New Nonfiction Book Examines Voting Rights in Mississippi

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M. Susan Orr-KlopferÂ?s new civil rights book revisits MississippiÂ?s fight over voting rights 40 years ago, and introduces three strong black women, two who were killed by Klansmen for their support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

M. Susan Orr-Klopfer’s new civil rights book revisits Mississippi’s fight over voting rights 40 years ago, and introduces three strong black women, two who were killed by Klansmen for their support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Margaret Block remembers going door to door in rural Charleston, Mississippi over forty years ago at the age of 17 and "right out of high school" to hand out voting rights pamphlets.

“People would see me coming and close their doors. They were really afraid. It was much worse than Greenwood,” Block said, referring to a town in the neighboring county where her civil rights activist brother Sam Block coordinated voting rights efforts among disenfranchised blacks.

“We were always competitive. When Sam said he was going to Greenwood, I decided I’d do him one better by going into Tallahatchie County, since it had a worse reputation. Now when I think about it, that was not a very good idea.”

Margaret Block had not been working very long in fact, when a Klansman tried to kill her with a knife in front of the county courthouse. “I was pulled away by a Justice Department agent. They usually didn’t protect us. But he did this time, and I remain grateful.”

Soon afterwards, a tiny Charleston woman saved Block’s life when Klansmen were “on their way into town” looking for her.

This time Block’s protection quickly came from Birdia Keglar, Tallahatchie County’s first black to vote since the days of the state’s second Reconstruction, a short period of freedom for Mississippi’s African Americans following the Civil War.

“I was handing out voting pamphlets downtown and a man came running up to me and said I needed to go to Birdia’s office right away. She managed a funeral home and when I got there, Birdia sneaked me away in the back of a hearse. Someone had called Birdia and warned her that the Klan was on the way to get me.”

For several days Margaret Block hid out in a small cave outside of Charleston until Charlie Cobb and Ivanhoe Donaldson – both SNCC workers from Howard University – came to pick her up and take her to Greenwood and then to the Brewer’s farm near the tiny cotton hamlet of Glendora (where 16-year-old Emmett Till's body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River six years earlier).

Block kept working on voting rights in the rest of the county until leaving for Jackson and finally California in 1966, the same year that Birdia Keglar, 56, and voting rights activist, Adlena Hamlett, 78, together were killed by Klansmen after they were hanged in effigy and warned to stop their voting rights activities. Hamlett had been a teacher for over 30 years.

There was never a police investigation of the "car accident" that took their lives. Both women were decapitated and Hamlett's arms were also "cleanly severed" from her body. Three months later, when Keglar's son tried to learn more about his mother's death he was murdered. And again, there was never an investigation.

Orr-Klopfer spent the last two years traveling the Delta and writing the book’s 34 chapters and more than 680 pages of historical content. Descriptions and dialogue in “Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited” are based on interviews conducted by eyewitnesses and participants in the events. In addition, Orr-Klopfer used newspapers, books, journals and magazines, documents, letters, diaries, and oral histories from various libraries, archives and private collections. The book holds the names of 900 African Americans lynched in Mississippi. Also new details on dozens of murders, known and unknown, including Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwarner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. New facts on COINTELPRO, Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, Citizens Councils, Senator James O. Eastland are included.

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Susan Orr-Klopfer

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