Key stories in the struggle for voting rights in 1963.
Freedom Ballot (or “Freedom Vote”). In a radical challenge to the concept of voter “qualification” (which in Mississippi required prospective voters to pass an arcane literacy test), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee holds an unofficial statewide “Freedom Ballot” based on the principle of “One Man, One Vote.” Designed to demonstrate that large numbers of Blacks will vote when afforded the right to do so, the event draws more than 80,000 people, who defy white intimidation to cast ballots. The Freedom Ballot lays the foundation for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which will challenge the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ the next year.
Generally speaking, the struggle for the vote distinguished the entire year. In Greenwood, local blacks angered over a food blockade by white officials and incensed over the repeated arrest of SNCC field secretary Sam Block stage the city’s first mass protest on the date of his trial. The protest inspires a mass meeting of 250 people, the largest to date. Soon local blacks who once feared being seen with Movement workers repeatedly brave police dogs, club-wielding cops, and economic reprisal in the attempt to register to vote. By year’s end, some 1500 African Americans have attempted to register. The local Movement burgeons, and voter registration efforts expand into surrounding Delta counties. Corresponding drives take place in Laurel, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, and Vicksburg.
In Holmes County, farmer Hartman Turnbow is one of the first African Americans to register to vote since the end of Reconstruction. After he leads 12 others to the county registrar, Klan nightriders firebomb his house. In Sunflower County, sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer is fired from her job and evicted from her home after she and 20 others attempt to register to vote. It sparks her lifelong commitment to the Movement.
In Itta Bena, 150 blacks respond to the assassination of Medgar Evers with a memorial voter registration mass meeting which is tear-gassed by Klansmen. Singing freedom songs, the people immediately march to the town hall, where 45 are arrested, given a five-minute “trial” and sent to the Leflore County prison farm. A week later, 200 African Americans show up at the courthouse to attempt to register; many are sent to the prison farm.
To dramatize the struggle for the vote, SNCC targets the all-white Democratic Primary, preparing local people to show up at the polls and demand the provisional ballots afforded citizens illegally prevented from voting. On August 6, nearly 1,000 blacks across the state cast provisional ballots.