Interview with a former community activist
THE HACKLEY REPORT
By Eric Donald Hackley
Eric Hackley: What was it like growing up and being socialized in Biloxi, Miss., in the early 1960s?
Rubin Brown: It was like in any other city where you knew your place. We lived in the Negro/colored concentrated section of town, which started at the railroad tracks and went over to Biloxi Bay. Biloxi in surrounded by water on three sides. Blacks knew to go to the back door and to say, “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am,” regardless of the age of the white person. You could go to the greyhound bus station to get a meal, but you had to eat on the colored side or you had to eat outside.
EH: How did blacks feel about that? Were they upset or did they just go along with the program?
RB: They had no other alternative. To do anything less meant putting our life in jeopardy.
EH: Who fought for your rights and against the injustices?
RB: The NAACP did one on the most radical things when they tried to integrate the beach which was 26 miles of public area. Blacks could fish in the Gulf of Mexico, but weren’t allowed to swim in the water. But, we swam there anyway. As long as there was only two or three of us, whites wouldn’t say anything. But if it was 10 or 15 of us, that’s a different story.
EH: How did you become involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
RB: My mom had joined the NAACP in 1960 or ’61. The president of our NAACP was also a member of my church. He was one of the most prominent doctors in town and was the Boy Scout Troop leader. He was a Jackson State grad and went to Howard University Medical School. He was an interesting man who knew his history always spoke about black history to us.
But, it was Mr. Hatchett who really turned me on to black history. His sister was secretary of our church and I knew her very well. She was also a disciplinary sixth grade teacher. But, Mr. Hatchett was a drunk. He had fought in WWII and the Korean conflict. He was an older man who lived around the corner from us. I would always see him staggering home drunk from being out drinking. One day I decided to mess with him. I said, “Hatchet, you’re drunk” and he said, “yes, and you’re dumb.” Now I got offended. I told him he was drunk and dumb. He said, “I know something and you don’t know anything.” I said, “what do you know that I need to know?” He said, “you don’t know anything about your history.” I answered, “black people don’t have a history.” He said, “that’s what I’m saying, you’re dumb.”
Hatchett said, “you don’t know who Hiram Revels is. He was the first black senator from Mississippi.” I just about lost it. I said, “I know you’re lying now! A black man has never been senator of Mississippi.” He said, “like I said, you’re dumb,”t and he staggered on home. The next day I went to school and found a book by Langston Hughes entitled, “A Pictorial History of the Negro in America” and discovered Mr. Hatchett was right. I read the entire book when I was in the third or fourth grade and that’s what started my quest into reading about black history. I discovered a whole new view of black folks. We had been something. We had power and successes.
Then I had the opportunity to hear the NAACP National President Roy Wilkins speak when he came to Biloxi. His speech was about celebrating 100 years of emancipation, yet we’re not free. He really fired me up as he spoke about reconstruction, segregation, school desegregation and all the obstacles that were put in our path to keep us ignorant, dumb and in poor jobs. Wilkins made it all fit together in an understandable way.
Shortly thereafter, I saw a flier that directed me to another meeting that was not too far from my house and Fannie Lou Hamer was there. It was about a summer project of 1964 where they were going to organize each county in Mississippi with the goal of registering black people to vote.
Voting was the most important thing a black person could do in a state that probably had the lowest turnout of blacks with the highest percentage of blacks in the population. The NAACP, CORE, SCLC and SNCC had joined forces and were working together on this project to register people to vote. They chose Mississippi as the first test site because blacks were 60 percent of the population.
EH: What was your role as a young kid?
RB: At first I was passing out fliers but later I said that I wanted to learn how to register people to vote. So they put me with a team and I was to listen and take notes and then I really started to enjoy it. My first scary encounter happened across the bay in Ocean Springs, Miss., where my team was to canvass the area, hand out fliers, promote our mass rallies and register people to vote.
Then the chief of police showed up and told us that we had to stop what we’re doing. So I challenged him and the chief said, “boy, I’ll put your butt in jail.” So I laughed at him. He said, “do you have five dollars?” I said no. “I should arrest you for vagrancy.” I said, “you can’t arrest a minor for vagrancy, I’m 14.” He didn’t believe me.
I was the only one of my group to get censored because I quoted what I thought was a Bible verse to him—“Those who say they love the Lord but mistreat his fellow man is a lie and the truth is not in him.” He got upset and asked me, “are you calling me a liar?” I said, “yes, I am.” I felt confident that nothing would happen to me because a crowd started to form, but I did get scared when he took me to the fire station because I knew it was for a butt whipping. Several of the white kids who I was working with followed us down there. He asked again, “how old are you?” I showed him my work permit. He said, “boy, get out of here and take your butt back to Biloxi.”
The 1960s were an awakening. There is a song we sang: “we are not afraid today, and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave going home to my lord and be free.” We literally believed that. And. to see a room full of young people with that same mentality is something we had never seen before.
(After Mr. Brown’s mom died, Rubin moved to Fort Wayne to live with relatives and brought the mentality of organizing blacks to fight injustice with him.)
Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons including Rubin Brown.
This article originally appeared in our April 3, 2013 issue.