Love Thy Neighbor
The Personal is Political, Post 2
By the time our family arrived in Jackson, the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, which established that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, had been ignored in Mississippi for ten long years. As a six-year-old, I had no idea.
Just as Momma and Daddy planned, I joined the neighborhood children for the walk up the hill on the first day of school. We passed a fire truck,
ambulance, and several police cars without as much as a hiccup. The City of Jackson was taking no chances on a day like today. Daddy hadn’t warned me about the appearance of emergency vehicles, but I took cues from the other children and kept walking toward the front door where a crowd huddled before the morning bell. For all I knew, the hubbub was normal.
My teacher stood outside the first grade classroom door to welcome me and my classmates, just as Daddy promised. My fears fled as I absorbed into the new world I would come to know as school. I arrived home that afternoon proud that I was an official first-grade student, one whose first day was free of threat. I had no imagination for the fact that other children and their families all over Mississippi had been in danger for simply walking into a schoolhouse that day.
The state’s nominal efforts toward ending segregation required Black parents to register their children in White schools. This injudicious
response required Black citizens to assume primary responsibility for
desegregation with little or no oversight by White authorities. Intimidation tactics involved a full spectrum of violent acts, from verbal threats to drive-
by shootings, all meant to forestall the gov’ments intentions.
Winson Hudson, a local Black community-builder and activist, explained that in the town of Carthage, an hour from Jackson, “the last few days before school opened White people were riding by day and night, threatening everyone. . . .” Of the families in Carthage who volunteered to register their children, all but one withdrew from the effort after threats and harassment.
The daughter of A. J. and Minnie Lewis was one child who would rise to
the ominous occasion of entering a White school in Carthage on opening day in 1964. First-grader Debra would have a welcoming party of overwhelming proportions: police, marshals, attorneys from the Justice Department, and F.B.I. agents, including my father.
A well-regarded Black newspaper up East, The New Pittsburg Courier, picked up the story and reported the following on September 12, 1964:
CARTHAGE, Miss. — A Negro father kept his promise to the slain
Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People — Medgar Evers — and was fired from
his job for doing so. A. J. Lewis, who enrolled his young daughter
in the first grade of the Leake County School here Tuesday, Sept. 1,
has been notified by the lumber company at which he was employed
that he no longer has a job. The daughter, Debra, was the only one of
nine Negro children eligible to attend the school under a Federal court
order won by the NAACP. Parents of the others bowed to intimidating
pressures, levied by white businessmen the day before, and kept their
These details were unknown to me until I researched them myself well into my adulthood. As a six-year-old, the scariest things in my life were the
ghost stories that the older kids on the block told on rainy days when we
would make forts under folding patio chairs. The monsters of prejudice and hate existed on the invisible sidelines of my life, as cases in my father’s F.B.I. files, in the secret plans hatched in Ku Klux Klan meetings, and in the biggest accomplice to the rebirth of the Confederacy, Jim Crow. None of that was discussed at our kitchen table. I didn’t have a clue.
Dad was a witness to the Lewis family’s dramatic entry into the annals of Civil Rights history. Debra single-handedly integrated Carthage Elementary School and her family suffered for it.
Of the many notes and articles my dad sent me over the years, the most poignant was a library-printed copy of Winson Hudson’s obituary on which he made notes that he had known her and respected her ongoing fight against mounting odds to bring equality to her community.
Neither of these Mississippi trailblazers would live long enough to learn of the perpetual racial violence that has continued to plague our nation well into the 21st century. Rest in power, Debra Lewis and Winson Hudson, two of the many unsung heroes in what looks to be an unending march toward freedom.
The integration story of first-grader Ruby Bridges attained more notoriety than Debra Lewis’s. Read more here.
Hudson, Winson and Constance Curry, Mississippi Harmony: Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter (2002)
Read The Personal is Political series, Post 1 for the fuller context of this story.