Photo courtesy of Patricia Crosby
There are many names associated with the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement — Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer.
But there are many who worked tirelessly for civil rights whose names will never be in history books. Nathaniel Hawthorne Jones is one of those.
Mr. Nate passed away on August 27, 2019 at the age of 105, but the lessons we can learn from his lifelong commitment to justice and community are as important as ever.
Born on a family farm in Claiborne County, Miss., in 1914, Mr. Nate experienced the hard times of Black life in Jim Crow- and Depression era-Mississippi. His large family found ways to survive, supplementing the farm income by selling fur or working in lumber camps and groundhog sawmills. Mr. Nate finished his education at the eighth grade, but was a lifelong learner.
He became known as a hard-working man, a successful farmer who, after a stint in the Navy, also worked as a bus driver and managed Our Mart, the movement's cooperative grocery store.
For more than 20 years, Mr. Nate was a serious baseball player, pitching for the local Port Gibson all-stars from the age of 17. He was so good that some people thought that in a different era he could have played professionally and he often talked about pitching against professionals when he was in the Navy. Mr. Nate was a dedicated member of his church, where he was a deacon and Sunday School teacher. He was also a Mason and served as president of the Missionary Baptist Aid Society for 40 years.
Photo courtesy of Patricia Crosby
And for years, Mr. Nate had been among the few people keeping a small, secret, underground NAACP group alive in Claiborne County. When pressure intensified in the early 1960s and the group stopped meeting, Mr. Nate and his wife Julia were part of a six-member group that continued to meet. And when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee held a voter registration workshop in Claiborne County in the winter of 1961-62, Mr. Nate was one of about 20 people who attended and one of only three who
returned for a second meeting even after Whites made a show of taking down license plate numbers
and threatening attendees. In the coming years, Mr. Nate and two friends tried repeatedly to register to vote, though his name was printed in the local paper each time. But he was not intimidated.
When organizer Rudy Shields began working in Claiborne County a few months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, one of the first people Shields sought out was Mr. Nate, who was at the heart of the mass movement that began emerging. He introduced Shields around and worked behind the scenes. Shields was part of the small group who brought hundreds of people together in a mass meeting for the community's first public, non-hidden NAACP branch. And at a time when NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in nearby Hattiesburg was firebombed and killed for voter registration advocacy, Mr. Nate was one of the few people willing to put his name forward and serve openly as an officer in the NAACP branch.
When his friends and neighbors discouraged him from publicly standing with the movement for fear that he might lose access to the loans essential to farming, he refused to back down. A white banker who handled those loans, once told Mr. Nate, “I heard you teaching hate and I didn't think you'd be caught up in a mess like that.” Mr. Nate didn't hesitate, saying, “Well, I am. I'm in it."
Mr. Nate once told me that it was his experience in the Navy during World War II that gave him the courage to be active in the Civil Rights Movement despite the danger that existed in Mississippi, saying: “I had been out of the country and been different places and had got a little taste of freedom and knowed what it was like.”
Photo courtesy of Sarah C. Campbell
Mr. Nate was active in shutting down a rival Black group supported by the white establishment. But he also had unpopular views. When Medgar Evers’ brother, Charles Evers, called for a boycott of white merchants, Mr. Nate was the lone voice that was against the boycott. Nevertheless, he participated in the boycott — picketing, helping organize car pools for shopping and serving on the negotiating committee.
After almost a century of Jim Crow, the NAACP-backed boycott offered an immediate and direct challenge to Claiborne County's white minority. African Americans made it clear to white merchants that if they wanted Black business, they were going to have to promote Black employees and treat Black customers with respect — no more "boy" and "girl" and no more "auntie" or "uncle." There would be no more racist slurs or waiting as one after another white customers came in and moved ahead. As most whites refused to compromise or concede even these most basic demands, Black activists wielded the boycott. After three years of on and off boycotting, local white merchants, encouraged by the White Citizens' Council, filed suit against the national NAACP and more than 100 local defendants. The Citizens' Council was trying to bankrupt and destroy the NAACP. Local white merchants were trying to control local Blacks and stop the boycotting. In the end, both the white merchants and Citizens' Council would fail, but it took 13 years of legal battles and tremendous sacrifice along the way.
For years, the case was an ominous backdrop to the lives and threatened the economic stability of those who participated in the boycott. Mr. Nate and others had to make the lengthy drive back and forth to Jackson for months in what became the state's longest Chancery Court hearing. There were serious personal and national consequences riding on the case. For close to a decade, Black boycotters could not sell their houses, use their land for equity, or make financial plans with any level of security. And yet, Mr. Nate never flinched.
Mr. Nate could step forward or step back. He was among the most persistent and effective grassroots organizers in Mississippi. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, he built relationships and built on relationships, encouraging people to register to vote, to participate in agricultural elections, to run for office, to send their children to Headstart, to desegregate the schools, to buy shares in a cooperative grocery store, to join the NAACP, to work with young people, to picket, to support the cooperative grocery store, to insist on quality education, to reach out to and care for neighbors, to vote, and much more. He remembered people who wouldn't register to vote unless he would take them and recalled many nights with barely any sleep as he worked full-time in the movement and on the farm. Mr. Nate never sought out the limelight or personal gain. With his connections and popularity, he would have been a likely candidate for almost any elected position. Instead of running himself, he encouraged his wife and other women to run for office. In 1971, Mr. Nate’s wife, Julia Jones, became the first Black circuit clerk in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Photo courtesy Emilye Crosby
Mr. Nate was encouraged to leave the South after his stint in the military. Instead, he returned — determined, fighting, prepared to pay his poll tax, looking for the NAACP and ready to vote. Mr. Nate taught me about the need of making principled stands, even or especially in the face of threats and intimidation. Mr. Nate and people like him were at the heart of the national movement for civil rights. We can't understand the movement unless we understand that. Organizations like the NAACP played key roles and at times offered essential resources and support, but grassroots people made the movement.
I know there are extraordinary people, like Mr. Nate, in every community across the country. If we can, like he did, step up. If we can do the spadework that Ella Baker called for and he excelled in, if we can stand for what's right even when it might cost us, if we can persist and fight even when the challenges are daunting, if we can think beyond ourselves and envision an expansive community with room for all, one that works for us all, maybe we can create the justice, opportunity and compassion that Mr. Nate imagined and worked for throughout his life.
Emilye Crosby is a professor of history at SUNY Geneseo. She is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up (University of Georgia Press, 2011).