Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Gloria Owens froze with fear as a German shepherd barreled toward her at the entrance of Yazoo City Junior High School on a fall morning in 1968. "Get that n*gger," she heard her classmate command his dog. As the dog jumped on her and brought her to the ground, she cried and called out for help.
That kind of fear made Owens' one-mile walk to school from her home in the Brickyard Hill neighborhood of Yazoo City the worst part of being the only black student in her class at the school. She would often hum the death march after she said goodbye to her friends who were en route to the all-black Yazoo City Junior High School No. 2, as she anticipated how her white peers would torture her that day.
That same year during lunch, Owens poured salt on the back of her hand from the cafeteria's saltshaker and licked it as kids are prone to do. Before she knew it, students accused her of licking the shaker, and school officials announced on the school's intercom system that all the school's saltshakers had to be sterilized because of what she had done.
Later that year, when a white boy asked Owens to a school dance, school officials responded by canceling the dance, she said.
"I was never taught racism before I went to that school," the 54-year-old Yazoo City resident recalls now. "My mom thought she was doing a good thing by sending me to that school so that I could get a better education. But to me, it was like torture, it was like being in prison."
At age 11, Owens wasn't the only one in her family confused about why her mother wanted her to go to an all-white school.
"Woman, you are going to get killed taking those kids to the white school," her father, Fred, shouted as Gloria's mother backed out of their driveway in the family's white station wagon on the first day of school.
Two months later, Gloria's father died from a stroke.
For most of her seventh-grade year, Gloria Owens plotted ways to kill Rev. Rims Barber, the man she blamed for making her leave her old school. Barber, then 31, was working with the National Council of Churches to help blacks achieve equality in rural Mississippi towns. In 1964, Barber moved to Jackson from Davenport, Iowa, to work with the Council and remains an activist in Jackson today where he is a minister for various Presbyterian churches and lobbies state lawmakers on social-justice issues. He said when he heard ministers were needed to help blacks achieve equality, he decided to move to Jackson, and has stayed ever since.
In 1967, Barber went door-to-door organizing black families who wanted to integrate their children into the white schools. That's how he found LeBertha Owens.
Barber helped LeBertha Owens enroll her daughter in the all-white school. Just over 14 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, LeBertha Owens sent her daughter to Yazoo City Junior High under the state's "freedom of choice" plan. The plan was a compromise many school districts enacted in response to the Supreme Court's decision to try to avoid full integration, but few students switched schools on their own accord. Many black parents who sent their children to all-white schools faced threats from whites or suffered economically.
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Green v. County School Board ruling that freedom of choice was no longer acceptable and that states must dissolve school segregation "root and branch." Then, in 1969, the Court ordered the immediate desegregation of Mississippi schools in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education.
"My mother was one of these people that if something wasn't working, she was the one to advocate for change," Owens said. "... (Barber) told her it would be a better education for her children. In my adult life, I learned that he cared. He wasn't trying to boost his ego. He really cared about people in Yazoo getting a good education."
Working to integrate communities in the 1960s didn't make Rims Barber the most popular person in Mississippi. But he did what he believed had to be done.
"We enabled people. We listened to them and helped them figure out how their dreams could be realized," said Barber, now 74.
It took several years before Owens began to appreciate what her mother had done. She knows that the harassment she endured was small compared to the injustices many blacks faced during that time. But because she was a child, her experiences are still vivid memories today.
"I felt like no one listened to me," Owens recalls. "No one understood that I was alone at that school and mistreated by adults."
Though Owens grew up in the same town as Gov. Haley Barbour, their experiences couldn't have been more different. Barbour is 10 years older than Owens and was in his 20s during the height of the 1960s effort to end school segregation. Barbour's father, Jeptha, died when he was 2 years old, and his mother, LeFlore, had the sole job of raising three sons. Barbour, whom classmates named "Mr. Yazoo City High School," graduated with honors from the all-white Yazoo City High School in 1965. A picture of him in his school yearbook mentions his "cocky friendliness and versatility."
In 1968, Barbour left the University of Mississippi during his senior year to work on Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. During the 1970 mandatory integration of Yazoo's public schools, Barbour was gaining valuable experience for his future political career, running the U.S. Census for Mississippi at age 22.
Perhaps when Barbour told The Weekly Standard in a Dec. 27, 2010, article that he didn't remember the civil rights area as "being that bad," he was speaking from his own limited experiences with the struggle to end Jim Crow laws. But his comments garnered national criticism after he said the Citizens' Council, a formalized white-supremacist group created just months after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to preserve a segregated society, was the reason Yazoo managed to integrate schools without violence.
"You heard of the Citizens' Council?" he told The Weekly Standard. "Up north, they think that it was like the KKK. Where I come from, it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City, they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."
The same day the article ran, Barbour backtracked on his statements.
"When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens' Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time."
Barbour's comments offended Owens, but she attributes it to his lack of awareness more than anything else.
"I don't think Barbour is a racist," Owens said. "I think he is ignorant not to know what happened, and then he speaks about it. He should ask someone how things really were. No one involved (in the Civil Rights Movement) would say what he said."
Fear and Threats
On Oct. 15, 1956, LeBertha Owens gave birth to Gloria at home with the help of a midwife. Worried that the frail and premature baby would not survive the night, they placed her in a shoebox and rushed to the office of Drs. Maria and K.P. Mangold. In their hurry, the women went through the clinic's front entrance, which was for whites only—an unintentional mistake that could have gotten them arrested. Any violation of Jim Crow segregation laws and policies could also bring a violent reaction from whites in 1956 Mississippi.
Maria Mangold, however, treated the newborn without hesitation.
With the nearest emergency medical facility for blacks several miles away, the Mangolds often saved the lives of blacks who needed medical treatment and would likely not survive the long trip. The Mangold's son, Steven, remembers finding black parents holding convulsing babies or men with gunshot wounds when he answered the back entrance to the clinic when he was 7 years old.
In 1955, the federal government funded the construction of a hospital in Yazoo for blacks and whites, required under the Hill-Burton Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 1946. The Citizens' Council, which had formed in Indianola in 1954 in response to the Brown decision, circulated a petition in which doctors agreed they would not treat black patients at the new hospital. When the Mangolds refused to sign the petition, Citizens' Council members told them that the family would face harm.
Every couple of days, dead animals and trash appeared in the Mangolds' front lawn, and the family received a fair number of threatening phone calls, Steven Mangold says now.
Under pressure, the Mangolds finally signed the petition, but by that time, K.P. Mangold had lost all his white patients, and his wife lost half of hers. In order to make a living, Mangolds' father moved to Toronto, Canada, for the next two years.
Steven Mangold, now 63 and an investor in San Jose, Calif., said his family never quite fit into Yazoo City's mold. His mother fled Austria when Hitler gained power there in 1938, and his father, who was from Johannesburg, South Africa, was a well-educated doctor, engineer and philosopher who corresponded regularly with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Mangold said Haley Barbour—who lived a block from them—was his best friend growing up. The two boys spent lazy Mississippi afternoons shooting BB guns or exploring the woods. Although Mangold disagrees with Barbour's account of the Citizens' Council, he is reluctant to address why the governor said what he said.
"Haley may say nothing really happened, but a lot was going on," Mangold said simply.
In anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court's May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Mississippi lawmakers made a half-hearted attempt to improve the state's racial disparities, in hopes that they might receive a favorable ruling from the court, and preserve the state's "sovereignty"—a code word that largely meant the right to maintain segregationist policies and laws.
In 1953, the state Legislature passed a public school equalization program to provide equal pay for black teachers, as well as equal-education opportunities and transportation. The state, however, never provided adequate funding for the program.
Lawmakers also made provisions in anticipation of an unfavorable court ruling. A few months before the high court's May ruling, the state Legislature adopted an amendment to the state Constitution that, with approval from the state's voters, would allow the state Legislature to "abolish the public schools" rather than integrate them. Mississippi white voters—Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting at the time—approved the amendment to the state's constitution on Dec. 21 by more than a two-to-one margin.
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling was the trigger for the formation of the Citizens' Council. In his book, "Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction 1954 to 1964," historian Neil McMillen writes that Mississippi Rep. John Bell William's 1954 speech attacking the court's ruling inspired Tom Brady, a Brookhaven lawyer, to write a 90-page pamphlet titled "Black Monday," which became a handbook for the organization commonly called the "white" Citizens Council.
Brady wrote that the United States could only be saved if white citizens elected Supreme Court judges, created a youth indoctrination program and a separate state exclusively for blacks and, if all else failed, abolished public schools altogether.
"The social, political, economic and religious preferences of the Negro remain close to the caterpillar and the cockroach ... proper food for a chimpanzee," Brady wrote.
Soon after his speech and years before the Ku Klux Klan would re-emerge to fight black suffrage and equality attempts, organizers began forming Citizens' Council chapters in counties throughout the state with headquarters initially in Winona, Miss.
On the surface, Barbour was correct in saying that the Citizens' Council was made up of town leaders. In a town of only 11,000 people, 1,500 respected business leaders were members of the organization in 1955—his uncle, attorney William Barbour Sr., among them, according to Yazoo native Harriet Kuykendall. The Citizens Council was mostly well-heeled business and community leaders throughout its more than 15-year tenure in the state and beyond; Greenville newspaper editor Hodding Carter Jr. dubbed it the "uptown Klan," as a result.
The Council advocated using the law to keep a segregated society, and openly criticized the Klan's reputation for violence. But instead of openly advocating bodily harm and violence, the Council used economic threats against whites and blacks as its weapon of choice.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secretive state spy agency the Legislature approved in 1956 to protect the state's "sovereignty" and segregationist policies, reported on a 1958 Citizens' Council luncheon:
"At these meetings, they take up anything pertinent to racial relations that has happened during the last week and decide what action should be taken. If the complaint is with reference to some Negro agitator, a committee will go to the Negro's boss and discuss the situation with him," the report states. "Usually the boss will fire the Negro. That will end the matter without the Citizens' Council being outwardly involved."
In 1955, the NAACP circulated a petition asking for the schools to integrate in Yazoo City. Shortly afterward, the Citizens' Council coerced the majority of the 53 black petitioners to remove their names by publishing a list with all the names and addresses of each petitioner. Those who signed the petition were fired from their jobs, evicted from their apartments, and the council ran several black petitioners out of Yazoo.
It wasn't until the late 1960s, when several civil-rights activists came to Yazoo, that blacks would challenge the status quo again.
Hodding Carter III, who worked with his father Hodding Jr. at the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville during the 1950s and '60s, said the Citizens' Council's purpose was never to run the Klan out of town, as Barbour implied, but to use economic violence to make sure integration did not happen in their community.
"There were lots of towns where there was no violence," said Carter, who wrote a book on the Council called "The South Strikes Back." "... But there is another kind of violence."
Carter, whose family was considered an enemy of the Citizens' Council, corrects Barbour's assessment of the group's purpose. "(The Citizens' Council) was not organized to stop the KKK—except as a rhetorical flourish since they had contempt for people in the Klan. They were organized to stop desegregation. Period. If anyone says anything different, they have no record to go on. That's what they were in business to do."
What It Was Really Like
In 1968, Owens' seventh-grade teacher conducted a mock election with her students for the November 1968 presidential election. As she counted the ballots, she noted each vote for independent candidate George Wallace, who was running against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. When she discovered a lone vote for Humphrey—the most liberal of the three—she walked up to Owens' desk.
"I wonder what child voted for hard-headed Humphrey. Did you do this?" her teacher, who was white, said mockingly to Owens.
Owens recalls her confusion and shock at the situation. "I remember that incident like it happened this morning," she said in February, barely touching her fried catfish plate at Clancy's off Highway 49. "I remember thinking: ‘She just taught me that my vote is private, and now she is making a mockery out of me.'"
In 1968, as the Citizens' Council began to lose its fight for desegregation, the organization put all its support behind Wallace, who was running as the American Independent Party candidate and as a staunch segregationist. While Wallace gained 36 percent of the southern vote, he only won 13.5 percent of the national total. The Council used his loss to call for organized resistance to "racial awareness" in the north, and held on to the idea that Wallace could still lead the country in the future.
"Even before the placards of 1968 were pulled down, Council leadership launched a ‘Wallace in 72' movement," McMillen wrote. "Through the creation of a permanent, national American Independent Party, they could cling to the hope of electing a segregationist president."
A Calm Transition
By all accounts, the cold morning of Jan. 7, 1970, was calm as national media staked out Yazoo City's public schools and watched for white and black students to become peers for the first time. Yazoo native and author Willie Morris, who was writing an article for Harper's Magazine in the wake of the Supreme Court's demand to immediately integrate, was one of the witnesses.
In his book, "Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town," Morris writes about the praise Yazoo received for its peaceful transition. The Yazoo Herald published editorials and letters from all over the country championing the city for shining a positive light in Mississippi during a time of racial turmoil.
Full integration, however, did not come right away. Morris writes that the next day, officials from the U.S. Justice Department came to Yazoo after school officials had kept classrooms segregated. The previous year, about 1,000 Yazoo community members and school-board officials had met to discuss concerns of the quality of education white students would receive when the schools were integrated.
In his 1971 Harvard University thesis "The Dynamics of White Resistance to Court-Ordered School Desegregation in Selected Mississippi School Districts," John Patrick Berry writes that during the meeting, school-board officials said they approved a plan to desegregate buildings but not classrooms so that "unqualified blacks would not teach children, and slow black students would not hold whites back."
In January 1970, enrollment in the Yazoo City Public Schools district was 2,077 black and 1,362 white—a significant achievement over the majority of Delta public schools that went from being all white to majority black overnight as private "segregation academies" opened to provide an alternative to integration.
In his praise for his hometown, Barbour failed to mention the black community leaders who took a stand to fight for equality. Father Malcolm O'Leary, who was a rector of the black Catholic church, St. Francis, and Rudy Shields, who organized approximately 30 boycotts throughout the state, were among those activists.
In 1968, the two men and several others helped organize business boycotts in Yazoo in response to city officials' resistance to providing paved streets in black neighborhoods and the hiring of a black police officer and fireman. Most of the city's blacks participated in the boycotts for a year, taking a bus to Jackson to shop instead of doing business with the town's white merchants. After nearly a year of blacks spending their money outside the city limits, the city council ceded and hired the city's first two black police officers, and merchants started to sell to black workers.
"What it has done more than anything else is break down the white man's pride," O'Leary said in Berry's thesis. "Every little town should put the white man on his knees."
On an uncommonly warm Friday evening in January 2011, Owens stops in to Ardis Russell Jr.'s CPA office on Main Street in Yazoo City. Russell, son of former Police Chief Ardis Russell Sr., gives Owens a warm greeting after he emerges from his office where stacks of manila folders and papers are piled high. Russell removes two cardboard boxes from the tops of chairs and invites Owens and this reporter to take a seat.
"I always tell everyone about the time his daddy put my momma in jail," Owens said.
Russell and Owens take turns describing when, in 1968, LeBertha Owens tried to take her daughter to the then all-white B.S. Ricks Memorial Library to get the reading materials she needed for Yazoo City Junior High School. When the library staff saw her mother walk into the library, they called Yazoo City Police Chief Ardis Russell Sr., who immediately drove to the library and demanded to know what she was doing.
"I need to get materials for my daughter so that she can do her homework assignments," LeBertha Owens matter-of-factly replied.
The daughter watched as two police officers handcuffed her mother and led her to the back of a police car. The little girl was left all alone, crying.
"My mother didn't realize it was a big deal," Owens recalls. "She wasn't doing it to be a radical. She was doing it so that I could get my assignments."
Billy Turner was one of the two black police officers the town hired as a result of the boycotts. Eating dinner at KFC on a Friday evening in February, the 72-year-old has a boyish smile and wears a Chicago Bulls jacket, although he swears he is not a fan.
"You aren't going to get me in any trouble talking about this town, are you?" Turner asks. "You know our governor is from this town."
When the boycotts ended, activist Rudy Shields sent Turner to the police station to apply for the job. Turner admits that he was a little hesitant to serve as the first black on the force under the racist police chief, but someone had to do it, and he needed a job.
By all accounts, Russell Sr. was a hard-nosed police chief who many remember for being quick to anger; yet, he had a sense of humor. He was also outspoken with his segregationist beliefs. Once, a black woman sued him for kicking her.
"He was a loud talker, but all he ever wanted you to do was respect him," Turner said about Russell. "I gave him all my respect in the world. He said I was crazy because I didn't let him scare me. ... He just didn't want no black people to be up front. He wanted them to be behind."
Turner, who remembers his father sitting in his front yard with a gun all night to protect his family from whites in the 1950s, also dismisses rumors that the black officers weren't allowed to have bullets in their guns or to pull whites over.
Steven Mangold also remembers Russell's tactics. While shopping at a grocery store when he was a teenager, he watched Russell beat a black man with a baton for eating a grape in the produce aisle—something he had done himself several times without issue.
"There were thousands of little incidents like that, that happened all the time—where blacks were treated like a different class," Mangold said.
A Change of Hands
The tumultuous civil-rights events of the 1960s eventually took a toll on the Citizens' Council's power. During the Council's heyday, it had exerted influence over elected officials and the state's governors, from 1954 to the mid-1960s. While the Council could not receive public funding directly because of state law, the State Sovereignty Commission funded the Citizens' Council "Forum" starting in 1960 until 1965. Established by the state Legislature in 1956, the "Forum" distributed propaganda through the white-owned media to promote the state's segregated history. From 1960 to 1964, the Sovereignty Commission allocated a total of $193,500 to the program.
James Meredith's admission to Ole Miss in 1962 was a pivotal event in the power structure of the Citizens' Council. In the days leading up to Meredith's admission, Gov. Ross Barnett and the Citizens' Council publicly denounced the integration of the university. The Council called on students to rebel against school officials, and the day before U.S. marshals escorted Meredith onto the Ole Miss campus, 2,000 Jackson Citizens' Council members surrounded the governor's mansion playing the state song "Go Mississippi" and Barnett's campaign theme song "Roll with Ross."
When Citizens' Council members heard rumors that federal marshals were coming to seize the governor, they formed a human wall around his mansion and proudly waved Rebel flags, which had become, by that time, the symbol of segregation.
On Oct. 1, when the marshals escorted Meredith onto the university's campus, riots erupted, leaving two dead and 375 injured.
"The barrage of incendiary statements and literature dispensed by state and local Councilors accounted in no small way for the high degree of student agitation, apparent in a mob willing to assault—with bottles, bricks, fragments of concrete, and Molotov cocktails—battle-ready federal marshals," McMillen writes about the Citizens' Council's role in the violent event.
McMillen adds that after the showdown, the governor began to distance himself from the Council, as criticism mounted over their role in the violence.
The Ole Miss debacle would be one of several lost battles for the Citizens' Council. The nation watched as more than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers ventured into Mississippi in 1964 for Freedom Summer, a project that registered black voters. The murders of three civil-rights workers on the first day of Freedom Summer in Neshoba County drew more scrutiny.
The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 was another setback for the Council. Among other tenets, the bill prohibited state and local governments from denying access to public facilities because of race, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to file suits to enforce the integration of public schools.
Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson Jr., who took office in 1964, would later fail his promise of fighting to preserve segregation. During campaign speeches, he would regularly tell audiences that the NAACP stood for "N*ggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons and Possums." But soon after his inauguration, in what appeared to be a change of heart, he criticized the Citizens' Council, calling them a "rear-guard defense of yesterday," and subsequently distanced himself from the organization.
"When it's obvious that you have lost, your enthusiasm for participation in the cause diminishes no matter how red hot you are," Hodding Carter III said about the Council's decline. "You hate every minute of it, and you can't bear to say anything but n*gger, but it no longer makes any sense. What was promised by the Citizens Council had failed. They had failed to stop the on rush of integration in all aspects."
Contain, Not Squash
In "Yazoo," Willie Morris writes that Yazoo City state Sen. Herman DeCell and his wife, Harriet, were the only ones in town who subscribed to The New York Times, and their daughter was a leader among "liberal" students at her school. The DeCells held a dinner for reporters the night before the 1970 integration.
Harriet, who now goes by the last name Kuykendall, was one of the white teachers at the all-black school in 1968 during the "freedom of choice" experiment, and her late husband was a partner at the law firm of then Barbour, DeCell and Bridgforth—the family law firm where Haley Barbour cut his teeth.
Herman DeCell and other community leaders who promoted a peaceful integration—such as Yazoo Herald editor Norman "Bubba" Mott and Haley Barbour's uncle, William Barbour—were also members of Yazoo City's Citizens' Council, Kuykendall said. Herman DeCell, whom Gov. Barnett appointed to the state Sovereignty Commission in 1960, would later serve on the bi-racial board for the Head Start Program in Yazoo.
Without a clear understanding of the paradigm shift in the 1960s, it can be difficult to distinguish heroes from villains in Yazoo. Many men who were members of the Citizens' Council would later support the peaceful integration of public schools. They would also urge parents not to send their children to Manchester Academy, the all-white "segregation academy" that cotton planters and business leaders founded in 1969 in anticipation of forced integration. The Citizens' Council threw much weight into keeping the public schools segregated because it was a fight that appeared to be winnable. But after the U.S. Supreme Court's Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decision specifically ordered 33 Mississippi school districts to integrate by January 1970, the Citizens' Council focused on ensuring that white children had other, private alternatives to attending integrated schools.
At age 83, Kuykendall sits poised by a window in her north Jackson home as she recalls the day her husband came home to tell her he had joined the Citizens' Council in the late 1950s.
"I remember that Herman said: ‘William (Barbour) says we need to get involved with the Citizens' Council because we need to run it,'" she recalls. "William Barbour liked to run things."
Kuykendall echoes Haley Barbour's assessment that the Citizens' Council was essential in keeping the peace during integration, and said that is the core reason many community leaders joined. But, she believes Barbour's statements are "naïve."
"I don't think you need to give credit to the White Citizens Council for keeping it peaceful," Kuykendall said. "The people who were in it—the town leaders—just neutralized it."
Mott, now 86 and living in Yazoo, also defends his membership in the Council, saying it was a different time period when people were scared of change.
"Don't forget: We had laws against integration that had been going on for a long time," Mott said on the phone from his home in Yazoo. "It did make second-class citizens out of blacks for a long time, and that was wrong. But that was what the law was. If you change the laws, you don't just revolt, you change the laws by legal means."
Hodding Carter III points out that the attitude of Yazoo's Citizens' Council members was the norm for the majority of white Mississippians during that time.
"There is hardly any way to exaggerate the force of conformity. There weren't people walking around proclaiming, ‘We need to do the right thing and integrate,'" Carter said. "They had to appeal to economics and practicality. It was not all men are brothers, and we need to be in the same place. That just didn't exist."
Many residents credit Owen Cooper with changing race relations in Yazoo. Cooper was the owner of Mississippi Chemical Corporation—a fertilizer company that served as Yazoo's economic engine, employing several hundred workers. Cooper wasn't just a businessman; he was a leader who put his aspirations of becoming the state's governor on hold to promote racial equality. He worked with the NAACP and formed Mississippi Action for Progress to establish the first statewide Head Start program so that poor children could have more educational opportunities.
Cooper called on community leaders and Yazooans to promote peaceful desegregation. He also hired Mississippi Chemical's first black employee in 1967, which put him at odds with the majority of business owners in Yazoo. Cooper died in 1986.
But Cooper did grow up in a segregated society, and it wasn't until later in life that his belief system changed. Nancy Gilbert, Cooper's daughter and now 70, said she followed her parents' acceptance of keeping blacks and whites separate, like most whites during that time. But a college semester spent in Europe shattered her belief system when she attended class and interacted with people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
When Gilbert came back to visit Yazoo during the 1960s, she became aware of the racial inequality surrounding her, and she expressed those convictions to her parents. Over time, their beliefs transformed.
"My daddy and mother and I slugged it out for almost a decade when I went to visit them," she said. "But I have to say that their minds just opened. I told Daddy: ‘I will not go to a church that posts guards at the front door to keep black people out. I simply will not go to a church like that because that ... is so totally anti-Christian.' He began to think about things like that, and mom did, too, and by George, they began to come around."
Carter also remembers Cooper as a pivotal figure in Yazoo.
"Owen Cooper fashioned himself into what Haley Barbour would like to pretend the Citizens' Council was all about," Carter said. "Owen wasn't just against violence. Owen was proactive about trying to change conditions on the ground to benefit black Mississippians."
"While other leaders may not have been supporters of desegregation, by the time of school integration, they began to accept the inevitable and called on the community to support the public schools."
In the months leading up to public-school integration, William Barbour Sr. met regularly with parents in an effort to convince them not to send their children to Manchester Academy. "To destroy the public-school system is to destroy our attractiveness to industry," Barbour told parents during a meeting in 1971.
Jeppie Barbour, Haley Barbour's older brother, was the mayor of Yazoo during integration when he was only 27 years old. In "Yazoo," Jeppie Barbour said that the community would have to "make the most" of forced integration.
Despite his hesitation, Jeppie Barbour sent four of his five children to the public schools. Haley Barbour's other brother, Wiley, also sent his children to the public schools.
Haley Barbour, however, sent his two sons to Manchester Academy.
Coming Full Circle
Gloria Owens has grown to be a woman her mother would be proud of: She is one of Yazoo's town leaders. If she has any bitterness, she hides it well. Owens is constantly greeting people of all races wherever she goes, giving hugs and encouraging words.
As a social worker, she works with students in the public-school system and leads the Gateway Make A Promise (M.A.P.) Coalition—a bi-racial group of the city's and county's top students who volunteer in the community and promote anti-drug and alcohol campaigns.
By the time Owens graduated from Yazoo City High School in 1974, she had started to find her niche in the community, she said. She credits her senior humanities teacher JoAnne Prichard Morris (an editor of this newspaper, the widow of Willie Morris and this writer's landlord) as her most influential teacher and a woman who encouraged her to make a difference.
Owens admits, though, that the Yazoo City school district hasn't made as much progress as she would hope—the city's public schools are 99 percent black today, with the majority of the white students attending Manchester Academy.
At Howell's Restaurant at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17, students gather for a meeting. In between groggy yawns, they eat forkfuls of pancakes and eggs while a woman, a recovering crystal meth addict, gives an emotional speech about her experiences with addiction. As the meeting comes to a close, Owens stands up and applauds the students.
"The reason this coalition is such an important part of our community is that, despite our backgrounds, despite our race and our economic backgrounds, we work together to stamp out drugs and alcohol in our community," Owens tells the high schoolers.
Later that morning, Owens walks to the entrance of the library where her mother was once arrested for trying to check out books for her. She points to a brick at the foot of the entrance engraved with the names of her mother, who died in 2001, and her two deceased siblings. Owens paid for the brick to help fund the library's extension, and it now serves as a memorial to her mother.
"I always look for that brick whenever I come to the library," Owens said. "It makes me think about how far things have come."
[Editor's Note] Barbour's Cross to Bear
I think that is the governors biggest problem. He really acts before he thinks.He has done that here. Then he has to wiggle out of his words, which by then, the damage has already been done. This sounds more like Barbour's "growing up" in Yazoo and why he doesn't admit it is beyond imagination. He just don't talk about the real truth. Great story on the real Yazoo City. Unfortunately you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
Lacey this is fantastic researching, interviewing, writing and story telling. I couldn't put it down until I read the whole thing. It ranks right us their with Brian's job with the Cedric Willis story. An award winning job as far as I'm concerned. Thanks.
I couldn't agree more, Walt. Lacey simply outdid herself with this story. We are very, very proud of her. She bulldogged this story for the last two months as she edited the JFP Daily every day and all her other writing and editing duties here. This is what a passionate journalist looks like: You do it because you have to and regardless of what else is going on. Cheers to her.
Great piece, Lacey. This story is a carbon copy of many of the racial happenings around the state. You, however, told it BEST!