By: Sid Salter
I have distinct memories of two memorable, inimitable figures from the civil rights era in Mississippi whose lives and experiences are featured in two books published by the University Press of Mississippi, the state’s academic book publishing press, that are now in bookstores or available at upress.state.ms.us.
The first book is “Mississippi Witness: The Photographs of Florence Mars” by James T. Campbell and Elaine Owens (176 pages) and features a collection of Mars’ remarkable photographs that she began taking in the 1950s and continued through the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County.
Second is a new edition of the classic 1966 James Meredith memoir “Three Years in Mississippi” with an introduction to the new edition by Aram Goudsouzian, the noted civil right scholar who chairs the Department of History at the University of Memphis. The book chronicles Meredith’s 1962 integration of Ole Miss and his later 1966 March Against Fear that resulted in him being shot and wounded by a sniper on the second day of the march south of Hernando.
When I think of the late Florence Mars of my hometown of Philadelphia, I think of the small, sharp-tongued woman who wore a little dark Greek fisherman’s cap as she drove around town in an old Volkswagen Beetle. She died in 2006 at the age of 83.
At first blush, Miss Florence was not someone you’d have pegged as one who would stand up to the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1960s in small town Mississippi. She was a white lady born to a patrician family of wealth and means, a family synonymous with commerce, substance and influence.
But that’s exactly what Mars did. She refused to abandon her principles in the face of Ku Klux Klan or Citizens’ Council threats — or worse, to simple peer pressure.
Miss Florence’s innate sense of decency, her progressive social and racial beliefs and her own stubborn determination to live her life on her own terms brought her to feel the dragon’s breath of Klan intimidation back in the 1960s.
What happened to Florence Mars is worthy of remembering. Burly Klansmen who had infiltrated the ranks of Neshoba County law enforcement arrested her on trumped-up alcohol charges during the height of the civil rights era in a blatant attempt to ruin her reputation and to destroy her business interests.
In 1977, Mars wrote the gripping memoir “Witness in Philadelphia” (LSU Press), about her life in Neshoba County and the 1964 Klan murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, giving the world a compelling look inside her community as it struggled to find its soul in the wake of the killings.
My favorite memory from numerous interactions and correspondence with James Meredith over the years came on a Chicago sidewalk outside the Hilton Chicago on Michigan Avenue on July 11, 2013, as part of an event in which the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago honored players from the 1963 “Game of Change” that pitted Mississippi State University against Loyola University in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Meredith was also honored at the event for his lifetime achievements, but he took time to greet fellow Mississippians from MSU while wearing a blinding white suit and a bright red Ole Miss cap. The anger and intensity that necessarily marked his sojourn in the 1960s gave way to warm, genuine and cordial gentlemen in his later years.
Both books are must reads for those seeking first-person accounts of the atrocities that took place in Mississippi in the past and how far – warts and all – the state has come since those tumultuous days.