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.
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.”