Pinkie Virgin Pilcher marched in Washington and recalls being "very impressed when Dr. King spoke about he had a dream." But compared to what she had been through, the march was pretty dull stuff.
When she thinks back on her marching days, all the 62-year-old former kindergarten teacher can talk about is the protesting she did here at home.
"I remember marching to city hall with a pregnant woman," says Pilcher, a round-faced, heavy-set woman who struggles now to get out of a chair to shake a visitor's hand. "Police beat her. And with a preacher. They put the dogs on him.
"I was in all them marches in Greenwood. I can't talk about all of them because they had too many. So many of our people did get beat up, whe-yew."
In the early years of the civil rights movement, this cotton town in the Mississippi Delta made a name for itself as one of the riskiest places in the South to speak up for black peoples' rights.
Twenty years ago, Greenwood and surrounding Leflore County was a combat zone. James Travis, a black voter-registration worker, was shot twice in the neck with .45 caliber slugs fired from an unlicensed car carrying three white men. A Greenwood fertilizer salesman, a member of the white supremist Citizens Council (whose national headquarters was in Greenwood), was arrested in the slaying in nearby Jackson of Medgar Evers, the state's leading civil rights leader. He was tried twice by white juries, but was not convicted.
Racial warfare in this county of 41,000, about 60 percent of whom are black, was also waged without guns. White plantation owners patrolled roads to stop the children of black sharecroppers from going to school. Blacks who registered to vote were banished from many tenant farms. After voter registration drives began here in early 1963, Leflore County officials cut off the distribution of surplus federal food.
With all this churning around her, it took courage just to be a foot soldier in the local movement, which is what Pinkie Pilcher was. She did not lead marches or organize them. After two decades she can't sort out all the alphabet-soup organizations--SNCC, CORE, NAACP, SCLC--that requested her presence in the streets. But whenever they asked, Pilcher, who had a 10th grade education and who had always voted because her father told her it was the right thing to do, showed up.
"What made me get involved was I wanted to know what it was all about. I wanted to know what good it was doin'. I was curious," says Pilcher, who quickly concluded that marching was as important as voting. "If I didn't vote, I would not be a decent citizen. I said to the civil rights peoples if there was anything I could do, I was ready to do it."
When Leflore County stopped delivering surplus food in 1963, Pilcher, who had not yet founded Pilcher's Kindergarten and who was out of work, remembers she "had to go hungry sometimes." She ate the food that comedian Dick Gregory, described at the time by the segregationist Jackson Daily News as a "headline-happy funny boy," shipped into Greenwood. And she marched with Gregory.
Pilcher had no money and had not even heard about the planned March on Washington when SNCC leaders began signing up Greenwood people to go.
"They had buses and they just askin' people to go and I was just glad to sign my name," says Pilcher, who remembers the bus ride north far more than the actual march. She and others from Greenwood could not use lavatories in many places where the buses stopped. "We had trouble getting relief," she says.
After 20 years, Pilcher, who lives with a friend in a small, one-story house in a poor section of East Greenwood, says her marching got results.
"I would say our peoples has made some progress because we are able to eat and drink where we didn't used to eat and drink," she says. "Our children used to be home and couldn't get food and had no way to get it. There is provision made now for assistance that do give a little relief."
Since the marching stopped, the percentage of eligible blacks in Leflore County who are registered to vote has jumped from less than 2 percent to 78 percent.
Greenwood, Pilcher says, is not as mean as it used to be.
"We have a little better association with the white color. We are learning to love each other a little better, but it is not as strong as it should be."