Reverence, A Civil Rights Story

“This feels more like fascism to me,” she said in the lobby to her office, when I asked if the current political climate resembles some people’s reactions to presidential administrations during the civil rights movement. Meet Jane Lollis, a lawyer, a legend, an original freedom fighter. See Jane go to Mississippi in 1962 to register African-Americans to vote, as a prequel to Freedom Summer in 1963, arguably one of the more subversive and certainly one of the most impactful strategies of the civil rights movement.

Subversive because, according to Lollis, you went into Mississippi to do civil rights work with full knowledge you could be beaten or killed for upsetting the social and political order. Impactful because the work Lollis and others did at Mt. Beulah Church and in Mississippi in 1962 and 1963, laid the foundation for Freedom Summer, in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has its origin.

Lollis knows the price paid by many for the African-American right to vote. She was there.

In 1962, Lollis said, she and her husband David accepted a position at Mt. Beulah Christian Center in Mississippi. She remembers Bob Moses’ speech to students at Antioch College in Ohio: “You need to understand you may be killed,” said Moses, iconic civil rights leader and head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “If you need to leave, no one will think less of you.”

Local officials in Mississippi continued to deny African-American college graduates their right to vote, despite the Fifteenth Amendment, Lollis said. In response, a group of law students would come to Mississippi to train others how to register African-Americans there to vote. “We were training people for Freedom Summer,” Lollis said.

When James Meredith became the first African-American admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi in September 1962, a riot greeted his arrival. In an effort to inflame racial fear and hatred, the governor took materials Lollis and her husband used on the Mt. Beulah campus for voter education and cut, pasted and printed them in the Jackson newspaper to convince residents the Lollises were recruiting communists.

What they had done is create the voter-education program on the campus that merged Tougaloo College, the only accredited black college in Mississippi, with Southern Christian Institute. They also created a used clothing store and literacy, prenatal and nutrition programs — “which was pretty innocuous, if you think about it,” Lollis said.

“What he wanted was for people to take their guns, surround campus and oppose federal marshals,” Lollis said.

In the end, the governor and the White Citizens Council (WCC) could not prevent Meredith’s admission. But the district attorney convened a grand jury to indict Lollis’ husband on allegations of communist activities at Mt. Beulah, Lollis said. The grand jury panel consisted of 12 people, all members of the WCC. One question posed to John Lollis was “Do you believe in miscegenation?” His failure to answer with an emphatic “No” made the indictment all the more likely, according to David Lollis’ counsel.

Had a grand jury indictment ensued, its basis wasn’t alleged communist activities at Mt. Beulah, but rather that the Lollises had violated a taboo forbidding blacks and whites from sharing space as equals. Lollis had invited African-Americans to eat with her and her husband and Bob Moses, among others, at Mt. Beulah. “We were never to come back to the church after it found out we had a meal with blacks,” Lollis said.

“It was my dining room, my dinner table. They weren’t invited.” Lollis was both devastated and angry. “Every time we left Mississippi I heaved a sigh of relief when we got to Tennessee. People you think you knew, but you didn’t,” she said.

The owners of Mt. Beulah made a deal with the district attorney that the Lollises would leave before an indictment against John Lollis, she said. The couple’s voter-education workshops ceased.

When civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot in June 1963, Lollis said, she knew “There was no easy way to work this out. It became clear one had to take sides. It really was ‘Which side are you on?’”

After Mississippi, Lollis went to NYU School of Law and came to Louisville as the mayor’s designee on the housing board. Lollis sees similarities between the public reaction to the current administration and what was happening in Mississippi in 1962.

“Whether what was done over the last 50 years can be undone? I think it has taken deep root and I think there may be some anguish, but I’m convinced it can’t be undone,” she said.