Caption
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing in Jackson, Mississippi, February 16-20, 1965. Mayor Allen C. Thompson is testifying.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Mississippi Hearing

Father Hesburgh Takes a Stand

In the early to mid-1960s, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was preparing for a hearing in Mississippi, expected to be its most challenging to date. The commission was asked to postpone for different reasons, first by President John F. Kennedy, then by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, followed by his successor. In 1964, the newly sworn in attorney general asked the commission once again to call off their hearing due to a civil rights case receiving national attention. The commission chair, John Hannah, deferred to Father Hesburgh. "Father Ted, what do you think of that proposition?"

Well, the Attorney General was just sworn in, and he took an oath to follow the constitution. I recall that when we were sworn in we took an oath too to follow the constitution and the particular law governing this commission. The law says that if we have a certain number of complaints about voting, particularly, we have to have a public hearing and look into the matter. We have had more complaints from Mississippi than any state in the union. … I say it's high time we follow our oath the way he's following his. ... If we don't get this hearing through, we're likely not to get a voting rights act. And if we don't get a voting rights act, it's going to affect more than that law case. It's going to affect the whole future of this country. So I for one say, respectfully for the attorney general, thanks for the advice but this time we're going ahead. We can't let our witnesses down a third time. It's just inhuman.

One by one, every commissioner responded, "I agree with Father Ted." And so, finally, in early 1965, they were able to move forward with the Mississippi hearing.

United States Commission on Civil Rights, opening hearings, Jackson, Mississippi, February 1965. Jesse James Brewer, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, testifying.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Moving Testimony

Televised nationally, Father Hesburgh was moved by African-American’s testimonies. When a young, black farmer, Jesse James Brewer, was on the stand, Father Hesburgh asked him about his experience trying to vote. Brewer explained that he had been chased around town from county to county and then to the sheriff’s office, trying to vote but was refused, then threatened, and even shot at. He shared that when he was in the army, he could vote but once home in Mississippi, he couldn’t. When Brewer’s two younger brothers came to visit, one lost an eye, and another got a fractured skull because the first didn’t address “a white man” as “sir” when ordering soft drinks at a local store. The sheriff only scolded the men for causing trouble. Brewer said to Father Hesburgh, "At that point I thought I'd like to have a vote for who is sheriff around here."

United States Commission on Civil Rights, opening hearings, Jackson, Mississippi, February 1965. Willie Dillon, Pike County, testifying.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Six months after the Mississippi hearing, and following much violence in the South, including the Selma to Montgomery marches, involving the “Bloody Sunday” attack of peaceful protesters by local and state police in Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which would protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens and regulate elections.

Signing of the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson moves to shake hands with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Ideal Man for the Job

During the course of his tenure on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Father Hesburgh became increasingly impassioned about civil rights. He was deeply moved by personal accounts of bigotry and hatred, and recalled many stories with great clarity decades later.

It was clearly not by accident that President Eisenhower selected Father Hesburgh for the commission, nor that he continued to serve under the next three presidents. The work required a strong, moral presence and a person who was not afraid to stand up for the truth, no matter how great the opposition.

It’s Just Inhuman

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh responds to the new attorney general asking the commission to hold off an important hearing.

Transcript

"Father Ted, what do you think of that proposition?"

I said, "Well, the Attorney General was just sworn in, and he took an oath to follow the constitution. I recall that when we were sworn in we took an oath too to follow the constitution and the particular law governing this commission. The law says that if we have a certain number of complaints about voting, particularly, we have to have a public hearing and look into the matter. We have had more complaints from Mississippi than any state in the union. We prepared a hearing, got witnesses to stick their necks out, and then the President of the United States asks us as a favor to call it off several months ago, and we called it off. It's still on our conscience that we have that hearing, so we do it a second time. And his brother, the Attorney General, tells [us] it's terribly embarrassing; he has things coming up; call it off. And now our poor witnesses, and they are poor, have their necks out a third time, and we are being asked to call it off by the new Attorney General. And I say it's high time we follow our oath the way he's following his. I respect his problem with the case coming up, but I would suspect, I'll refer to Dean Griswold on this, but I suspect that case will be lucky it comes to court in the next twelve months. By that time our hearing will be long gone. And if we don't get this hearing through, we're likely not to get a Voting Rights Act. And if we don't get a Voting Rights Act, it's going to affect more than that law case. It's going to affect the whole future of this country. So, I for one say, respectfully for the Attorney General, thanks for the advice but this time we're going ahead. We can't let our witnesses down a third time. It's just inhuman in their situation.”

That Went All Over That State

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh shares the testimony of Miss Hattie from Mississippi.

Transcript

There was one case of a little old lady that ran a kind of pop stand and little store. And she decided that she wanted to vote. And she went over to the regular voting place, and they said, "Oh, you don't vote here; you've got to go to the Sheriff's Office." So they had one of those bull-necked sheriffs. And this old lady—there were two of them actually; they looked like something out of Arsenic and Old Lace. … And they go over, and she said it was kind of tough at the Sheriff's Office. One, "It had nothing to do with registering, except those dogs kept jumping at us and snapping their teeth. And the Sheriff said, ‘What's the matter, don't you like living here?’ ” And he said, “What do you want to register for?'" She said, "We want to register to vote." He said, "You want to keep on getting your food stamps?" And she said, "I thought maybe that was what the vote was about." He said, "Hattie, you vote and you can forget about that store you've got, because we'll close it down and throw you out of town."

This is an eighty-year-old woman, you know, never voted in her life, and she suddenly gets the idea, "Why shouldn't I vote for the President of the United States?" And they treat this little old lady, you know, snapping police dogs, scaring the guts out of her, run her out of the little store that keeps her alive. I tell you, if we had a shotgun we probably would have gone up. We had the Sheriff on the stand, and we really worked him over, and the Registrar and all the rest of them. It got so terrible in a case like that, I began to wonder. You know the people in the South are very religious; they're Christians. But the blacks were incredibly Christian. It's a wonder the blacks didn't explode and riot and put on a revolution. They outnumbered the whites everywhere, practically in all those black belt counties along the Mississippi. So that day I thought I'd make a point. And I said, "Miss Hattie" (everybody called her Miss Hattie, it was her first name), "Miss Hattie, do you hate the Sheriff?" She said, "Oh no, Father, I love the Sheriff. Hating the Sheriff would not be Christian." And boy, in that court room you could have heard a pin drop. And that went all over that state.

Three Bottles of Coke

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh shares the testimony of a young, black farmer, Jesse James Brewer.

Transcript

… a soldier. It was my turn to interrogate. This is a very attractive, clean-cut, nice, young black farmer. And I had to drag all this out of him, but this in sense was what I dragged out of him. I got his name, age, where he lived. He lived with his mother. What did he do? Farming. He had this small farm, he had inherited it from his father, like a share-cropper. I said, "I understand you tried to vote. Can you tell me about how it went?" He said, "Yeah, I tried to vote. I went to the County Seat where you try to vote. And they said, ‘No, you've got to go over to the other county.’ I went over to the Sheriff's Office in the other place. When I got there they obviously called ahead because everybody in town was standing around, and they … were waiting to see what was going to happen, gleefully. And as I parked the truck and walked down the street, I kept getting pushed off the sidewalk into the street. I went into the Sheriff's Office and went through the dog routine. They took my picture and said to me, 'What are you trying to do?' I said, 'I want to register to vote.' He said, 'Well, you're in the wrong place, Buster. And besides, you're not ready to vote. So you'd better just pick up and go home if you want to stay on that farm and if you want credit. You ain’t gonna get gasoline. You ain’t gonna get seed. You ain’t gonna get anything.'

Well, he went back to his house, and another truck came up behind him with a stack of rifles, and they started bumping him off the road. He finally gets to his cut-off, and he goes into his house, and they started firing at his house. He said for thirty days they were firing at his house every night. It scared the wits out of his mother. They didn't kill anything but broke windows and stuff like that. You know, when you're in the house and they're shooting at you it's kind of weird. So I said to him, "Let me get a little more of your background." I said, "Were you in the war?" "Oh yeah," he said. "All my three brothers and I were in the war." I said, "Where were you?" He said, "In the Pacific." He wasn't bragging about this at all. I said, "Were you in campaigns?—in combat?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "You got any battle stars?" He said, "Four." I said, "Did you vote when you were in the Army?" He said, "Sure, everybody voted in the Army." I said, "Why didn't you vote when you came back from the Army? How come you just tried to vote now?" "Well," he said, […] "Well, that's a story. But if you want it, I'll tell you." I said, "I'd like to hear it."

He said, "Well, my two brothers came down. When they came back from the war they didn't come back here, they went to Michigan and Indiana. They thought life would be easier up there. And they came down to visit my mother. And we were having fun while they were here. I hadn't seen them in quite awhile. Then this one day," he said, "we were in my pickup truck, and we were going down the road, back road, and we had a blowout. We got out and fixed it. It was hot, and we were fixing the tire, and we told my younger brother to go in and get us some Cokes. My younger brother went in the store, and there were the store keeper and a couple of other guys sitting there on a cracker barrel playing checkers. They looked up and saw my brother and didn't say anything. Finally, he said, 'How about some Cokes?' One of them got up quietly and walked over to the counter and put down the three Cokes. And he said, 'You got an opener?' The young fellow said, 'Yeah, we've got an opener in the truck.'

The storekeeper said, 'Now that's twice you've done it.' 'Done what?' He said, 'You addressed me twice and you haven't said sir.' […]" And he picked up two ax handles and threw them to his friends, and he picked up one, and they started to beat this guy. One of them hit him right in the eye and knocked his eye out. The other brothers heard this scuffle and they rushed in, and as one of them came to the door he got hit over the head and got a fractured skull. And they told the third brother, "Get these G.D. S.O.B.'s out of here." He said he had to carry them out to the truck, both of them, and get them to the local hospital. Then he called the sheriff and said, "I want to make a complaint about these fellows who knocked my brother's eye out and fractured my other brother's skull." He said, "Oh, is that your kin out there acting up?" He said, "Acting up? He was buying three bottles of Coke in a store." He said, "Look, if you're wise you'll get them out of town. And I wouldn't let the word out that they're your brothers if I were you, or you won't be very welcome around here." He said, "At that point I thought I'd like to have a vote for who is sheriff around here."

Four Sticks of Dynamite

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh shares the testimony of a black mechanic, Willie Dillon

Transcript

This one fellow was a mechanic in town, and he lived in a little house, and on occasion his friends would come by and he'd fix his spark plugs or timer. And he had a screw driver and pliers. If they came by at night, he had a light hanging down from a Chinaberry Tree. I remember that Chinaberry tree. That shows up in one of the southern novels I was reading, To Kill a Mocking Bird. Anyway, there were these civil rights workers' car started to act up. They had an old clunker, and of course nobody would touch it because everybody in the whole area knew who they were. And they couldn't get any food, they couldn't get anything, they were just being ostracized. So they drove over to this guy, who was known to be a black guy that had some courage and would probably help them. He said, "Sure, leave the car here. I'll fix it up, and you can come back and get it in the morning. I'll fix it up when I get back from work."

So he got back from work, and it was dark, and he strung this light over and hung it from the tree out where the car was, and he started to fix it up. It needed some tuning up. While he was doing it a car went by slowly, menacingly, with guns sticking out of it. But he finished up the work and shut off the light and went in to take a bath. He was just getting in the bath tub and BAROOM. The car went by again and they threw four sticks of dynamite on the porch of his little house. And fortunately when they threw them they hit the railing on the porch and the caps popped out of all four sticks, so all that went off were the caps. If the dynamite had gone off, it would have blown that house to Camille. Four sticks of dynamite. I've seen what it does out here in the swamps. It sends things like telephone poles cartwheeling up fifty feet in the air. Imagine what it does with a little frame house. He had a wife and two kids there. So he did what all the blacks used to do until they found out what happened. They lost all confidence in the local sheriff, so they called the FBI. Now in the South the FBI was terrible on civil rights, and instead of the FBI going into this as a federal thing, the FBI just squealed to the sheriff that this guy was calling them for help.

The sheriff came out at one o'clock in the morning, and you know the house was still smoking. Luckily the dynamite didn't go off, and the fellow, now dressed, is out in front. The Sheriff comes up. And he says, "Sheriff, what are you going to do about this? If that stuff had gone off it would have killed my wife and kids and me." The Sheriff said, "Now, wait a minute. What about that light coming down there? Do you know you're taking light illegally off the wires going by your house? What about that car there? You're practicing mechanics out here without a license. You don't have a license. You'd better come with me." No word to the wife or kids. He just puts the guy in the squad car, takes him downtown, throws him in the clink, arraigns him at first light, and gives him nine months of hard labor. Boy, we got him off that. We pulled that out in front of the whole state. Talk about inequity.

Fright and Oppression

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh briefly shares his feelings about the civil rights hearings.

Transcript

Well, I was enormously affected by the courage of those black folks down there who came in and did this testifying and had to live there. We picked up and left town, but they had to live there in that atmosphere of fright, you know, and oppression.

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