Florence Mars – Witness in Philadelphia

I pulled Florence Mars’ Witness in Philadelphia off my bookshelf and read it this week. Familiar though I am with Florence’s story, I found her account of being a white citizen of Neshoba County when the white community closed tight into itself during the 1960’s gripping, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in the period.

I met Florence in 1966 after I started covering stories for the Southern Courier in Neshoba County.  By that time, COFO (which had evolved into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) had an office in the black neighborhood (Independence Quarters) of Philadelphia.  Joe Morse, who first came to Meridian in 1964 from Minnesota worked there, as did Alan Schiffman from NY and George Smith from Meridian. Their focus was voter registration and adult literacy. As late as 1966 MFD workers and black citizens who spoke out or exercised their rights or otherwise managed to rile up the power structure were subject to harassment and attacks. Marchers led by Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrating in Philadelphia to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the killings of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, were attacked and a car drove straight into the march. Because of MLK being there, this confrontation was reported in the national news, but other brutal beatings later that year were totally unreported by the conventional press, and I found myself frequently driving the thirty-nine miles up Highway 19 from Meridian to Philadelphia, MS., to report these painful stories.

Florence Mars lived  with her mother (and a stepfather I never met) in a gracious white home in a shady yard on Poplar Avenue, just south of town. I forget now who introduced us, but she was the first native East Mississippi white person I had the opportunity to get to know, and I was fascinated. Florence was small and blond and a person who could not keep from saying whatever was on her mind. She had a broad Mississippi accent with more twang than modulation.  It is almost impossible to describe her without using the word “feisty.”

When the murders occurred in 1964, Florence thought of herself as securely ensconced in Philadelphia’s white community.  She could count eight great grandparents  all buried in Neshoba County.  Her family included prominent businessmen and professionals: lawyers, a doctor, storeowners and landowners. Florence herself owned a stockyard with a busy cattle auction and a herd of purebred polled herefords.

By the time I met her, Florence was reeling from a series of psychic and economic blows she had suffered as the result of speaking out in opposition to the murders, being willing to consult with the FBI, and visiting the COFO office.  The Ku Klux Klan had stopped business at her cattle auction by blocking farmers from bringing or buying cattle there through threats and physically turning trucks away. Later the Klan put Florence on notice that they were going to burn the barn where her prized cattle were kept. She was forced to sell both the stockyard and the farm. Finally, in August 1966, she was arrested leaving a party by Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, a known Klansman then under federal indictment for his role in the murders of the three civil rights workers. Rainey held Florence and the friend who was in the car with her overnight in jail, an unheard of occurrence for a white woman of her social class (Rainey refused the pleas of Florence’s family to release her into their custody). The arrest was frightening for her family and humiliating for Florence.  It was, as it was intended to be, a sobering lesson that the Klan would not limit its attacks to blacks, Catholics, and Jews, but was willing to use force and the power of the law against white Mississippians who stood up for fairness and racial tolerance.

When I met her, Florence was trying to make sense of her community’s conspiracy of silence and the attacks upon her by writing about it. She wanted to show me her writing, and I was curious to read what she had written.Her handwriting in the calmest of times was hard to read, and these pages, written with the pressure of passion and hurt, were a challenge to decipher, but it was immediately clear to me that she had a unique story to tell.  I urged her to dictate her story on a tape recorder, and to write for publication.

Writing became Florence’s passion, and, for more than a year, I was a partner to her passion.  I would stop by her house as often as weekly and drink tea from delicate china cups or eat little sandwiches of cheese spread on white bread and listen to her latest memories and insights.

Florence was incapable of writing or speaking a simple declarative sentence.  At the time, I hadn’t read much Faulkner, but later, when I read Absalom, Absalom, I was already completely familiar with the way that a single event or a single thought couldn’t be described without telling what led up to it and how it affected other things that happened so that the past and the present were always coiled together and inextricably related. Florence would start telling me something that happened at her church last week, move to a memory about her Poppaw, pause to explain the social roles of the various denominations or the farm/lease system and her family’s connection to Mt. Zion community, recall Saturday market days on the town square in the fifties, and end up giving me her opinion about the latest editorial in the Neshoba Democrat, all without a single period.

As Florence pursued her cycles of memory and relationships, my role was to listen and to ask clarifying questions.  Some of Florence’s memory paths led her into painful subjects, particularly her father’s morphine addiction and early death at age 34.  As she recounts in her book, a country doctor supplied morphine to college students home for the weekend from Ole Miss to relieve  hangovers in a time before the addictive properties of morphine were not fully understood. With my outsider’s ear, I could listen without judgment, in confidence, without a stake. Some days I left Florence’s house wrung out and exhausted, feeling as  if I had been filling the role of a psychotherapist, and unequipped for the role.

Florence’s knowledge of the economic, legal, and personal relationships among the black, white, and Choctaw citizens of Neshoba County was exhaustive.  Through this process, she was assimilating what she had been observing and hearing her whole life. Organizing it all into a readable manuscript seemed overwhelming.

Then, as now, I enjoyed editing, and we continued to trade drafts of chapters, and discuss ways of organizing the material even after I moved north and started law school, but our progress slowed and my attention moved on.  Fortunately, my friend Bill Christian took an interest in the manuscript.  Bill recruited a talented young editor Lynn Eden, who was able to wrestle the manuscript into an accessible, readable tale, which was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1977.


Florence came to visit me once after I moved north and was living near New Haven, CT.  I am astonished to remember that I took her with me to the Newport Folk Festival, then at its long-haired, tie-dyed, dope-smoking peak.  How did I ever think that scene would be manageable for a well-bred 45-year-old lady from small-town Mississippi?? But manage she did, and together we were lucky enough to hear in person Janis Joplin, just then emerging onto the national stage, put her entire body and soul into that amazing voice of hers as she belted out “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose ……” (I don’t know if this link will work for you, but there she is just the way Florence and I saw her.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEpiF2JJj_U

On the same visit, we spent a day in Manhattan together. Our first stop was the New York Times, to visit its editor Turner Catledge.  Catledge was a native of Neshoba County, a generation older than Florence; he had known Florence’s mother since high school.  I had trouble squaring the suave, sophisticated NYT editor with the inward-looking community of Philadelphia I had known, but there they sat, Florence and Turner, in Catledge’s sleek city office looking out onto midtown, chatting about old times and mutual friends back home.

From the New York Times building, we went to CORE’s  (Congress of Racial Equality) New York office, the real focus of Florence’s quest. Florence wanted to know where she could find the bell that belonged to Mt. Zion Church,  (the black Neshoba County church the Klan burned in June 1964 and which Chaney/Schwerner/Goodman were investigating when they were captured and murdered) In some sort of Yankee hubris, CORE workers had trucked the bell north in 1964 to be used for fund-raising, and the members of Mt. Zion had no idea what had become of their historic bell.  Luck was with us.  A staff member led us through a warren of hallways to a dark storeroom in the back of the old brick building.  There was the bell, forgotten, but intact!  Florence arranged to have the bell crated up and shipped back to Mt. Zion community where the bell again hangs outside the rebuilt Mt. Zion church.



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  • Robert Barasch  On January 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for this absorbing memoir. I indulge myself in Faulknerian language from time to time, remembering my own days at Ole Miss where I was sent by the army as a 17 year old reservist, finding myself playing golf on the very course that I now think must have been the one that Bill Faulkner imagined Benjy viewing on summer days, I insensitive to the suffering of the black community around us.To have been witness to that conversation between Florence Mars and Turner Cattledge must be a memory you will hold dear to the end of memory. When I wonder why there were so few people with the vision of Florence Mars. the only word that comes to me is cowardice; we were all either stupid or cowardly. Bill Faulkner was not stupid, and it is almost impossible for me to think of him as cowardly, leaving me with a third explanation: we seemed to be living in separate societies not even knowing the word apartheid.

    • Gail Falk  On February 1, 2012 at 8:32 pm

      I am sure we are all blind to injustice around us all the time. We move along our paths and are sometimes so intent to keep from stumbling, that we don’t look to see what is on either side of the path. I certainly knew little about the black people who lived in PIttsburgh when I was growing up. Perhaps, finally, that was the function of the civil rights movement in MIssissippi: to make it impossible for white citizens to remain unaware of the lives of their black neighbors.

  • Gordon Gibson  On January 31, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Gail, this is another beautiful and moving act of remembering on your part.

    The bell is indeed back in front of the mount Zion United Methodist Church where it belongs. It is good to know of your role in its restoration to the people for whom its presence means so much.

    I have sat in that church and heard accounts of the events of 1964. It is good to mesh them with the more hopeful accounts of today. The Philadelphia Coalition has brought people together across the lines of race (white/black/Choctaw) and class and they have begun to do some good work. They, more than most communities, are trying to remember the past, the whole past, so that they will not have to re-live it. I have seen two women hug and weep together (again, because they weep every time they recall this) that one of them had married into a family that in June of ’64 had Klansmen at the church driveway beating members of the other woman’s family. And I’ve heard from the new Mayor of Philadelphia, who is still happily surprised that he, an African American, was elected in a white-majority town.

    Another, even more radical character in Philadelphia was Buford Posey. On July 1, 1964, he actually gave an interview to NBC TV. Shortly thereafter, facing death threats by the Klan, he moved out of state. Buford had a long-time radical reputation and so had less to lose than Florence Mars, but either or both could have lost their lives.

    The COFO office was opened by Ralph Featherstone. In 1965 while we were jailed together in Selma Ralph said that COFO knew where Sheriff Rainey’s still was. He also started my instruction in black history. About three years later he was one of three or four men killed in Maryland when a car blew up; the official story was that they were carrying a bomb that detonated prematurely, but Movement folks thought it was a government assassination attempt on Rap Brown.

    • Gail Falk  On February 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      Thanks, Gordon, for your perspective on changes in Philadelphia. I am thinking of driving up there when I visit Meridian next month. And thanks for your added information about Ralph Featherstone. I do remember his face and his strong, gentle presence. He must have moved on from Philadelphia by the time I went up there in summer 1966. What a tragic end for someone who had so much more to contribute.

  • cefalk  On February 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    This story of a woman who had both courage and a moral compass is so touching. I remember when you took me to meet Florence Mars when I visited, was it 1966? I recall her as being very warm and friendly, but didn’t really grasp the sacrifices she made, perhaps because her manner was so genteel. I love the surprise ending about the bell!

  • Gail Falk  On February 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I know I was living in the “nuns’ quarters” behind the Catholic school when you visited. Must have been the winter or spring of 1967.

  • margery freeman  On February 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    A remarkable story, Gail! David was astonished that you and he (a native MS) haven’t had a chance to talk. So you will next week…
    The emerging Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson is soliciting stories for its archives. I hope you’ll consider offering your Freedom Song stories to them!

  • freedomsongs11  On February 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Bill Christian sent me this after reading the post: You sent me Florence’s rough draft, and I showed it to William Abrahams (at Little Brown, I think). I knew him because he was the partner of Peter Stansky (now retired at Stanford), who was the head tutor at Kirkland House and tutor in History and Lit. Lynn I knew when she was a precocious undergraduate at the Residential College at Michigan. One summer she came to visit when I was doing fieldwork in the mountains of Cantabria, and for a week we walked from village to village along the Basque Coast. As an undergraduate she wrote a book about a radical pastor’s struggle in Watertown Wisconsin. My visit to the two of them while they were working on the book was complicated as I liked them both and they were locked in struggle, akin to World War I trench warfare, out of their separate living quarters and studies. Florence had trouble letting go, and Lynn had trouble remembering it was Florence’s book. My fondest memory was the visit to a lovely lady, a friend of Florence, who made the most exquisite and intricate quilts I have ever seen. The beauty and serenity of that woman have stayed with me ever since; maybe you remember her name. I hope I have in Hamden the letters you wrote to me at the time. I arranged with you and your friend the editor of the Southern Courier to get copies of an issue with a subscription blank, and with Riddie my then wife and I stuffed them in an issue of a University of Michigan newspaper

  • Loona Brogan  On February 16, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    All of this was moving, but the bell being returned to the re-built church gave me goose bumps. thanks


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