Interview with Margaret Kibbee, September 12, 2008

Material Information

Interview with Margaret Kibbee, September 12, 2008
Kibbee, Margaret ( Interviewee )
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 ( fast )
Voter registration
Oral histories ( lcgft )
Temporal Coverage:
1964 - 2008
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Mississippi -- Sunflower County


Kibbee, a SNCC organizer, talks about voter registration and legal services for African Americans in Sunflower County, Mississippi, during the 1960s. People mentioned include: Wade Townsend, Bill Hollowell, Richard Nixon, Otis Brown, Jr., Cephus Smith, Robert McCraney, Sam Eli, Sarah Johnson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, Annie Devine, Lenny Jenkins and Eunice Jenkins. Locations include: Indianola, Greenville, Jackson and Moorhead, Mississippi. Organizations mentioned: Friends of SNCC, SNCC, Freedom School, Box Project and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

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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MFP 016 A Interviewee: Margaret Kibbee Interviewer: Dan Simone Date: September 12, 2008 S: Today is September 12, 2008. This is Dan Simone. I am with Margaret Kibbee . We are in Indianola, Mississippi, and we're going to talk about Ms. Kibbee 's activities in the civil rights movement. Before we begin talking about the 1960s, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your early life. Where and when were you born? K: I was born in San Francisco in 1946. I grew up in Mill Valley just north of San Francisco. S: What did your parents do for a living? K: My father was a printer. He ran a printer, printing Christmas cards . My mother was a freelance writer who did PR for somebody, and my stepfather he became an important part of my life, too he was a news reporter. S: What were your interests growing up? Did you have any hobbies? K: Yeah. First it was animals, you know? Reptiles, dogs, horses, and then I decided that the world was not waiting for me to make the equestrian team. Then, also, my riding instructor committed suicide, so that cut my riding down considerably. S: Wow. K: But I was becoming socially interested, yeah , s o it was sort of a natural thing to move into. I was involved in little marches, little things we did in the Bay area. So, I was, as a teenager in high school, I was looking forward to either going in the Peace Corps or going in the civil rights movement, and I decided the civil rights movement was more appropriate because that was sort of my job. I mean, that was my duty. This was my country, that was where I could make my contribution.


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 2 I owed it to straighten things out. I thought I could be of more influence, serve more of a purpose in Mississippi. I wanted to go in [19]64; I was just getting out of high school then. But I d idn't have the money. It wasn't anything else that kept me from going, so I had to save my money, and I did. So, in [19]65, I came. My mother gave me Three Lives for Mississippi , hoping I'd change my mind, but I didn't, so I came. [Laughter] S: Did you co me alone? K: Yes. Yeah. Actually, I say I traveled alone, but I was in Friends of SNCC at my college, College of Marin. We participated in Friends of SNCC, and there were about three or four of us who made up our minds to come South. We all planned on com ing. There was one other person that I had some contact with from time to time; there was one other worker who stayed past the summer, as I did. She was Car ro ll County , and I was in Sunflower County. So, that was what started, Friends of SNCC. S: So you w ere a freshman in college then? K: Yes. S: What was this college you were at again, I'm sorry? K: College of Marin. S: Where was that? K: Junior college in Kentfield, California. S: Did you declare a major? K: No. I think I was leaning towards polit ical science or English, something that I could write. I liked those kind of courses; history, I liked history.


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 3 S: How did you get down to Mississippi? K: Like an idiot, I took the bus. See, I had to apply. I applied to come; I didn't just come. I mean, I made an application, sent it in. I had a psychiatric interview with a psychiatrist in Mount Sinai hospital in San Francisco. They decided I was just crazy enough to come to Mississippi and not worry anybody else. They asked me a lot of questions about, could I take orders and directions from someone that had less ed ucation? They wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to try to come down there to tell everyb ody what to do, that I could take directions. They decided that I could. So, when I got accepted to go, and they'd say, well, you take a bus. So, I did, and that was sort of an adventure in itself. But, after that, I discovered if you flew students standby , you could travel just as c heaply between San Francisco an d Mississippi. S: Tell me about your first impressions of Mississippi. K: Well, of course, I was shocked by the separate still separate waiting rooms, separate everything, when I arrived in Jack son. There was two of everything, you know? Followed two people to the SNCC headquarters, and it was just sort of pandemonium. They would have these marches through Jackson, around the streets of Jackson during the noon hour, most of the day. I was so amaz ed about how orderly they were and how orderly they had to be, because we would have marches in San Francisco that used to take over Market Street; go do what you want to do, and everybody's making a lot of noise. Traffic is blocked off for your convenienc e. At this one, you had to stop for everything. You didn't look sideways. You marched two by two; you stopped for every red light and stayed


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 4 on the sidewalk. It was very different from anything . . . and, of course, I think two of the things that shocked m e the most when I first got here one of them I didn't see right away, but I saw a little bit later but the first thing that shocked me was how poor, poor is. It's totally different from not having money in the Bay area. Somebody has some money, and you'r e always going to be somewhat comfortable; whereas, in Mississippi, I got to see real poverty. I never realized that people lived on three dollars a week and that sort of thing. That's what people would pay to do some week, and some people got five or six dollars a week. That was considered good. But I didn't realize and, I mean, I saw houses as they were. I mean, things that you took for granted that you had to have just weren't there. We lived, of course, in people's houses or lived with familie s, so as soon as I could get out of Jackson, fell into a car that was headed for Sunflower County, that's where I was. [ Laughter] Until . . . so, I lived in Sunflower County. T he project th ere w a s very go o d, it was here in Indianola. I lived in different pl aces in Indianola. But the real, what people didn't have and what they had to live on, I just didn't realize how little a lot of people had. You're just trying to figure out what to eat, and eating the same thing every day: pinto beans, I mean, that was a meal for a lot of people. Glad to get that. The other thing that kind of shocked me was and is still a factor, actually is the poor health of people: children not knowing what a dentist was, but not as bad as that is, people in their forties taking eight kinds of medicine to stay alive. I'd never the incidence of high blood pressure, heart problems, such like that, and so many people had these things. Because I was used to bei ng around adults who didn't


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 5 hav e to take any medicine except when they got sick. For people to chronically have to stay on medicine all the time, I hadn't seen that before. So, but anyway, the poverty there was very remarkable. The other things, I'd done enough reading about that, so as far as the segregation and white people being cr azy, I expected that. So, that didn't throw any hooks at me. S: The poverty was just beyond . . .? K: Right. S: What was your first assignment once you got to the Delta? K: [Laughter] Most of what we were doing was voter registration. We actually had it pretty well organized. We had clipboards with all your, really, a list of everybody on the block. There were even notes on how people would react to you, and whether or not they were registered. I remember one lady, I got to know her later one, they sai d, will not register, but will give y ou a piece of watermelon. [Laughter] One thing I found that I liked about working here was that, by and large, you didn't have any problem talking to you. I mean, the person who told you to get away was really the excep tion. The majority of people wou ld be very nice, and it wasn't just a question of what you want; you'd be invited t o come in and sit down. There was . . . so, you could always talk people, find out what they were thinking about, what their problem was. In fact, there was one case that I thought was kind of funny: we were in Moorhead . In the housing, Moorhead wasn't totally segregated by neighborhood, just as it was in most of the Delta at the time that's another story. But the housing here, there'd be s ome streets where there'd be a few white people living on the street, and we knew this. We


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 6 didn't have it blocked out as well as we did in Indianola; you need to gtry to get registered to vote. We came into this house, and we knocked on this door, me and a nother lady were going door to door. These two ladies that looked like white women were sitting there. I said, oh, I'm sorry; I didn't mean to bother you. Went running down the porch, down the street, and this man, who was obviously a black man, came runni ng after us. [Laughter] Wait a minute, they want to hear what you have to say. They brought us back in, and they were very light black people. We didn't know that by the street. They wanted to hear what we had to say. [Laughter] So, by and large, we were v ery welcome in the black community; it wasn't a problem. There was a level of hostility and hatred among some white people that was a little bit unnerving, but then, there were some white people who knew that this was junk, but they wouldn't come out and t here was no openness. S: Were there any native Mississippians that would assist your cause, or was it more a matter of staying behind the scenes? K: Staying behind the scenes, totally. For instance, as I said, the main thing we had going was registration. That's really what we worked on every day , initially. Then, later on, we would get people to go to trips to Washington, which were essentially lobbyi ng trips. I helped do that. We were starting to do voter registration things of trying to get people to run for office, and so we'd get people to qualify as independents. I remember taking a petition up to this old he's dead now, his son is in this positi on, actually, but this lawyer Townsend taking a petition to independent voters; signing petitions. You know, I don't agree with what you're


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 7 doing. He was looking at me so horrible. I was looking in his office, he used to be at the end of Church Street. The re's a funny looking staircase that goes up the building on your right. He used to be right there. I'm going up the staircase to . . . but anyway, as I said, most of what I did was voter registration. We had here in Indianola a pretty little organization o f the FDP block system, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. It was a very good system where they had block captains and the block meetings every week, and then, eventually, you'd come together, sort of like a city wide meeting. Then there'd be a coun ty wide meeting, and then there'd be a district wide meeting, so you were getting ready for caucus politics. But the little block meetings did very well. There were two blocks: we had the whole city, the black community, organized, but there were two block s that went on meeting for about two years after there wasn't really a viable state organization. I thought that was kind of remarkable, that people held them together. S: True grassroots. K: Yeah. It really was, and I think it did very well here. So, we had that, but as far as white people oh, and I'm saying about the voter registration: so, you'd take a group of people up there and you would have helped them with the test that people had to take for voter registration that they were in a family. You us ually didn't get very many people signed up, but people joined we've got people used to going up there, trying to get registered. Eventually, sometimes, people would register. But we took people up there, and the Sheriff, Hollowell, if nobody was there, h e would talk my ear off, because I'd sit there at the courthouse taking


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 8 note of who came up there. We have people, bringing people, and another person sitting there, keeping track of who went in. We kept track of everybody. If nobody was there, Sheriff Hol lowell would talk my ear off. He was very friendly. If nobody then would everybody would leave, or if there was some other white people around there, he wouldn't say a word. He wouldn't know me. But under the scene, I understand later on, he really did kn ow what was going on. It was sort of interesting, years later in [19]73 well, it might be [19]73 I took a course at Delta State; in political science, no less. It was mostly white students, but, anyway, there was Sheriff Hollowell's cousin was in my clas s. She was very primitive conservative, but it was almost like she followed me around like a puppy. [Laughter] I mean, we were actually very close. [Laughter] S: Wow. K: There was a captain, old army captain from Ruleville at the time, who was very smart . You know? I was very surprised. He really seemed to understand what was going on. My teacher was unbelievable. He'd been in the Foreign Service and everything, was talking about Nixon that was during Watergate, so it was a lot of fun. He was wonderful. But they were the only two; I mean, she was conservative, but she was very friendly to me. I didn't really understand why. S: How long did you stay in Indianola? K: Let me see. We'd be back and forth between Indianola and Sunflower because, with Indiano la, once the Freedom School burned and the other workers left, it was like me, Otis, and Cephus were doing everything. So, we had some times here and some in Sunflower, so we were trying to get a meeting place we were


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 9 really trying to get a place for the Freedom School, and it just looked that it had been burned for earlier that year before I got here. They were very remarkable at just blocking us at every end. So, it looked as if we were going to be able to build it in Sunflower be f ore we could build it h ere, so we did that and we moved to Sunflower and built a community center there. We did a lot of things from there; we had the first quarter order elections, that looked like we had a chance to elect a black mayor. We were very hard hit , lost by a very na rrow margin. But we did a lot of political stuff in Sunflower. We stayed in Sunflower until right to close around [19]69, and then moved back to Indianola. S: Who helped construct the Freedom School? K: Well, I think Otis was the main one who spearheaded , and we just hired people to do things that we needed to have help done. I mean, I did my own share of the work on it; Otis really learned how to drive a nail. [Laughter] But there was this man named Mr. McCraney who was a carpenter, and he had been in th e movement. We had taught him how to write his name. He didn't know how to write his name; we told him how to write his name so we could sign petitions and that sort of thing. [Laughter] But he did guard duty in the church that we met in, there, and so he did some building. We put tin around it and Otis did a lot of the working with Mr. McCraney, getting him to help him on this. We painted it with lead paint which I didn't know how sick it could make you; paint a day and he's sick a day. [Laughter] But we got it painted. [Laughter] We did a lot of things in that building. We had meetings there. We had, as I said, we did a lot of stuff on


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 10 the election from there. The Head Start used it until they got their own place. We got the funding and everything. So . . . S: You got to Missi ssippi in [19]65. When did you was there ever a time when you could say you saw that things were starting to change, that you had turned a corner? Was there ever that moment where things were starting to look better? K: Not really . It actually, you could see a little bit of change from the time I got there. Part of it was young black people saying, we're not going to take this. You know? We're just not going to accept things as they have been. You know, you still have a long way to go; you could see that. So, you knew it just wasn't going to be the same. Well, of course, once we got a new circuit clerk, then we could actually register people to vote. In other words, they passed the Voting Rights Act after I got here. It didn't matte r at the time, but then, a little bit later, we had a circuit clerk who recognized the law and then people could get registered to vote. S: What was the clerk that recognized the law? K: Oh, Sam Eli. He's in a wheelchair. I saw him a few months ago, he's still around. He's not the circuit clerk, but anyway, as the circuit clerk , he did recognize the law. So, anyway, then people started registerin g to vote. So, you knew it was very difficult to get black people into o f fice at first, but it started happenin g. it started happening. People would come, at least the black supervisor of Issaquena County came and talked to us, talking about what all he had to do to get elected the first time. So, it started breaking loose. Now, of course, the majority of political offices are held by black people in the Delta and you think nothing of it. It's even to the place where black people can run against black


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 11 people. At first, they thought that was terrible, but now you had a judge thing where you had a white candidate and two black ones, and one of the black ones got it. It used to be splitting the black vote and you couldn't do that; now, it doesn't matter. So, we had lots of black judges. You think, when I came here, women , period , could not be on a jury. [Laughter] Now you have a black judge, like a judge. There's the chief circuit judge, senior judge, in this area , Patty Sanders. So, these things all kind of go gradually, but they come. So , you could just see things coming gradually. But then, around you know, you're figh ting about the schools and all this, which, that is not over, as far as I can say. Well, it's not, because the white students went to the private academies, but black students couldn't go to the private academics now because . . . the number of private aca demies is smaller, because, still well, for instance, in Greenwood we've got private schools, but the Catholic school is a third black. So there was that, actually, most of it was kind of gradual. Every time you do something the first time, it's very diff icult. I remember the first time they got a black mayor in the town of Sunflower, and that wasn't that long ago. A friend of mine see, I work with Legal Services as a paralegal but we took off that day. A friend of mine was a lawyer with the Center for C onstitutional Rights, and myself [Break in recording] S: This is Dan Simone, resuming my interview with Margaret Kibbee . We were talking about the movement, somewhat turning the corner in the mid to late [19]60s as blacks made it clear they weren't goi ng to be passive any longer. Are there any other thoughts you'd like to add to that point you where making?


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 12 K: Yeah, I mean S: About the grassroots movements, or identifying itself K: I think the main thing is the black schools . I felt that even if you didn't have everybody in the community involved in the movement, which was very true, you did have general acceptance in the black community and it was fairly positive. And you had more people accepting voter registration and voting, and seeing whether they would get to do this. Then, by the [19]70s, you grow up to black candidates. It was a slow process, but it started happening, and you started having more black supervisors and black aldermen on the city council. I remember going, trying to get Sarah Johnson elected to Greenville's city council and it was so hard. Then, all of a sudden we got her elected and went, now it's got more black city council members than white. So, these are things that happen gradually, but you saw them happening. S: What w as the mood in Mississippi in the late [19]60s when there were some riots in the Northern cities? Compare that to the Southern mood at the time. K: I don't think you had the same hopelessness in the South as you did in the North. I felt that that was an e lement in that rioting the North. You didn't have that hopelessness in the South. It was maybe a certain amount of women don't know what to do right now, but there was still more hopefulness in the South. You didn't have a fighting type attitude; it was li ke you could see your way out, or you had elbow room. You could do something besides look down a decrepit block after block after block. If you go to the west side of Chicago, you can understand somebody rioting. I think I would, too, if I had to live ther e all the times and


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 13 couldn't leave or move or do anything. So, there was still a little bit of hopefulness that things were still going up or might go up or that you could escape or there was something that you could enjoy. S: When did you return to schoo l, and did you? K: I did . . . I didn't. I changed my mind about going home. I was pre registered for school that fall in [19]65, and I changed my mind about going back. Everybody else was leaving and there was still so much to do. Otis and Cephus were tr ying to work and I was going to stay and work with them, and I did. So, I called my mother and said, cancel my registration. By the way, I'm out of money. [Laughter] But it was also amazing how you could live on so little. My grandmother could send me ten dollars a week and I could live on that, five dollars a week, that's more like it. And I was smoking then. Could buy my cigarettes for thirty five cents. [Laughter] So . . . anyway, I made it. I stayed on. I have no regrets; I mean, that was it. So, I was doing different kinds of community organizing and doing different things. Once we got the little community center built in Sunflower and we went through the special election, then we had a little sewing co op. We tried to do a few things. But we were makin g some interesting patchwork shirts that went over pretty well. We made them with scrap material so we weren't just necessarily buying tons of material. S: Yeah. K: So we made those, and we had a lady who would make quilts, and we'd make quilts and sell those. So it was a little thing, but we did a little bit. So, that's . . . we did that for a while.


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 14 S: Did you stay in Mississippi since 1965? Did you live anywhere else? K: No, I didn't live anyplace else. I would go home and visit. After a while, it wa sn't home anymore. [Laughter] I quit going. But, every once in a while, I would take a rest and go to Mill Valley. But I left after Christmas the first year, so I went back for a little while in [19]66. In fact, now, I really did try to go back to school i n [19]66, went to winter semester. The day after school, right out, I was back here, and I realized that wasn't going to work. I didn't try to do that again. So I didn't go to school that fall, I did go back to school for one more semester a t College of Ma rin in the winte r of [19]66. The day after school got out, I was on a plane going back to Mississippi, so that was it. I've never tried to do that again. It was probably one of the more miserable six months no, not six months, but whatever it was, it was miserable and I didn't wast e my time trying to try it again. S: So many people flocking to San Francisco in [19]67 and you were going to Mississippi. [Laughter] K: So it's kind of interesting because it's almost like I missed the feminist movement, because it's different here. It just wasn't an issue. S: Why so? K: Women had a strong and important role here. People here talk about Mrs. Hamer and that was true, she was here in Sunflower County. Women here in the civil rights movement in Mississippi and I don't think it was necessarily true all over, but it was true here: women would carry on such an important role and had such leadership positions in the civil rights movement in Mississippi; Mrs. Hamer , Mrs. Gray, Mrs. D e vine, they were very importan t. But you had women throughout in


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 15 the movement who were important. I was talking to Lenny and Eunice Jenkins, and I remember how important they were and active they were. Wendy Jenkins and I did a lot of canvassing for many hours together, getting people registered to vote, trying to do things. So, women just always played an important part. They made decisions. So, it just didn't have the same meaning or the same necessity; just like you skipped it. Oh, you had a women's movement? [Laughter] Okay. So, onc e things started loosening up, women had as much chance to do things as men. So, it wasn't the same issue. S: Have you traveled throughout the South? K: Not extensively. I have been around to parts of the state. I've done more traveling in different part s of the state here in the last two or three years than I had in the past. While I was in the early days of the movement, we would go to Jackson for statewide meetings, but those were more excuses to go to take a shower or eat at certain restaurants, somet hing like that. But we went to the meetings; I mean, we did what we were supposed to do. Then, I participated in the lower end parts of the [19]68 Democratic Convention where you had your you know, I was a delegate up to the state. But that was when the l oyalist Democrats were seated, and it was no more, oh, God, you know. So I went through Jackson to that one, I just didn't go to the national convention, but I was at the state. S: Have you ever gone to the national convention? K: No. One day. [Laughter] So, anyway, I was there for that. Traveling to Jackson was something I did, but . . . we did travel well. Otis and I were doing some work in the Box Project in the late [19]60s, and we drove to some of these Delta


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 16 places, l ike the back of Leflore County a nd the back end of different parts of Sunflower County and a little bit of Bolivar County and Washington County. But it was more rural areas we went out and did that. But I have been traveling more since well, I did a little bit when I started working for legal services, and then here, since I've been going to different little meetings. I have been to Hattiesburg and Oxford, Mississippi a lot, and some of those places. They're close, a little bit. S: Is the Delta your favorite part of Mississippi? K: I t hink so. Let me see if I had a place in Mississippi . . . I like the coast and I like Oxford and I like Memphis. I like New Orleans I really like New Orleans. But the Delta, I'm comfortable in the Delta, I'm satisfied to be here. See, I've got married and divorced and have children, and my children still live here, so that makes a difference, too. S: Why do students, younger people today, throughout the country, tend to know so little about the movement in Mississippi? K: I think we have to start teaching about it. You know, there are books about it; I think they should be part of school curriculum. I think people need to teach it, because I think Mississippi sets a really good example and stands out in movement history as far as what they accomplished and what they did; you know, the whole organization of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was very rema rkable. I think, a lot of times historically , credit is given to the March of Selma and all that. Really, it's Mississippi doing . . . S: Before we conclude, is there anything else you'd like to add to our interview?


MFP 016 A ; Kibbee; Page 17 K: I can't . . . I think, somehow or other, even though it has its problems, I think Mississippi is still an example and interesting for other people, the rest of the country, to look at what Mississippi has accomplished and what Mississippi has done. S: I agree. Thank you very much for your time. That will conclude. [End of interview] Transcribed by: Diana Dombrowski, October 7, 2013 Audit edited by: Sarah Blanc, January 8, 2014 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, March 5, 2014