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She would not be moved

Mississippi Harmony, Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter, Winson Hudson and Constance Curry, Palgrave Macmillan: 176 pp., $26.95

October 27, 2002|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is the author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" and "Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start."

Preserving memory is an act of hope for Winson Hudson of Harmony, Miss. By telling her story, one of undaunted courage in the face of Ku Klux Klan violence and indifference from some fellow blacks, she hopes that young people will build on the efforts that she and others made in their Mississippi hamlet over the last 50 years. They defied gun-toting nightriders, hostile sheriffs and obstructionist registrars to provide education for the children of their community, secure voting rights and improve health care. She beseeches her black neighbors to "hold onto the land." Land, and the food that could be raised on it, have given Hudson and others the independence to confront segregation in its many forms.

"Mississippi Harmony: Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter," told with the help of writer and activist Constance Curry, is a slender volume by a stout-hearted woman who devoted her life to fighting racial discrimination, serving from 1962 to 2001 as president of her county's chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. When Hudson was only 8, her mother died of inadequate medical attention while giving birth. That death, and those of two sisters and other relatives, later led Hudson to crusade for better health care for poor people in general and blacks in particular. She remembers that, not so long ago, black patients sat in separate waiting rooms and saw doctors only when the physicians had seen all their white patients. And that black people died en route to hospitals 75 miles away because none closer to their homes would admit them, even in emergencies.

Then there was the matter of the vote. Since 1890, Mississippi had had a clause in its Constitution that prospective voters had to be able to write a clause in the Constitution selected by the registrar, then explain it. The registrar rejected many black Leake County residents who were asked to interpret a 206-word provision explaining the technical qualifications for voting, while whites had to interpret this clause: "All elections shall be by ballot."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Winson Hudson and her sister Dovie repeatedly went to the courthouse to try to register to vote, sometimes dodging hostile white onlookers. Always, they failed -- until they complained to the U.S. Department of Justice. With the federal government's backing, the sisters returned to the courthouse. Asked to interpret a section of the state Constitution, Hudson replied: "It said what it meant and it meant what it said." The sisters both registered successfully.

Education has been another lifelong concern. Between 1913 and 1932, the Julius Rosenwald Fund helped black communities build 557 schools in Mississippi, none better, Hudson writes, than the one in Harmony. Then came the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. In the ensuing years, the county school board wanted to close the Harmony school rather than send white students there. Harmony residents fought to keep their school, but NAACP leaders wanted to eliminate segregated schools.

But the state refused to desegregate. Hudson and others bravely gathered signatures on a petition asking the federal courts to let black children attend previously all-white schools. Local resistance was also fierce, and nightriders shot into many Harmony homes. "Our petition with the list of names was posted at the courthouse, and the folks who worked for whites or lived on their land were forced to take their names off," she writes. Of 52 who originally signed, all but 13 dropped off. Still the petitioners won. They then scoured the county for a black family willing to send a child to a white school. Debra Lewis began school in Carthage, 13 miles away, in the fall of 1964, a decade after the Supreme Court decision.

This history cannot be told too often. Too few young people know the price paid so that they might attend school, get jobs, even have telephones and drive on paved roads. But memory is more than history -- it's also the glimpses of life in a small community hemmed in by whites. For example, Hudson's father would not let her or any of her sisters work in white people's homes because rape was a constant fear. "When we did work away from home," she says, "you better believe it was a bunch of us or some boys with us -- not by ourselves -- at no time."

In 1989, photographer Brian Lanker published a stunning book of portraits of black women who changed America, "I Dream a World." In that book featuring such prominent women as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Oprah Winfrey, Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, there is only one photograph showing two women -- Winson and Dovie Hudson (both married men named Hudson). They sit on straight-backed chairs, hands in their laps, looking levelly at the camera through large eyeglasses. They seem at peace. They did their part, and far more.

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