By 1965 concerted efforts to break the grip of state disfranchisement had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had achieved no success at all.
The murder of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, gained national attention, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism.
Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on their way to Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators’ resistance to allowing the African American vote.
President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings began soon thereafter on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act. On the dawn of its 40th Anniversary, Congress is preparing for the reauthorization
of key provisions in the Voting Rights Act that will expire in 2007.
Margaret Block remembers going door to door in rural Charleston, Mississippi over forty years ago at the age of 17 and “right out of high school” to hand out voting rights pamphlets.
“People would see me coming and close their doors. They were really afraid. It was much worse than Greenwood,” Block said, referring to a town in the neighboring county where her civil rights activist brother Sam coordinated voting rights efforts among disenfranchised blacks.
“We were always competitive. When Sam said he was going to Greenwood, I decided I’d do him one better by going to Charleston, since it had a worse reputation. Now when I think about it, that was not a very good idea.”
Margaret Block had not been working for very long, in fact, when a Klansman tried to kill her with a knife in front of the county courthouse. “I was pulled away by a Justice Department agent. They usually didn’t protect us. But he did this time, and I remain grateful.”
Soon afterwards, a tiny Charleston woman saved Block’s life when Klansmen were “on their way into town” looking for her.
This time Block’s protection quickly came from Birdia Keglar, Tallahatchie County’s first black to vote since the days of the state’s second Reconstruction, a short period of freedom for Mississippi’s African Americans following the Civil War.
“I was handing out voting pamphlets downtown and a man came running up to me and said I needed to go to Birdia’s office right away. She managed a funeral home and when I got there, Birdia sneaked me away in the back of a hearse. Someone had called Birdia and warned her that the Klan was on the way to get me.”
For several days Margaret Block hid out in a small cave outside of Charleston until Charlie Cobb and Ivanhoe Donaldson – both SNCC workers from Howard University – came to pick her up and take her to Greenwood and then to the Brewer’s farm near the tiny cotton hamlet of Glendora, also in Tallahatchie County.
There, she kept working on voting rights in the rest of the county until leaving for Jackson and finally California in 1966.
BIRDIA BEATRICE CLARK KEGLAR, a small and courageous African American woman with dark piercing eyes, was well known in the Mississippi Delta [a northwestern region of Mississippi] for speaking out against racism, even when she was very afraid to do so.
Born June 1, 1908, in the hill country of rural Tallahatchie County, she grew up on land purchased by her mother’s early relatives after the Civil War. The land stayed in the family and this was a true source of pride. Family members picked their own cotton, grew their own vegetables, and raised their own livestock on this family plot.
“We never picked cotton for other people – just for our family. We had good food to eat, and we were fortunate,” said Robert Keglar, her son. Birdia was married young, and the marriage did not last. Her husband left home when Robert was five, so mom and grand-mom raised him, and W.T. Gray, his uncle, also played an important role in this family’s lives.
They were a family of achievers. Gray, a bright, self-taught teacher, often discussed civil rights at the dinner table. “And this was back in the 1930s,” Robert Keglar said, “when black children typically attended small country schools overseen by poorly educated teachers.”
The Gray family had a strong tradition of learning and teaching, a skill that Robert’s uncle passed on to him. Birdia Keglar went into business instead of teaching, managing a funeral home in Charleston.
Following another family tradition, she was an early civil rights advocate, not easy for any black person of those times, particularly in Tallahatchie County, one of the Delta’s strongholds for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the most violent of the Klan organizations.
While most of Mississippi’s Klan activity took place in Southern counties, this part of the hill country at the edge of the Delta boasted Klan members as well as neighboring Leflore, Sunflower, Quitman and other Delta counties. [A Klansman from Leflore County in 1963 killed Mississippi civil rights leader, Medgar Evers.]
Birdia Keglar’s fighting spirit frequently roused the attention of Sheriff Ellett R. Dogan, “notorious for his violence to Negroes.” One Charleston native, a close friend of Keglar’s and later the county’s NAACP president, described the late sheriff as a “paternalistic man, who sometimes acted like he cared” about Keglar and other black citizens.
“Dogan might put his arm around you and tell you not to worry, because there would always be a meal for you and a place to live. But you had to be a good Negro to get this kind of treatment from him,” Lucy Boyd said.
“When he was bad, he was very bad. And that was how it was most of the time in Charleston. I remember a time when I was younger and a black man accidentally bumped a white woman’s arm – just bumped her. This was on the sidewalk, and the woman’s husband beat the hell out of the black man. This was not unusual and Dogan wouldn’t have stopped it.”
Boyd, born Lucy Garvin on November 3, 1930, also in Tallahatchie County, became one of Keglar’s close friends, despite their age differences.
“Birdia would say that she was ‘supposed to do important things’ in her life – and she always was going out somewhere to do them.
“One day I heard her tell several others she was going ‘into the Delta’ to do something for civil rights – I don’t remember exactly what it was, except that she often went places with Amzie Moore over in Cleveland, a Mississippi Delta civil rights icon who was organizing blacks well before World War II.
“I had two dollars in my purse, and that was a lot of money. I handed it to Birdia and said ‘you are probably going to need this.’ I thought that I could at least give her something to get some food while she was out there working for the rest of us. I guess I was born to be involved. She was quite surprised. I don’t think anyone else had done this for her; it was the beginning of our long friendship.”
Birdia Keglar first became known by the state’s Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded organization formed in 1955 to fight integration and voting rights for blacks, because of her voting records. While the Commission maintained a formal headquarters and included various legislators and businessmen as board members, it also maintained a link to the Klan, very likely funding some of the Klan’s terrorism against Mississippi blacks who spoke or acted out.
Keglar first appeared on the Commission’s radar after investigator Tom Scarbrough visited Charleston on November 17, 1961 and then filed a report about “problems” brought on by Keglar, Gray, and S. N. Drake, all voting rights activists.
Sent back to Charleston to gather details, the former FBI agent met with Sheriff Dogan, Circuit Clerk Tom Harris, and Judge George Payne Cossar who reported they had been summoned by the Federal Civil Rights “Department” [sic] to appear in Oxford, Mississippi’s Federal Court on December 13, a month away, over voting irregularities in Tallahatchie County.
“All three Negroes [Keglar, Gray and Drake] proffered charges against the two officials alleging they had refused to sell them a poll tax [stamp] and to register them to vote,” Scarbrough reported.
Keglar had tried to pay the required poll tax for ten years, but said she was refused each time by the Sheriff’s department, that no one would accept her money. Drake, a retired schoolteacher, made the same complaint, adding the excuse used by Clerk Harris in February 1960 was that all of the registration books were in Jackson, Mississippi.
Harris told Drake that he would let him know when the books were returned but Drake said the clerk never notified him, Scarbrough continued. At the time Drake tried to register to vote, “Birdie Kilger [sic] was with him in the clerk’s office.”
Keglar’s cousin had also complained about voting rights; at one time, Gray brought Floyd Bodain, David Alford, and Robert Keglar into the Charleston Courthouse as witnesses, according to Sovereignty Commission files.
“All three Negroes charged that they were denied their rights as provided for in the Constitution of the United States.
“[But] Mr. Tom Harris, the circuit clerk, said no Negroes have been in to try to register since the early part of 1960 and at that time, he said he did not have a registration blank. He said he was new on his present job and had not received his blank [form] to take applications to register anyone,” Scarbrough’s report stated.
“Since [Dogan] has been sheriff, no Negro ever requested to pay his poll tax to him. Therefore, he [Harris] said he could not have refused to sell a Negro a poll tax.” As it was, no Tallahatchie black had ever been allowed to register and vote [since Reconstruction], according to Scarbrough.
By the time the Sovereignty Commission agent arrived at the Charleston Courthouse for a second visit over the voter registration issue, those accused had lawyered up. Judge Cossar represented Chief Dogan and Dugan Shands, assistant state attorney general, was helping with both cases.
Cossar had also set up an appointment with State Rep. Walter Sillers (Mississippi’s long-time powerful and racist Speaker of the House) and the three men asked Scarborough to have “someone present from the Sovereignty Commission” at the Oxford hearing on December 13.
In his second report, Scarbrough stated that according to the sheriff, Gray and eight African Americans had testified before a “make believe” Civil Rights Commission hearing at a Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Close to 2,000 people, black and white, attended the special hearing that drew attention to voting problems faced by African Americans in the South.
The event, described by Scarbrough as an “embarrassment to Mississippi,” was sponsored by 16 civil rights organizations including the Southern Conference Educational Fund of New Orleans (SCEF), an organization often investigated and labeled “communist” by the state’s Sovereignty Commission.
In Washington, D.C. Gray testified he “tried in vain three times” to pay his poll tax and register, and that he and other Negroes were threatened with violence and loss of their jobs if they persisted.
“One night my family and I were in the car. We were intimidated for an hour and a half. After that, I received a letter from the county superintendent that my services [as a teacher] would not be required in the coming year.”
AT THE TRIAL IN OXFORD on December 14, 1961, Birdia Keglar and John Doar of the U. S. Justice Department were surprised to learn that she was “already listed” on the Tallahatchie County voters list, according to the county’s witnesses. The Associated Press (AP) reported:
Shands surprised Mrs. Birdia Keglar during cross-examination of the federal suit which charges that county officials discriminated against Negroes who wanted to vote by refusing to let them pay poll taxes. State attorneys on December 13 received a list from the federal government of prospective witnesses, including Mrs. Keglar.
John Doar, attorney for the Justice Department, said he was “sure Mrs. Keglar would pay her poll tax” because “she’s been trying for ten years.”
Government attorneys were expected to prove there had been a systematic exclusion of Negroes as voters since Sheriff Dogan took office, and at a preliminary hearing the week before, Judge Claude Clayton of Tupelo ordered the county’s officials to turn over all poll tax and voter registration records to government attorneys for inspection, the AP further reported.
It was not until three and-a-half years later, on June 23, 1964, when Victoria Gray, a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) member, sued to abolish the certificate of nonpayment of poll tax in order to vote in Mississippi and on October 20, 1964, the District Court granted a permanent injunction.
* * * *
“Two Killed In Highway Accident”
A two-car crash on U. S. 40 about five miles south of town accounted for the death of two Negro women Tuesday night. The Mississippi Highway Patrol said Birda [sic] Clark Kegler [sic], 57, of Charleston and Adlema Amlett [sic] of Scobey, were killed in the accident.
Admitted to the Greenwood Leflore Hospital for treatment of injuries were Brown Lee Bruce, Jr., of Sidon, who was alone in one of the automobiles, and Jesse J. Brewer and Grafton Gray, Negroes, and Richard L. Simpson 27, white, of Mass., occupants of the other car. No other details of the accident are available at this time, authorities said.
(From the Greenwood, Mississippi newspaper, January 1966)
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