Freedom Riders, Tougaloo Nine reflect on great events of 1961

Author and civil rights activist ­­Joyce Ladner is back in her home state of Mississippi to share her memories of student protests at Tougaloo College and Jackson State University during the civil rights movement. She spoke on Wednesday at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Symposium held at JSU. Advocate photo: Alice Thomas-Tisdale

 

The Tougaloo Nine staged the first sit-ins of public institutions in Mississippi at the Carnegie Library in Jackson, March 27, 1961. They are, left to right, Joseph Jackson, Jr., Geraldine Edwards, James “Sammy” Bradford, Ethel Sawyer, Albert Lassiter, Gloria Pierce, Meredith Anding, Jr., Janice Jackson, and Alfred Cook.

Sammy Bradford is not exactly a disgruntled, batty old fogey who sits on his front garret everyday spitting out nasty sprays of tobacco juice between his denunciations of everything in the universe that doesn’t conform to his standards. Quite to the contrary, Bradford still has good teeth, he’s lucid, and he really doesn’t even know what a garret is. (It’s a makeshift porch.)He nevertheless does have a wide range of pet peeves. And mostly, he is dissatisfied with the short shrift his favorite people, the Tougaloo Nine of 1961, have been getting in the official reviews and commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. As a member of that select group of students who changed Mississippi history forever, Bradford is at a loss to explain this neglect. “What did we do to keep us from being invited to the party?”

Bradford mused in a phone interview Tuesday evening while at home in Tougaloo. “It seems that everybody is being celebrated and praised for their fine work except the very people who launched the civil rights movement against some of the greatest odds everfaced by man or beast. I’m not saying that the Tougaloo Nine should be rolled out like world-conquering heroes in a ticker-tape parade every year, but they should at least be acknowledged, along with many others, whenever a purported celebration of civil rights activities in Mississippi takes place. That’s something that I’ve found to be woefully absent from and a terrible misrepresentation of our history over the past 50 years.” As a bit of balm to ease his discomfort, Bradford, 69, and the seven other surviving members of the Tougaloo Nine are taking center stage this week at the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute’s 28th Annual Memorial Symposium titled “We Are Not Afraid: Youth Activism & the Mississippi Freedom Struggle,” convened Wednesday and Thursday (Oct. 5-6) at Jackson State University and Tougaloo Former Howard University President and JSU-Tougaloo student leader Joyce Ladner was the featured speaker at last night’s opening session. Thursday offers a full day of forums on student leadership, freedom issues past and present, at JSU. The final phase of the activities will be an “Evening with the Tougaloo Nine” beginning at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 6) in historic Woodworth Chapel on the Tougaloo campus. Noted author and former Tougaloo Professor John Dittmer will host the Tougaloo Nine gathering. Ladner told of the events that led up to the first student demonstrations at Jackson State. She and her older sister, Dorie, were first year students at JSU from Hattiesburg when, on March 27, 1961, the Tougaloo Nine’s invasion of and arrest in a Jackson Public Library branch designated as a “whites only” facility took place. Anxious to be a part of the rising tide of social activism developing throughout the South, the Ladner sisters organized JSU students and began confronting the college’s scolding faculty and administrators. Both were expelled from JSU for their civil rights activities, and they enrolled at Tougaloo in the fall of 1961. “Dorie and I helped to organize a sympathy demonstration that was met with violent police reaction a few blocks from the campus,” Ladner said. “I believe a road block was set up at Rose and Pearl Streets. Our demonstration at Jackson State in support of the Tougaloo Nine helped lay the groundwork for the Mississippi civil rights movement. Mississippi, at that time, was considered to be too racist and violent for lunch counter sit-in’s, so the library sit-in was chosen by Medgar Evers and others because it was supported by taxpayers, both black and white.” Ladner sought to remind today’s students that “they have great potential to change their society,” she said. “I also want them know what a lasting legacy the movement gave to those of us who were participants in it.”The most recognizable figure in the pictures of the Tougaloo Nine is Albert Lassiter, 69, a native of Vicksburg, who attended Tougaloo on both a voice and athletic scholarship. As a member of Tougaloo’s fiercely competitive basketball team of that era, he stood a full head, if not also shoulders, above the rest of the group. Now a resident of Alabama, he was present for the Tougaloo, although he was absent from Wednesday’s events at JSU. Lassiter, whose father, the Rev. Wright Lassiter, was a leading member of the bitterly anti-civil rights Mississippi Baptist Convention, said that his decision to be a part of the Tougaloo Nine effort grew out of his respect for the work of Medgar Evers, who was a frequent visitor to Vicksburg during Lassiter’s high school years.