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Jesse Harris, 1940-2015

Jesse Harris was one of the many Riders from Jackson, Mississippi, a newcomer to the movement who got his first education in nonviolence while locked up in Parchman with the likes of James Farmer, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Civil Rights would become his life for the next ten years. After the Rides, Jesse worked as an organizer all over Mississippi, from the cotton fields of the Delta to the mean streets of McComb, until 1971. It is a record of perseverance and endurance at a time when many in the movement left the state for other campaigns after a year or two.

April 3, 2007

April 3, 2007, Jackson, Mississippi

The following are excerpts from my interview with Harris in 2007.

On being recruited to join the Freedom Rides by James Bevel, a member of the Nashville student movement and a fellow Mississippian:

James Bevel came to the place where we hung out at — it was like a pool hall. He said, “Hey, we got this bus coming in. People are gonna be protesting at the Trailways bus station and they need local support.”

That’s where my education stated.

People had to be orientated in the philosophy of nonviolence. Because we were gang members, now. You might say that I was one of the leaders of the Georgetown Gang. When I went to jail, when they heard that I was in jail, the whole gang came in right after me.

When I got out of jail, everybody said, “Hey!”

And I said, “Well, you gotta go, too. You ain’t nothing until you go to jail. You Uncle Tom ’til you go to jail.”

On his time in Parchman:

I didn’t understand nonviolence. I learned all that when we was in Parchman with James Lawson and John Lewis and all of ‘em. That’s the way we occupied our time. We was engaged in discussions. I was picking up not only the philosophy of nonviolence but the history. These people had been active back in the 1950s, in the 1940s. I learned so much.


Before they got there, I think somebody set forth — I think it was James Farmer — said, “Well this is what we’re gonna do. This is the agenda while we’re here. We’re gonna get up in the morning, make up our bed, say our prayer, and we’re gonna start our discussions at 9:00.”

I didn’t talk about nothing. I was listening. [Laughs.] I was loving it. Yeah, I was learning it.

My favorite was Bernard Lafayette, because he more like the hood type, in his conversation. What you call the street talk. He can relate that back to where I came from, to those of us who were from the Jackson area. We relate to him because he was funny and he was intellectual. Lawson and Farmer, they were talking like they giving a lecture at Harvard University or something, especially when Lawson was talking about the Bible.

On organizing in Mississippi:

In Laurel, I went down to the county clerk and said, “I’m here to encourage people to register to vote.”

She said, “OK, but don’t bring no more than two at a time. I can’t handle but two at a time ’cause I got other work.”

I said, “Oh, two at time? Okay.”

 I was there the next morning with about 150 people. [Laughs.]

She said, “By God, you son of a bitch.”

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Freedom Riders Return to Parchman

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On May 25, 2011, as part of a week-long commemoration in Mississippi of the 1961 Freedom Rides, many of the Riders who had been incarcerated in Parchman that summer returned to the prison and toured Unit 17, the maximum security building where they had been locked up.

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David Fankhauser

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In 1961 Unit 17 was also the site of death row and the gas chamber, which was located in the rooms off the main cell block to the right in the diagram above. Unit 17 no longer houses any prisoners, but inmates are still executed here, now by lethal injection.

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Bill Harbour

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Ellen Ziskind

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Larry Hunter

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Rick Sheviakov. In the background is David Baer, son of Rider Byron Baer, who was Sheviakov’s cellmate and died in 2007.

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Judith Frieze Wright

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Joy Reagon-Leonard

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Dion Diamond

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Dion Diamond

Dodie Smith-Simmons

Freedom Rider Dodie Smith-Simmons

In 1961 Dodie Smith-Simmons wanted to be a Freedom Rider. A native of New Orleans, she had joined the local youth chapter of the NAACP at age 15. Now she was 18, a member of CORE and a veteran of marches and sit-in. But instead of going to Jackson and getting arrested, she worked behind the lines. New Orleans was an important staging city for the campaign, a way-point for Riders coming from the west coast and elsewhere. Smith-Simmons and her CORE colleagues housed and fed the Riders on their arrival, trained them in nonviolence, then put them on trains and buses into Jackson.

When the federal government announced on September 22 that it would finally enforce the law, abolishing segregation in southern bus and train stations, it appeared that Smith-Simmons had lost her chance. But Mississippi provided nothing if not opportunities for Civil Rights activists. Many cities continued to segregate their stations, so New Orleans CORE began sending Riders back into Mississippi.

On November 29, 1961, Smith-Simmons and four others road a Greyhound bus to from New Orleans to McComb, Mississippi. On arrival they were denied entrance to the station’s waiting room due to a supposed gas leak. They returned a bit later and successfully integrated it, at which point they were attacked by a gang of whites and driven from the station. Claude Sitton, the New York Times reporter who had covered the Rides all summer, described the scene as a repeat “on a smaller scale [of] the riots that greeted Freedom Riders last May in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.”

The Riders managed to escape without any help from the McComb police, who were nowhere to be found, or the FBI observers on hand, as always, to observe and nothing more. But if they were paying attention that day, they did get to see Dodie Smith-Simmons become a Freedom Rider.

Above, Dodie Smith-Simmons photographed outside the old bus station in McComb on April 16, 2012.

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