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Voter Registration 1964:

Incident in Hattiesburg, Mississippi


ith a historic presidential election looming, discrimination challenges to state voting rights laws are working their way through US courts. In July 2016 a federal

appeals court struck down certain North Carolina vot-

Incident in Hattiesburg* May 18, 1964 By Howard Zinn

ing provisions as discriminatory, and shortly thereafter

there was one moment of sick humor when the

Governor Pat McCrory announced plans to appeal to the

four of us in the FBI office in Hattiesburg, Miss., met the

US Supreme Court. Also in July, the US Court of Appeals

interrogating agent who had come in to get the facts from

for the Fifth Circuit in Veasey v. Abbott held that Texas’s

Oscar Chase about his beating the night before in the Hat-

voter ID law was discriminatory and remanded to the

tiesburg city jail. John Pratt, attorney with the National

district court to design a remedy. With the legal land-

Council of Churches, tall, blond, slender, was impeccably

scape in flux, will states be able to educate poll workers

dressed in a dark suit with faint stripes. Robert Lunney, of

and voters, and implement and enforce voter rights in

the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights, dark-haired and

time for the election?

clean-cut, was attired as befits an attorney with a leading

Against this backdrop, IJA Report looks back through

Wall Street firm. I did not quite match their standards

the personal lens of NYU Law professor and IJA Co-

because I had left without my coat and tie after hearing

Faculty Director Oscar Chase at the enforcement of vot-

of Chase’s desperate phone call to SNCC headquarters

ing rights in an earlier politically and racially charged

to get him out of jail, and my pants had lost their press

time. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was the site of a major

from standing in the rain in front of the county court-

protest in 1964 during a voter drive known as Freedom

house all the day before; but I was clean-shaven and tidy.

Day. Organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating

Chase, a Yale Law School graduate working with SNCC

Committee (SNCC), the demonstration brought lawyers,

in Mississippi, sat in a corner, looking exactly as he had

academics, journalists, and religious leaders from all

a few hours before when I saw him come down the cor-

over the country. Although few African Americans actu-

ridor from his cell: his boots were muddy, his corduroy

ally registered, due to administrative delay tactics and

pants badly worn, his blue work shirt splattered with

threats of violence and arrests, Freedom Day is generally

blood, and under it his T-shirt, very bloody. The right

considered a success because there was no violence and

side of his face was swollen, and his nose looked as if it

it incrementally moved black voting rights forward. The

were broken. Blood was caked over his eye.

following excerpt from a SNCC flier, reprinting an article from The Nation, May 18, 1964, relays the story of a young

The FBI agent closed the door from his inner office behind him, surveyed the four of us with a quick profes-

Oscar Chase, then a recent Yale Law School graduate who

sional eye, and then said soberly: “Who was it got the

was teaching at Tougaloo College nearJackson, Missis-


sippi, and working with SNCC to advance voting rights.

I mention this not to poke fun at the FBI, which

Chase was arrested for attempting to buy a Greyhound

deserves to be treated with the utmost seriousness. After

bus ticket at the “colored” desk of the depot. He was

all, the FBI is not responsible–except in the sense that the

brutally beaten in a jail cell by a fanatic segregation-

entire national government is responsible, by default–for

ist. Chase recently revisited Hattiesburg and shares his

prison brutality and police sadism. It is just one of the

observations in a postscript after the excerpt.

coldly turning wheels of a federal mechanism into which

IJA Report / Fall 2016

is geared the frightening power of local policemen over


*Reprinted with permission from The Nation.

any person in their hands. Chase had been jailed the day before–Freedom Day in Hattiesburg–when a vote drive by SNCC had brought more than 100 Negroes to the county courthouse to register. On Freedom Day, also, fifty ministers came down

IJA Report - Fall 2016  
IJA Report - Fall 2016