The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz 241 Pugh Hall Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor O ral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, re ligious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer t o both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview t ranscripts available on the UF D igital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to refl ect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit http://oral.histor y.ufl.edu or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013
MFP 048 Interviewee: James Abbott Interviewer: Marna Weston Date of Interview: August 22, 2009 W: This is Marna Weston on August 22, 2009, in Indianola, Mississippi at the public library. This interview is for the Sam Proctor Oral History Program of the University of Florida in conjunction with the Sunflower County Civil Rights Organization. I'm h ere with Mr. Abbott. First, we want to thank you so much for taking the time to come in today, because the time is yours and we're honored to be able to talk with you. A: Thank you. Glad to be here. W: Could you please spell and pronounce your entire fir st name from birth? A: Right. Well, I'm James DeLoach Abbott. Everybody calls me Jim. W: Could you spell the DeLoach part? A: Yes, capital D e capital L o a c h. And Abbott is A b b o t t. W: James DeLoach Abbott. Is that derived from other DeLoach Ab botts previously, or how did the name kind of come about? A: My mom was a DeLoach and my dad was an Abbott. W: I thought so. [Laughter] We are in the South. There's usually a little of that. The whole thing the interview's about you, so there'll be times when there'll be something that we'll both kind of know that I know we're talking about, but I'll ask you to expound upon it, just for the purpose of the interview. A: Yeah, sure. Sure. W: What's your date of birth, please, Mr. Abbott? A: March 2, 1944
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 2 W: No way. My mother was born March 1, 1944. A: Are you serious? W: I am very serious. A: That is bizarre. [Laughter] W: It is kind of strange. A: It's bizarre. Really, golly. W: Now, I did interview a lady A: We must be born under the same moo n. [Laughter] W: Yeah. Well, I was born March 21, the same month. A: Very good, very good. W: But wow, one day apart. That's great, I'll have to let her know about that. A: Yeah, great. I'll be darned. W: Where were you born? A: I was born in Greenw ood, which is thirty miles east of here. My parents were both born over there, so W: What are their names? A: My mother was Lela DeLoach Abbott. My dad was Frank Abbott. W: Okay, can you tell me a little bit A: And his dad, his dad was Eli Abbott, an d he was on the first University of Alabama football team. W: Really. A: The second year of Alabama football, he was the coach. He was a coach. Back then, a coach could play, so he was a running back and coach.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 3 W: Wow. A: For, like, three years, I beli eve. That was in the early 1800s. In the year 1900, they called him back and he was a coach another year. Anyway, I'll just throw that in [Laughter] W: No, you anticipated my question, I was going to ask you about A: I'm not an athlete at all. [Laughter ] W: Okay. I'm going to ask you about the parents of your parents. Now, what is your granddad's full name on that side? A: Eli Abbott. He was a civil engineer, and my dad was also, in Greenwood, a civil engineer. W: Do you know your grandpa's date of bi rth or place of his birth? There's no quiz, I'm just kind of asking you. Fifty years from now, somebody might want to know this. A: I need my genealogy chart here. Oh, gosh. I'll think of it in a minute. I believe he was born in Tuscaloosa, but I'll have to check on that. I should know that. W: Okay. We rolled through Tuscaloosa on the way here, stopped at Dreamland. A: Oh, really? Oh, good. W: Oh, of course. Not the original one, but I took them to the new one on the river, because I had never been the re, so. But we always, when we go to Tuscaloosa, stop in Dreamland. How about your grandmother, that grandfather's wife? Do you know her place of birth?
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 4 A: Oh, gosh. This is really bad. W: Oh, no, it's okay. You didn't know you were going to have these q uestions. A: I believe she was born either in Minter City which is northwest of Greenwood, or Greenwood. My mother's parents, my grandmother DeLoach was born in Jackson, I believe. My grandfather DeLoach was born between Grenada and Holcomb, which is ove r in Grenada County. W: We really should have videoed this. The expressions on your face are priceless. [Laughter] A: Yeah, because I'm embarrassed, I don't know. W: You're struggling here, but . [Laughter] A: I'm supposed to be one of the genealog ists in the Abbott family, but. I can tell you where a lot of people are buried. [Laughter] Where my great great great great grandfather Abbott's buried. Anyway, go ahead. W: Do you have brothers and sisters? A: I have one brother, Frank, who is three ye ars older than I am, and he lives in Greenwood. He's retired. He graduated from Mississippi State and he was an electronics engineer. He worked for Boeing. He worked on the Saturn moon rocket in Huntsville back in W: Saturn V, the most powerful A: That 's right, Saturn V, right. W: Do you have children? A: I have three children and excuse me, I have two children, I have three grandchildren. I have two children, my son, Jim, my oldest child who lives
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 5 in Chicago, and my daughter, they live in Greenville, South Carolina. Too far away. W: And your wife? A: My wife, Cynthia, who was born March 11, 1944 W: Wow. A: I'm nine years older. We were high school sweethearts and she grew up in Greenwood, like I did. Started dating in eleventh grade. W: It's so funny, you keep anticipating my dating wow. I was going to ask you about your grandparents; you started talking about your granddad. When I was going to ask you about how you met her, you told me you were high school sweethearts. We got some synergy going on here. A: [Laughter] Okay. Actually, I should just answer your questions. Don't let me I'm going to ramble or something, don't let me do it. W: So am I, please. It's very entertaining. And educational, as well; so, infotaining. It's information and ent ertaining. Infotaining. A: Yes, mm hm. W: Can you tell me about your education? What are your earliest memories of school? Where did you do your primary, your middle school and your high school and college education? A: Well, I went to school in Greenwo od, of course. Elementary school, junior high, high school. W: Can you tell me the names of the schools?
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 6 A: North Greenwood Elementary, at first, and then they changed the name later to Bankston Elementary. Then, I went to Greenwood Junior High School, s eventh and eighth grade, and then I went to Greenwood High School and graduated from there. W: Mm hm. Well, see, I have really great questions for you because you're the same age as my mom, so I can think about things I would ask her about what was happen ing in the movement and in different years and things like that, because I've asked her many of these questions. I really do appreciate the opportunity to kind of parallel the interview. How about your college education? A: I went to the University of Mis sissippi, Ole Miss, and I graduated in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in business school; I went to business school. I majored in advertising and marketing, and then I later went back to Ole Miss and got a second undergraduate degree in journalism. So I hav e two undergraduate degrees. W: Mm hm. Did you agree your time in Oxford? It's a beautiful campus. A: Oh, yeah. Of course. W: Were you there in 62? A: I started in 1962. W: Okay, this is skipping around a little bit for me, too, but we're at Ole M iss in 62, so I have to ask you some questions. What was that like? A: It was very eye opening. I was a pretty nave freshman. I had grown up in Greenwood, a town that's very . well, I don't want to say too many bad
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 7 things about my hometown, but . segregation, there was so much segregation as far as schools and society, everything, all right? I grew up on the white side of town, had very little contact with African Americans, and then I am a freshman at Ole Miss and thrust into an international news story, I guess you would say. W: Well, the French reporter was killed. A: That's right. Paul Guihard, I think, was his name. W: Mm hm, mm hm. A: I'm trying to think, there was another guy. There were two people; there was an Oxford plumber, I bel ieve, who was also killed. W: Oh, really? A: Yeah, there were two people. Two people that were killed that night. But I saw a lot that night, and I regret some of my thoughts back in those days; coincidentally, about, I don't know, twelve, fifteen years ago, James Meredith came and spoke out here on a Saturday. W: In the library? A: In the library, came to Indianola. We publicized it in the newspaper. I came, and I guess about six, six or seven of us sitting around a table and talking. It was the first time I ever met him. Afterwards, I asked him after he was through; we're through talking I said, I'd really like to talk with you one on one, personally. Coincidentally, it was in this room. W: No way. A: Meredith sat right there and I sat right here.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 8 W: No way. [Laughter] A: My managing editor, David Rushing, sat over there. W: Oh my God. A: I have this on tape, by the way. Make a long story short, I apologized to Meredith for what I thought back in during that time at Ole Miss, and he couldn't have been nicer. He went, no, you don't have to. I said, no, let me get this off my chest. Either way, it was W: You just did it again, by the way. I was going to say, that must have felt great; that relief of something. A: Oh, yeah. Really, you know. We jus t had a great conversation, and it was healing for me that I needed. As you probably know. [Laughter] W: Yeah. Well, no, I'm honored that you would share that. As you move forward in your life from that moment, how do you feel about the person that you'v e grown into? The person that you've become? A: Oh, I don't like to talk about . I'm a pretty humble guy, now. W: Oh, not specific details A: Well, in the way that I finally became enlightened and better educated and better read on a lot of subject s, and civil rights included, and changed in my thinking. W: If you could take this moment to speak to the young man that you were at that time, that led you to the regrets which had you speak to James Meredith in this room, what would you say to him?
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 9 A: Wake up, understand people's feelings better than you've been thinking, something along those lines. W: One of my areas of recent interest in my research has been either the absence or presence of physical manifestations of the movement. For example, at Florida State University, they've recently put in this 2003 Legacy Walk. It has kiosks and a little area where they talk about the achievements of African Americans and coming to campus. They have this twelve foot bronze of the first African American Semin ole homecoming princess, with the regalia of that time, and the first African American student to wear a sports uniform, and the first undergraduate. It just so happens that, in 2005, I visited Ole Miss and I went and I saw the James Meredith bronze that's behind the building. Have you seen that yet, and what are your impressions of it? A: Coincidentally well, since you brought that up my wife Cynthia, and I, went up that day. It was very important for me to go and share in that with James Meredith, talk b riefly with his son, after that wonderful program. In fact, afterwards, Cynthia and I went into the lyceum building and went into a room, just Cynthia and I and John Lewis, and had a wonderful c hat wi th him. I'd met him at a c ivil r ights in the m edia sem inar back at Ole Miss back in the 80s, mid 80s, I think it was. W: I met him here last year. A: Did you really? Oh, that's right, he was here. W: Yeah, he and Benny Thompson.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 10 A: I mean, couldn't be a nicer guy. W: Have you read Walking with th e Wind ? A: I have not, no. I need to. W: Well, I think because you lived the times, you won't be as blown away with it as me. It's well, of course, I remember when that happened. But, for me, it was kind of just one of those moments in life. A: I really need it. I've got so many books. I've just recently retired. You know, I retired a little over a year ago from the newspaper I know you'll get to that W: Well, now the work begins. [Laughter] A: Yeah. So, now, it's like I have time to read, and I'm try ing to catch up. Anyway. W: What did you think of John Lewis? A: He's so . wonderfully soft spoken and such a gentleman and such a warm person. You know, I got somebody to take our picture with him. I treasure that photo. It's a great guy. Anyway, th at was another wonderful day for me, to go see the Meredith statue unveiled. W: I like the way John Lewis's still, he's one person, but he's two people. He's serious, he can give you that preacher, but also the civil rights worker, kind of talking serious But he's also very funny. [Laughter] A: Oh, yeah. W: I was surprised at how many times he made laugh. A: He's a kick, yeah. Super guy.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 11 W: So, that's terrific that you and your wife got to share I mean, two living legends of the movement John Lewis a nd James Meredith. A: Oh, I know, yeah. Yeah, that was a . big day for Ole Miss. That was a huge part of Ole Miss's healing from 1962, also. W: Definitely. A: I'm really proud of Ole Miss. We've come a long way from the Rebel flag waving days of th e 60s. W: On a side note, as a Gator, I like Ole Miss, too, except for last year. [Laughter] I wasn't very happy the last couple of times you visited Gainesville with Eli. A: Despite being a good year for the both of us. W: Well, you know, we hav e to go to Starkville on October 24, and we haven't won over there in thirty five years. A: Have fun, have fun. [Laughter] W: Exactly. The cowbells and everything A: [Laughter] Oh, it's awful. W: Which is interesting. You went to Ole Miss and you r brother went to Starkville. How did that happen? A: My granddaddy and my dad both graduated from the University of Alabama, so neither my brother nor I went to the University of Alabama. I mean, it was just I think it was mainly some peer pressure. A lot of my close friends went to Ole Miss, and I think that was a part of why I went to Ole Miss.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 12 W: Was it the times? A: And kind of what I wanted to major in, too, I think. I think I was not the agriculture [Laughter] partying kind. Or an engineer; or engineering. My brother was the math ace, not me. W: Starkville's the land grant, okay. A: There you go, yeah. W: But Oxford is beautiful. A: Oh, yes. W: I've been to both, and no discouragements on Starkville, but Oxford is a very pretty, speci al place. I can see why you enjoyed your time there. So, tell me. We've gone from graduating at Ole Miss in 1966. What was the first thing you did when you left college? A: Well, I got a job in advertising in Memphis. I really wanted to work for an ad ag ency. That was kind of what I wanted to do in life. But, I guess about thirty days before I graduated from Ole Miss that first time, in 1966, I went to my local draft board in Greenwood to find out what my status was. Back then, if you were in college, you had a deferment. I think it was a 2 S classification on your training card. So, I went and asked the lady that ran the draft board over there what my status would be. She said, well, you know, you would go to the top of the list. You'll be drafted pretty soon here. So, a buddy of mine and I went over we couldn't get in the National Guard because it was a long waiting list at that time but we found a local Greenwood Army Reserve Unit. The first sergeant there, I think, really
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 13 created some slots for he wan ted some college graduates, people who could type, in his unit. He made some room for, I think there were eighteen of us graduating that May, late May, in 66. Not all from Greenwood, by the way. He let us join the unit. So, I joined the Army Reserve in order to evade the draft so I wouldn't have to go to Vietnam. It was a six year obligation, so I signed a contract with the government, with the military, so I would go to basic training for four or five months, and then I would come back and I would meet weekend drills once a month for six years. I would go to five or six two week summer camps, and that would be my obligation. In the contract, it said the only way I could be called to active duty was a Declaration of War by the United States Congress W: Which never occurred. A: Right. [Laughter] To make a long story short, two years later, our unit was activated by President Lyndon Johnson and sent to Vietnam. W: Oh, he did. A: Yeah, so. W: But we never declared war. A: Oh, that's right. So th ere were people, actually, there were some reserve units from up in Boston, I think, and some other places, that fired a lawsuit saying this was illegal. It went all the way to the Supreme Court very quickly, and they refused to even W: Commander in Chi ef, yeah.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 14 A: Yeah, they refused to hear the case. Prior to our being called up, sent to Vietnam, I did go to basic training at Fort Dixon, New Jersey, in the dead of the winter snow, blizzards, and all and that was a very maturing experience for me. My d rill sergeant was black. Some of my bunkmates were black. For somebody who grew up in segregated Greenwood, Mississippi, that was very good. W: That was your first time for that. A: Very first time for that. Because, when you think about it, my Ole Mis s experience was James Meredith, my freshman year. But he came as a senior, a lot of people don't realize that. He was there for a year and he graduated the next summer; actually, about eleven months from when he came. Then, there was a guy named Cleve McD owell, who was the second black to go to Ole Miss, and he was in law school. Cleve got booted out because he was carrying a pistol and it fell out of his jacket in the law school steps one morning, I think. By the way, we later became close friends. [Laugh ter] W: Oh, really? A: He was living here in Drew. He lived in Drew, and he was an attorney here in Sunflower County. W: Is he still practicing? A: No, he got murdered a number of about twelve years ago. Sad, sad, sad story. But, any way . then, later, after he died, I think a year later, his law
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 15 office burned in Drew and all of his papers were there; a lot of historical papers, that's really sad. W: Cleve McDowell? A: Cleve McDowell, yeah. Cleve McDowell. But, anyway. So, then the rest of the time at Ole Miss, about four years there, there were no blacks n any of my classes. So . then, there were the things that happened in my life that made my brain start working better. The summer between my junior and senior year at Ole Miss, I went out West and I worked at Yellowstone Park. I also worked at Disneyland. So, that was, getting out of Mississippi, that was good for me. But, anyway. Basic training was a good experience for me; maturing experience. Then my unit was called up and I went to Vietnam, and that was very maturing, also. W: Yeah. No matter what color they were, you knew somebody's have your back. A: Oh, that's right. Yeah, that's right. W: Let me ask you, just before we move on because I'm very interested in yo ur perceptions on Vietnam but just your thoughts from the time you were going through the draft process. Because from 65, when the whole thing happened with Seventh Cav to Mai Lai in 67, the war really hadn't heated up, as bad as it was. It was obv iously getting bad, but the fact that you were trying to make sure you didn't go, what was the mindset? Why did it occur to you to try to find a way to not go if you didn't
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 16 have to? I mean, was the just news just so oh, Vietnam. What kind of things were th ey talking about that made you say A: Oh, in 66, the war, it was going along pretty hot. W: So Walter Cronkite on the news and everything? It was . A: Yeah, I mean, Vietnam, I'd had a friend of mine that had graduated in high school with me, that he'd been over and come back. That's a pretty harrowing tale to tell. But, anyway. I, most of the people in my Army Reserve unit, joined because the reason we couldn't get into the National Guard is because there was this long line. People wanted to get in the National Guard or the Army Reserve to evade the draft, so you wouldn't have to go to Vietnam. Dan Quayle included. W: Did President Carter do the right thing, to give the amnesty to the people that went to Canada? A: Oh, please don't. Do yo u have to ask me that? W: No, I don't. You don't have to answer that. This is very loose, we can A: You know, I really have mixed emotions about that. I really do. You know, actually, I thought at the time because I've been arguing with one of my budd ies here that had been to Vietnam, here in Indianola. He just thought it was unforgivable of Carter to do that. I think, at the time, it was okay with me because of the time. It had been enough time that it had gone by, and I came back from Vietnam very an ti war and very . what's the word? I questioned, I give a lot of thought to anything the Pentagon does. W: Distrustful.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 17 A: [Laughter] That's a good word. I'll take your word, no problem. W: Okay. So, 1969, you got there, where did they send you? A: In Vietnam? W: Mm hm. A: For the first . four, little over four months, we were at a place called Gia Le combat base. G i a capital L e, French. Gia Le combat base, which was really next to the 101st Base Camp. We were in I Corps, which was th e northern one fourth of South Vietnam. So, were not too far from the demilitarized zone. W: But not Khe Sanh, not Ph an Ra ng. This is a different place. A: No, no. That's where we were. Then, we were moved to Phu Bai. This is still not far from Gia Le We were right south of Way Hill, imperial capital of Way. Then, after about six months, the army realized that these units that had been sent over as a unit would all go home. Everybody that went to Vietnam got to go home after 365 days, so you counted d own to the days you go home. I think it took them about half a year to realize that our unit would all leave on the same day, and were doing something very important. So, they came up with a program called Infusion. They started taking guys out of our unit and sending them to wherever there was a slot; some other unit over there. So, I think it was because my name started with A b, but I was going to go to Camp Edmonds, which got hit a lot. To make a long story short, I talked my way into a job as an army p hotographer, news correspondent, out of Da Nang. I got a job down
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 18 there. So, the rest of my tour, I was literally living off of China Beach and just flying around on helicopters and planes and whatever; jeeps, whatever, to cover things that I was told to g o cover. I had a Nikon camera and a notebook. But I did a lot of hometown news releases. If I saw some guy that was in an interesting job, it looked interesting, I'd go over and say, would you like me to do a story about you and send it to your hometown ne wspaper? So I'd take his picture and get the information, fill out a little form. W: Edit out the expletives. [Laughter] A: And later W: Make him sound good. A: And later, we'd have public information folks that would type this up on a typewriter and go develop, pick, the film and develop it and print it and write a gut line and send it to our I wrote, took pictures for the Stars and Stripes and the army magazine, things like that. So, that was really interesting, because I got to poke my nose into everything over there and fly around, see a whole lot. I saw a lot of waste. I saw a lot of waste of treasure, material. I saw a lot of waste of young human bodies. That's why I kind of was soured on war. Not that I wasn't before I went over, but it reall y what a waste, Vietnam. W: So you saw all these things, you had these experiences. You've seen the world, you've seen horrors. You've also looked into a lot of people's lives and then you come back. What year did you come back?
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 19 A: Yeah, so, I came bac k in July of summer of 1969. In fact, my army unit, last weekend, had a two week reunion in Greenwood. There was the fortieth anniversary of our coming back. W: Wow, that must have been incredible. How many guys A: Yeah, really a lot of them came. It was maybe, gosh. You know, I think I'm going to have to find my camera. I would say seventy, maybe? Sixty or seventy? W: Terrific. A: Yeah. It's really unique; I mean, it's really unique, our unit. We got that, there's a lot of esprit de corps in the u nit. A lot of us know each other's wives and some of our m y son was born while I was over there. First time I met him, he was a little over five months old. I flew in to Memphis and I came back, probably before the unit did. I flew in as an individual. Got out at Fort Lewis, Washington, flew to Memphis. My wife came up from Greenwood with Jim. My plane was delayed in St. Louis, so I got in at three o'clock in the morning. She had gone to the Holiday Inn on Brooks Road in Memphis. So I met my son in Room 335 of the Holiday Inn, Brooks Road, Memphis. [Laughter] W: That's terrific. So you held him for the first time, what were you thinking? A: I love you him, you know? This is great. W: All the little toes work . A: Oh, yeah, yeah. He was a cutie. W: So, you came back after the war, you saw
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 20 A: But we went back, then I went back to Ole Miss, immediately. I took every journalism course there was in one year. I took them all and I worked on the student newspaper, which is a daily really successful The students of Ole Miss own the student newspaper. The administration does not run the paper; the students own it, they run it. It makes money. They were the first university in the United States to have an off site printing press; they have their own p ress. So, I worked on the I was an ad salesman and I wrote a column, took pictures and wrote stories and all. That was a great learning and working on the magazine that they put out. Anyway, learned a lot. So, I leave Ole Miss the second time in 1970, and with training, with an education that really made me cut out to be a weekly newspaper editor. If you're a small, a weekly newspaper editor, you really need to understand and have the skills of both the editorial side of the newspaper and business side of n ewspaper. So I had these for my business and advertising background, you lay out ads, sell ads. I took salesmanship courses in the business school, and I had had some accounting courses, so I could understand the business side of a newspaper, but also, I g ot incredibly good training as a journalist. And a photojournalist; I'm strong on photography, too. W: So you're a newspaperman. A: I am a newspaperman. W: So, how did you get your start? A: Over thirty eight years as the editor of the newspaper he re in Indianola.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 21 W: Okay, so, thirty eight years . so, you started immediately. A: Immediately, yeah. Summer of 1970. W: Wow. A: Just a matter of weeks after I got out of Ole Miss, I'm here. I'm the youngest newspaper editor in the state at the time; I think I was twenty six. W: How'd you get the job? A: Got the job because the editor here was leaving and the paper was owned by . it was a corporation. Stock was owned by a number of people in town, bought the paper from the family that ha d owned the paper, back about ten years before I came here and moved, maybe eight years, I can't remember. Anyway, they were looking for somebody, and I think I was highly recommended by the head of the journalism department at Ole Miss. I had won some awa rds, etcetera, etcetera. W: Okay, so, what kind of awards? A: Oh, no . W: I have to ask these things. A: I know. W: I have to ask. It's not a question of your modesty. [Laughter] It's a question of historical preservation of the record. A: Well, you know what. I won the Sigma Delta Chi Student of the Year Award, which, Sigma Delta Chi is the society of professional journalists. I just got lucky, I guess, and got picked for that award. [Laughter] I mean, it was really nice, because I had onl y been there a year in the journalism
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 22 department. But there were the people who majored in journalism for four years, and I'm there well, that made me feel good. I worked my butt off that year. I was more mature I wish I had been that mature in my first f our years of Ole Miss, but, you know, I've got a baby boy W: You're dedicated, clearly. A: I'd been to Vietnam, so I was like, I'm going to make it great. W: This is my job. A: Right, so. Pretty much lived at the journalism department building for a year, so they gave me that award. I think I won an advertising, some kind of ad layout award or something. So, I was recommended; these people hired me, and so I was at the paper here for thirty eight years. W: That's an extremely fortunate and rich s tory to tell. Walk onto the job and be there every time. What's the toughest thing you ever had to do as an editor? A: Most interesting place to cover as a journalist I mean, as you know, this is the birthplace of the White Citizens Council. Lots of soci o economic problems, but a lot of progress since I came here in 1970. In some little way, maybe the newspaper helped it some, egg on that progress. W: What's the name of the newspaper? A: The name of the newspaper is the Enterprise Tocsin T o c s i n, which is, I tell you there were two newspapers. They were founded back in the I think the Sunflower Tocsin was founded in 1888. The town was founded in 1886. I think it was in 1894 the Indianola Enterprise was founded, I think
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 23 I'm correct on that. So, t here were two weeklies here for decades. Then, in the mid 50s, early 50s, the two papers merged, and they too k one name from each. So, it be c a me the Enterprise Tocsin, T o c s i n. It's an old English word meaning to ring a bell, like to alarm the town, like the town crier. It could be the Enterprise Herald, but it's the Enterprise Tocsin W: I wish I'd known that the two days I bought a newspaper. I looked at it, and I was like, well, I like Star Trek, the Enterprise. [Laughter] But I thought it was kind of odd, so I bought the Clarion Ledger instead. I bought it twice while I was here, but I looked at the other paper, and I wish since I read the other one this morning, I had read this one before our interview. A: It's a weekly newspaper. You kn ow, it's . I don't know what else to tell you, anyway. W: What do you think about them costing seventy five cents now? A: Well, they did that after I sold the paper. [Laughter] Sold that . the price went up fifty percent, and there were pages o f it. W: I used to love putting a quarter in the newspaper. I'm like, seventy five cents during the week? This is away from the movement, and I'll come back to that if you still have time, but I'm curious about what you think about the changes that are t aking place with print newspaper, how people you know, because they're online, they're raising the price A: Of course it saddens me, the problems that newspapers are having right now. By the way, weeklies aren't having as much problem as the dailies, because weeklies have smaller staffs and they don't have as much
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 24 competition as the daily, the daily papers. You know, so much of the news well, the Indianola paper, for instance. All local news. More people don't realize, weeklies, they're not members of the Associated Press, so they don't have let's take a small daily, that they can fill up part of their news hole with Associated Press stories that come over the wire, or the computer. It would be state news or national news and whatever, and photos come They have that luxury, in a way, whereas we had no AP. So, most weekly papers, it's all local news. That's what people want to read. [Laughter] W: Features, yeah. A: That's right. W: We l l, you know about the Grey Lady, when the New York Times start s putting color pictures on the front page, things have changed a little bit. A: Oh, yeah. That's it. I've seen a lot of change in the way we, of course, well, we didn't even have a computer that set the type. So I got to see a lot of change as far as th e mechanics of putting out newspaper. So, anyway, it does sadden me to see what's going on, but I will tell you this and you've probably read this a lot of the content that you're reading online that's on Google or these different sites, Huntington . not Huntington. A lot of these sites. The news that you're seeing on those sites are stories that are being written in newspapers that are now, that are on the internet. A lot of people read the newspaper online, and that's what people are trying to come up with next, the formula for newspapers to make enough
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 25 money to continue paying the staff, the good news staffs that they have. That's the problem right now. W: So, here's the eight hundred pound elephant in the room. Will the print newspaper be able to survive? A: Who knows? Personally, I love my newspaper, because I'd sit in my easy chair and drink my coffee and I can edit through that thing a lot quicker than scrolling on a screen. I personally think that, maybe, it's going to I'm a big Apple, Mac guy, by the way I really think it's going to come to some sort of, hopefully not the Kindle, I think it's going to become, you're going to have so m ething that's very t h in and very easy to carry around. That you can call up your newspaper, your book, or yo ur newspaper on this tablet. I'm hoping Apple will have come out I don't know why they haven't come out with it yet, but I think your newspaper may not be on paper, ink on paper, but it may be on something that's easier to handle and hold, to flip through than what they have now with being able to whatever W: What's the biggest news story you ever addressed? In the profession, as an editor, as a publisher . A: The toughest news story, in my thirty eight years, was what we call the Indianola Supe rintendent Crisis, which was in 1986. There was injustice that done on a principal of the middle school here; his name was Robert Merritt, and he had gone and gotten his Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi, and was certainly qualified to beco me the superintendent. The long time white superintendent, Merritt being African
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 26 American, the long time white superintendent announced his retirement I might add, after the newspaper did an investigative story about what he was getting paid he announces h is retirement. Merritt put in his name for superintendent's job. W: Elected or appointed position? A: Appointed. So, the school board which, at the time was four whites, one black voted without the citizens having any input into it, voted to have a whi te that was not from here but had been here at one time as an assistant principal, maybe of the elementary school, I think. They voted to give him the job, and when the community heard this news, there was an uproar and a subsequent group of African Americ ans was formed called the Concerned Citizens. They started meeting, and they voted to have a boycott, to boycott local businesses to put the pressure on the school board to reverse their decision. The boycott lasted thirty three days, and it was a tense, s tressful, quite a challenge for our newspaper and for the whole community. Luckily, after thirty three days, the decision was finally reversed. During that time, nobody was hurt. There were some hurt feelings, I think, in town, and a lot I mean, there were families that were split. It was a very interesting situation. The concerned citizens, by the way, I want to throw in, they voted early on not to let Jesse Jackson come in, one of the educational leaders of the NAACP in Mississippi who was very vo cal the guy, he was from Stark ville, can't remember his name
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 27 he wanted to come. The black citizens of Indianola said, no, we are going to resolve this among ourselves. W: Local issue. A: Peacefully, and we don't, we just it's going to take time. They were righ t. It worked out. Merritt did end up getting the job. W: How long did he keep it? A: And did an outstanding job. I wrote a long editorial when he finally retired about what a success he was. He was driven to prove that he was the right man for the job, and he led the community in voting for a 5.2 billion dollar bond issue to help fund a new middle school, which was needed, and to refurbish the predominantly black high school and the other schools in the public school system here. He had to have the whit e vote in order to in Mississippi to pass a bond issue, you have to have sixty percent, not fifty one percent. Sixty percent, which is hard to get. If I remember, we had a task force that Merritt brought in. A lot of community leaders, we convinced the peo ple that this was the thing to do. I think we passed it with, like, seventy eight percent. The superintendent of education was shocked with what we did. But, anyway, it was under Merritt's leadership. Anyway, he did a great job, so. But that was the toughe st that was the toughest, and we were, I was writing editorials and we were covering what was going on and calling for calm, cool heads. Actually, the paper was . lauded by three Ph.D.s from, can't remember the university in Florida, can't remember th e name. They kind of came up and studied, three
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 28 Ph.D.s, came up and studied the way we handled the case and said some nice things about it. But that was tough, that was really tough. It became a national news story. It was written up in national magazines and newspapers. The Boston newspaper sent one of their best writers down here. It was on NPR, you know. So, that was the toughest. W: Well, I have a question that deals with the development of Mississippi in the future. Coming from Florida, we've seen th is whole thing with the development of Blues Trails and building the B.B. King Museum; really great things to talk about the blues. It is extremely important, culturally important and relevant, and people come through. But we also look at things like the c ivil rights issues that occurred here. Florida is not innocent in these things. We have an entire history that is still now just becoming known, so that's my precursor to what I'm saying Florida's not better or anything like that. A: Oh, yeah, all right W: But we're struck by all this attention on the blues. I want to know your opinion. Is that, despite the misperception on my part, or our part I'll say mine, since I'm asking the question but, is the blues giving preference, as opposed to looking at a lot of the true horrors that occurred because it's more comfortable? Something that people can rally around or say, oh, the blues, the blues, but not look at the real issues. Is there a way to bring the two of them together so that the story is told as we ll? Not just B.B. King and Muddy Waters. What is your reaction to that statement?
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 29 A: Okay. First, let me ask you, have you been through the B.B. King Museum? W: We came last year, with the A: Did you have time? It was really good. W: We were honor ed guests of the veterans, so we went through as much time as we want. I sat and listened to every single video. I was even interviewed by the people that ran it; they sent me an e mail afterwards and thanked me, so . and bought stuff in the museum. Se nt folks a cup and my mama some stuff, and all my brothers got something. Expensive, by the way. Expensive. [Laughter] A: All right, real quickly, real quick. Let me see how I will answer this. First, I guess, the first thing is to say that, yes, there i s a connection. I think that we argue equal focus to the civil rights history as the blues history. But the reason I'm on the board at the B.B. King Museum. W: Oh, really? Well A: No, no, no. Let me tell you, let me tell you. If you go through the mu s eum, I will tell you this, thi s is when we were deciding how to tell this story about B.B. King. We have charades we had brainstorming sessions here, over in the . a number of months. We paid to, we flew in experts on B.B.'s life, on the blues, and we brought in civil rights people from the community, some of the civil rights people that were involved in civil rights here in the 60s and on, because it's part of his story. We put a lot of thought into how we were going to tell this story, and we dec ided early on
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 30 that we were not going to gloss over any of our Delta history, Indianola history, Sunflower County history, Mississippi history, as far as civil rights, of the wrongs that were done for many decades here. I think, when you go through the muse um, you see that. W: Oh, of course. A: I mean, it's right in your face. The opening movie, where we are showing scenes of bad things that happened. We went and found the old movies, where people were being, things were being thrown at them at sit ins, etcetera, etcetera. You see William Winter, our former governor, addressing Mississippi civil rights history and making some positive statements there in that opening. Then, as you go on through the museum, as you know, there's more and more, especially wh en you get back into the area about the sixties. We have a lot of civil rights stuff there, a lot of the negatives are brought out. Then, we have B.B. talking about it, even in the very last movie, right before you leave. You have B.B. talking about the ch ildren of today. He's kind of talking to the children that are coming through the museum, and he's saying that you don't have to go through what I had to go through. He kind of looks up, and right then, we have a cross burning . so, I think that I know that our museum, which in part, its mission is education, education about the civil rights movement is part of our mission. We, I will tell you this, our board, we learned a lot. Those of us who helped build this museum learned a lot, because we knew noth ing about museums: building a museum, raising money for a
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 31 museum, running a museum, but we've learned a whole lot over the last seven years. We have urged some of our neighbors, especially Ruleville, the town Ruleville, north of here, to please build the F annie Lou Hamer Museum. It's logical, it's great if you had one up there. It would help our museum, because we think that and, by the way, I do know this: in fact, our museum was an impetus behind the Blues Trail markers. Very first one was right here in I ndianola, the second one was right here in Indianola. We have urged the state to do this, the Blues Trail. The state's picked up in it; the people in our museum that are on the Blues Trail W: If I may interrupt you A: But, already, they are starting to organize a civil rights trail, also, in Mississippi. They just go together, you know. W: Well, they do, to a great extent. I hope that I didn't imply that the B.B. King Museum was not in the highest level of excellence, and didn't put forth that messa ge. In fact, if you go back and find the guys that do your video stuff, you'll find my interview with them. I gave nothing but praise; it's incredible. But I was looking at the wall, the benefactors, all this money, and it goes back to my question, because I don't know if I think that you've answered very well for the B.B. King Museum, and it really wasn't what I was saying. A: I know. W: I'm saying, in general, all the benefactors, all the money that's just so easy and popular for the blues, everybody wants to be a part of that. But, is enough attention really being spent and even money, I mean, I don't
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 32 know how they'd raise that money in Ruleville. Maybe because this is so popular, they won't be able to raise as much money as they raised for that. That 's kind of the issue that I'm asking you to address. How do you think that could be combated or dealt with? Or is it just, it's not going to happen? There's going to be a lot of emphasis on the Blues Trail, because that's going to make money and it's going to draw people in, and it in some ways takes advantage of the talent of these artists, and it's easy. A: What I think, probably what Mississippi is up against and I had a recent discussion with some people recently about that Mississippi's kind of come in late to the civil rights museum scene. You know, the state, right now, is talking about building a civil rights museum in Mississippi. I think they've decided, rather than having it downtown in Jackson, where a lot of the other museums are, they're goi ng to put it T o ugaloo because Tougaloo W: Wow, that'd be awesome, yeah. A: But, anyway, I do think a lot of Fannie Lou Hamer's stuff as I probably told you is there. So, I'm sure they're going to probably use that; it's a big part of it. But, you kno w, the national civil rights museum is right over the state line in Memphis. Birmingham has their civil rights museum. I think that they're going to come up with money. I think the state money is going to be easier for them to do it, because they're going to probably get money from the s tate legislature. I guess there' d be some private funding in it; I don't know. Our museum is not as . is a non profit, and we did it
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 33 because I will tell you this: if B.B. himself, great human being, great guy, he has hel ped Indianola in so many ways. He started he came home, first in 1977, after a number of years. Then he came back in 1980 and we started having this annual concert. He started giving this concert. It has brought the black and white community here together He's been sort of a catalyst of more togetherness between whites and blacks here in this town over these last four decades. So, some of us who were involved in some of those concerts and other things that we did when he came home, came up with this idea eight years ago eight years ago this month, no, nine years ago; August of 2000. We came up with this idea, let's build a museum. We asked him, we thought it'd be real small, Lucille and some of these clubs or whatever. We started talking about it and organ izing, it just got bigger and bigger. I mean, I never would have dreamed it turned into what it did. Thirteen million dollar museum. W: Incredible and inspirational, yeah. I watched every single one of those videos, every single one. A: Yeah, I did int end it also gave us the opportunity to tell the story. As kids go through there, they pick up the civil rights story along with the blues story, and the B.B. King story. The B.B. King story is a rags to riches story. It's the story of this poor guy, this g uy that's born in poverty out in B oclair and grew up outside of Indianola picking cotton and driving a tractor. W: People in Eastern Europe know who he is.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 34 A: That's right, exactly. They appreciate the blues more than we do. So, it was just a really go od story to tell. Yo u can weave a lot of other stories into his life because it was part of his life. But, no, I don't think that we're not telling the civil rights story, and I can tell you, the B.B. King board wants that story to be told. It's not our mi ssion, but we built our museum. We're doing a lot of things. Our education arm and we do have an outreach, our museum does. W: Well, you're in contact with us, so we appreciate the fellowship. A: [Laughter] Thank you. W: It's true, you're walking the walk. I just had to ask that. A: Yeah, right. W: That blues/civil rights question, or where you felt A: I hope, and I can tell you, as well as the board, we are so hoping that a civil rights trail is equal, or maybe even better to the Blues Trail, is formed and becomes successful. It just will bring more people to the Delta to see, to learn about the history of the Delta, and hopefully to help the Delta. Because things are still sad here. There's still a long ways to go. W: Well, you've been very patient. I really enjoyed the interview. I have a couple more questions, but I know we've got forty five minutes, it starts to get long. I notice we're about an hour. A: Oh, God.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 35 W: Here's what we'll do. I'm going to mention just a concept or a stateme nt or an individual, just one word, short, and just get a reaction from you. Do a couple of those for fun. Barack Obama. A: Incredible, incredible guy. I mean, I just I voted for him. My wife and I sent a little money to him. My daughter worked for him i n South Carolina and actually got to introduce Michelle at a big luncheon over there. I'm just so excited that he's my president, and I think he's going to do well. Bugs the hell out of me, what's been going on the last several weeks. [Laughter] But, anywa y. W: Leadership. A: Yes. Is that what you're saying? W: No, I'm just saying my next term to you is leadership. A: Leadership? Oh, God. What do you want me to say about leadership? W: It's up to you. A: [Laughter] Barack Obama. There's some lac k of that here in Indianola, on some political levels, that bothers me, and state wide. [Laughter] It's important, it's so important. More people need to be involved in public servic e and offer themselves to office, and we'll have better leadership. W: H aley Barbour. A: He would, I'm going to say something positive first. I am convinced it was good for Mississippi that he was the governor when Katrina hit, because I have heard him and his wife speak on it, and I keep up with politics, I read. I think it was just he really did, and she did, too, they did an enormous
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 36 job in helping those people on the coast that went through an incredible tragedy. I went down there nine days after it hit, it just blew me away. It still, it's so sad. I did not vote for him. I'm really concerned about the influence of lobbyists on the members of Congress, and he's been a part of that. But a very personable guy, and very smart. He spoke to the Mississippi Press Association back in June. I went to that convention. He had no not es and he spoke for almost an hour. It's just incredible. It was mostly about economics and economic development in the port that they're building down there in Gulf Port. It's amazing how informed he is on so many subjects. But his politics and mine . [Laughter] Don't exactly jive. W: Casinos. A: Casinos. Oh, I avoid those. I think it's sad that Mississippi has had to depend on that for money in its general fund. You know, it doesn't go to education here like Georgia's lottery or whatever they have Our money goes to the general fund. Certainly, it has helped education in some ways, and it helped the state treasury. I just think it's very sad that they're here in the Mississippi Delta. I know of a number of instances where people from here got addic ted and went and lost too much money; hurt their children, hurt their families. I just . I think it's sad that Mississippi's been dependent on that. What next? W: Fannie Lou Hamer.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 37 A: Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most famous citizens. We're sitting just a couple hundred y ards right now from where the north door of the courthouse where she walked after being turned away from the right to vote, and next morning, she and her husband were kicked off of the plantation that they worked on for, what? Fourt een years at one point. Somebody that inspired so many people, and somebody who was mistreated terribly. I'll never forget the day that I went to Drew on Sunday afternoon. I was with the funeral service in the Drew High School auditorium this is in 1971. A young girl named Joy Collier was walking how with two of her friends from high school graduation they'd just graduated from high school and three yahoo whites were riding around Drew and shooting out streetlights. The guy with the pistol shot her and k illed her. That was a very . there was a . well, before the big trial here in Indianola, they had this funeral service at the Drew High School auditorium. I went up there to cover it. I think I was maybe one of the few whites in the building. I was up in the balcony with a friend. Fannie Lou got up and spoke and sang and cried, and it was, I can play that back in this, full brain, right now. That's one of my memories of her. I saw her several other times as well. Important lady. W: The blues. A: The blues. I like the blues. [Laughter] I grew up in Greenwood listening to WLSC radio out in Nashville, Tennessee. That was one of these this was AM, this was back before FM. So, at night, that station had fifty thousand
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 38 watts, something like that, so p eople all over the Southeast could hear. There was Randy's Record Shop out of Gal l atin, Tennessee anyway, they played, it was rock and roll and blues. I think, once in a while, they played a gospel song. That's where I first heard B.B. King, B.B. King and Lightning Hopkins. I would do my homework to the blues, and my high school graduation night, I think afterward we had a dance, and then you did this, that, and the other. Two o'clock in the morning, we had breakfast or something over at somebody's, at a h ouse there in Greenwood, and on the patio was Sun Thompson from Leland, was sitting there playing his guitar. I later got to know Sun many years later, but anyway, I grew up in the Delta, so. My favorite blues singer was Jimmy Reed from Leland, which is a bout fourteen miles west of here. Jimmy Reed, I had his double album, and I played it on my record player so long you just the needle almost wore a groove, in the groove. I like all kinds of music, but blues I do like, also. W: Mr. Jim Abbott, editor of the Enterprise Tocsin for thirty eight years A: Editor and publisher. [Laughter] W: Publisher, I forgot about your sales experience. [Laughter] Which leads to the front office. It's been such a pleasure and an honor to chat with you today. I feel I' ve learned a lot and shared a lot, and I want to thank you for sharing, because you didn't have to. So, we do appreciate it. A: Thank you, Marna. I appreciate that.
MFP 0 48 ; Abbott ; Page 39 W: I like to close every interview with the opportunity to give you a chance to reflect upon the interview or anything you'd like to say, so these will be my last comments. When you have offered what it is you choose to offer, that'll conclude our interview. A: Look, I appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed by you, Marna. [Laughter] You did a great job. I didn't think I would say half of what I said. [Laughter] I'm usually a man of few words, orally. I'm a typer, you know? But I'm most intrigued and happy to hear that the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program is a success. Once we turn this off, I have a lot of questions to you about archiving a lot of tapes that I have and all. But this has been a fun experience, and please come back. Really, thank you. [End of interview] Transcribed by: Diana Dombrowski, December 5, 2013 Audit e dited by: Sarah Blanc, January 10, 2014 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, March 13, 2014