith, and collective care. With each school year acting as a new educational and social phase, the last days of summer mark an important liminal space in which rituals of preparation for the upcoming time takes on new meaning. School supplies are a monetized symbol of education, an important part of a young student’s identity, and their receipt is an important ritual for children. Gearing up for the new school year becomes affiliated both with the long assembly and the following celebration. Thus, Humility Day, a hallmark program from a locally-led community group, simultaneously meets the material needs of schoolchildren and intertwines education, political action, and faith. 

Today, Mississippi is a state that provides minimal social assistance or programming, and communities still often rely on their own institutions. A long history of underfunded public school districts continues to create both academic and social needs. For example, many schools lack the funding to provide students with nutritious food or to invest in new programs. Currently, Mississippi has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the nation, and less than 200 students took the AP Computer Science exam in 2018. Historically, teachers for independent organizations actually provided cooking education or craft workshops in people’s own homes. Community members taught each other helpful skills like canning, pickling, or blanket-making. Now, children may pool snacks or eat at each other’s houses. Parents may teach kids and their friends skills or fun crafts. In the fall of 2019, Judge Carleton Reeves even found that the state’s mental health care system violated federal law by not providing adequate local care. Though not a substitute for comprehensive mental health care, unofficial emotional labor performed by friends and family also plays an important role in maintaining people’s individual happiness. 

Deliberate political and legal activism is intertwined with acts of community support and care.

In other words, when the government and the state fail to fully care for Black citizens, unofficial community leaders, heavily influenced by those who came before them, have created alternate social structures in order to better their own communities. Deliberate political and legal activism is intertwined with acts of community support and care. In Charleston, the political and legal activism from Civil Rights leaders like Keglar and Boyd has both empowered and inspired a current generation of Black community leaders who work both within the governmental and legal system, as well as within the tradition of alternate social structures in order to help their community. Thus, effective discussions on positive change in Mississippi must acknowledge the history and contributions of alternative social structures and consider the long history and collaboration between these community supports and the government.

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Footnotes

  1. ^ In this article I have chosen to capitalize the word “Black” when referring to race. This is not a universal stylistic convention, but many of my courses have required that I, at a minimum, make and justify a conscious decision on whether to make the term to a proper noun. In this article, I explain the ways in which unofficial social entities like bible studies and grassroots fundraising have contributed to and shaped Black community life in the face of government-enacted racial oppression. In this sense, I hope to highlight how we can classify intentional but unofficial and spontaneous human interactions and social behaviors as forms of activism for community development. As a result, it feels appropriate to me to capitalize the term “Black”, which refers to not just a race but a community of people subjected to the same set of laws and interacting with many of the same community supports. Further, in a 2014 New York Times Op-Ed, Lori Tharps, a Media Studies Scholar, writes that “[w]hen speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.” Still, Tharps’ sentiments are not universal, and many Black scholars may and do fairly disagree with her. I do not mean to capitalize the term in order to imply that the Black experience is the same, or even similar, for anyone. Nor do I want to imply that racial identity is monopolar. A person may identify or experience with many different races, or someone who identifies as a certain race may not identify with that community at all. I have chosen to capitalize “Black” in this context because I feel it is the most respectful linguistic decision in the context of this article. Since I have chosen to capitalize “Black”, I have also capitalized “White” for consistency’s sake. There are, however, very good reasons to opt not to capitalize the term or to disagree with the decision entirely. Personally, I think that by questioning whether to capitalize the term we engage with questions of how to best represent contemporary experiences of race.
  2. ^ Exoteric Folklore is a term that refers to existing beliefs and perceptions of a certain group held by people not in that group. In this case, “popular exoteric discussion” refers to discussions about the Mississippi Delta by non-residents.
  3. ^ Charleston Day Organization’s website can be found here.
  4. ^ The Birdia Keglar Legacy Commission’s website can be here.

Courtney DeLong

Courtney DeLong

Courtney is a third year at Harvard College where she studies Folklore & Mythology and History. She is interested in media studies, social history, and aesthetic theory. Currently, she is working on an ethnographic film about Charleston, Mississippi. In this film, she hopes to explore the potential intersections between direct cinema and collaborative ethnography. Her portfolio and contact information are available at courtneydelong.com.