SUNFLOWER, Miss. — Lonnie Echols says he is only trying to get the Town Council in this rural community to do two simple things: fire a "bad cop" and stop charging a $25 user fee for private meetings at the local community center.
But, when he and four other elderly blacks started a protest last month by sitting in lawn chairs across from the mayor's drugstore, Echols was arrested, precipitating a constitutional challenge of an 18-year-old Mississippi law he says was designed solely to prevent blacks from staging boycotts.
Legacy of Racism
It is a story of the '80s with overtones of the turbulent civil rights struggles of the '60s; and, in many ways, it is a story that could take place only in Mississippi, where the legacy of racism can quickly compound the simplest of local conflicts.
"I never thought it would come to all this," said the 72-year-old Echols, a retired cotton farmer and president of the Sunflower County NAACP.
When Echols and his fellow protesters first set up their lawn chairs outside Mayor Joel Parker's pharmacy and convenience store in early April, the mayor complained to county authorities. Parker, who is white, contended that the protest violated a 1968 state law against unfair restraint of trade.
Two-Year Prison Term
The county officials agreed, and Echols was arrested, with his bond set at $500 by a county judge. Violation of the law is a felony that carries a fine of up to $1,000 or a maximum prison term of two years.
As the protest continued, Echols was arrested four times, with his bond ultimately increased to $10,000. Another protester was arrested three times, and a third person once.
After his last arrest, however, Echols filed suit on May 7 in federal District Court against Parker and three state and county officials, contending that the anti-boycott law violates his constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly.
Echols' attorney, Ellis Turnage of nearby Cleveland, contends that the state attorney general has tentatively conceded that the statute is unconstitutional. However, the attorney general's office says only that the matter is under discussion.
In any event, Echols and two others set up their lawn chairs again Thursday to resume the protest across from Parker's store on the one-block main street in Sunflower.
No matter what the state and county officials do, Parker says, he is going to fight the case.
"If this law is taken off the books, then there's no respect for law and order in the state of Mississippi any more," he said.
The statute was enacted in the wake of a 1966 black boycott of white businesses in Port Gibson. It says that, if two or more people conspire to prevent a merchant from doing business and that merchant has no control over their grievances, then he can claim unfair restraint of trade.
No one appears to be more suprised at the turn of events than Echols. "All we were really boycotting about was a bad cop that was hired and the use of the neighborhood facility," he said. Echols contends that the policeman--one of three blacks on Sunflower's four-man force--is unfit to serve because he was involved in the shooting of a black man as a police officer some years ago in the neighboring community of Indianola.
Parker says that such matters are in the hands of the five-member Town Council, and the mayor does not sit on the council and has no vote.
The mayor contends that the real root of the boycott is Echols' long-standing political grudges. Echols has run three times for mayor and several times for county office--all unsuccessfully--each time raising racial or economic discrimination as a campaign issue.
Business Picking Up
In the first week of the boycott, business at Parker's store dropped sharply. But he continued to serve his customers by delivering prescriptions and groceries to those who stayed away. Since then, trade has gradually built up.
Echols says that if his boycott has lost steam it is because blacks fear losing their jobs or credit at local stores if they protest openly. "Most people are scared to speak out here," he said.