The Civil Rights Movement survived by the bravery and determination of its workers, but there was activity behind the famous faces marching at the front of the line. An equally essential, more furtive faction lay behind the movement, saving lives while the Martin Luther Kings, the John Lewises, and the Unita Blackwells hoisted their signs, used their voices and took their blows.
Places like Selma, Memphis and Washington made big news, but death struck easily in the Klan-soaked backwaters and towns of rural Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. In these places, far away from cameras, a mayor’s family could be members of a terrorist organization, and often were. Klan connections were frequently a prerequisite for a successful political campaign in the turbulent 1960s, even if that alliance could occasionally become a liability. Klan affiliates allegedly threatened the home of Natchez Mayor John Nosser even though two of his kids were reported to be KKK members.
A civil rights worker needed "ears" to stay alive in a place that embraced and normalized violence. They needed vigilant eyes to warn them what segregationist terrorists were planning. They needed a network of spies.
Mayersville resident Annie Fields Cartlidge, 70, praised that silent, invisible battalion in a 2022 interview with our researchers.
“You had Unita Blackwell and folks up front, but my Mom said you would always have to have somebody in the house, grassroots people, who could come back and say ‘they gonna do so and so, and so and so.’ Like my Mom, she worked at a (white farmer's) house, so she had the ear, you know? She couldn’t be active (in the movement) because she had to take care of her family because she didn’t have a husband, so she couldn’t jeopardize where we were living.”
Chained to their white employers by responsibility and dependents, many informants did not have the luxury of taking a place before the cameras. To them, exposure meant joblessness and blacklisting. And while pro-freedom organizations and liberty-minded donors helped feed the charismatic front men of the Movement, others had to sustain themselves and contribute in more clandestine ways. Their support saved countless lives.
“You were supposed to be in one room doing something, but you were right there at the kitchen door when their little (white) friends come over and they did their little meeting,” says Cartlidge. “Then, when you come home or have somebody come over and get some milk or something you would tell them, ‘this is going to take place,’ or ‘they gonna raid this place,’ ‘they’re gonna burn that place,’ or 'do that place.’ That’s how it was. We had people like Miss Unita (Blackwell) and them, but they had the grassroots folks.”
These informants were frequently the first to learn when law enforcement was arriving to bust heads, according to Cartlidge and others. Sometimes they even alerted protesters and marchers when to keep more photogenic children and teenagers at the back of the march to avoid police beatings.
Ripley confirmed the tactic in a 1990 interview sponsored by Tulane University, saying protest participants were often distributed according to their willingness to be arrested. Participants commonly knew beforehand which protest was more likely to be targeted by police.
“They told us (if you) don’t want to get put in jail don’t get in the line. I had made up my mind and I had prayed before I left, to God, and I was ready to go,” Ripley said. “I stayed in jail for 11 days in Jackson.”
Informants' invisibility was their best weapon. After more than a century of denying democracy to roughly half of Mississippi residents white segregationists were bloated with self-confidence and hubris. Many could not even envision a world where their own staff worked against them. They paid their maids and house cleaners pennies to mop their floors and change diapers but considered them impervious to emerging progressive trends, and isolated from the movement. Indeed, not all domestic workers were allies. In her book Barefootin’, Unita Blackwell recounts watching for race traitors at a school desegregation meeting in 1965, many in the employ of white people.
A judge had ruled that same year that Black Issaquena County students could attend a white school in neighboring Sharkey County. Leaders were eager to set an enrollment date for their children.
“As the meeting was winding down, I noticed one woman get up and leave. I knew the lady, and I knew she worked as a cook for one of the white school officials,” Blackwell wrote. “… I looked straight into her eyes, and I could tell from her look she was a snitch and was going to go straight to her boss’ house to let him know what we were planning.”
She alerted meeting leaders of her suspicion, and they changed the enrollment date without argument.
“Sure enough, on the date we had originally announced we would enroll our children, the white schools were ringed with police and had dogs waiting for us. But we didn’t show,” she wrote. “Little successes like that kept us going.”
While treachery was not unknown, allies of the Civil Rights Movement may have saved countless lives. History records excitement and incident. It does not track the number of times frustrated Klan members terrorized an empty shack or a vacated meeting hall. It makes no note of the lynch mob that waited for hours behind a roadblock for a carload of forewarned civil rights workers who quietly took a different route. Despite their relative absence from history books, these violence-free acts of avoidance are just as real as the Selma to Montgomery March. And they were likely made possible by housemaids and cleaners who were as effective as they were invisible.