WINONA – It has been 59 years since Euvester Simpson returned to the city where police arrested and beat her and five voting rights activists in the former county jail.
The then-17-year-old remembers seeing Fannie Lou Hamer after the beating and how black and blue the woman’s hands were. Simpson tended to Hamer’s injuries by applying a cold rag to parts of her body.
On Thursday, a multiracial group gathered to unveil a historical marker from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History at the former Montgomery County jail site at the corner of Oak Drive and Sterling Avenue. Over 100 people watched Simpson and Hamer’s daughter Jacqueline Hamer Flakes pull a covering off of the marker.
“Being here today, she accomplished what she was here to do,” Hamer Flakes said about the commemoration and historical marker, which are part of her mother’s legacy.
The unveiling kicked off four days of events called Bridging Winona, which are meant to remember the violence at the jail and commemorate Hamer and the voting rights activists.
“The bridging of Winona can be a model for other towns not just in Mississippi, but all across this country,” said Simpson, who is now 75.
Bridging Winona organizer Vickie Roberts-Ratliff, whose family has lived in Winona for six generations, was one of about 10 people who worked with city officials to get the historical marker and organize the commemorative events.
“It goes back to knowing what your history is,” she said. “It can be difficult to peel it back, but it can be healing.”
Roberts-Ratliff was an infant when Hamer and other activists were beaten at the jail, and she didn’t learn about what happened in Winona until later in life.
She tried previously to get a historical marker for Hamer at the former jail site, but those efforts were not successful.
During last year’s city elections, a new mayor, Aaron Dees, and members of the Board of Aldermen were elected. She approached Dees, who agreed to work with her.
He agreed that the city was missing the mark by not acknowledging what happened to Hamer and the activists. Dees said a historical marker should have already been installed.
“This is a time to bring the whole community together – every racial background, every ethnic background,” he said. “Hopefully we can take this and move forward with this.”
The marker now stands as a reminder of the infamous violent events that occurred here nearly 60 years ago. In 1963, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers Hamer, Simpson, Annell Ponder, June Johnson, James West and Rosemary Freeman were returning by bus to Greenwood from a voter education workshop in South Carolina. Members of the group got off the bus when it stopped in Winona and went to a lunch counter where they were refused service. The bus terminal area was segregated and they attempted to integrate it.
A Mississippi Highway Patrol trooper tried to get the activists to leave. Local police came and arrested them. Hamer got off the bus to see what was happening to her colleagues, and was arrested too.
Hamer Flakes, the youngest and only living daughter of Hamer, said at the jail, her mother heard screaming and crying from 15-year-old activist Annelle Ponder, who refused to address the officers as ‘sir.’ She was beaten until her dress was soaked with blood, according to SNCC.
SNCC leader Lawrence Guyot, who came to the jail to post bail for the group, was also beaten.
A sheriff’s deputy beat Hamer with a billy club and then ordered two inmates at the jail to beat her with the club until they were too tired, Hamer Flakes said. The deputy also beat Hamer in the head, her daughter said.
Hamer sustained injuries to her kidney and eye from the violence that were with her for the rest of her life, her daughter said.
“It’s amazing how she went through that beating but came out stronger than ever,” Hamer Flakes said.
The U.S. Department of Justice tried five Montgomery County law enforcement officers. They were acquitted by an all-male, all-white jury in December 1963, according to SNCC.
Hamer was born in 1917 in Montgomery County and lived in Ruleville in Sunflower County. She was the daughter of sharecroppers and a former plantation worker who began organizing in her 40s.
In 1962, Hamer and a group traveled to the Indianola courthouse to register to vote and were given literary tests. The day later she was fired from her plantation job.
Hamer joined SNCC and helped organize voter registration drives, including during the 1964 Freedom Summer.
She stepped into other forms of organizing, including through politics when she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer and activists traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention and delivered a speech asking the party to be recognized. In her speech to the DNC, Hamer shared her experience of violence in Winona.
In Ruleville, she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative to help Black farmers grow produce to be financially self-sufficient.
Hamer, who died in 1977, has been commemorated in Ruleville, including through a sign marker along the Mississippi Freedom Trail and a statue of her and a memorial garden where she and her husband Perry are buried. There is also the Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Museum in Belzoni.
Oxford-based nonprofit Land Literary and Legacy, which Roberts-Ratliff is a member of, was part of organizing the Bridging Winona events. The group’s goal is to create awareness about the importance of local and national history through education and building community.
In April, Dees signed a proclamation designating June 9 as Fannie Lou Hamer Day – the same day she and the activists were beaten at the jail.
The goal is not to forget what happened in Winona, but to bring closure and use lessons from the past in the future, Dees said.
He hopes to see a day declared for Hamer at the state and national level. Hamer Flakes said she would like to see an annual Fannie Lou Hamer day in Ruleville.
On Thursday after the marker unveiling, the community celebrated at the Winona Community House with live music, food and children’s activities. There were also oral history interviews conducted and people were able to register to vote.
A Friday morning event at Winona Baptist Church focused on land ownership. Representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Park Service talked about sustainable agriculture, forestry, economic development and other issues.
Other commemoration events planned for the weekend are:
- Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Fannie Lou Hamer legacy historical bus tour across the Delta. The cost is $95 and lunch is provided. Register on Eventbrite.
- Sunday 4 p.m.: Fannie Lou Hamer community health service at Winona Baptist Church. This is a free event and registration is suggested on Eventbrite.