By ERNEST HERNDON, Enterprise-Journal
MCCOMB, Miss. (AP) – At 102 years old and facing a birthday this month, Birdie Lee Walker doesn’t remember much of the day 60 years ago when she became one of the first black citizens to register to vote in Amite County.
Except this: âI voted in Freedom.
And this: âI just went over there and told them I wanted to vote. “
It sounds simple now, but it was a dangerous business for African Americans 60 years ago.
It was August 15, 1961, when civil rights activist Bob Moses took Walker, his sister Matilda Schoby, and their cousin Ernest Isaac to the Liberty courthouse to register.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee describes the incident on its website, SNCCdigital.org:
âOn August 15, Moses accompanied three locals to the Amite County courthouse in Liberty. The clerk forced them to wait in the courthouse for six hours before being allowed to fill out the forms. As the group exited the courthouse, a road patroller followed them, stopped them, and arrested Moses. “
Moses spent two nights in prison. Two weeks later, he was brutally beaten for accompanying two other people to the courthouse. MoÃ¯se filed a complaint against his attacker, but he was acquitted.
Moses, who became a hero of the civil rights movement, died on July 25 at the age of 86.
In 2010, a McComb High School class led by Vickie Malone and Howard Levin interviewed Walker for almost an hour for the “Telling Their Stories” oral history project. The interviews are available on tellstories.org.
“We wanted to go register and vote like everyone else,” said Walker, whose memory was clearer then.
âThe old man said he wouldn’t let us vote, but after a while he said he would let us fill out a paper and vote.
They did, but when they left, a group of white men followed them, eventually arrested them, and arrested Moses.
âI wasn’t scared,â Walker said. âMoses told us, ‘They are going to take me to prison.’ He said, âYou are not afraid, and I was not afraid. “
Voters garnered support that night when late civil rights activist CC Bryant and a group of FBI agents visited them.
Walker was born on August 31, 1918, during the Spanish influenza pandemic and shortly before the end of World War I. One of three siblings, she grew up in Amite County, not far from where she now lives on Upper Glading Road.
She attended Sherman Baptist Missionary Church and was baptized in Muddy Springs Creek when she was around 5 years old. She went to Mount Canaan School.
She later married Leroy Hughes, who died decades ago, and had five children, two of whom died.
She cleaned houses and brought laundry for a living, and cultivated a large garden.
“I just know she was a hard worker,” said daughter Joanna Turner, 66.
âShe was very independent. She didn’t speak much.
Walker was a disciplinarian as a parent.
“She was one of those, she didn’t talk a lot, but her eyes would tell you what to do,” Joanna said. “She would tell you once or twice what to do, and if you didn’t she would get a stick.”
She remembers being in bed with her sister when her sister was flogged.
âFrom then on, every time she said something to me, I stopped arguing. I did it, âJoanna said.
Walker was also a great cook, Joanna said, remembering the cookies, the rice and gravy, the fried chicken, the pound cake from scratch.
âI cooked almost everything,â Walker said.
âShe used to make these big old-fashioned cakes better than the ones you get in the store,â Joanna said. “She was making them from scratch.”
When waking up, Walker was baking cakes and his sister Matilda was baking chicken and dumplings.
âHer sister was good at egg pie. Mom was good at sweet potato pie, âsaid Joanna.
Joanna said she never learned to cook as well as her mother, let alone sew. But she learned âmainly try to live with dignity, to be fair, to treat everyone wellâ.
Walker’s voter registration was not his only legacy. All of her children have become productive and hardworking citizens.
The deceased sons JB and Leroy were mechanic and cement truck driver, respectively.
The other three children – Joanna, Jeannine Redfield, and Isom Upkins – were all teachers, and Upkins was a tennis star as well, with plaques decorating three walls of Walker’s living room.
As for her mother’s place in civil rights history, “I’m very proud of her,” Joanna said. “I wish I had the courage they had.”
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