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Samuel Block; Mississippi Civil Rights Activist in 1960s

Obituaries

April 26, 2000|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Samuel Block, a veteran of the civil rights movement who, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led a historic effort to register blacks in Greenwood, Miss., to vote despite often brutal opposition, has died.

Block, 60, died in his Los Angeles apartment April 13. The cause of death was not announced, but he was known to have been afflicted with diabetes.

Block's civil rights credentials were impeccable.

"He was a real heavy lifter in the movement," said Robert Farrell, a former Los Angeles city councilman who was active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) during the '60s and is now a Los Angeles Sentinel columnist.

Block was born in Cleveland, Miss. His father was a construction worker and his mother a maid. After graduating from high school, Block enlisted in the Air Force, but problems with asthma led him to be discharged a year later. He studied political science for two years at Marlboro College in Vermont before transferring to Mississippi Valley State College, a traditionally black college in Itta Bena, Miss.

But Mississippi in those days was not Vermont and Block was soon expelled for his civil rights activities, family members said.

Greenwood, Miss., was the center of the cotton belt in the early 1960s. Segregation was firmly entrenched and efforts to advance the cause of civil rights often were met with violent opposition. Shootings and arson were used as tools of suppression.

The charter of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People had been revoked by Medgar Evers, the NAACP's field secretary in the state, because chapter members had done little since the beating and murder in the mid-1950s of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth visiting from Chicago.

So SNCC, in the form of Samuel Block, came to Greenwood in 1962. Block was forced to spend more than a few nights sleeping in his car, turned away from the homes of fellow African Americans afraid that participating in efforts to secure their rights would compromise their safety. He spent a few nights in jail too, arrested for trying to register blacks to vote.

As Taylor Branch, whose "Parting the Waters" is one of the definitive histories of the civil rights movement, put it: "Block had acquired the reputation of a stubborn, lonely figure among the strange new breed of devout daredevils," a reference to those activists who were unafraid to put themselves in jeopardy to register blacks to vote.

In one incident, a judge found Block guilty of making an incendiary public remark but said he would suspend Block's sentence if he agreed to give up the voter registration project and leave town.

"Judge," Block replied, "I ain't gonna do none of that."

So Block began a six-month sentence after paying a $500 fine. But his attitude and willingness to do the time galvanized local blacks. That night, according to Branch, more than 250 people gathered for a voting rights meeting.

Block faced peril in locations other than Greenwood, as well. Once in Nashville, the owner of the Tic-Toc Restaurant sprayed a fire extinguisher in Block's face during a sit-in that Block led to desegregate the eatery.

Farrell remembered Block as "quiet, assertive and committed to the cause. He walked the walk with people . . . going from mobilization places downtown to register to vote."

Block moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s because business opportunities for African Americans were better. He worked in the import-export business, was active in community development and was something of an inventor. Recently, he was working on a process to prevent tires from blowing out or losing pressure.

A memorial service for Block will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Second AME Zion Church, 3612 W. 64th St., Inglewood.

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