Two Rhodes Students Take a Look at the History of Voting Rights in West Tennessee

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. Over the summer, Rhodes students Connor Scanlon ’17 and Sophia Mason ’16 have been researching Fayette and Haywood counties in West Tennessee that battled for voting rights and economic opportunity for African Americans for more than a decade during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Although African Americans made up the majority of the population in Fayette County in 1950, they were not allowed to vote. When voter registration efforts began to be launched, many white landowners in retaliation evicted African American sharecroppers and their families from their homes. White businessman also refused to sell goods to them. These families took refuge in tents on property that belonged to one of the few African American landowners in the county, but many of them still suffered hardships as a result of trying to vote.

Registration drives continued to be held, and the “Tent City” struggles led to a federal lawsuit to protect the right to vote without fear of reprisal. As a result, the lawsuit served as a precedent for other legal cases and eventually the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Recently, the Rhodes students got a chance to interview Stuart Mitchell, who was one of the volunteers more than 50 years ago organizing and registering voters at Tent City. He and the students visited some of the cities in Fayette and Tipton counties as well as the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in Memphis that contains photos from Tent City.

“Seeing Mr. Mitchell′s 50-year-old documents alongside the towns and establishments they refer to in their present day state has been both an enjoyable and enlightening experience,” says Scanlon, a philosophy major. “He talked about how while he and many other middle-class white Americans were doing nothing to directly oppress those he worked with in West Tennessee, their negligence to act on behalf of the oppressed was just as prohibitive to equality as the West Tennessee African American’s inability to act (i.e. registering to vote). . . Effective activism needs to operate at the community level, not just with the oppressed members of that community. It needs to make all members of the community aware of the oppression in its midst, as well as ways to rectify it, so that the entire community can work to end it.”

Today, Mitchell serves as President and CEO for PathStone, a nonprofit community development organization that provides services to farmworkers, low-income families, and economically depressed communities throughout New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Vermont, Virginia, and Puerto Rico.

"From talking with Stuart Mitchell over a couple of days, it is clear that he feels indebted to all of the people and opportunities that led him to Tennessee. At the same time, I was impressed by how he has managed to develop a career in which he continues to combat the economic inequalities,” says Mason, who is an art and art history major. “I also saw many parallels between Mr. Mitchell′s description of his educational experience and my experience at Rhodes. A sociology course helped him decide to go to Tennessee, and the intro sociology course I took at Rhodes gave me some language with which to talk about the inequality I came face to face with in Memphis. I′m grateful that Rhodes emphasizes service and interdisciplinary learning because those values led me to meeting Mr. Mitchell. I think those values will help me forge a particularly meaningful life, like his, after college.

Mason and Scanlon’s interview with Mitchell will be housed on Rhodes’ Crossroads to Freedom, a digital archive of documents, images and oral histories.