On the Life of a Civil Rights Activist

Fred BelinskyGyrone Kenniel was born and raised in Charleston, Mississippi, where he joined the civil rights movement when he was only thirteen years old. He’s been active in the struggle for equality ever since.

As a teenager, Mr. Kenniel led protests, sit-ins, and marches. Later, he served six years as the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Tallahatchie County. Today, Mr. Kenniel drives a Head Start school bus and sits on the Board of Directors for the Robert Hill Youth Foundation. While I wrote A Thousand Never Evers, I called Mr. Kenniel several times to talk about why he put his life on the line to fight for civil rights:

Q: Where did you live in 1963?

I was nine years old. I was born and living in Charleston, Mississippi in a wooden house. There was a kitchen and a living room, about four bedrooms. We had an outdoor bathroom. We rented the house. We had ten people living in there. There are sixteen of us kids in my family but some were already grown up.

Q: Were you aware of discrimination as a child?

I wondered why there were signs that said “colored” and “white”. We would go to the clinic that had colored and white signs. We had to go to the back door of restaurants.

There was a public swimming pool. It was in the middle of the county. White kids would go but black kids weren’t allowed. We watched them. We passed right by the community center in the heart of town. I felt like it was wrong. After integration, they filled the whole pool in because they didn’t want us swimming together.

Q: When did you get active in fighting for civil rights?

Well, the lady we rented from was one of the founders of the NAACP in our county. I knew her when I was young, so I joined theNAACP and the Freedom Democratic Party when I was 13 years old.

Q: What did your parents think of your activism?

My mother didn’t want me to be that involved. She said, “I’m afraid for your life, but if that’s what God called you to do and you’re not afraid, then you have to do it.” I said, “I am afraid, but that’s what I have to do.” My mother didn’t want me to be a leader, but I was out in front a lot of the time.

When we’d be going to the field to pick cotton, my mother would say, “Make sure you don’t go in a store by yourself and don’t you whistle at a white lady.” I asked my mother why and she told me about Emmett Till.  So whenever I went to a country store, I was afraid that they would do to me what they did to Emmett Till

Q:Where did you go to school?

I went to an all-black elementary and all-black junior high school. The classes were overcrowded. We had thirty-five to forty students in a class. The books were passed down from the white school, because we could see other people’s names in them. We knew that something was wrong.

Q:Was your high school all black?

We were forced to integrate while I was in high school. They integrated the all-black and all-white high schools by busing kids across town. We weren’t getting the right kind of education. We were moving too much.

Blacks were second-class citizens. Everyone with authority in the school was white. Black kids sat on one side of the class and the teacher turned his back to us. He ignored us like we wasn’t there. He tried to keep us away from the white kids.

The basketball team was ninety percent black. The girls’ team was mostly white. When we drove to games, the girls would sit in the front of the bus with the coaches and the boys in the back. We’d drive with the lights on the bus, because they didn’t want any kind of talking between us.

Q: Were you ever scared walking down the halls?

Some of the teachers had a gun in the back of their truck. They told the school board they were going to go hunting. But it was uncomfortable. I was threatened several times, especially when we were protesting. A sheriff called my father to say my father was responsible if something happened to me.

Q: What kind of protesting did you do?

A group of eleven black students, me included, staged a protest for better treatment at school. We walked out in the middle of the school day and seventy percent of the black students walked out with us. We gave the administration three days to honor our demands.

We were picketing outside the school with signs. The sheriff came and told us to get off school property but we didn’t. Two days later we got arrested for trespassing on school property. They wanted to put us in jail so they sent us to the Department of Corrections.

But then they separated us. That’s when I got scared. They took me and one other guy to a jail on the other side of the county. We sat there all day. We had someone there get in contact with the chairman of the Tallahatchie County Voters League. Years later I found out from a white guy that if we had stayed in that jail until twelve o’clock that night, we would have been killed by the Ku Klux Klan.   That was in 1969.

Q: What did you do as a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)?

We protested downtown. We did sit-ins at the drugstores. The law said we were equal but still blacks weren’t served in the restaurants. So one Sunday about six of us went to a café. We waited and waited. Finally a waitress came over and asked what we wanted. Then the chief of police came in and said we were causing trouble. He asked us to leave. We said, “There’s no law against us sitting here.” So the police chief said it’s up to the waitress if she wanted to serve us or not. She did and then we left.

Once we started registering people to vote on someone’s plantation in Tippo, Mississippi. The Klan threatened us. They ran us off with jeeps and machine guns. They didn’t fire but they threatened to.

There were a lot of college kids from the North who came to help us register voters. So another time me and this white girl were registering people. This black guy was driving a tractor. He said, “Man, you better get out of here.” I said, “Why?” He said, “They’re going to kill you.”

Q: What did you think of the white college students coming to help out?

I think it helped us tremendously. If they had not, I don’t think we would have got a lot done. Some of the black guys were a little intimidated by it. On the whole, it was best. They had more success in getting blacks registered because on some level blacks were conditioned to respond to white people.

Q: Why did you keep doing this civil rights work if your life was on the line?

I wanted people to register to vote.

Q: Was it more important than your life?

I guess in a way it was.

 

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