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When Terrorism was Law

Older generations of Black Mississippians suspect this small lake outside the town of Drew is a graveyard for lynched Black women and girls. The town is infamous for decades of persecution and murder, up until the 1970s.

About seven minutes outside the town of Drew, Mississippi, sits a picturesque lake choked with cypress trees and moss. Owned by Shaw company Boair, Inc., the lake is dotted with turtles and wildlife. On a warm day a visitor can spy fishers trying their luck along the bank. Power lines running the length of a nearby road hold a legion of snagged lures and fishing line, all swaying in the breeze. But the lake, like much of Mississippi’s tranquil scenery, carries the menace of historical tragedy.

Black Mississippians pass down a ghastly tale of the lake’s history through generations. Former Issaquena County Supervisor Willie Bunton, 78, suspects many of the tales are true.

“They killed a lot of Black women ... and there wasn't nothing done about it,"

“They killed a lot of Black women, put ‘em in that creek, and there wasn't nothing done about it. Went on for years,” Bunton told our researchers.

The years following the Civil War and were a deadly time for Black Mississippians--even women. Working in the Delta meant working for a white man, because white farms and farmhouses were often the only jobs hiring. Cleaning the owner’s kitchen could get workers out of the cotton fields and the hot Mississippi sun, but Bunton said it also put young women within reach of the owner. That same owner was practically above the law when it came to crimes like sexual assault, he says, because white county authorities did not prosecute sex crimes lodged by Black people, and all-white juries rarely convicted one of their peers.

A Government Built for Terror

A young Black woman was in no position to refuse the homeowner’s advances if she wanted to feed her family. Refusal could result not only in getting fired but also getting blacklisted by every other white-owned farm in the county. With so many legal advantages behind him, the homeowner would inevitably return to his young victim for new crimes. The crime frequently culminated in offspring bearing a resemblance to the rapist. Bunton and older Mississippi residents claim farmers' white wives could not deny the connection.

But Mississippi was a sexist state as well as racist, says Bunton. A white woman in old Mississippi had little power in her marriage. Divorce was anathema in this Bible-belt region, and white men held all the power. The only place left for a bitter housewife to direct her vengeance was the Black victim, who was in no position to fight. Bunton claims old folks recount frightful tales of vengeful wives banding together to mob their own housemaids.

“They'd kill them. They'd just kill them and put a –well, I don't know whether they'd kill them first or not—but they'd put some kind of weight around them, tie ‘em down and put ‘em in that creek up there in Sunflower County.”

As a final act of indignity, Bunton claims the murderers named the creek “Whore’s Lake."

Author and Florida State University Rhetorical Studies Professor Davis Houck says he is not shocked by reports of lethal white supremacy in Mississippi.

"If you study civil rights in Mississippi at all ... you know lethal white supremacy is not terribly unusual in the state of Mississippi, As (former NAACP Director) Roy Wilkins like to say, Mississippi was the worst of the worst," Houck told researchers.

We may never know if whole generations of sexual assault victims truly lie at the bottom of "Whore's Lake," but we do know that gruesome tales of violence found easy footing in a place with a confirmed abundance of horror stories. With very little effort, segregationists could kidnap and murder 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till, and they dumped his body in water to hide their crime less than 30 miles from the alleged drownings at "Whore's Lake." If the gruesome legend of the lake is any indication, the style of Till's lynching and disposal goes back much further than Till. Lynching and sinking victims into the Tallahatchie River was not the pinnacle of evil, but a tried-and-true tactic that terrorized the state's Black population for decades.

Multiple sources confirm Mississippi as the lynching capital of the nation, with 656 reported incidents of murder and disposal. This number fails to capture the legion of terrorists targeting Black people since the Civil War. The NAACP claims it is “impossible to know for certain how many lynchings occurred because there was no formal tracking” for it, so historians believe the true number is wildly under-reported.

Authorities dredged rivers while searching for the bodies of murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and unexpectedly discovered other missing activists, including Henry Hezekiah Dee, Charles Eddie Moore, 14-year-old victim Herbert Oarsby. Additional unidentified bodies allegedly turned up during the same search. Houck says he has been unable to confirm an exact number, if any, due to contradictory and incomplete information.

The dark alliance between the Klan and local law enforcement likely kept many murder reports contradictory and incomplete, so finding Till was actually a lucky break. Residents suspect countless more bodies reliably stayed anchored to whatever garbage their murderers lashed them to. Generations of white Mississippians were professionals at sinking things.

“Till came back up but think about all the people who went into a lake and didn’t come back up,” said Drew resident Mary Phillips, 74, in a 2022 interview with our researchers. “There’s no telling who all went in lakes that we’ll never know about.”

Murder and the threat of brutality was the accepted state of things in the South for almost a century after the Civil War, despite very little federal intervention being necessary to finally end the horror. After retaliatory bloodshed against prospective Black voters in Louisiana the U.S. Department of Justice decided to make the town of Bogalusa a test case for enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The DOJ intervened in a criminal contempt suit against a local police chief and brought charges against the parish K9 squad for the beating of a detained civil rights worker in a parish jail. When Klan-connected cops saw that the feds were no longer backing their decades of terrorism white mobs all over the South evaporated from the streets, according to witnesses.

“Overnight, Washington crushed the white supremacist coup in Bogalusa and forced local authorities to uphold the law,” said Bogalusa civil rights defender Robert Hicks. “In retrospect, what is remarkable was how little was required to destroy the Klan and force local authorities to protect citizens' rights and liberties. The federal government did nothing more than threaten city officials with modest fines and light jail sentences.

Changing the Face of Law Enforcement

Police harass participants at a civil rights meeting in Clarksdale, MS, without fear of repercussion.

The final, lasting effort to end the violence was African-American participation in local elections and their occupation of critical law enforcement positions as sheriffs, constables, judges and mayors. Black voters and organizers targeted electable positions in the justice system, and they had considerable success in majority-Black districts. In districts where the Black population was not the majority they cajoled and threatened administrations to hire Black cops, with varying degrees of success.. After a weeks-long boycott of white businesses in the Mississippi town of Natchez, civil rights organizations there convinced the city to agree to a list of demands, including hiring Black police officers and forcing cops to properly address Black residents as "Mr." and "Miss," and "Mrs," rather than "boy."

Black electoral efforts carried the additional bonus of more Black people registered to vote, which meant more Black people eligible to sit on county juries. Diverse juries gave no quarter to unapologetic race terrorists, eroding longstanding Klan havens in the state's courtrooms.

This is where civil rights soldiers like Unita Blackwell, Bob Moses, Martin Luther King and countless others made far too unsung an impact. Grade school history classes frame the Civil Rights Movement as an army of freedom workers pushing, nagging, and pestering the world’s most prominent democracy to impose fairness on its totalitarian blind spot in the South. But this is just the photogenic surface. More significantly, their efforts brought a long overdue reckoning to a Southern nightmare of violence and slaughter.

These are the unseemly reasons Blackwell and her cohorts rallied to register to vote and claim elected offices. It was not merely about tweaking the government to deliver fair wages, functional schools and an inclusive society. It was about survival, and the belated right not to vanish in a flurry of pick-up truck headlights and squalling rebel yells.



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