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June 08, 2016

Mississippi Inferno: Seeds of Revolt

By: 
Melissa Byers
 

Black farmers and land owners in Mississippi and throughout the racially segregated South had one resource to use in the battle against oppression: Property Bonds.

One of the most compelling stories of the Civil Rights era is that of black landowners and independent farmers who aided activists in their fight to end white supremacy and segregation laws in the South.

Mississippi Inferno: Seeds of Revolt highlights this compelling moment in American History, through rare archival footage and interviews from the revolutionaries who risked their lives to end racial inequality in the most repressive state in the South - Mississippi.

Narrated by Danny Glover, the documentary explores how the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s would not have been possible without the support of black land owners. Political power had long been controlled by the land, and access to good land was held by white people. Blacks were able to buy only the “poor land,” notes Ben Hilbun, Jr., Mississippi State Senator (1960-1967) — in the doc.

The Great Depression left many white land owners lacking liquid capital, and relief came under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

When family deeds transferred ownership to the U.S government, the land became the site for a radical experiment to test the failed promise of 40 acres and a mule to the descendants of slaves in America. Under the New Deal, blacks gained titles to over a million acres of the best cotton-growing land in the state, and within a generation, this social experiment would pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Freedom Summer was the 1964 volunteer campaign in Mississippi that made groundbreaking efforts to register blacks across the nation to vote. The project worked in part with larger civil rights groups, and set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers throughout Mississippi to aid the local black population.

They established and pushed a new political party called the Freedom Democratic Party. It was a grassroots response to the state’s white-only Democratic party, and it generated backlash from authorities — resulting in hundreds of arrests for breach of the peace.

While activists in the Freedom Project risked their lives to register black voters, build a new political party and shatter white supremacy, black famers and land owners were also met with intimidation, stall tactics and even death during their efforts to register to vote.

The community and this underground network of activists who were farmers would come together in this political game, and men such as Griffin McLauren housed volunteers - providing them with a safe haven, oftentimes under the same roof as agitators.

Black land owners had a resource which proved invaluable to the Civil Rights Movement, one that would help rescue activists from jails, and save countless lives: Property Bonds. Freedom Summer volunteers relied on black land owners for their protection during their fight to breakdown the decades-long Jim Crow system, but that protection involved using guns and more often than not, activists and volunteers were hauled off to jail.

Black people in Mississippi didn’t have a lot of cash and white people in the state weren’t willing to put up their own because they were too “busy putting people in jail,” says Civil Rights attorney Armand Derfner says in the documentary. Property bonds would allow arrested activists to remain free until their day in court. Had it not been for black land owners, freedom fighters could have remained in jail — or died in jail.

In the 1960’s, one of the largest black land owners in Mississippi was T.C. Johnson, and he became the go-to man for property bonds. Johnson was more than willing to risk land, farm and livelihood because he believed that the rewards justified the risk.

Farmers put up their land because they understood that doing so would ensure that the movement continued. Black land owners would “hurry up and go” post bond for volunteers because “they were here for us.” Property bonds bailed out more than 25,000 people during the movement.

White resistance to progress is what prevented Freedom Summer from succeeding in getting many voters registered, but the project had a significant impact on the course of the Civil Rights Movement.

The events that summer catapulted the plight of African Americans into the public consciousness, capturing the attention of  international media. The turning point came with the murder of three civil rights workers, an event which has since been called the Freedom Summer Murders. The young men had been abducted by the KKK for attempting to prepare and register blacks to vote.

A month after their bodies were found on property owned by a white farmer and alleged Klan member, congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation. Racial discrimination in voting wouldn't be prohibited until the following year, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.

Mississippi Inferno showcases the untold story of how black farmers and Civil Rights volunteers risked all to challenge white supremacy in Mississippi, which makes this enlightening documentary a worthy recipient of the 2016 Television Academy Honors.

Produced by Thunk It Productions, Ltd. in association with Mentorn Media, watch Mississippi Inferno: Seeds of Revolt on the Smithsonian Channel.


Experience the touching moments with photo galleries and presentations/acceptance speeches from the Ninth Annual Television Academy Honors celebration.

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