Canton, Mississippi’s Flonzie Brown Wright presented her story as a true Civil Rights pioneer during her book signing at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi in January. Before a respectable audience at the museum, Wright gave stirring recollection of her attempts to register to vote as a young African-American woman in Madison County, only to be turned away by a white County Clerk in the early 1960s because she did not “pass the test.”
Wright remembered facing “test” questions that had nothing to do with voting rights, such as “How many soap bubbles are in a bar of soap?” and “How many jelly beans are in this jar?”
The white supremacists who controlled county government at the time used these questions and the payment of a poll tax to keep Blacks from registering to vote. Wright’s response to the clerk who turned her away was ‘One day, I’ll have your job.’ She soon followed through on that promise with fierce but steady determination.
Wright’s experience led to a 1965 complaint from the U.S. Department of Justice led by Attorney General Robert Kennedy which foundthat, of the 10,366 adult Blacks in Madison County at the time, only 152 had been allowed to register to vote, whereas more than 5,000 of the 5,622 whites in the County were registeredvoters.
Oppressive strategies such as poll taxes, irrelevant testquestionsand violent voter intimidation had been the tools used by a white minority to maintain positions of power over a black majority in Madison County, as well as dozens of other counties in the Deep South. Through civil rights efforts by Wright and others, such did not last when brought to national attention.
Therefore, Wright fulfilled her promise in 1968 when she was elected Election Commissioner in Madison County. She continued to fight for voting rights and against active voter intimidation, which did not go away of its own accord. Local elections were still being monitored by out of state lawyers sent by the U.S. Justice Department in 1971.
Wright also played a pivotal role in the 1966 “Walk Against Fear” march. James Meredith, the first Black student to successfully enroll at the University of Mississippi, was shot in Hernando, MS., just 18 miles south of Memphis, while on his planned 200-mile trek from Memphis to Jackson. Numerous other Black civil rights leaders organized to take up the march in support of Meredith’s efforts to “bring injustice, discrimination, dehumanization, and all other forms of racism to a screeching halt.” They included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.
Wright recalled how she received a phone call one day while she was actively involved in helping to plan the march from her home in Canton. The caller on the other end of the line was Martin Luther King, Jr., who had already heard that if one wanted to get something done in Madison County, a person best call Ms. Wright.
Wright recalled Dr. King’s words: “Ms. Flonzie, this is Martin King. I am on my way to Canton and was wondering if you could find housing and food for 3,000 marchers who are with me?”
Wright said that she had little time to organize all of these arrangements, but was still able to deliver on all fronts. Marchers were housed and fed in church gyms by an ‘army’ of volunteers organized by Wright, who went on to introduce Dr. King before he spoke on the very steps of the Madison County Courthouse, where she and other Blacks had been turned away from registering to vote just a few years before.
The night before the march, Dr. King met with 12 of the march leaders including Wright, where he talked openly of his expectation of a violent and early death, given the threats he and his family endured on a constant basis.
“He challenged us to continue the struggle (like him) when his inner feeling, would become a frightening reality,” Wright said. “He challenged each of us to continue our involvement in spite of the difficult days ahead.” This moment has been compared to when Jesus spoke similarly with the 12 Apostles at the Last Supper.
Wright’s appearance in Biloxi was in cooperation with the Mississippi Humanities Council, where she serves on their Speakers Bureau. Her talk at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum complemented an on-going exhibition at the Pleasant Reed house called ‘A City Within a City’ with photos documenting the African-American community in Biloxi and the Civil Rights struggles there to integrate its beaches in the ‘60s and early ‘70’s.
Editor’s note: All of the above accounts are in Ms. Wright’s memoir, “Looking Back to Move Ahead: An Experience of History, A Journey of Hope.” To purchase the book, email firstname.lastname@example.org ($18 total includes sales tax & postage).
Editor’s note: Mark Isaacs is a businessman in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and a community activist in South Mississippi.