Excerpt: 'Count Them One by One' By Gordon Martin

Author Gordon Martin recounts blacks' fight to vote in Mississippi.

ByABC News via logo
December 27, 2010, 1:46 PM

Dec. 28, 2010 — -- The Civil Rights movement has several powerful landmarks, from Alabama lunch counters to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. But one lesser known flashpoint for the movement was Forrest County, Miss.

There, despite making up a significant portion of the population, a tiny percentage of African-Americans appeared on the county's voting roster. In 1961, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the voting registrar that resulted in a conviction.

Gordon Martin, then a new lawyer assigned to the case by the Justice Department, recounts the historic trial and decision in his new book "Count Them One by One."

Read an excerpt of the book below and then check out the "GMA" Library for more great reads.

Eloise Hopson, daughter of Nelson Toole, a Methodist minister born in slavery, was vigorous and blunt, feisty and irreverent. She was born May 16, 1913, in Enterprise, a little rural community in Clarke County, just south of Meridian, Mississippi.

Reverend Toole had grown up in Alabama and was basically self-taught. He told his children stories about his slave childhood, among them recollections of slave children eating with their hands at a trough, the way pigs might today.

I can recall my father going to his churches on Saturday. There were four of them. So he would leave on Saturday afternoon and spend that night among the members and preach on Sunday, and come back home on Monday. I heard him preach a few times, but we stayed at home and went to our own church. My mother, Irene Adams Toole, was an elementary school teacher, but she taught in different schools, so she never taught me except at home. I had one sister and three brothers.

Her mother taught Eloise the piano and had private piano students, as Eloise did later. Eloise was brought up learning Methodist hymns and the life of John Wesley.

I am a United Methodist. The Methodist Church certainly during my lifetime has been a much more progressive church than the Baptist Church, though it had fewer adherents among the blacks in Mississippi.

There was no electricity in her childhood home, but there were always books, always newspapers, always musical instruments. I don't remember being unable to read. I read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, childhood version, and Romeo and Juliet and Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer, books like that. I think your values and concepts and your way of dealing with life are learned at home if you have thoughtful parents and caring parents.

Eloise attended a local two-teacher school through the sixth grade, but, with her mother teaching and her two younger brothers in the hands of a babysitter, Eloise was sent to a co-ed Methodist boarding school in nearby Meridian for grades 7-9, and then to a smaller Episcopal boarding school for the rest of her high school years. Her education was a far cry from the mere eight grades offered Mississippi blacks except in the larger cities. By the time she was graduated from high school, her Meridian Methodist school had added a two-year teaching program that Eloise attended. This enabled her to become a certified teacher in Mississippi's black schools. She was the first person in the history of her family to achieve any level of higher education.

I guess I always wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a little girl and lined up my dolls on my mother's front porch and played school with them.

Her first teaching position was in her own Clarke County. She boarded with a family there for two years, just 12 miles from where she had grown up.

Black people weren't allowed to vote in Clarke County. My parents didn't vote, and black people in general in Mississippi were not voting at that time. This business of blacks having the vote is post-Civil Rights struggle.

After two years in Clarke County schools, Eloise taught the second and third grades for five years in Jefferson Davis County 50 miles from Hattiesburg. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, she was teaching in the public schools of Grenada in the Mississippi Delta.

I helped to register men for the draft in Grenada County after the bombing. We were complacent and had no idea anything like that attack would come about. We had thought we didn't need a draft, but we started it then. And the blacks in that area were registered at the school where I worked. There weren't any black people on the Selective Service Board, but I didn't get any sense that there was favoritism being shown between blacks and whites, as to who went first to war. Maybe I did not discern the kind of subtleties that I later learned to discern. But I didn't sense anything then. You see, we were so separate that we really didn't know what was going on among the whites.

During the two years she taught in Grenada, Eloise married Brandon Jonathan Hopson, a Baptist minister she had met in Jeff Davis County. He entered the service as an Army chaplain, and she traveled with him to bases in Alabama and South Carolina as he ministered to black soldiers in the segregated army.

But a new phase of her life opened in the fall of 1944 when he agreed that she could complete college. It was not at a small poorly-funded Mississippi teachers' college, but at Spelman College, the distinguished historically black college for women founded in 1881. It was handsomely supported by the family of John D. Rockefeller. Its alumnae now include Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman. Eloise was a full-time student there for two years, receiving her B. A. in English in June 1946. She loved Spelman, a part of the Atlanta consortium of black colleges that includes Morehouse College. It was, she told me, "like a Vassar to the black community."

Her next stop was Japan during the post-war military occupation, where she found it troubling to have servants assigned by the military. She taught at the elementary level while Reverend Hopson continued as a chaplain, but tensions accelerated in their marriage after their return to civilian life at a church in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Reverend Hopson did not want her to teach. He felt God had called him to preach, but it never occurred to him that I was called to teach just as much as he was called to preach.

After three years in Pennsylvania, Reverend Hopson decided, without consulting his wife, to re-enter the service. Separation, followed by divorce, was inevitable. Eloise returned alone to Mississippi, teaching at a small school in Neshoba County, the county that would become infamous for the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The principal of her Neshoba school suggested that she start summer graduate work with others from the school at Columbia University. Black teachers had to travel north for the graduate study that was closed to them in Mississippi, and her summers at Columbia in New York City opened up new literature and ideas for Eloise. She was awarded a Master of Arts degree in English in December 1953.

In Neshoba County, Eloise had been making $1,800 a year, $200 a month for nine months. She didn't know what teachers in the white schools were making because there was no contact between black and white teachers. She told a fellow student at Columbia of her financial woes and learned that teacher was making twice as much in Florence, South Carolina. That system needed an English teacher and Eloise was hired. For nine years, she taught English at Wilson High School in Florence, a city slightly larger than Hattiesburg. She noted that Wilson High School, though also segregated, had much better supplies and equipment than the black schools she knew in Mississippi. In Florence, Eloise paid her poll tax and voted for the first time.

But in the summer of 1959, her mother suffered a second stroke back in Clarke County. Eloise had met Nathaniel Burger, principal of Hattiesburg's black high school, Rowan, while teaching in Florence and, in fact, had applied to teach there at Burger's suggestion. Then Burger had told her that Mr. Blair, the white superintendent, had decided that her salary was too high; he would hire a less expensive "girl" right out of college. Though Eloise was annoyed, she'd been happy in Florence so it hadn't mattered. But it was different after her mother's illness, and this time the move to Hattiesburg worked out.

She was interviewed by Superintendent Blair, who asked her various personal questions such as her marital status, and then asked whether she thought all children should be educated equally. Eloise replied:

I'm not sure that all children can be educated equally. What you are able to learn starts way back, and I'm not sure that we can educate them all alike. But I think all of them ought to have the same opportunity. Then each one will take from the system what he is able to take.

Mr. Blair liked that, telling Burger, "She's got all the right answers." Armed with the letter she insisted upon from the superintendent and the chairman of the school board offering her a position, she broke her contract with Florence and came to Hattiesburg.

Eloise taught English at Rowan High School for 14 years, and also gave private piano lessons. When one of her pupils, Gay Polk-Payton, was seven and beginning piano, Ms. Hopson rapped her fingers with a pencil when she made a mistake. Gay ran out of the house and never returned, but her sister stayed with her lessons and loved Ms. Hopson.

When she came back to Mississippi, Eloise tried to register to vote as she had in Florence. She was denied that right after some of the standard Lynd rigmarole. But Lynd actually gave her the test before pronouncing her unqualified.

I had not thought about the situation really... because I was becoming acquainted with a new system, and it was occupying my time. But I remember one day Mr. Burger, who was registered himself, called me over the p.a. system to come up to the library.

When I got there, there was Mr. John Doar from the Justice Department, wanting to talk to me about going to Jackson to testify in this voting rights thing. When I agreed, he prepped me for going up there. He said, "Now the lawyers will try to trap you, and don't let them make you change your testimony." I said, "I'd like to see them make me change anything I want to say."

The prevailing attitude of the other black Hattiesburg teachers was let the Rowan teachers do it, and after they get it straight, then we'll all have the vote. I think they were quite satisfied to let us go and break the ice. They were afraid they were going to lose their jobs. And you know, had I been really homesteaded here, I can only speculate what my attitude would have been. Knowing me, I probably would have gone, but then again I might not have.

Miss Hopson was scared by the icy road conditions when she first went to court with David Roberson and others in January. She thought they'd never make it, and then the hearing didn't take place because Lynd and his lawyers didn't come. The second time Eloise went with Vernon Dahmer, whom she termed "a brave person, a determined person. He really believed in the cause and was not one to back down."

The Forrest County case had been filed in July 1961, along with complaints against two other Mississippi counties. The preliminary injunction hearing in Jackson should have been held within a few weeks of the filing of the complaint. For eight months there had been procedural skirmishes, motions for more definite statements and the like. In the three weeks before the trial, Bob Owen and I had obtained leads, which FBI interviews had confirmed, to a like number of white witnesses who we believed would testify to having just strolled in and signed the registration book or having been given easy sections of the state constitution to interpret.

Finally it was moving along. As the second day's afternoon session began, Ms. Hopson's arrival in the courtroom set off that afternoon's procedural skirmish, because her name had not appeared in the amended complaint.

After extended debate, John was permitted to orally amend the complaint to plead the specifics of Ms. Hopson's registration experience – but not without a tirade from Judge Cox:

The government acts like it is so put upon because I haven't set [this case] for trial, and apparently you all are not ready for trial. Now, if you want any more amendments, I am going to give these people a continuance.

Judge Cox had, however, already granted the defendants 30 days to file their answers to the amended paragraphs (the filing of which were not, in any case, necessary under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) and the same length of time to prepare to cross-examine the "surprise" witnesses.

BY MR. DOAR: . . .

Q. Would you tell the Court what happened when you got in that office?

A. Well, I made known my wishes to the clerk, who gave me a registration form to fill out. This registration form included a section of the Mississippi Constitution and I was told to . . . copy a part of it in the space provided, then write my interpretation of what I had read in the form provided.

Ms. Hopson interpreted Section 233 that the Board of Levee Commissioners was empowered to appropriate land necessary for the construction, maintenance and repair of the levees in their several districts and to make due compensation to those persons who sustained loss or damage of property in that transaction.

That's all it said. Now it took a lot of wording to say that, but that was the essence of it, just as simple as anything. And the idea that somebody thought that a certified teacher couldn't interpret that was ridiculous.

Q. Now, did you have any further discussion with the lady after you completed the form?

A. Well, during the time I was to copy that section in the registration form, I commented to her that there was not enough space provided to copy that whole section and she told me that she could not discuss the form with me.

Q. And what conversation did you have with her after you had finished the form?

A. I asked her when would I know whether or not I had passed the examination. And she said that I should come back in three or four days to find out.

Hopson testified that she did go back in about three days and was told she'd have to see Mr. Lynd who was not in. Another week passed, and this time she told the court that she did see Lynd, that he asked her name, went to a cabinet, picked up her form, and said, "No, you did not pass," that she thanked him and left.

It turned out that Eloise Hopson was not above stretching the truth, at least as to a detail that was a foregone conclusion.Up there on the witness stand, I lied like a trouper. I was supposed to have gone back and been told that I did not pass. But before I went back to see about my status, Mr. Doar wanted me to go to Jackson. So I just went and got up there and said, "Yes, I went back, and he told me I didn't pass." As far as Mr. Doar knew, I had gone back. I'm not ashamed a bit, I'm shameless.

And see, Theron Lynd didn't remember whether I had gone back or not. If I couldn't read, then there was something wrong with the Bureau of Certification in Mississippi, because I had been certified to teach; it was just ridiculous if they were certifying people to teach who can't read. That big blustery man!

But the inconsistencies in his rejection of teachers certified by the state and hired by his city didn't seem to faze Theron Lynd, or Judge Cox. They showed no surprise that someone with a master's degree from Columbia University might be rejected as unqualified to vote. But the irony wasn't lost on Eloise or the others.

How could it have been that blacks with college degrees were considered not competent to interpret the Constitution, and yet there were whites who had not even graduated from high school who were voting. They didn't have to take any kind of test. To me, that was ridiculous.

In Forrest County, the leaders of the movement to have black people obtain the right to register and vote came from the ordinary people, not the more educated, not the teachers. People like B. F. Bourn and Vernon Dahmer were not teachers.

Yet, as Eloise realized, teachers provided the most damning evidence of Theron Lynd's discrimination. Eloise Hopson was one of those teachers, and that teacher did not forget Theron Lynd. Years later she told me of a time she had been eating in Morrison's Cafeteria in the early eighties:

I felt some eyes on me, and I looked up and directly across in front of me, several tables away, was Theron Lynd, that same Forrest County registrar who wouldn't let me vote. I put on my meanest facial expression, and I stared at him. I don't think I even batted my eyes. I just stared him down.

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