Klansmen were sitting in cars outside Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Itta Bena, Miss., on June 18, 1963, as local Black citizens held a “Medgar Evers Memorial” voter registration meeting.
One of the Klansmen threw a tear-gas bomb under the church, causing noxious fumes to rise through the wooden floor boards as the conversation went on inside the church in the small Mississippi Delta town in Leflore County near Greenwood.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Silas McGee led everyone out of the building, where klansmen then hit them with rocks, bottles and other objects. It was just six days since white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, both a member of the racist Citizens Council based in Jackson and the Klan, had assassinated NAACP leader Medgar Evers on June 12 at his home in Jackson.
With McGee at the helm, the meeting’s attendees marched past the white supremacists in protest through downtown Itta Bena, even as cars tried to run them down. The sheriff ignored the klansmen, but he arrested dozens of protesters and jailed at the Caboose, an Itta Bena jail. The protesters were charged them with disturbance and breach of peace, The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper reported the next day. The paper said then that Sheriff John Ed Cothron had arrested 58, with 29 of them minors, loading them all into a school bus and driving them to the county jail in Greenwood.
White authorities held a five-minute trial the following morning with protesters, ranging in age from children to women in their 70s; records show that 45 protesters were fined and sentenced to the Leflore County prison farm.
The Greenwood Civil Rights Movement headquarters had no money to bail the protesters out, so they stayed in prison for two months. During that time, the inmates held hunger and work strikes, and the jail transferred 23 of the 45 protesters to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, where they endured harsh conditions.
On Aug. 16, 1963, the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization based in New York that supported the Civil Rights Movement, paid the protesters’ bonds, and they were released.
The church sustained no damage from the bombing, and voter-registration work continued. One hundred and fifty attempted registrants voted by affidavit in the gubernatorial primary in Itta Bena on Aug. 6, 1963, and state authorities rejected every vote.
During her years as a student at Mississippi Valley State University, Shannon Bowden said she never knew the significance of Itta Bena’s history. After graduating in 2003, she returned to the school years later as a professor. While working, she heard stories that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had visited Itta Bena and been arrested and jailed there, she said.
“In doing my research, we found out we couldn’t find evidence that he was in the jail, but Martin Luther King Jr. had been in and spoke in Itta Bena. Also the March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson came through Itta Bena,” Bowden told the Mississippi Free Press.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—a state-funded spy agency set up to target anyone supporting Black rights and voting in the state—had branded King a “communist,” with state leaders vowing to bar him from speaking in Mississippi.
As the Greensboro, N.C., native took in all this new information, Bowden found out the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area had a grant opportunity to recognize different places across the Delta region.
She applied for the grant and won, creating the “Breaking Bread” Itta Bena project, which adds three new markers to the Mississippi Freedom Trail. The markers will memorialize Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, March Against Fear and the “Caboose,” a jail in Itta Bena.
“Hopewell (Missionary) Baptist Church was the main location for people to meet, to register to vote, to get things that they might need because no other church in the area would allow them to meet due to the fear of repercussions from others,” the professor said.
Bowden says that at times, people view Mississippi Valley State as separate from the city of Itta Bena itself, so this project provided an opportunity for collaboration between the city and the school.
“Breaking bread,” the project’s title, represents the ushering of people talking to and learning from one another. “The thing about it (is) had it not been for Itta Bena, the project wouldn’t have happened, and if it hadn’t been for Mississippi Valley State, the project that wouldn’t have happened, and I needed both in order for the project to be successful,” the project director said.
‘Center for Civil Rights’
During the voting-rights movement in 1963 and 1964, Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church became the center for civil-rights activities in Itta Bena. The SNCC came to Greenwood in late 1962 for a voting-registration project, for which Greenwood native William “Bud” McGee was assigned to work in Itta Bena in 1963.
“The idea was if we can break Greenwood, we can break Mississippi,” freelance writer Scott Barretta told the Mississippi Free Press. “Greenwood was just regarded as this place, which was going to be extremely resistant.”
Barretta conducted interviews with Itta Bena residents about Hopewell and the Civil Rights Movement for the project. SNCC needed volunteers to get the movement going, but they couldn’t just meet in just any building, which is where churches played a pivotal role, Barretta said.
“The churches were extremely important in the early ’60s because otherwise there weren’t places for people to meet, so it’s impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement without the churches,” Barretta said.
“It was very important that SNCC found preachers who were willing to allow organized people to go to their churches, and most preachers did not want to do that,” she added. “It means that you’re gonna incur the wrath of the police department, but this one church in Itta Bena was willing to hold meetings.”
Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church leader Rev. G.W. Hollins supported SNCC’s efforts, and the church began hosting “Citizen Workshops” for adults and young people. Prior to the June 18, 1963, bombing, a a smoke bomb inteerupted a workshop on May 3, 1963. A police report included depositions from Bud McGee and Lawrence Guyot. Guyot was a civil rights activist from Pass Christian and the director of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The church also played a key role in activism work during the Freedom Summer of 1964, including recruitment to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses and Ella Baker founded the party to encourage Black political participation and challenge the state’s white Democratic Party, then often called “Dixiecrats.”
Land of Blood, Sweat and Tears
The “Breaking Bread” project began in 2019, but the effort ran into complications due to the pandemic. The committee conducted phone interviews as opposed to meeting in person and getting interviews on film. And shipment of the markers saw delays, Bowden said.
“I had a committee of four come together. First, it was researching it to get the information that we needed to support the markers and then contacting the different entities, which was Visit Mississippi, Mississippi Historical Archives and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area,” the MSVU professor said.
The grant totaled $24,500 and paid for the markers and further research. Donations also poured in from several departments at Mississippi Valley State, Itta Bena’s city board of aldermen and New Bethel Baptist Church.
The committee sourced some historical information about the role Hopewell Missionary played in the Civil Rights Movement from New Bethel, Bowden said.
“I learned more about the church and what the people had to go through, how SNCC was involved, and I learned more about the university at that time as well as their role in the civil rights movement,” she recalled. “It’s like a real close-to-home type of learning. I see it on TV, and I read about it in books, but I actually had the opportunity to talk to people who were actually a part of it, or their family members had some type of impact in it as well.”
While a majority of Itta Bena’s citizens know of the town’s civil-rights history and Hopewell Missionary’s involvement, what surprised many was the existence of the Caboose and the city’s connection to the March Against Fear, she said. The March Against Fear, which was started by James Meredith, was a walk from Memphis, Tenn. to Jackson, Miss. to encourage black voter registration and combat entrenched racism.
The project has been an eye-opening experience for her students, who often had no idea they were so close to a place that played a role in the Civil Rights Movement, Bowden said.
“It makes it real,” the professor explained. “You’re stepping on land that people’s blood, sweat and tears actually was on. It’s not on TV. It’s not in a movie. It’s right here. It’s tangible.”
A Vision: ‘It Needs to Thrive’
The Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church marker concludes the project, though Bowden said the community has discussed doing more projects in the future, like restoring the church or turning it into a community center.
“If we were to take it to the next level, it can be restored (and) turned into a museum with artifacts from the Delta,” she said.
Bowden hopes the project will help boost tourism in Itta Bena through the trail markers. She said that when people take bus tours, they visit Greenwood, bypass Itta Bena and head to Indianola for the B.B. King Museum. Tourists are missing a whole historic area in the Delta, she expressed.
“The vision is to see more visitors come to Itta Bena as a result of these markers and make a major impact on the city as well,” the MVSU professor said.
Bowden said that her appreciation for Itta Bena has increased dramatically after participating in this marker project. She added that she feels honored and lucky to be an Itta Bena citizen and feels that she is living, walking and breathing in history everyday.
“I think that knowing that (Itta Bena) is a significant place, a vital place, it needs to thrive. With awareness, some of that may come,” Bowden said.