Back in 1966, James Devoual watched his father wait patiently as white people cut ahead in line at stores that refused to hire black cashiers. They called his father "boy," never "mister," although white merchants in this tiny southern town were "happy to see us as long as daddy came by with his paycheck on Friday."
There were no black elected officials, although Claiborne County was 76 percent black. Only a handful of blacks were registered to vote. Most were afraid to sign up even a year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, victims of the poll tax and literacy tests.
Finally, they got got fed up. They launched an economic boycott of white merchants to pressure town leaders to change their ways. At 15, James Devoual carried a picket sign. On and off, for six years, his family drove 30 miles to Vicksburg to buy groceries. Their demands ranged from jobs as cashiers in stores they frequented to showing proper respect.
It was a long and bitter fight, but the boycott prevailed, putting several white merchants out of business. Others who survived, like George Hudson, 47, owner of the largest grocery, the Piggly Wiggly, finally hired black cashiers.
He was among 17 white merchants who sued the NAACP for damages, and a Mississippi judge in 1976 found the organization and 91 individuals liable for $1.25 million for an illegal boycott. Liens were slapped on black property as some of the whites gloated and tempers flared.
But blacks were rejoicing up and down Market Street today over the Supreme Court ruling that boycotts can be used as a weapon for social change. It was a complete victory, savored by blacks like Devoual, 32, now a rural health clinic administrator, who was named in the lawsuit. After the court's announcement, Devoual said he felt like he owned an "A-bomb we can use as a deterrent."
"Praise the Lord," said Julia Jones, 62, the black circuit court clerk whose election in recent years--along with a black sheriff, tax assessor and four county supervisors on a five-member board--serves to remind everyone here just how far blacks have come since the boycott and the Voting Rights Act put them in charge of Claiborne County.
"I've been shouting, 'Hallelujah' all day," she said. "My faith in the justice system has been restored."
Several tight-lipped white merchants shrugged at the ruling. "I'm not bitter about the verdict," said Kelley Conn, a white city alderman who runs a hardware store. "Blacks and whites have learned to get along."
And Shreve Guthrie, 55, one of the few white store owners who refused to buckle under and hire a black cashier at Claiborne Hardware, said, "Everyone is tired of the whole thing," as Norma Pickett, 52, a black housewife, perused a $895 living room set. "It's gone on 14 years. It's nice to have it over with."
"If white merchants could put it to a secret vote, they'd rather let bygones be bygones," said Edgar Crisler, 47, editor of the weekly Port Gibson Reveille. "Some are still bitter about it. Others have mellowed, but they haven't forgotten."
He sipped a creme de menthe in The Depot, a fern-filled restaurant where blacks and whites eat and drink side by side, albeit at opposite ends of the bar.
Dramatic changes have taken place here between blacks and whites in a state that was once a closed society, even on a modest social level. At one recent banquet, Crisler blinked twice as black county officials and their wives ate "cheek by jowl" with white bankers and their wives.
Blacks are no longer called "boy" or worse. "We respect their right to be called 'blacks,' " reflected Alex Batton, vice president of the Port Gibson Bank. "If that's the way they want it, that's the way we'll do it."
At least a half-dozen black-owned businesses thrive on Market Street where once there were none. Nathaniel Jones, 67, vice president of the local NAACP, cuts steaks and weighs chickens in a white apron behind the counter at Our Mart Inc., a black-owned grocery he helped start during the boycott.
"We're still not free," he said while talking about the court's ruling. "We've got a long way to go, but this is a great relief."
Jones is a gracious winner, but others seem bitter. Devoual labels the 12 white plaintiffs "the enemy, the dirty dozen."
And Carl Thompson, the lone black mortician, contemplates countersuing the whites for "all the tension and stress." Four houses he owns were slapped with liens, tied up for years. The FHA approved him for a 12 percent loan to restore one house, but the bank said no because his assets were encumbered from the lawsuit. Now that he is free to use the property, interest rates are too high for him to afford a loan.
"I should be suing them," said Thompson, who has never buried a white man. "They never gave me any business."
While blacks have captured the county courthouse in the shadow of a Confederate soldier at one end of town, whites still hold down city hall at the other. More kin to a Civil War mansion than an office building, it sits beneath tall oaks dripping Spanish moss in a town U.S. Grant termed "too beautiful to burn."
City hall is the next target, Jones said.
Not all whites have taken kindly to black talk about power grabs, and black tax assessor Evan Doss, 32, who has launched a sweeping reappraisal of county property, said, "A lot of white people come in to pay taxes and just throw the money on the counter instead of putting it in our hands."
He says he believes whites are out to get him, having once been arrested and sentenced by a white judge to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine after a white county supervisor accused him of refusing to sell a car tag.
A higher court threw out the case, but not before Doss spent two days behind bars. He'd told the supervisor to get in line to buy his tag, like everyone else. But the official balked, later returning with a policeman who lead Doss away.
"We're never going to sit in the back seat again for nobody," he said.
Such ferver, along with the court victory, is equally present among whites.
Josephine Ellis Mullen, owner of a family grocery store downtown, was one of the white plaintiffs in the suit. She rattles off a list of crimes committed by blacks against whites, saying she has been threatened.
She draws a .25-caliber pistol from behind the counter. "That's why I've got this. I'm afraid for my life."
"What about white people's rights?" asked R.G. Smith, a tobacco salesman from Jackson. "Now blacks will probably go plumb wild."
Other whites are more philosophical. "I don't hold no hard feelings," said grocer Hudson, who fired his black butcher apprentice for returning late from a boycott rally 16 years ago.
They are now "close friends," he said, the youth having grown up to be elected the first black sheriff since Reconstruction.
Sheriff Frank Davis, 35, agrees; he and his ex-boss get along "just fine."