From: "Mona Martin" email@example.com
Date: Sat, 1 May 2004 01:28:32 -0500 (CDT)
By Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer
Winson Hudson, a Mississippi civil rights pioneer who braved
bombings, gun-toting nightriders and ostracism by fellow blacks as
well as whites in a fight for racial justice that she waged mostly in
obscurity, has died. She was 87.
Her death Saturday in a Jackson, Miss., hospital came after a long
illness, grandson Kempton Horton said this week.
Hudson, along with her sister Dovie, was a pillar of Harmony, a tiny
pocket of civil rights activism in Mississippi, the state long
considered the most repressive in the nation for blacks.
She instigated a Justice Department investigation in 1962 that
toppled the state literacy requirement that had effectively barred
blacks from the polling booth for decades.
Hudson helped her sister file the first school desegregation lawsuit
in a rural Mississippi county. She also served as president of the
local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored
People for nearly 40 years, beginning at a time when mere membership
in the group could cost a person her livelihood, her home or her life.
At 85, she realized a lifelong dream of publishing her memoir.
Co-written with attorney and activist Constance Curry, "Mississippi
Harmony" won high praise from critics, such as The Times' Kay Mills,
who called Hudson's story "history [that] cannot be told too often."
The sisters, who had the same last name because they both married men
named Hudson, were known as the "Big Women from Leake County,"
because of their stout build and formidable will.
In a portrait by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker
that was included in a 1989 show at the Corcoran Gallery in
Washington, D.C., the sisters are seated side by side on
straight-back chairs, wearing their Sunday finest. Winson, smiling
slightly, stares steadily at the camera with eyes that hint of her
"When she is speaking to you, her eyes hold you; at the same time,
they seem to be scanning the landscape," novelist Alice Walker, who
met Hudson in the 1960s, once wrote. "Her eyes tell a great deal
about Mrs. Hudson, for she is one of the 'sleepless ones' found in
embattled Mississippi towns whose fight has been not only against
unjust laws and verbal harassment, but against guns and firebombs as
Hudson was born Anger Winson Gates, the 10th of 13 children of John
Wesley Gates and Emma Kirkland. The mother died when Winson was 8,
leaving her father to raise the large brood on the family's 105-acre
It was not unusual for blacks to own so much land in Harmony, a
tight-knit community near Carthage that sprang up in the years after
the Civil War and gradually became an enclave of black landowners.
Nonetheless, Hudson's family remained vulnerable to deeply entrenched
bigotry. They lost the farm when a white doctor called in a bank note
he held on the land.
In 1936, Winson married Cleo Hudson, whose family owned 500 acres in
Harmony. She went to work as a teacher and later as a lunchroom
manager at Harmony School, the pride of the community. She ran afoul
of the principal for giving free bread to hungry children but ignored
his admonishments, the first of many acts of civil disobedience that,
Hudson wrote years later, "helped prepare me for the good chances
coming in the freedom movement of the 1960s."
Hudson had tried repeatedly to become a registered voter since 1937,
when she turned 21. It would become a 25-year struggle.
The registrar always had an excuse - the books were missing, the
deadline had passed for the day. But the biggest barrier was the
literacy test, which required applicants to copy and interpret a
section of the state constitution. Whites were given a simple line,
such as "All elections shall be by ballot." Blacks, on the other
hand, were given the most convoluted passage - a 206-word section
drenched in legalese - so their failure was ensured.
One time in 1961, Winson and Dovie went to the courthouse in another
attempt to register. The entrance to the registrar's office was
blocked by a dozen burly white men. Unsure what to do, the women went
to the basement and prayed, until Dovie said, "Let's go. God's got a
shield over us, so they can't touch us." They walked back upstairs
and squeezed past the men, who muttered insults at them.
As they filled out papers, someone slipped them a little card with
two red eyes on it and a sinister message: "The eyes of the Klan's
upon you. You have been identified by the White Knights of the Ku
They left the courthouse unscathed, but without achieving their goal.
Winson Hudson and others complained until, in 1962, the Justice
Department sent two lawyers to Harmony. They told her to try to
This time, she didn't fret over the troublesome passage of the
constitution she was asked to explain. "It said what it meant, and it
meant what it said," she wrote.
This time, she passed.
When the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended literacy tests
and provided federal registrars, was signed into law, Hudson led a
massive registration drive in Leake County, signing up 500 new voters
in one year. She made herself a beacon in a red dress who personally
escorted scores of recruits to the courthouse to become voters.
During the early 1960s, she also was heavily engaged in school
politics. Local authorities had been trying for years to shut down
the successful, all-black Harmony School. Town leaders appealed for
help to Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. Instead
of focusing on saving the community school, he urged them to fight
In 1961, a lawsuit calling for integration of schools countywide was
filed, with Hudson's niece as plaintiff.
Over the next three years, Hudson's and her sister's houses were
bombed. But victory came in 1964, when the 5th Circuit Court of
Appeals ordered the county to prepare for desegregation.
Tensions were extremely high. Evers had been murdered by a white
racist the year before in Jackson. Now Mississippi was entering
Freedom Summer, when civil rights workers from the North flocked to
That summer, three activists - Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney
and Andrew Goodman - were murdered not far from Harmony. Two of them
had boarded for a time with the Hudsons.
The father of the first Harmony student chosen to attend a white
school that fall was beaten and his home burned. Teachers with ties
to the NAACP were threatened with dismissal.
"We'd walk down the street in Carthage, and you'd meet a black person
going to borrow money, or especially a teacher - they'd see you
coming, they'd turn back. Some of them even ran from us," Hudson
recalled. "It was a lonesome time, I tell you, a lonesome time."
But Hudson kept on fighting. She brought the Head Start preschool
program to Leake County in the 1960s and directed it until her
retirement in the 1980s. She founded a sorely needed community health
center with funds from the Nixon administration so the sick no longer
had to travel 75 miles to the nearest hospital.
Harmony even lacked telephone service until 1967, when Hudson began
complaining to the president of the phone company in Jackson. "I
called him, every time collect," she said, until Harmony had an
eight-party line. Now there are telephones in nearly every home.
"She wouldn't back down from anything," said Horton, one of two
grandsons who survive her, along with a daughter and a brother. "When
she went around to get people to join the NAACP, a lot turned their
backs. They told her she was headed for trouble. That only gave her
more power. 'If I don't do it,' she said, 'who will?' "
Never allow yourself to be discouraged by others who insist that what
you are seeking is too difficult or unrealistic to accomplish.
Marilyn French Hubbard