Interview with Foster King, September 13, 2008

Material Information

Interview with Foster King, September 13, 2008
King, Foster ( Interviewee )
Noll, Amanda ( Interviewer )
Simone, Dan ( Interviewer )
Mississippi Freedom Project (MFP)
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
African Americans ( fast )
Mississippi Delta Freedom Project ( local )
Civil rights movements ( local )
Oral histories ( lcgft )
Temporal Coverage:
1951 - 2008
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Mississippi -- Sunflower


Treasurer of the Sunflower County Civil Rights Reunion Committee talks about segregated schools and chopping cotton. King talks about involvement in the Freedom Riders era and the resurgence of civil rights activism in the 1980s in Indianola, including campaigning for the successful election of the first black superintendent of schools, Robert Merritt. People mentioned include: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mike Espie, Robert Merritt, Charles Scattergood, Zellie Rainey Orr, Stacey White, Charles McLaurin and John Lewis. Locations include Indianola, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee.

Record Information

Source Institution:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Holding Location:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International license:
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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 or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


MFP 020 Interviewee: Foster King Interviewer: Dan Simone a nd Amanda Noll Date of Interview: September 13, 2008 S: Today is October 13, 2008. I am in Indianola, Mississippi, I'm Dan Simone with Amanda Noll, students at Florida State and the University of Florida. We're with Mr. Foster King, who is the treasurer of the Sunflower County Civil Rights Reunion Committe e, celebrating their four year anniversary. First question I have of you, Mr. King, is where and when were you born? K: Born here in Indianola, Mississippi in April 1951. S: How many brothers and sisters did you have? K: Five brothers, two sisters. Two have passed, deceased. S: What did your parents do for a living? K: They just worked. First as farmers o n a farm. My daddy came from the city to the county. S: Just tell me a little bit about your early days, about elementary school, how far you walked to school, some of the hobbies and sports you played. K: When I started young, I started school, a little behind in school from the start. Farming community didn't follow the school calendar A lot of times on the farm, and farming, you have to make sure the crops are in and all. Starting school, I guess maybe around eight years old. We walked maybe about three miles to school, sometime maybe a couple of miles, depending on what side of town we lived on. Then, after I started school, we would sometimes mov e. When the family got a little larger, we'd move back out into the suburbs of town, like the farm off in Indianola. We'd catch the school bus then. We would get out of school early some days; we'd go


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 2 half days and go to the cotton field, chop cotton. In I ndianola in the fall, when it was time for the cotton to be harvested, we'd go out and work half days, go a nd harvest the cotton. Then we move d back into the city and my father got a larger house Eventually, he found a job at one of the factories that was in Indianola. It was a textile factory. We finally got a chance to have a house built big enough to house the family; we wouldn't have to move around much any more. Then, even after that, I graduated from high school and it was like we had a lot of family living with us. Have to sleep with our rooms together, three or four people in a bed sometimes. It was a large family. That was two sisters, five brothers two sisters. We made it. We had some ups and downs, had some good times and bad times. S: You first started school, this was in the early 1960s, you mentioned a bus. K: Well, actually, when I got to school it was around . 1957 or [19]58. S: Okay. So, what year did you start in school? K: Okay . [19]51, 1951 to [19]58, I'd been sent. So, I wa s two years behind in school, having to do the farm stuff. It had to be more like [19]58, something like that. Six year olds started in first or second grade at that time. S: The elementary school you attended was segregated? K: No. Well, yes, it was. It had to be at that time, yeah, the schools were segregated in the [19]50s. S: Were there separate bus lines for blacks and whites? K: Separate lunch lines, and


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 3 S: Busses as well? K: Separate busses, yes. In 1969, there was 1968 or [19]69, we had, by t he time I graduated from high school, we still had to the choice to go to school. So I didn't get a chance to mix among whites who were going to school, but by that time in junior high school, all the whites had attended [inaudible 05:48]. First ever [inau dible 05:55], ninth grade to twelfth grade. Don't touch that. They changed the school system at that time, changing from the ninth graders left Gentry and went to junior high school. Tenth through twelfth, now, went to Gentry High School. In junior high sc hool, all white school be came junior high school. So I left, in high school, and went to Indianola High School, which became junior high school for us in [19]69. I have to say, I have fears from that school During the early [19]60s, 1964, which was the . height of the civil rights movement, we left Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, to live for a while. At that time you know, it was hard for people getting work. A lot of times, people would get blackballed for participating in movements and stuff. So, we used to farm for my daddy in Mississippi We moved away from there in 1964. The next year, next summer in 1965, things began to get better. All of a sudden, the Voting Rights bill passed, we moved back to the Mississippi Delta late 1965. I've been here ever since. N: So, do you think when your parents moved away from Indianola, was it a fear issue or were they just following work, or . ?


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 4 K: It was following work for the most part, for the most part. A lot of times, when my dad and my mom, they wer e proud people. If you are proud people, sometimes, you're looked at as a person that's offensive. A person that rocks the boat, so to speak, sort of trouble in the water It's not easy, sometimes, living in fear. Offending the wrong person could cost your life so to speak. But, as a young teenager, now, going to school in the early [19]60s when Freedom Riders came into the Delta and voter registration and all that began to take place, there were a lot of protests in the cities and stuff like that. I, bein g a young teenager, I got interested seeing people come into town. I felt, at the time, you're a teenager, that something wasn't right. Mass protesting heightened I followed the movement. Wherever they protested, wherever they went and sang songs, Freedom Songs, I was right there on the scene. Watching the Freedom Riders and civil rights workers being dragged off to jail and thrown in the back of police vans and all that You know, it's just . made a person more aware of what was going on around me, and made me interested in getting to use well, I'd been kind of interested in the movement ever since N: So, being away in [19]64 and coming back in [19]65, did you see any dynamics in the black community change over that year? K: I began to see people b eing able to go into public places and sit down and have lunches at peace. The firebombing stopped, of homes and businesses. After 1965, businesses began to move into Indianola, settle


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 5 down in the Delta. Because, you know, in the early [19]60s, there weren 't many factories, so to speak. Skilled jobs here in the Mississippi Delta, especially in Indianola, like printing factories and printing companies and any kind of industry that paid a significant amount of money, made a decent living to make a sizeable fa mily comfortable, sending their kids off to college, tuition to buy whatever they needed in college. Race relations were gradually beginning to change as government policies were put into place and then enforced by different bills being passed after 1965. Government, the school assimilation and desegregation began to unfold and had more tellers and people working in public places, therefore getting blacks and white more close relationship with each other, beginning to feel each other out and begin to know e ach other. So, we begin to see something changing. It was like Dr. King's dream unfolding before your eyes. S: Do you remember the first time your parents voted? K: No. No, I don't remember the first time they voted, but I know my mother always particip ated in the voting process. But I don't recall the first time she ever did, just don't remember. The only thing I remember of any significance in participating in the changes: after the schooling system changed from high school, Gentry High School and juni or high school, [inaudible 13:44] through twelfth grade and ninth grade moved over the junior high school. When I was a kid, had to be bussed across the track in 1969 but a lot of the kids going over to the schools to desegregate. My


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 6 mother set up a bus s ystem, bussing system, a private bussing system, to bus the kids across town. That's one of the things that really stayed with me, seeing the future and seeing change happen. S: How was I guess Indianola called it Gentry High School. Why was the bigger h igh school Gentry High School? K: I've heard the history on that, but it was named after a person, but I don't recall the person. The person, I never met the person. I know it was named after a person, I don't have a lot of detail on that. S: Could you tell us a little bit about your life after high school? K: Oh . S: How were the early [19]70s, at least? K: The early [19]70s, I got married and settled down here. I began to just try to make a living for my family. S: Did you go to the university ? K: I went to a branch of Mississippi Delta Junior College, and after that, I just I started working in the field that I went to school So, I was focused on that, trying to get back with folk to work in Greenville to Indianola, raising a young family. T here wasn't a lot of action going on at that time for the civil rights, political activity at that time. After Dr. King got killed, it was like a void in leadership, especially in the South. After the bills and the Voting Rights Bill and the Civil Rights b ill got passed, we were just kind of grabbing at opportunities in the Mississippi Delta. It wasn't till the early to mid [19]80s that I became active again as far as community organizing.


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 7 Here in Mississippi, doing things like a campaign for different loca l county, state officials, and just people like Ray [inaudible 16:49], Mike Espie, and our school superintendent in 1986, Robert Merritt He was the first black school superintendent here in Indianola. We had city wide boycott The [19]60s wasn't like that Everybody was into music, fans, we were young. The whites got involved. We didn't give up until we got an Indianolan in office. S: What were some of the issues that you took to try to come up with, maybe to get into office? K: We just organized differe nt meetings in order to kind of see the situations, like shift planning and for certain businesses that we were going to deal with, some shift changing of different people took part around the city. That's basically it, and just whatever we needed, whateve r message that we wanted to put on the different signs and religious places, we just picketed where we wanted to picket at. So we did everything to change the situation. It was just typical work which, to me, it wasn't done up until that point, a situati on like that. I'll tell you, around here, it wasn't that great at that time, because a lot of issues weren't being pushed. So those are one of the great issues concerning our community, and the finance of our public schools. So, when we wanted to see somet hing, we wanted one that had our best interests in mind, and a person who doesn't look like us to be over our children and to have our finances to give our students the best opportunity and the best curriculums that they can afford. The money


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 8 that they're giving these areas being forwarded to our children to get them to have what they need for school S: What was the name of the first black superintendent of schools? K: His name was Robert Merritt, Dr. Robert Merritt. Since then, after he became sup erintendent, we had a school named Robert L. Merritt Middle School. He's still alive. He lived in Oakl awn Mississippi. He taught school into, about, I forgot for a number of years, but then he began principal of Carver Elementary School for approximately seventeen years before he became school superintendent. S: What year was that, about? K: 1986, that he became superintendent. N: After [19]86, do you think there was a resurgence of a civil rights movement within the community after that victory? K: Af ter [19]86, there was a resurgence. Everybody was really energized, because they saw racism raise again in a bold way. I think, after the mid [19]60s and after Dr. King's death and losing a martyr, public and civic issues that was left out there for us to push for, I guess, so to speak, like those whites in office You know, segregation and laws, you had a choice to go to schools where you wanted; white flight, that was a personal choice. But we was pretty much at accessing at some point, and we got some of the major things passed, and people began to do pretty good and then, through the middle [19]60s, people began to have new homes built. They had been living in shacks and homes, again, again, factories and


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 9 working, something like I said, people were doing pretty fair. But, after th ey felt like racism and racial inequality shined a light on some of the things that we needed to stay on top of. Then, a lot of our kids, the generation that I came up, their parents had said, go on off to college. Got degrees an d become lawyers and doctors. They went out into the world and saw what they can accomplish and work around, and they wanted more and more, and they began to be interested in other modern movements and making a living in different arenas. Then, the politic al inclined, they began to get out and involved. In 1986, we had the highest number of African Americans who had been elected to office than any other state in the Union. We've been going ever since, and our numbers are still at the rising, still at the to p. Two more weeks for you. N: That's fine, I can be out of the picture. S: Mr. King, could you tell me a little bit about how the Sunflower County Civil Rights Reunion project was put together a few years ago? Who were some of the forces behind it? K: A friend of mine, a young lady from my high school days, we were the same age. She met one of the civil rights veterans from the movement, the civil rights era of early [19]60s, during the summer of 1964. Later, she ran into him in Atlanta, Georgia, and th ey got engaged. He was killed just before this idea was conceived, was carried out; this idea was to have a reunion of lives who came down and helped changed the Delta into the way it is now. He wanted to meet with some of his colleagues, some of


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 10 them just get back together and possibly keep really, really energize things, because there was more work to be done that was sought, and his name was Charles Scattergood My friend's name is Zel l ie Rainey Orr. She was married, her husband passed, so she and Charle s got together and they got engaged. They were engaged to get married. One day, he was on his way home, got killed on the expressway in Atlanta, Georgia. She had moved to Atlanta, Georgia from California. She would often come back and talk and we would tal k about different things, because when she was a young girl, a lot of us would be out singing Freedom Songs and follow the, roll around with the civil rights workers when we were trying to do it in the early [19]60s, as young teenagers. So, she carried out the plan after he got killed She came down, she organized, she got with Stacey and I and Charles M cLaurin so we w ent online and looked up people, she would make phone calls and she did the research. She would come there and check on things and go back to Atlanta She finally got the folk together, and some of it materialized. It's a great feeling, you know, because I remember these guys coming in and liberating us. It's a great joy to me and a comfort to me in my heart to help get these guys back togeth er. It just seems like, you know, it's one big family that has the long lost brother, for guys to come back. And being a young guy you know, a lot of them, the faces, they saw me and I saw them; at that time, it's so powerful and so emotional at that point during the early [19]60s. It's just like, you remember them doing this, but when people go off, you don't


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 11 remember the faces that well, but you remember the actions. It gave me a great joy just to be able to be a part of it. N: What were your personal g oals in making this reunion happen? K: The personal goal was to help a friend, Ms. Zellie Rainey Orr, accomplish what her fiance set out to do. Just to see these guys come back together and to be able to thank them for what they done for us. N: Do you s ee that as impacting your community? K: As far as the impact as to the community as a whole, bringing these guys back. As far as the whole community, I don't see a lot of impact by them just coming back; I think by some people, the ones that come out to g reet these people, it brings them great joy. But it's always it's not going to be what you expect out of the whole community. It's just like that with some people. You have a few people that gets a job done, and it was just a handful of them that came dow n and shook up the Delta, especially in Sunflower County. Now, they were strategically placed across the Mississippi Delta, and some of them in other states tried to accomplish the same goals. That's one of the reasons we brought Congressman John Lewis in. He was from the state of Georgia, working with Dr. King and others. But we felt it incumbent upon us to work with Zellie to help her make her endeavor come true, to bring back these guys together. Like I say, it's one of their c omrades, Charlie Scattergoo d, wanted to do, to bring back the guys that he'd worked with here in Sunflower County, to bring


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 12 them together. Now, he has a housing complex named in his honor, all because of his fiance Zellie Rainey. She did this for her fiance S: Has the reunion grown each year, the fourth year, now, then? K: It's grown, but not significantly. As far as members and participation, it's been basically about the same. S: Each year, are you able to track down more folks from the year before? K: Each year, we track down a few more. A couple of them that's not here this time even Zellie, she wasn't even able to make it this time. Some have other engagements. S: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about today Perhaps how the civil rights moveme nt's had an effect on your life? K: You know, I appreciate the tone that it has set for Sunflower County and Indianola, especially even for the state of Mississippi, but especially Indianola, because there has been less violence toward African Americans, physical violence. We have privileges that we didn't have in the early [19]60s, and as a young boy, that I excused: not being able to sit down at the lunch counters and eat, and going into the cities, where you had to go one side to drink out of the soda fountains, ice cubes and all of that, as a young teenager. Being threatened if I drinked out of a water fountain, one thing that sticks out in my mind: anytime I think about things like this, I went out to the service station one day. We just, actually, my brothers and I always walked the streets, looking for work, jobs or what you need. Got thirsty, went to go drink out of a water fountain at the


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 13 service station, and this white guy raised his foot as though he was going to kick me. You know, in my butt. I just looked back, and he don't you see those cups up there? I didn't say anything. I was, at that time, especially a young one, I was a person of few words. Talking a lot now. I didn't say anything. I was always aware of the differences between the races. I wasn't a hostile type person unless very much physically threatened, but something like that, I understand it, knew the situation, so I just kind of walked away. But I wasn't ever threatened physically, you know; beaten, or anything like that. But I kno w about things, like my brothers being shot at during those early years. But I'm particularly of that, that the violence has died down after that. We're beginning to socialize more as a people in the Delta, although I'd say there were other policies and th ings still we have to work with, public policies and stuff. N: How do you feel about having your grandson be able to experience this reunion and see all the people who have helped change from the early [19]60s until now? K: I feel very proud and privile ged to be able to bring them in and see all this, and to give you some insight on what it was and what it's like now, and what it needs, to be state enforced. Because a lot of our young people don't realize how well, just a few years ago that what we did have, what we do have now. When I tell them about certain things, they say, wow. It baffles them. It really amazes them, just a few years ago, how the things we had to deal with, things our foreparents had to deal with. So, it's really


MFP 0 20 ; King ; Page 14 pleasing to me and i t's gratifying just to be able to bring them here, before this, and have the opportunity to let him witness this. N: Do you have anything else? S: That will conclude the interview. Thank you very much. N: Thank you. [End of interview] Transcribed by: D iana Dombrowski, September 27, 2013 Audit Edited by: Sarah Blanc, October 25, 2013 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, November 6, 2013